Yale historian Edmund S. Morgan died yesterday
. He was one of the leading historians of US colonial and revolutionary history — and also one of the greatest teachers in a great college. I not only got to listen to his lectures as an undergraduate, I got to listen to them again a few years later (with several quite changed) during my year as a Teaching Assistant for him while in law school. Listening to him recreate the sometimes quite alien perspective of figures ranging from Cotton Mather to George Washington was often the high point of the day. And his final part of his final lecture of the year was personal, and included a call to be sensitive to the injustices of the moment. The example has emboldened me, more than once, to be similarly personal at the end of a semester.
As a supervisor of his TAs Morgan was unfailingly gentle; he trusted our judgment more than I thought I, a rank beginner as a teacher, deserved.
Edmund Morgan was the author of several very scholarly and yet highly readable books that taught two generations about our history. He was also (as I later discovered) the author of the colonial/revolutionary section of one of the leading high school US history text books. That part of the text was, when I came as a parent to read it many years after college, a wonder: so concise, so pared down, so optimized for the capacities of its readers, and yet still rich. Even its generalizations were carefully crafted to be faithful to the twists and turns of more specialist knowledge. Long after Morgan retired officially to Sterling Emeritus status he kept writing books, and also important essays for the New York Review of Books. And he set up a wood shop in his basement.
Ed Morgan did not think law school was perhaps the best way for a person to spend his time. His father had been a major Evidence scholar, and being around law faculty had not given this otherwise sweet and charming human much liking for the subject, or I suspect the breed. He treated my interest in law as bemusing, but we usually avoided the topic.
One of my Ed Morgan anecdotes is pure hearsay, but I have it from a a History graduate student who claimed to have witnessed it regularly: Ed Morgan, she told me, was a great fan of Yale Hockey, and could regularly be seen cheering the Yale team as players delivered a particularly vicious hit on the opposing team. It was hard to imagine the elfin, gentle man, the giver of meticulously prepared eloquent lectures, roaring at a hockey game. But people, as Edmund Morgan taught us over and over, are complicated, and only if you take them as you find them can you hope to understand.