Ben FranklinNews Archives
When PBS stations air a documentary on Benjamin Franklin this November, many TV viewers will be introduced to 86-year-old Edmund S. Morgan, a featured commentator on the program and a leading colonial historian.
Morgan is mostly known within the academic community, but that might change before the PBS broadcast. His new book, a short biography of Franklin, is a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and an alternate selection of the History Book Club. Morgan's publisher, Yale University Press, has given "Benjamin Franklin" a first printing of 35,000.
"This is 30 times the printing we do for most books," says John Ryden, director of the Yale press. "We think this is a very readable biography." "Morgan is a wonderful historian and he writes so well. We think a lot of people will come to this book even if they don't read a lot of history," says Larry Shapiro, editor-in-chief of the Book-of-the-Month Club.
The author himself has an appealing, accessible presence. Interviewed at his home in New Haven, the bald, round-faced historian has a prankster's smile and a soft, sweet laugh. He has taught at major schools (Harvard, Brown and Yale) and received prestigious awards (the Bancroft history prize, a National Humanities Medal), but still can joke that history books bore him.
His peers regard him as one of the giants of early American scholarship. Joseph Ellis, who studied under Morgan at Yale University, dedicated his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Founding Brothers" to his former teacher and calls him a model for writing clearly about complicated ideas. Gordon Wood, author of the acclaimed "The Radicalism of the American Revolution," says Morgan is often ahead of his time.
"When he wrote his first book ('The Puritan Family,' published in 1944), it was not fashionable for historians to write about family life. He helped establish the genre of family history," Wood says.
"And when he was first writing the dominant thinking among historians was that ideas didn't matter, that the founders only cared about the rich and that they didn't mean what they were saying about freedom and government. But Morgan started with the assumption that their ideas were to be taken seriously; he was really bucking the tide."
"Benjamin Franklin" aims to educate, but also to entertain. In the first chapter, Morgan notes that the "multitude of Franklin portraits were all painted after he turned plump and middle-aged." The historian asks readers to remember Franklin as a "muscular young man, about five feet nine or ten, full of the energies - physical, intellectual, sexual - of youth."
"Franklin has got an image of this cracker-box philosopher, the benevolent old man looking out over his half-glasses," Morgan says in an interview.
Franklin was born in 1706 in Boston, but his ambition and unconventional mind led him to the more liberal community of Philadelphia. His achievements were countless, from founding one of the country's first volunteer fire companies to his discovery that lightning was a form of electricity, his experiment with a kite the rare colonial legend believed to be true.
With his playful wit and passion for science, Franklin was a definitive Enlightenment thinker, but his politics proved less alert to the times. He likened the colonies to mere clay in the hands of their British masters, and as late as 1775 still sought reconciliation rather than independence.
British belligerence changed his mind and Franklin went on to assist with the Declaration of Independence and help negotiate an alliance with France. He died in Pennsylvania in 1790, adored on at least two continents, but unable to win approval of an anti-slavery clause in the U.S. Constitution.
"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," Morgan writes. "We can also know what they must have known, that the world was not quite what he would have liked to make it."
Morgan had not published a full-length text since 1986 - he worked for a decade on a book about religion in colonial times and then abandoned it - and expected only to write a short piece on Franklin as a primer for a CD-ROM.
But the historian grew quite fond of his subject and completed a 300-page book. The attachment was professional and personal. Just as David McCullough, who is married, has said that he related to John Adams as a family man, Morgan appreciated Franklin as a thinker and seeker.
"Intellectual curiosity is one of the rarest gifts and ... he was just loaded with curiosity. He never took things for granted," Morgan says.
The historian's own active mind has led him well away from the sedentary work of scholarship. Since retiring as a Yale professor in 1986, he has taken up flying, set up both a wood and metal shop in his basement and put together a lathe in his garage. Morgan built the oak dining table where he sat for this interview and has sold wooden bowls for as much as $400 apiece.
Like a photographer with failing eyesight, the historian confesses to a weak long-term memory. To adapt, he doesn't wait to finish his research before writing. He reads for a couple of months, writes, reads again and revises it all in the end.
Author of more than a dozen books, Morgan approaches his work as both scholar and hobbyist. He has no agent and doesn't accept advances because he dislikes deadlines; only when the Franklin manuscript was finished did he bother showing it to the Yale press.
The historian writes with a fountain pen, but for the new book he took advantage of modern technology and read all of Franklin's work on a computer disc. In the fall, Morgan is teaching an online course about Franklin. "A complicated surprise," he anticipates.
"Surprise" is a favorite word of Morgan's, with his own life as a close example. He did not plan to be a historian, much less specialize in the colonial era. Born in Minneapolis and raised in New Haven, Conn., and the Boston area, he dreamed of owning a ranch as a boy and preferred English to history when he entered Harvard University. In one European history test taken freshman year, he scored 27 out of 100.
But after studying at Harvard under Perry Miller, a leading colonial historian, Morgan became fascinated by the Puritans. "Miller was an atheist, and so was I, but we both had this tremendous regard for the intellectual grounding of their theology," he says.
Morgan admires the country's founders, but not uncritically. "American Slavery, American Freedom" contends that demands for greater freedom in colonial Virginia were influenced by the rise of slavery, which gave whites a greater sense of entitlement. In "Inventing the People," Morgan writes that political leaders often used democratic language as a cover for maintaining power.
Morgan's books rarely turn out the way he planned them, and the Franklin biography is not the first time he expanded a shorter piece. Years ago, he wrote a review of religious leader Roger Williams and became so interested that he kept writing until a book was finished. "American Slavery" was supposed to be a history of work in colonial times, but his research led him to racial issues.
Known for his thorough research, Morgan prefers the founder's own words to the books written about them. He has read all of Franklin and James Madison, both of whom lived into their 80s. He has also worked through multiple volumes of Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, the Puritans and the drafters of the Constitution.
"I don't read many biographies," he says, acknowledging he hasn't even gotten around to McCullough's John Adams book, a million seller and winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
"I can spend all day reading Washington's papers. ... I can do that all
day long. But if I pick up the kind of book that I write I go to sleep."