A venerable historian considers and reconsiders topics ranging from slavery to the Constitution to the Founding Fathers.
Morgan (Emeritus History/Yale; Benjamin Franklin, 2002) displays in eminently impressive pieces (all of which appeared over the past 25 years in the New York Review of Books) not only his vast knowledge of early American history but also his transparent style and his generous reviewing philosophy. In only one of these 24 essays—the penultimate one, dealing with the Library of America’s 1999 collection of American sermons—does he wax wholly negative. (He calls it a “strange work” whose selection criteria baffle him.) Generally, Morgan endeavors to understand the author’s intent and then, in true NYRB fashion, expatiates. Nobody does it better. Divided into four parts (for each Morgan provides a sketchy, and perhaps superfluous, introduction), the collection begins with searching assessments of the Puritans. Acknowledging repeatedly his debt to former teacher Perry Miller, Morgan insists on the enduring importance of these folks in American culture and politics but reminds us (in a piece from 2002) that it is inaccurate to call the Massachusetts Bay Colony a theocracy: “The existence of real theocracies in the Near East today should call our attention to the care that New England Puritans took not to create one.” He discusses slavery and race with refreshing frankness (“The Big American Crime”) and describes clearly how, during the Seven Years’ War, the American Indians horrified their European allies with their ferocity (and cannibalism). Unsurprisingly, Morgan writes eloquently about Benjamin Franklin and the other Founding Fathers, offering an especially cogent piece on the significance of George Washington, who, after all, did not really distinguish himself on the battlefield and did not participate much in the creation of those seminal American declarations and documents. (A single caveat: the thematic—rather than chronological—arrangement can make it difficult to follow the evolution of Morgan’s remarkable mind.)
First-rate thinking and writing. (6 b&w illustrations)