History Doyens: Bernard A. Weisberger


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

Bernard A. Weisberger, 5-1-06

What They’re Famous For

Bernard A. Weisberger is a distinguished teacher and author of American history. Weisberger formerly was a professor at Wayne State University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Rochester where he was full professor and chair of the department. He has written more than a dozen books and worked on documentaries with Bill Moyers and Ken Burns. His Charles Ramsdell Prize winning article “The Dark and Bloody Ground of Reconstruction Historiography,” is considered a standard in the study of the Reconstruction period. Retiring in 1970, Weisberger has devoted himself full time to writing both books and articles in popular history media and magazines. Bernard Weisberger JPGHe is best known as a longtime contibuting editor for American Heritage. He started writing his first article for the magazine in 1955, and he then wrote the “In the News” column for more than ten years from 1989 to 1999. Additionally he published many of his books for American Heritage‘s book series

Weisberger’s area of research stretches across the landscape of American history. His most recent book When Chicago Ruled Baseball The Cubs-White Sox World Series of 1906 recounts how in 1906, the baseball world saw something that had never been done: two teams from the same city squared off against each other in an intracity World Series, pitting the heavily favored Cubs of the National League against the hardscrabble American League champion White Sox. In honor of its centennial anniversary Weisberger tells this tale of a unique time in baseball, a unique time in America, and a time when Chicago was at the center of it all. In an interview Weisberger discussed his wide area of research stating: “I’ve stuck to one subject area–U.S. history–but within that, I’ve managed to turn out textbooks, juveniles, illustrated popular books, biographies, standard trade books, [and] television presentations.”

Personal Anecdote

How did I become a historian? It may have begun on a Saturday afternoon in the early 1930s when I was about ten years old. My mother took me for diversion to a “convict ship” –one of those used to transport convicts from Great Britain to Australia–a restoration or a replica, I guess, which was being exhibited at a pier on the west side of Manhattan, where we lived. It’s my first recollection of an historical exhibit, and it was real to me–too real, in fact. It showed the shackles and the below-decks dungeons and the whips used to deal with unruly “passengers” and my imagination translated those objects into vivid pictures of actual, bleeding men being shoved into those dark enclosures lit only by what came through tiny, barred openings in the heavy doors. That’s been a lasting feature of my mind’s eye–when I write about anything historical it’s all actually taking place right in front of me; I can see it and hear it–and I try, as best I can, to get that into my writing. Why not historical fiction, then? Of that, more in a moment or two.

I can’t say that on that afternoon I decided “Gee, I wanna be an historian, Mom.” At that age , of course, I didn’t know what an historian was. What I did know that I was scared stiff by the vivid scenes I had just “witnessed” and plainly showing it. My mother thought I obviously needed an antidote. It happened that it was one of the years when the U.S. Atlantic fleet–maybe the Pacific one, too, for all I know–made a visit to New York, and anchored in its spacious harbor and also in the Hudson River for some distance. Visits were offered and encouraged; the Navy knew the value of good public relations even then. So we finished the day’s excursion by going to the appropriate pier, getting in a launch, and being shown around a cruiser by a very polite young swabby who was virtually a walking recruiting poster. I did recover from my panic attack and I did enjoy the experience.

If I’d enjoyed it even more, I might have become a professional sailor. But history won–and that was even before I got seasick for the first time in 1943, crossing the Pacific.

I loved to read and discovered some ability to write by the time I was in high school. As a fourteen-year-old sophomore, I had a short story published in my Stuyvesant High School literary magazine, the Caliper. Bernard Weisberger JPG What a thrill. I decided then that I would be a writer. In the ensuing couple of years, I wrote another dozen to dozen and a half stories. The faculty advisor to the magazine, one, Irving Astrachan, was a fine teacher who luckily hadn’t fallen for the patois about not damaging the self-esteem of adolescents. I got about two of them published, and the other sixteen he would hand back to me with a terse comment: “Burn it.” I knew his judgment was correct. I still wanted to write–but nonfiction was going to be my metier. And by college time I got inspired. I still loved history. And history furnished me all the plots, characters, and dramatic episodes that I had a hard time making up. History even forbid making things up! (And it still does!!!) As I acquired more sophisticated understanding of how historians worked, I did come to realize that there is an inescapable element of imagination, even for the most scrupulous dryasdust scribe, in recreating a past that is accessible only through the saved recollections of those who experienced it, but let that pass. History it was for a vocation, and still is.

I attended Columbia College as a subway commuter, and encountered a couple of sensational teachers, one of them Jacques Barzun, for whom, in my junior year I wrote a paper on the Paris Commune of 1871, which earned an “A” of which I am still proud and some personal encouragement. However, there were some other pressing engagements in June of 1942, and that September I was off to war. (No trumpets here; I’m one of those who “fought” from behind a desk.) Had the Japanese not attacked Pearl Harbor, I might have become an historian of France, and I almost regret that I didn’t, because it would have provided excuses to spend more time in Paris. But when I returned in 1946 and wound up in graduate school at the University of Chicago–actually marking time, because at that moment, I was equally attracted to the idea of becoming a journalist– and bang, another great teacher lit my fuse. He was Avery Craven, a specialist on the origins of the Civil War, some of whose views about its causes and consequences I never shared and never will, but that doesn’t matter. I signed up for one of his classes, he walked in, opened his mouth, and in five minutes I was a goner. He lectured from folders crammed with source documents–I never heard him quote another historian, though there were plenty of them on his reading list–and as he spoke, a parade of politicians, slaves, ex-slaves, pioneers, promoters, preachers, editors, soldiers, housewives, oh, a perfectly Walt Whitman-esque cast , strutted and fretted their little hour on the stage. (He was, by the way, an amateur artist.) I gobbled every course he offered, and it was a two-way romance, I guess, because he liked the papers I handed in. One day he asked me to sign on as his research assistant and push my way through to a PhD, and that’s how I became a Professor of American history. By the way, he never demanded “discipleship.” My subject matter and my ideas often strayed from his, and while he may have regretted my heresies, he was always a kind and supportive friend–an intellectual father in some ways, primarily as an inspiration to work always towards being the best and most honest writer of history I could.

The record will show that I “professed” about eighteen years before quitting to write full time. I enjoyed the “teaching” part of academic life–e.g., dealing with the students close up–and made some lifelong friends among them and some of my colleagues, but I cared little for any other aspect of life behind the ivied walls. So I quit, did some freelancing, worked two years as an Associate Editor, took a part-time position at Vassar (where I met Rick Shenkman) and finally took to supporting myself full time as an historian-writer. It reminds me sometimes of Archibald McLeish’s definition of being a poet “A hardy life, with a boot as quick as a fiver.” But I’ve loved it.

I don’t know as how I have written any “famous” books, but I think there’s a generation of historians trained in the nineteen-sixties who probably knew me through an article called “The Dark and Bloody Ground of Reconstruction Historiography,” which was reprinted and circulated fairly widely. It appeared in the Journal of Southern History in 1959, and the thrust of it was pretty much along the lines of what is now the more familiar story of Reconstruction best summarized in Eric Foner’s book on the subject. In short, it repudiated the “Dunning school” views that were common up until then– Reconstruction was a carnival of corruption and violence that forced the humiliated and conquered South to endure the revolting experience of being governed by an alliance of ignorant ex-slaves and trashy whites. What utter bunk!! I don’t get credit for discovering that–good black historians had known it for years, and Howard Beale had said as much in 1930 in the American Historical Review. But I was lucky enough to be surfing that wave at the dawn of the 20th century civil rights revolution. Well, anyway, the article won my only academic prize–the Charles Ramsdell Prize for the best article published that year in the JSH. Ramsdell was, like E. Merton Coulter whose book on Reconstruction was then a reigning favorite, a neo-Confederate who embraced the white supremacist view totally.

My first book was my dissertation, extended. My second, They Gathered at the River, was on revivalism mostly in the 19th century US, and took me to the Moody Bible Institute to consult the papers of Dwight L. Moody, the “Billy Graham” of the 1870s and 1880s (but not one who so sedulously cultivated politicians and became the White House preacher of conservative Presidents.) I was welcomed, especially after the kind folks there were reassured that I was a Jew whose interest was purely historical, and not a “liberal Christian” on a mission to write a debunking article about them. Far from it, I rather respected and admired Moody for a number of reasons, remote as was his world outlook from mine. In fact, while there were some characters in the book for whom I had pretty low regard, I tried, as always, not to criticize or mock them or their followers, but to tell their story as they might have seen it. Well, I must have succeeded because something called the Religious Book Club adopted it as an alternate choice for one month in 1958, describing it as an “offbeat” selection. And the MBI’s house organ reviewed the book, naturally focusing on the Moody chapter, and said that it was good, but added–and I have to paraphrase, having long ago lost the original–“Professor Weisberger has no understanding of the supernatural.” Which was true, to be sure–I had explained Moody’s success in practical terms from information historically accessible, and they believed it was all God’s doing. Who knows? Might be so, but an historian’s license doesn’t extend to the supernatural.

Bernard Weisberger JPG A little postscript, by the way; the good folk there (only name I remember is Bernard de Remer, at the time in their public relations office) had explained to me that my Jewishness wasn’t a bar to admission to the archives–they had missions to the Jews and in fact taught Hebrew and Yiddish courses among their offerings. (This is all fifty years ago, I have to note; I have no idea what the Institute is like now.) For a while after I left I did get mailings urging me to recognize the mistake I had made in not recognizing Jesus as true heir to Judaism, until I finally told them that much as I’d enjoyed my excursion into evangelical Christianity during the writing of the book, I could not be persuaded out of my Jewishness.

I’m pretty proud of both the above stories–that concerning the Ramsdell Prize because I don’t think that “objectivity” stands in the way of a forthright expression of one’s own values even in a carefully documented and fairly written piece. And that about the MBI, because if history is worth anything, it is because, if studied rightly, it teaches you to recognize that even your most cherished opinions need to be recognized as open to question, and based on life experiences that are transitory.

In some ways my favorite ‘teaching’ experience was the ten years I spent writing a column for American Heritage (1989-99) finding historical parallels for events that were then current “In the News,” which was the column’s title. My ‘class’ consisted of general readers of every kind, bound together by enough interest in history to buy the magazine. I was, and still am, trying to spread the word that history, and by that I mean sound, well-researched, thoughtful history, with all the virtues of perspective that it brings, is out there to think about and enjoy, even for the non-professional reader. And I don’t mean by that to disparage all academic historians. Nor the academic undertaking in general, but it has to keep an awareness of its connection to the purposes and expectations of the larger society in which it exists, if it wants to avoid clannishness, sterility and irrelevancy. Making that point has been the nearest thing I’ve had to a mission, and I’m happy to air that opinion on History News Network, which pretty much serves the same function.

“. . .[S]eeing an event in historical perspective is a very good thing to do. It’s a safeguard against pontification of all sorts–against ‘the-sky-is-falling’ alarms at one extreme and ‘we-are-the-greatest-ever’ exultation at the other. It shrinks self-importance, rebukes dogmatism, and builds courage.”


By Bernard A. Weisberger

  • “These observations are only the framework of an answer to the question of why Reconstruction represents a challenge not met by academic historians. Underlying the problem is the fact that Reconstruction confronts American writers of history with the things which they prefer, like other Americans, to ignore-brute power and its manipulation, class conflict, race antagonism. Yet these things make it an essentially modern period. Reconstruction cannot be properly “gotten at” by well-worn roads of agrarianism, sectionalism, or constitutional analysis. It cannot be approached without perhaps requiring of American historians that they yield up some of their marvelous ability to read unity, progress, and patriotism into every page of the American record-that they face problems which all their piety and wit cannot dismiss or solve with credit to all. Yet those who teach and write the American story cannot be a mere priesthood of patriotism unless they wish to invite dominion of the second-rate. If they do not confront tragedies, paradoxes, tidal forces in the culture-if they do not show the forces eroding the compromises of the post-Civil War period illustrate the fustrating complexity of the problems now awakened again-then Reconstruction will have added the historical guild to the list of its ‘victims.'” — Bernard Weisberger in “The Dark and Bloody Ground of Reconstruction Historiography”
  • The Constitution, in the 1790s, was still considered a fragile work-in-progress– more a provisional outline than a charter for the ages. It didn’t yet have the emotional power to unite people automatically behind it. And it showed early signs of misjudgments and of business unfinished. First of all, since they shared a general coolness toward “democracy,” the framers failed to foresee the growth of a drive toward more widespread participation in “popular governments.” Second, they never anticipated that “factions” could embrace whole sections of the new Union, or that there might be large-scale permanent coalitions of “factions” in the form of political parties. And of course they could not know that the new ship of state would be launched into a wrenching tempest of international warfare caused by a French Revolution that was soon to begin.
    America Afire JPG All of these developments unleashed the passions of special interest and thwarted the hopes of immediately setting up a national government dedicated purely to the “permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” One result was that the machinery of succession to the presidency would be out of date in the very first election after the most popular man in the country had stepped down from power, and seriously dysfunctional by the time of the second. The seeds of the crisis of 1800 were planted in 1787 In Philadelphia. The Constitutional Convention set the stage for the drama and introduced some of the cast. One delegate, South Carolina’s Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, would become Adams’s running mate. Two others would be far more significant players–James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, friends in 1787, intense foes thirteen years later. The whole story of the nation during that interval reflected their unraveling alliance. Madison was so much at the heart of the convention that he has been called the Father of the Constitution. Hamilton had only one highlighted moment, but it was enough to foreshadow a career whose impact on America’s future may have been the most lasting of all.
    By 1800, Madison was a chief planner for the new Republican Party, which backed Jefferson for president. It strongly supported states’ rights, and history remembers Madison in part for his eloquent defense of that stance. But when he arrived in Philadelphia early in May 1787, days before the scheduled opening session, Madison was still a nationalist and with good reason. He came fresh from months in New York City as a frustrated member of the one-house Congress created by the 1781 Articles of Confederation.

Bernard A. Weisberger in “America Afire Jefferson, Adams, and the First Contested Election”

  • “The anticipation had been building for the six days since it became certain that both of Chicago’s teams were pennant winners. The town’s major daily newspapers (in those preconsolidation days of 1906, there were some nine in English and an equal number in German, Yiddish, Czech, Norwegian, and one or two other languages) gave baseball front- page coverage, beginning on Thursday and with the volume increasing over the weekend. The Tribune devoted most of its Sunday sporting section to a long review of the championship seasons of both White Sox and Cubs. It shared space with coverage of Saturday’s Big Ten college football matchups — baseball’s only serious rival for attention back then. But college football appealed mostly to college graduates, an influential but still miniature slice of the population. Americans without higher education, however, had taken the diamond game to heart by the millions. They wanted a steady and generous diet of baseball scores, standings, and gossip in the daily papers that plugged them into the world (at 2 cents a copy), and publishers fed it to them willingly and profitably.Front-page editorial cartoons, usually political, were temporarily shelved in favor of baseball gags: baseballs with smiley faces, deliriously happy fans and families, the latter including pets and babies. Two in particular carried implicit social messages. One, a story in four panels appearing in the Tribune, introduced a pair of characters already familiar from the comic strips: the boss and the office boy. The boss corners the reluctant youngster, who is planning to sneak away, and demands that the boy “do something” for him that afternoon, which happily turns out to be to “go to the ball game with me and explain the finer points.” The lesson was that first, there were “fine points” to the game that made it a craft worth studying and not an idle pastime, and second, that mutual delight in Chicago’s baseball prowess bound together generations and classes — benign old employer and lowly kid jobholder. In that simple form the text was clear even to the barely literate reader.

    When  Chicago Ruled Baseball JPG Compared to that theme of harmony, one of the Daily News’s pregame cartoons radiates realism. The image of Mrs. O’Leary’s angry cow starting the Great Fire of 1871, as legend had it, by kicking a lighted lantern into a pile of straw is succeeded by the “Mild and Gentle Animal of Today” wearing a contented grin as uniformed Cubs and Sox players cheerfully milk her into a bucket stamped with a large, eye-catching dollar sign. Whatever else professional baseball bestowed on society at large, it was a business whose chief end and aim was to generate cash.

    That contradiction between baseball’s public face as the simon-pure recreational expression of the American spirit and the reality of big-league, big-city baseball as a market enterprise (and a monopoly at that) anchored in a growing commercial entertainment industry and culture — that discord between image and reality — is clear in any hard- eyed look at that 1906 crosstown series in a Chicago banging and barging its metropolitan way into a new century. It’s a sports story that helps to explain how we American urbanites have come to be who we are and how we see ourselves.

    But songs of social significance aren’t the only music of baseball history. The Series itself was wonderfully exciting, an electric week of surprises, thrills, exploits and errors, hopes roused and hopes dashed. For those who were there, time was suspended, the world outside the playing field faded into the background, and individual problems were forgotten in the single, roaring life of the crowd riding the same emotional roller coaster with every swing and every pitch. That is what any popular spectator sport still does for its fans. In America, baseball did it first.

    It was a different world then. But a lover of baseball in 2006 isn’t all that estranged from the grandstand throngs caught in those grainy black-and-white news photos of a century ago. We know more than we want to now about the private sins of the players, about multimillion-dollar payrolls and agents and unions and TV revenue shares– sometimes it’s hard to tell the sports pages from the business news. . . . — Bernard A. Weisberger in “When Chicago Ruled Baseball : The Cubs-White Sox World Series of 1906”

  • “It would be simplistic, even sappy, to call history yesterday’s news or to describe myself as a reporter of it. But I do see history as a continuing story with an essentially unchanging cast-to wit, the damned, infuriating, fascinating human race, wrestling with its fate. What I like is to talk about people, and the people I encounter in the day’s news are not all that different from those who emerge from the documents I consult in writing a book or article. Perhaps it’s because I deal only with American history, which is almost all current news when measured against the whole time span of the past. Be that as it may, it’s a source of pleasure, irritation, and occasional comfort to me that I would happily share.” — Bernard Weisberger in the announcement for his “American Heritage” column “In the News”, 1989
  • After ten years of writing this column, I am saying a fond farewell. Not to American Heritage or to writing in general, merely to “In the News.” I had intended to slip away unnoticed, but my good friend and editor Richard Snow offered me the opportunity for a parting word or two, and I find it irresistible. If, however, you turned to this page expecting another essay on the historical echoes of a recent news item and are disappointed, there will be no hard feelings if you stop here.Why am I quitting now? Mainly because I find myself getting a little repetitious, at least in my own view. Each issue’s “story” is different, but the message is the same: that seeing a current event in historical perspective is a very good thing to do. It’s a safeguard against pontification of all sorts-against “the sky-is-falling” alarms at one extreme and the “we-are-the-greatest-ever” exultation at the other. It shrinks self- importance, rebukes dogmatism, and builds courage. As a teenager I learned and loved a corny verse from A. E. Housman that runs: “The troubles of our proud and angry dust / Are from eternity and shall not fail / Bear them we can, and if we can we must / Shoulder the sky, my lad, and drink your ale.” I can laugh, many decades later, at the final words, the half-cynical, half-heroic posturing, the stoic shrug with nose buried in the ale mug. But there’s still a portion of truth in the first three lines….

    I end this personal recollection by repeating once more my commitment to “popular” history, which I’ve been writing for all these years, with a bit of television work thrown in. I don’t like the term. It has a pejorative flavor, much like its antonym of “academic” history. I’ve read good and bad examples of both, I know good people who do both, and I wish the wall between the camps weren’t so high. But I know where I stand. I’m unchangeably a storyteller. I never had any interest in research that didn’t lead to a narrative able to move the hearts and imaginations of nonspecialist readers, and I have a hard time comprehending the justification for any other kind of historical inquiry. I’ve heard the argument that just as science became more sophisticated and necessarily inaccessible to the generalist, so it has been with history. I won’t try to rebut it ex parte (that is, without some representative of that view present). But I frankly doubt it.

    It is wiser always not to linger at the door. My thanks to the editors and fact checkers with whom I have worked pleasantly over these years. Likewise, to those readers who troubled to write to me or the “Correspondence” page in support or dissent, I appreciate your attention. To all of you, I want to say that I have gotten unqualified enjoyment from history since my first childhood visit to a museum, my first reading of a “juvenile” biography, my first high school term paper, my first thrilling graduate school encounter with an actual manuscript letter laid on my desk by an archivist. I still do. I hope that it’s been reflected in these little excursions and that some of it has rubbed off on you. Good-bye for now. — Bernard Weisberger in his farewell “In the News” column for American Heritage, July, 1999.

About Bernard A. Weisberger

  • “I love this book.” — Ken Burns reviewing
  • “…brings life to a magical city, an enchanting World Series and the baseball legends who battled for glory.” — Tom Stanton, Casey Award-winning author of “The Final Season and Hank Aaron and the Home Run That Changed America”
  • America Afire is a dazzling narrative filled with backroom intrigue, political chicanery, and high-minded idealism. A wonderful achievement.” — Douglas Brinkley reviewing “America Afire”
  • “Bernard Weisberger’s America Afire is a significant addition to the literature dealing with the early political history of the Republic.” — Arnold Rogow reviewing “America Afire”
  • “A vivid political history of the earliest and most unstable years of the American republic… a must-read…” — Kirkus review of “America Afire”
  • “In focusing upon the campaign that brought Jefferson to the White House and his party into the unparalleled dominance of the antebellum period, Bernard Weisberger recapitulates in America Afire the partisan developments of the 1790s. For him they are prelude to the election itself, the one that landed in the House of Representatives because party discipline had been so good that Jefferson and his running mate, Burr, got the same number of votes. A fine writer, Weisberger punctuates his political narrative with the standard events that gave this political moment its shape, from the drafting of the Constitution through Jay’s Treaty, the X, Y, Z Affair and the Alien and Sedition Act to the actual balloting. He does illuminate the political struggles that turned Jefferson into “the collective self-image of Americans.” Complementary as history, both of these fine books give us access to how that particular self-image was framed 200 years ago.” — Joyce Appleby reviewing “America Afire”
  • “Bernard Weisberger provides a highly engaging, thoroughly well-written account of the Adams-Jefferson rivalry, which traded on both personality and ideology–and, indeed, on markedly different visions of human nature. His book is timely, for many of the issues Adams and Jefferson argued over remain with Americans today and are the subject of constant controversy. Which is, Weisberger says, just as it should be; it means that ‘the revolution is still at work.'” — Gregory McNamee, Amazon.com reviewing “America Afire”
  • “Bernard Weisberger’s book is an old-fashioned electoral history in the best sense of the term. His exposition aims above all to indicate how and why the turbulence developed which led to “the crucial [U.S.] election of 1800,” and how this election “preserved the Revolution and the infant American republic” (p. 9). These complicated tasks the author accomplishes ably. Pari passu, Weisberger also provides many interesting and revealing glimpses of life in the Republic from the Constitutional Convention through the painful, extended election of the third President of the United States.
    As he clearly establishes his theme, the historian narrates well the simple inaugural ceremonies that accompanied the early March 1801 peaceful “transfer of power by popular vote” (p. 9). The body of America Afire, however, begins at the 1787 Convention in Philadelphia (Chapter 1)….
    On balance, however, America Afire is an outstanding book–clearly conceived, lucidly written, and satisfyingly informative. Once the author engages his theme, the narrative proves stimulating and education through the last page.” — James J. Kirschke, Villanova University reviewing “America Afire”
  • “At the time, it occurred to me that a group of such historians commenting on the news every week would make a fascinating television program. And perhaps it will, one day. Meanwhile, the editors of this magazine have decided to try to convert the rich lode of history underlying recent events into a regular column for our readers. The result, beginning in this issue, is “In the News,” a feature written by Bernard A. Weisberger, who will, in essence, read the newspapers and watch the television news for us, bringing his long career as a writer and historian to bear on whatever passing alarm takes his notice.” — Byron Dobell announcing Weisberger’s “American Heritage” column “In the News, 1989.”
  • “On a shelf near our office-supply cabinet sit three little steel boxes that are, in effect, the magazine’s memory. The five-by-seven cards they contain catalogue the name of every author who has ever written for us, the titles of the articles, the dates when they ran, and what we paid for them. They’re filed alphabetically, so it’s not until you get to the third box that you come across a wad of half a dozen cards, paper-clipped together. This packet charts the career of our most prolific contributor: Weisberger, Bernard A.Dim on the first card is the information that Bernie’s inaugural American Heritage article, “Evangelists to the Machine Age,” ran in the fifth issue of the new magazine, in August 1955. No record of what he was paid for that or for his second piece, but the third one, “Pentecost in the Backwoods,” netted him $350. (This and the first story were drawn from research he was doing for his fine 1958 book They Gathered at the River: The Story of the Great Revivalists and Their Impact Upon Religion in America.) In 1960 he writes about the Lowell Mills; 1963 brings a Christmas bonus of $100; in the 1970s he produces stories on Pinckney B. S. Pinchback, George Eastman, Benjamin Rush, and Paul Revere; in 1987 his essay “American History Is Falling Down” warns that the increasing fragmentation of the subject in the academy means that teachers are dismantling a coherent narrative and putting nothing in its place; in 1989 he publishes his first “In the News” column (in which he answers the many columnists who complained that the recently concluded presidential race has set “new lows in distortion and trivialization” by quoting a New York Times headline from the sainted Harry Truman’s 1948 campaign: PRESIDENT LIKENS DEWEY TO HITLER AS FASCISTS’ TOOL); and the final entry on the sixth card records that on 2/3/99 we acquired “Last in the News, July/Aug ’99 AH.”

    Bernie inaugurated our “In the News” column and wrote it for a decade. He was the ideal proprietor for this franchise because he could connect present concerns to past precedents with effortless ease. Of course, that ease was the result of a lifetime of hard work and a promiscuous curiosity that produced not only the scores of stories in American Heritage but books on a spectrum of subjects that runs from Civil War correspondents to the flamboyant Billy Durant of General Motors, from the La Follettes of Wisconsin to the long, tense confrontation of the Cold War.

    As for the effort, Bernie never let it show. His clean, brisk, relaxed writing, informed with strong feeling but free always of polemicizing, drew a steady stream of correspondence from our readers that is itself a tribute to his warmth and accessibility. Not everyone agreed with him (Bernie is pretty close to an honest-to-God New Deal liberal, a distinction I found useful to point out when we received the occasional letter accusing the magazine of having become a pawn of the right wing-just as we cite Bernie’s figurative next-door neighbor, the “Business of America” columnist John Steele Gordon, when mail accuses us of abandoning our old standards to veer leftward), but he answered all with a courteous enthusiasm that invariably proved infectious. Bernie is that rare creature, a man of powerful convictions and no enemies.

    I’m in his debt not only for fourscore good columns; when, in the long-ago spring of 1972, he decided to leave his post on the magazine to teach history at Vassar, it opened up a slot on the editorial staff that I was able to move into. Of course, nobody thought I was replacing Bernie, just as Bernie’s successor will not replace him. But I am happy to be able to welcome as the new “In the News” columnist, Kevin Baker, who comes from serving as the chief historical researcher on Harold Evans’s bestseller The American Century and has recently published the highly acclaimed historical novel Dreamland, a spirited, passionate, and altogether absorbing chronicle of life in New York City at the century’s turn.

    He’ll appear in the next issue. In this one Bernie speaks of his ten-year ambassadorship between today’s news and yesterday’s and says good-bye to his readers-but not forever: He is currently in the midst of a book on the pivotal election of 1800. And in saying good-bye to Bernie, I’ll quote a passage from one of his more recent columns that seems to me eloquent of the spirit in which he has approached his life’s work. In speaking of those who think that the much-beleaguered traditional narrative of our past fails to make itself relevant to many in an increasingly multicultural society, Bernie writes, “Somehow I have certainly never had a problem in assuming that even though my own ancestors did not reach these shores until around 1900, men like Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln had made and preserved the United States for people like me. I rather thought I was discharging a debt to them in telling the story to people like you.”” — Richard F. Snow on Bernard Weisberger retiring from the “American Heritage” column “In the News”

Basic Facts

Teaching Positions: University of Rochester, Rochester, NY, professor of history, 1963-68, chairman of department, 1964-65;
University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, associate professor of history, 1959-63;
Wayne State University, Detroit, MI, assistant professor, 1954-59;
Antioch College, Yellow Springs, OH, assistant professor, 1952-54;
Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA, instructor, 1950-51;

Bernard Weisberger JPG Ford Foundation Lecturer, Atlanta University Center, Atlanta, GA, 1965;
Part-time adjunct professor, New York University, New York, NY, 1968-69;
Member of National Humanities faculty, 1969;
Part-time visiting professor of history and American civilization, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY, 1972-79;

Professional Positions: Freelance writer, 1968-70;
American Heritage, associate editor, 1970-72, contributing editor, 1972–;
freelance writer/historian, 1979–;
Member of advisory committee, National Endowment for the Humanities feasibility study of a new journal in humanities, 1975.
Chief consultant, Reader’s Digest Encyclopedia of American History, 1975;
General consultant, Story of America, Reader’s Digest Books, 1975;
bicentennial programming consultant, National Broadcasting Corp. (NBC) Radio Network, 1975-76;
Consultant for film “City out of Wilderness,” 1975.

Area of Research: American History and popular history

Education: Columbia University, A.B., 1943;
University of Chicago, A.M., 1947, Ph.D., 1950.

Major Publications:

  • Reporters for the Union, (Little, Brown, 1953).
  • They Gathered at the River, (Little, Brown, 1958).
  • The American Newspaperman, (University of Chicago Press, 1961).
  • The Age of Steam and Steel, (Time-Life, 1964).
  • Reaching for Empire, (Time-Life, 1964).
  • The New Industrial Society, (Wiley, 1969).
  • The American Heritage History of the American People, American Heritage, 1971.
  • The Impact of Our Past (textbook), (McGraw, 1972, 2nd edition, 1976).
  • Booker T. Washington, (New American Library, 1973).
  • Pathways to the Present (textbook), (Harper, 1975).
  • The Dream Maker: William C. Durant, Founder of General Motors, (Little, Brown, 1979).
  • From Sea to Shining Sea: A History of the United States, (3rd edition, Webster Division, McGraw, 1981).
  • The Cold War, (American Heritage, 1982).
  • Cold War, Cold Peace: The United States and Russia since 1945, introduction by Harrison E. Salisbury, (American Heritage, 1984).
  • Many People, One Nation, (Houghton, 1987).
  • The La Follettes of Wisconsin: Love and Politics in Progressive America, (University of Wisconsin Press, 1994).
  • America Afire: Jefferson, Adams, and the Revolutionary Election of 1800, (Morrow, 2000).
  • When Chicago Ruled Baseball : The Cubs-White Sox World Series of 1906, (HarperCollins, 2006).

Editor, Contributor, Joint Author:

  • (Contributor) The Life History of the United States, (Time-Life, 1964).
  • (With Allan Nevins) Captains of Industry, American Heritage Junior Library, 1966).
  • (Contributor) Samuel Gompers, (Silver Burdett, 1966).
  • (Contributor) The District of Columbia, (Time-Life, 1968).
  • (Contributor) Irwin Unger and H. Mark Johnson, Land of Progress, (Ginn, 1975).
  • (Editor) The WPA Guide to America: The Best of 1930s America as Seen by the Federal Writers’ Project, (Pantheon, 1985).
  • (With Geoffrey C. Ward) The Statue of Liberty: The First Hundred Years (film script), directed by Ken Burns, released by Florentine Films, 1985.
  • (Author of introduction) An Ethnic at Large by Jerre Gerlando Mangione, Syracuse University Press (Syracuse, NY), 2002.

Contributor of articles to professional journals, American Heritage, and Antioch Review, and of reviews to newspapers.


Ramsdell Prize, Southern Historical Association, 1962;
Fellow, American Council of Learned Societies, 1959-60;
Social Science Research Council grant, 1956;

Additional Info:

Weisberger along with Geoffrey Ward were the script writers for Ken Burns’ 1989 PBS documentary “The Congress.”
Weisberger has contributed to “The New Leader,” The Chicago Tribune,” and “New York Times,” among others.
Weisberger was among 20 distinguished professor including John Hope Franklin that participated in the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march in 1965.
Hobbies and other interests include Camping, fishing, playing the recorder, running (“not fast but persistent; four marathons completed”).
Military/Wartime Service included U.S. Army, Signal Corp, 1942-46; served in China-Burma- India theater; became second lieutenant; Historical Section, Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1951-52; became first lieutenant.
Weisberger is a member of the Authors League of America and Society of American Historians.

Posted on Sunday, April 30, 2006

History Doyens: Edmund S. Morgan


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

Edmund S. Morgan, 4-17-15

What They’re Famous For

Edmund Morgan is the Sterling Professor Emeritus at Yale University. Morgan has authored dozens of books on Puritan and early colonial history, which are acclaimed for both their scholarly focus and their appeal to a general audience. Michael Kammen in the Washington Post Book World described Morgan as “one of the most distinguished historians of the United States.” His books have challenged traditional assumptions about the forces that shaped early American history, including the lives and beliefs of the Puritans and the impetus for the Revolutionary War. Morgan has earned a reputation as an historian of people as well as of ideas, and as a writer of wide appeal. Bruce Kuklick, writing in Books and Culture, maintained that “Edmund Morgan is arguably the finest living American historian.”Edmund Morgan  JPG

Morgan’s most influential books include The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution (1953), Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America (1988), which won Columbia University’s Bancroft Prize in American History in 1989, and American Slavery, American Freedom (1975), which won the Society of American Historians’ Francis Parkman Prize, the Southern Historical Association’s Charles S. Sydnor Prize and the American Historical Association’s Albert J. Beveridge Award. Two of his early books, Birth of the Republic (1956) and The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop (1958) which is a standard text on the topic used in University courses.

Morgan has received many awards throughout his prolific career for his work as a writer and a professor, including a lifetime achievement Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for “a creative and deeply influential body of work as an American historian that spans the last half-century.” In 1971 he was awarded the Yale Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa’s William Clyde DeVane Medal for outstanding teaching and scholarship, considered one of the most prestigious teaching prizes for Yale faculty. In 1972 he became the first recipient of the Douglas Adair Memorial Award for scholarship in early American history, and in 1986 he received the Distinguished Scholar Award of the American Historical Association. In 1965 Morgan became a Sterling Professor, one of Yale’s highest distinctions, and was awarded the 2000 National Humanities Medal by the US President Bill Clinton at a ceremony for “extraordinary contributions to American cultural life and thought.”

Morgan’s own interest in history grew while he was an undergraduate at Harvard, where he went on to earn his Ph.D in 1942. At Harvard Morgan studied under Perry Miller. Since he became a historian, he has witnessed a major change in his field. In 2002, he achieved his first New York Times best-seller with Benjamin Franklin Morgan attributes this to “the geezer factor. There just aren’t that many 86-year-olds writing books, so when they do, it’s quite an event.”

Personal Anecdote

The Calvinist

It was the 29th of August, 1938. After a postgraduate year at the London School of Economics I had been touring Europe with a friend, and we were then spending a week in Freiburg im Breisgau, not far from the French border. In a fit of cultural enthusiasm we had decided to travel to Colmar to view the famous altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald, a day trip by train via Breissach on the German border.

Before describing what happened there and how it affected me, I need to say that I had spent four years at Harvard under the tutorship of Perry Miller, whose respect for ideas and need to share them had given direction to my college years. Edmund S. Morgan  JPG He, like myself, was a confirmed atheist but at the same time an admirer and profound student of Puritan theology and its elegant scheme of thought. His studies of that scheme would bring him recognition as the foremost intellectual historian of his day. As a student and admirer of Miller, I had devoted much of my college studies to growing familiar with the doctrines of predestination, original sin, divine perfection, human depravity, and theodicy (the defense of God’s goodness despite the existence of evil). Puritan theology commanded respect as a rigorous intellectual system. But I had never quite accepted its dire view of the human condition, its insistence on the innate depravity of human beings. At twenty-two most people did not look all that bad to me.

At Breissach I gained a new perspective on humanity. It was exactly one month before the Munich Pact for which Neville Chamberlain became infamous. The morning paper had announced that Hitler had sent an ultimatum to Czechoslovakia demanding the return of the Sudetenland. When we reached Breissach, we were told that there was a two-hour wait before we would be allowed to cross over to the French side of the Rhine to reach Colmar. And as we strolled through the town, we noticed that young men in SS uniform were everywhere, standing conspicuously in every doorway. Without exception they were blond, six feet tall or more, good-looking. They could easily have been taken for American college boys. So we asked one of them what was going on. “Nur Ubung” was the answer: “just an exercise.” We came to a road leading to a cathedral overlooking the Rhine. As we walked into a beer garden we were confronted by a man in plainclothes who came over to tell us in a civil manner that we could go no further. Why? Because they were “cleaning the cathedral.” We laughed out loud, and so did he. They don’t clean cathedrals in Germany, or anywhere else for that matter. Anyhow, we must not proceed. He was obviously Gestapo.

So we sat down in the beer garden, next to a low hedge beside the street. Moments later, a big open-topped Mercedes touring car fishtailed to a stop near us. Top brass in Wehrmacht uniforms stepped down and had the SS arrange everyone on the street (full of people as curious as we were) in a row opposite to where we sat. Blackshirted men stood at six-foot intervals beside our hedge watching the citizenry, hands on pistols. Why we, and a few others, were permitted to stay put is a puzzle. Everyone was aware that some big shot was coming, but we did not expect the man himself. Then Hitler came through, fanning his signature sloppy salute to the crowd, as his touring car drove up past the cathedral that was not being cleaned. There was no mistaking his beefsteak-red face and negligent demeanor. In preparation for the coming war he was inspecting the Rhine fortifications.

We sat quietly, not ten feet from him as he passed slowly by. I could not help thinking that if I had been armed I could have shot him. (Like many American boys of my generation, I had been given a rifle at an early age and shown how to use it on small unoffending animals.) No one had searched me or any other patron of the beer garden, though I assume that more than one SS man had us in his sights.

The point of this story, for me, however, is that I knew I was looking evil in the face. And it looked like my next-door neighbor or a friend of the family, perhaps a bit old-fashioned but solid. Edmund S.  Morgan JPG What Hitler was already doing to the Jews of Germany and Austria was no secret-although highly-placed officials of the United States government were content to look away and to complain about slanders directed against the German nation.(The American consul at Stuttgart, with whom I had subsequent dealings, was a blatant antisemite.) The part those fresh-faced, and, well, biddable, young men in black were playing was no secret, either. But they all looked so human and so everyday. Even the Gestapo agent could have been a stodgy chance-met tourist rather than a hard man or heavily-armed stooge.

Puritan theology began to make sense, in a way that shook me. I could not believe in the salvation of a few held out by John Calvin or Jonathan Edwards, but human depravity suddenly acquired a face, the cheerful mask that we all learn to wear as the price of belonging to a settled social order. I was still an atheist, as I am now, but that day in Breissach I became a Calvinist atheist. Human beings are capable of great good, but I know that the capacity for fathomless evil is equally human, and it wears a smiling face.


By Edmund S. Morgan

  • “We can know what many of his contemporaries came to recognize, that he did as much as any man ever has to shape the world he and they lived in. Benjamin Franklin JPG We can also know what they must have known, that the world was not quite what he would have liked to make it. But we may also discover a man hidden behind the affability and wit that entranced those who enjoyed his presence. We may discover a man with a wisdom about himself that comes only to the great of heart. Franklin knew how to value himself and what he did without mistaking himself for some- thing more than one man among many. His special brand of self-respect required him to honor his fellow men and women no less than himself. His way of serving a superior God was to serve them. He did it with a recognition of their human strengths and weaknesses as well as his own, in a spirit that another wise man in another century has called “the spirit which is not too sure it is right.” It is a spirit that weakens the weak but strengthens the strong. It gave Franklin the strength to do what he incredibly did, as a scientist, a statesman, and a man.” — Edmund S. Morgan in “Benjamin Franklin”
  • How Virginian, then, was America? How heavily did American economic opportunity and political freedom rest on Virginia’s slaves? If Virginia had continued to rely on the importation of white servants, would they have headed north when they turned free and brought insoluble problems of poverty with them? Would they have threatened the peace and prosperity of Philadelphia and New York and Boston, where the poor were steadily growing in numbers anyhow? Would Northerners have embraced republican ideas of equality so readily if they had been surrounded by men in “a certain degree of misery”? American  Slavery, American Freedom JPG And could the new United States have made a go of it in the world of nations without Virginia and without the products of slave labor? Northern republicans apparently thought not. Some could not condone slavery and talked of breaking loose from the South in their own independent confederation. But the fact is that they did not. They allowed Virginians to compose the documents that founded their republic, and they chose Virginians to chart its course for a generation.
    “Eventually, to be sure, the course the Virginians charted for the United States proved the undoing of slavery. And a Virginia general gave up at Appomattox the attempt to support freedom with slavery. But were the two more closely linked than his conquerors could admit? Was the vision of a nation of equals flawed at the source by contempt for both the poor and the black? Is America still colonial Virginia writ large? More than a century after Appomattox the questions linger.” — Edmund Morgan in “American Slavery, American Freedom”
  • “It looked as though my best friend at Brown, Barney Keeney, was going to be made president, but the corporation didn’t do anything about that until Wriston was just about ready to step out of office. I can’t remember the exact sequence of events, but I would have been upset if they hadn’t made Keeney president; on the other hand, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be teaching at a college where my best friend was president. I though to myself , ‘Maybe you’re just too complacent.’ I found myself getting very conservative about practically everything. I didn’t want any changes made. I thought, ‘Well, you need shaking up. You’re sitting here getting just as complacent as you can be.’ And then Yale makes me this offer, so I said, ‘Oh, well, what the hell.’ Hedges made no bones about advising me. He said ‘Brown is Brown, but Yale is Yale. You ought not to stay here, you ought to go on.’ So, in any case I decided. ‘Well, maybe I need some more challenges, maybe I need to be shaken up.’ In a sense I left Brown because I was too comfortable there.” — Edmund S. Morgan in 1985 interview discussing his decision to teach at Yale.
  • “I guess The Stamp Act Crisis. That’s the one I got the most excitement out of writing, I guess. I felt that I was seeing things fresh in in a major current of American history. Putting it together was more challenging than most books that I’ve done; maybe it was my first real book after my dissertation.” — Edmund S. Morgan in 1985 interview discussing his most influential and also favorite book.
  • “I made a point of always teaching undergraduates because they are not a captive audience. If you teach undergrads, you have to make history intelligible to people who are not specialists in your field and that’s good for you as a scholar. I always tried out my research ideas first in the classroom to get feedback from people who didn’t have to listen to me if I didn’t make it interesting.” — Edmund S. Morgan on undergraduate teaching in “Humanities”
  • “I used to tell my students to try and maintain the capacity for surprise. If you’re studying the French Revolution and you come across something that surprises you, you have to ask why it surprises you. Most likely, it’s because what you’ve read about the French Revolution before would not lead you to think that this would happen or that it had happened. So don’t say, ‘gee, I didn’t know that’-you have to ask why you didn’t know that. The likelihood is that somebody else gave you the impression it wasn’t so…. “You’ve got to take what people say seriously.”… “Don’t start with the assumption that they didn’t mean what they were saying. It’s up to you to show that they don’t mean it if you don’t think they mean it. All that postmodernism is junk. If the postmodernists are right, there’s no point in studying history at all… No matter what people say, history doesn’t repeat itself.” ” — Edmund S. Morgan in a Publishers Weekly interview about historical philosophy
  • Looking back on his career as a teacher, Morgan says that his greatest reward in the classroom was “getting students to talk back and challenge my ideas. I always had large classes, but I encouraged students to interrupt me at any time.”… “My view has always been that an analysis of historical developments should be embodied in narrative,” Morgan says of his approach as both teacher and writer of history. “A historian should not be didactic-that is a word that makes my blood run cold.” — Edmund Morgan in Yale Bulletin & Calendar, January 12, 2001

About Edmund S. Morgan

  • “While several previous biographies provide fuller accounts of Franklin’s life, none rivals Morgan’s study for its grasp of Franklin’s character, its affinity not just for his ideas, but for the way his mind worked.” — Joseph J. Ellis, London Review of Books on “Benjamin Franklin”
  • “So much has been written about Benjamin Franklin in the 212 years since his death that you might imagine there’s nothing left to say. But there always is. Now comes another biography of the man, a fairly short one, and in my opinion it’s one of the best. The author is Edmund S. Morgan, a historian of early America at Yale University for 47 years, now emeritus. He stands high in his profession, is closely familiar with the 18th (Franklin’s) century, and writes with clarity and a pleasing informality. He is an ideal author for this undertaking.” — Max Hall, former editor at Harvard University Press reviewing “Benjamin Franklin”
  • “Benjamin Franklin generated much controversy in his own times, and historians have reflected this in their treatment of him. Professor Edmund S. Morgan, in his new and readable biography, relies heavily on Franklin’s writings to tell Franklin’s side of the story. He does it well…Franklin would have been pleased with Morgan’s interpretation. Many others, both then and now, would disagree, but, for those who want to know Franklin as Franklin undoubtedly wanted to be known, Morgan’s biography is the place to start. — Owen S. Ireland reviewing “Benjamin Franklin”
  • For the past quarter century Edmund S. Morgan has been one of the most prolific and respected authors of early American history. Noted for its incisiveness, as well as its graceful crafting, his work on the New England Puritans and the American Revolution has set high standards as a model of careful investigation and sensitive reading of the historical record. For these reasons, any addition to the corpus of Morgan’s scholarship immediately commands his colleagues’ attention. But American Slavery, American Freedom is attractive in its own right because it is one of the first book-length studies to emerge from the current reexamination of Virginia’s colonial history. Furthermore, Morgan’s assessment of the Old Dominion’s first two centuries is destined to spark controversy among specialists in Southern history and slavery…. American Slavery, American Freedom is a stimulating book. Its insights are provocative and imaginative, and therein lies the book’s importance. — Warren M. Billings, University of New Orleans reviewing “American Slavery, American Freedom”
  • Edmund Morgan’s The Genuine Article is an anthology of book reviews written by one of America’s most prolific and knowledgeable scholars of early America for the New York Review of Books. Having said that, one should not assume that his reviews resemble anything that you will read in the book reviews of journalism History. While each review is a means of educating readers about the book or books that he is reviewing, Morgan, who has written and edited twenty other volumes since 1952, is more interested in enlightening readers about issues, people, and events from seventeenth and eighteenth-century America.
    Genuine Article JPG For Morgan, who taught at Yale University from 1955 until his retirement in 1986, the release of a new volume on early America presented the opportunity to give readers a history lesson while critiquing the scholarship that provided him with a point of departure. The resulting collection is probably the best historiography and introduction to life in early America that one could imagine with each lesson presented in twenty or fewer pages of concise, insightful commentary. The Genuine Article‘s chapters, which cover nearly forty years of Morgan’s reviews, describe most aspects of life in the colonies from the landing at Jamestown through the Revolution… Morgan reiterates this throughout, but, of even more value, he demonstrates what he professes through his reviews. The book’s cover claims Morgan “has had a more profound role in shaping our perceptions of the American colonies” than any other living historian. The breadth and depth of the reviews included in this anthology confirm the claim. — David Copeland reviewing “The Genuine Article: A Historian Looks at Early America”
  • “Edmund S. Morgan remains one of the academy’s best secrets. Over a long and fruitful career, Puritan  Dilemma JPG he has been one of the most influential historians of early America, a man with a rare gift for telling the story of the past simply and elegantly without sacrificing its abundant complexity. The best known of his books is probably his biography of John Winthrop, “The Puritan Dilemma.” Mr. Morgan’s “Gentle Puritan: A Life of Ezra Stiles” is the inside favorite of many historians, but the hilarious comparison of Indians with the barbarous Englishmen of 17th-century Virginia in “American Slavery – American Freedom” will delight anyone with a taste for the human comedy and good writing. Yet the work of this artist among contemporary historians remains generally unknown to the reading public.” — Pauline Maier in the New York Times Book Review
  • “To Edmund S. Morgan, for his brilliant scholarship as one of America’s most distinguished historians. With elegant prose, fresh perspective, and exhaustive research, he has enhanced our understanding of American colonial history by challenging traditions and assumptions about the birth of our nation and by bringing to life the people and ideas that shaped America’s destiny.” — 2000 National Humanities Medal Certificate’s commendation
  • “Morgan doesn’t teach history, he narrates it. Listening to his lectures is like listening to a story.” — Anonymous former student

Basic Facts

Teaching Positions: University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, instructor in social sciences, 1945-46;
Edmund S.  Morgan JPG

Brown University, Providence, RI, assistant professor, 1946-49, associate professor, 1949-51, professor of history, 1951-55;
Yale University, New Haven, CT, professor of history, 1955-65, Sterling Professor of History, 1965-86, professor emeritus, 1986–.

Johnson Research Professor, University of Wisconsin, 1968-69.
Member of council, Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1953-56, 1958-60, and 1970-72;
Trustee of Smith College, 1984- 89.

Area of Research: Puritan and American colonial history

Education: Harvard University, A.B., 1937, Ph.D., 1942;
London School of Economics, University of London, graduate study, 1937- 38.

Major Publications:

  • The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic Relations in Seventeenth-Century New England, (Boston Public Library, 1944, new edition, Harper, 1966).
  • Virginians at Home: Family Life in the Eighteenth Century, Colonial Williamsburg (Williamsburg, VA), 1952.
  • (With Helen M. Morgan) The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution, (University of North Carolina Press, 1953, 3rd edition, 1994).
  • The Birth of the Republic, 1763-1789, (University of Chicago Press, 1956, 3rd edition, 1992).
  • The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop, (Little, Brown, 1958).
  • The American Revolution: A Review of Changing Interpretations, (Service Center for Teachers of History, 1958).
  • The Gentle Puritan: A Life of Ezra Stiles, 1727-1795, (Yale University Press, 1962, reprinted, Norton, 1984).
  • Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea, (New York University Press, 1963).
  • Roger Williams: The Church and the State, (Harcourt, 1967).
  • So What about History (Atheneum, 1969).
  • American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, (Norton, 1975).
  • The Challenge of the American Revolution, (Norton, 1976).
  • The Meaning of Independence: John Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, (University Press of Virginia, 1976, 2nd edition, 2004).
  • The Genius of George Washington, (Norton, 1980).
  • Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America, (Norton, 1988).
  • Benjamin Franklin, (Yale University Press, 2002).
  • The Genuine Article, (Norton, 2004).

Editor, Contributor, Joint Author:

  • (With others) The National Experience: A History of the United States, (Harcourt, 1963).
  • (With others) The Emergence of the American, (Educational Services, 1965).
  • Prologue to the Revolution: Sources and Documents on the Stamp Act Crisis, 1764-1766, (University of North Carolina Press, 1959).
  • The Founding of Massachusetts: Historians and the Sources, (Bobbs-Merrill, 1964).
  • The American Revolution: Two Centuries of Interpretation, (Prentice-Hall, 1965).
  • The Diary of Michael Wigglesworth, 1653-1657: The Conscience of a Puritan, (Harper, 1965).
  • Puritan Political Ideas, 1558-1794, (Bobbs-Merrill, 1965, 2nd edition, Hackett Publishing, 2003).

Contributor to The Mirror of the Indian, Associates of the John Carter Brown Library, 1958. Author of introduction to Paul Revere’s Three Accounts of His Famous Ride, (Massachusetts Historical Society, 1961, 2nd edition, 1968). Also contributor of articles and reviews to historical journals. Member of editorial board, New England Quarterly.


National Humanities Medal, 2000;
National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, 2003, for Benjamin Franklin;
Organization of American Historians Distinguished Services Award, 1998;
Bruce Catton Award, 1992;
Columbia University’s 1989 Bancroft Prize in American History for Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America (1988);
In 1971 he was awarded the Yale Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa’s William Clyde DeVane Medal for outstanding teaching and scholarship, considered one of the most prestigious teaching prizes for Yale faculty. One year later, he became the first recipient of the Douglas Adair Memorial Award for scholarship in early American history, and in 1986 he received the Distinguished Scholar Award of the American Historical Association.
Douglass Adair Memorial Award, 1972;
William Clyde DeWane Medal, 1971;
Research fellow, Huntington Library, 1952-53.
Morgan has received numerous fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies and the Social Science Research Council.
Morgan has received Honorary degrees from Rutgers University, Brown University, Colgate University, Washington College, William and Mary, University of New Haven, Williams College, Lawrence University, and Smith College.

Additional Info:

At Yale, Morgan has been a member of the Administrative Board of the Papers of Benjamin Franklin for more than 30 years and has been its chairman for the last 11. This documentary enterprise, sponsored by the American Philosophical Society and Yale and now edited by Ellen R. Cohn, is in its final few years. It now has 36 volumes and will eventually have about 46. In addition, the documents in all 46 volumes will be available on a CD-ROM.The documents are of three kinds: letters and other pieces written by Franklin, letters to Franklin, and other documents closely involving Franklin.
Edmund S.  Morgan JPG Morgan is a member of the Society of American Historians, American Antiquarian Society, Organization of American Historians (president, 1971-72), American Philosophical Society, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, Massachusetts Historical Society, Colonial Society of Massachusetts, British Academy, Royal Historical Society.
During World War II Morgan worked at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, as a tool-and-die make in the Radiation Laboratory, (1942-45).
Morgan has been a professional woodturner for the past decade or so, working on large lathes and other equipment in the basement of his home. His walnut bowls and other creations have been exhibited at the Creative Arts Workshop in New Haven and at the League of New Hampshire Craftsman in New Hampshire, where Morgan maintains a vacation home. He and his wife, Marie Morgan, have also crafted tables and other furniture for their home in New Haven.

Posted on Sunday, April 16, 2006 at 6:35 PM

History Doyens: Gordon S. Wood


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

Gordon S. Wood, 4-3-06

What They’re Famous For

Gordon S. Wood is Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History at Brown University. He is one of the foremost scholars on the American Revolution in the country. His book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. It is considered among the definitive works on the social, political and economic consequences of the Revolutionary War. Edmund S. Morgan, Professor Emeritus of Yale University in his review of this book for the Gordon  Wood JPGNew York Review of Books called it “a tour de force. This is a book that could redirect historical thinking about the Revolution and its place in the national consciousness.” In the book, Professor Wood gives readers a revolution that transformed an almost feudal society into a democratic one, whose emerging realities sometimes baffled and disappointed its founding fathers.

Professor Wood has written numerous other books, including The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787, which was nominated for the National Book Award and received the Bancroft and John H. Dunning prizes in 1970. He was involved in Ken Burn’s PBS production on Thomas Jefferson, is contributing his expertise in the National Constitution Center being built in Philadelphia and regularly devotes a portion of his time teaching history to high school students around the country. Wood was mentioned in the 1997 film Good Will Hunting which Wood in a 2004 Washington Post Interview called “my two seconds of fame.”

Personal Anecdote

I was always interested in history, even in high school with a history teacher who taught American history by having the students, up and down the rows, read aloud from the textbook. I majored in history in college but thought that I would enter the foreign service when I completed my military service in the Air Force. But being treated rather arbitrarily by the military (after eight months of training in Texas to become a photo-intelligence officer, I was promptly made a personnel officer when I was assigned to a squadron) made me leery of working for the government. So I applied to graduate school to study history instead. I have never regretted that decision.

I have come to realize that history is not merely an accumulation of information about the past. More important, it is a mode of understanding reality, not just the reality of the past but the reality of the present. Without a deep sense of history a person or a culture lacks perspective and wisdom. Despite the enormous number of history books that are published each year in the United States, most Americans do not seem to have a very deep sense of history. It might get in the way of our enthusiastic ebullience that we Americans can do anything.

Despite the constant repetition of George Santayana’s phrase that “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” I don’t believe that history teaches any lessons. Or perhaps better: it teaches only one lesson, that nothing ever quite works out the way the historical participants intended or expected. In other words, if history teaches anything, it teaches humility, something we all need a little more of.

Looking for all sorts of lessons from the past is to misuse history for the sake of the present. Gordon Wood JPGThe search for lessons in fact expresses the sort of present-centered, instrumentalist history that we have usually found in the work of most American historians. Many historians today view history exclusively through the categories and values of the present and seek to use it directly to solve our present problems or to criticize our present culture. Rather than trying to understand the past on its own terms, many historians want the past to be immediately relevant and useful; they want to use history to empower people in the present, to help them develop self-identity, or to enable them to break free of that past. These ought not to be the functions of this greatest of the humanistic disciplines.

Of my books, my favorite is my first, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, largely I suppose because it was the first and because it seems to have been the most influential, even though it has not sold the most copies. Of course, I had no idea at the outset that it would become part of a so-called “republican synthesis.” That development only reinforces my view that history is a largely a series of unintended consequences in which the best laid plans of people go awry.


By Gordon S. Wood

  • “By using the most popular and democratic rhetoric available to explain and justify their aristocratic system, the Federalists helped to foreclose the development of an American intellectual tradition in which differing ideas of politics would be ultimately and genuinely related to differing social interests. The  Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 JPG In other words, the Federalists in 1787 hastened the destruction of whatever chance there was in America for the growth of an avowedly aristocratic conception of politics and thereby contributed to the creation of the encompassing liberal tradition which mitigated and often obscured the real social antagonisms of American politics. By attempting to confront and retard the thrust of the Revolution with the rhetoric of the Revolution, the Federalists fixed the terms for the future discussion of American politics. They thus brought the ideology of the Revolution to consummation and created as distinctly American political theory but only at the cost of eventually impoverishing later American political thought.” — Gordon Wood in “Creation of the American Republic”
  • “A new generation of democratic Americans was no longer interested in the revolutionaries’ dream of building a classical republic of elitist virtue out of the inherited materials of the Old World. Radicalism  of the American Revolution JPG America, they said, would find its greatness not by emulating the states of classical antiquity, not by copying the fiscal-military powers of modern Europe, and not by producing a few notable geniuses and great-souled men. Instead, it would discover its greatness by creating a prosperous free society belonging to obscure people with their workaday concerns and their pecuniary pursuits of happiness–common people with common interests in making money and getting ahead. No doubt the cost that America paid for this democracy was high–with its vulgarity, its materialism, its rootlessness, its anti-intellectualism. But there is no denying the wonder of it and the real earthly benefits it brought to the hitherto neglected and despised masses of common laboring people. The American Revolution created this democracy, and we are living with its consequences still.” — Gordon Wood in “Radicalism of the American Revolution”
  • The  Americanization of Benjamin Franklin JPG “It is the image of the hardworking self-made businessman that has most endured. Franklin was one of the greatest of the Founders; indeed, his crucial diplomacy in the Revolution makes him only second to Washington in importance. But that importance is not what we most remember about Franklin. It is instead the symbolic Franklin of the bumptious capitalism of the early republic-the man who personifies the American dream-who stays with us. And as long as America is seen as the land of opportunity, where you can get ahead if you work hard, this image of Franklin will likely be the one that continues to dominate American Culture. — Gordon Wood in “The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin”

About Gordon S. Wood

  • “One of the half dozen most important books ever written about the American Revolution.” — New York Times Book Review reviewing “The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787”
  • “During the nearly two decades since its publication, this book has set the pace, furnished benchmarks, and afforded targets for many subsequent studies. If ever a work of history merited the appellation ‘modern classic,’ this is surely one.” — William and Mary Quarterly reviewing “The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787”
  • “[A] brilliant and sweeping interpretation of political culture in the Revolutionary generation.” — New England Quarterly reviewing “The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787”
  • “This is an admirable, thoughtful, and penetrating study of one of the most important chapters in American history.” — Wesley Frank Craven reviewing “The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787”
  • “The most important study of the American Revolution to appear in over twenty years… a landmark book.” — Pauline Maier in The New York Times Book Review reviewing “Radicalism of the American Revolution”
  • “A breathtaking social, political, and ideological analysis. This book will set the agenda for discussion for some time to come.” — Richard L. Bushman reviewing Radicalism of the American Revolution
  • “An elegant synthesis done by the leading scholar in the field, which nicely integrates the work on the American Revolution over the last three decades but never loses contact with the older, classic questions that we have been arguing about for over two hundred years.” — Joseph J. Ellis, author of Founding Brothers reviewing “The American Revolution”
  • “In this absorbing narrative, one of out premier American historians has captured the extraordinary interaction of a rising American people and the man who rose with them, shaping their aspirations as they shaped his.” — Edmund S. Morgan, Yale University reviewing “The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin.”
  • “[Wood] possesses as profound a grasp of the early days of the Republic as anyone now working…” — The New York Times Book Review reviewing “The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin”
  • “I cannot remember ever reading a work of history and biography that is quite so fluent, so perfectly composed and balanced…” — The New York Sun reviewing “The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin”
  • “Wood’s relies heavily — though never heavy-handedly — on psychology. Wood alludes frequently to Franklin’s “genius”… giving the patient reader an exceptionally rich perspective on one of the most accomplished, complex and unpredictable Americans of his own time or any other. — Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post reviewing “The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin”
  • Bancroft and Pulitzer Prize-winner Wood suggests that behind America’s current romance with the founding fathers is a critique of our own leaders, a desire for such capable and disinterested leadership as was offered by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Revolutionary Characters : What Made the Founders Different JPG Provocatively, Wood argues that the very egalitarian democracy Washington and Co. created all but guarantees that we will “never again replicate the extraordinary generation of the founders.” In 10 essays, most culled from the New York Review of Books and the New Republic, Wood offers miniature portraits of James Madison, Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Paine. The most stimulating chapter is devoted to John Adams, who died thinking he would never get his due in historians’ accounts of the Revolution; for the most part, he was right. This piece is an important corrective; Adams, says Wood, was not only pessimistic about the greed and scrambling he saw in his fellow Americans, he was downright prophetic-and his countrymen, then and now, have never wanted to reckon with his critiques. Wood is an elegant writer who has devoted decades to the men about whom he is writing, and taken together, these pieces add perspective to the founding fathers cottage industry. — Publishers Weekly advance praise for “Revolutionary Characters : What Made the Founders Different”
  • “He’s a very distinguished name, and he’s increased the public profile of the University. It’s very sad to lose someone of Gordon’s stature. He’s the sort of person who puts Brown on the map… “I’m a big fan of Gordon’s, he has been tremendous for the University.” — Timothy Harris, Munro-Goodwin-Wilkinson Professor in European History, Brown University in “The Brown Daily Herald”
  • “You can see he’s so knowledgeable and he just has this clear expertise on the Revolution,” he said. “I wanted to take a class with a professor who’s basically the authority on a subject, and I know that Gordon Wood is the man… “I took it just because I’m interested in the American Revolution and the beginning of our nation, and because I know we’re at a time that we’re making a lot of decisions. It’s interesting to look back and see where our nation began.” — Evan Brown ’06, Brown University in “The Brown Daily Herald”
  • Beth Hoffman became interested in [Wood’s] course when her high-school U.S. history teacher told her that Wood is “the Ben Affleck of the history world. “The teacher told Hoffman that “to pass up the opportunity to take a history class with Gordon Wood would be like passing up the opportunity to meet Ben Affleck.” — Beth Hoffman ’07, Brown University in “The Brown Daily Herald”
  • “Wood is an excellent lecturer and his command of the information is unparalleled.”… “I know he is famous, but talent is there. We are lucky to have a living legend who is a great teacher and not just resting on his rep. If he is not the next president of our university we should be thrown out of the Ivy League.”… “A smart, well-spoken guy who clearly has come up with an innovative and intelligent interpretation in his field. Even occasionally funny at 9am.”… “His command of US history is astounding and scintillating.” — Anonymous Students at Brown University

Basic Facts

Teaching Positions:
Harvard University, Teaching Fellow, 1960-64.
College of William and Mary, Assistant Professor, 1964-66.
Gordon  Wood JPG

Harvard University, Assistant Professor, 1966-67.
University of Michigan, Associate Professor, 1967-69.
Brown University, Associate Professor, 1969-71.
Brown University, Professor of History, 1971-.
Pitt Professor, Cambridge University, 1982-83.
Brown University, Chairman, Department of History, 1983-86.
Brown University, University Professor, 1990-.
Brown University, Alva O. Way University Professor, 1997-.
Northwestern University School of Law, Pritzker Visiting Professor, 2001.
Northwestern University, Board of Trustee Professor of Law and History, 2003.

Area of Research: American Revolution, Founding Fathers

Education: A.B., Tufts University (Summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa), 1955. A.M., Harvard University, 1959. Ph.D., Harvard University, 1964.

Major Publications:

  • The Creation of the American Republic, (University of North Carolina Press, 1969).
  • The Rising Glory of America, 1760-1820, (Braziller, 1971).
  • Revolution and the Political Integration of the Enslaved and Disenfranchised, (American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1974).
  • Making of the Constitution, (Baylor University Press, 1987).
  • Radicalism of the American Revolution, (A.A. Knopf, 1992).
  • Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, (University of North Carolina Press, 1998).
  • American Revolution: A History, (Modern Library, 2002).
  • The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, (Penguin Press, 2004).
  • Revolutionary Characters : What Made the Founders Different, (Penguin Press, May 18, 2006).

Editor, Contributor, Joint Author:

  • (Editor) Representation in the American Revolution, (University Press of Virginia, 1969).
  • (Editor) The Confederation and the Constitution, (Little, Brown, 1973).
  • (Contributor) Leadership in the American Revolution, (Library of Congress, 1974).
  • (With J. R. Pole) Social Radicalism and the Idea of Equality in the American Revolution, (University of St. Thomas Bookstore, 1976).
  • (Edited with an introduction and notes) Rising Glory of America, 1760-1820, (Northeastern University Press, 1990).
  • (Editor with Louise G. Wood) Russian-American Dialogue on the American Revolution, (University of Missouri Press, 1995).
  • (Editor with Anthony Molho) Imagined Histories: American Historians Interpret the Past, Princeton University Press, 1998.
  • (Edited and with an introduction) Common sense and other writings by Thomas Paine, (Modern Library, 2003).

Contributor of articles to New England Quarterly and William and Mary Quarterly. Member of board of editors, Journal of American History.


Pulitzer Prize in History (1993), Ralph Waldo Emerson Award of Phi Beta Kappa (1992), and Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award (1992), all for Radicalism of the American Revolution.
Bancroft Prize, Columbia University, John H. Dunning Prize, American Historical Association, and Nominee for National Book Award in History and Biography, all in 1970 for The Creation of the American Republic. Julia Ward Howe Prize from the Boston Authors Club, 2005 for The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin.
John Adams Fellowship, Institute of United States Studies, 2002.
Doctor of Letters, LaTrobe University, Australia, 2001.
Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame, 2000.
Fletcher Jones Distinguished Fellowship, Huntington Library, 1997-98.
Guest-Scholarship, Woodrow Wilson Center, 1993-94.
Visiting Fellowship, All Souls College, Oxford, 1991.
Sunderland Fellowship, University of Michigan Law School, 1990.
Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, 1987-88.
Douglass Adair Award, 1984.
Daughters of Colonial Wars award for the outstanding article in the William and Mary Quarterly, 1983.
Kerr Prize for best article in New York History, awarded by New York Historical Society, 1981.
Guggenheim Fellowship, 1980-81.
National Humanities Institute, 1975-76.
National Endowment for the Humanities Grant, 1972-73.
Distinguished Visitor Award of the Australian-American Education Foundation, 1976.
National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Fellowship, 1967. Toppan Prize, Harvard University, 1964.
Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1964-66.
De Lancey K. Jay Prize, Harvard University, 1963-64.

Additional Info:

Wood gave a distinguished lecture on “George Washington,” for the Presidential Lecture Series on the Presidency, The White House, 1991. Wood was the president of the Society for Historians of the Early Republic, 1986-87 and Chairman, Board of Advisors, National Historical Society, 1973-. Wood is on the Advisory Committee for the Papers of John Adams, 1990; Advisory Committee for the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1990–; Advisory Board for the Papers of James Madison, 1994–; Administrative Board for the Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 1995–. Wood is on the Advisory Board for Northeastern University Press, 1989–.; Board of Editors, Oxford History of the Enlightenment. Board of Trustees, National Council of History Education, 1996–; Advisory Board, Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History, 1996–; and Board of Scholars, National Center for the American Revolution, 2002.
Wood also regularly contributes to the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, and The New Republic, among others. Wood served as a consultant to the National Constitution Center and to the US Capitol renovation and continues to serve on the Board of Trustees for Colonial Williamsburg.
Wood also served as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, 1955-58.

Posted on Sunday, April 2, 2006

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