Monday, October 7, 2013

My Brush with History

Sorting through a series of articles in The New Criterion, I came across one that was a dedication to the great historian, Edmund Sears Morgan (1916-2013).  In the article, Professor Marc M. Arkin noted Morgan’s background as a professor at Yale University and his contributions to the study of American history, more specifically the American Revolutionary Era.  As I read the article, I remembered my personal experience with Professor Morgan and the magnificence of this incredible man.

In 2009, as an undergraduate student at Columbia College, I was taking a course on the American Revolution.  One of our required texts for the class was Morgan’s The Birth of the Republic.  Unfortunately, I could only find a 1959 version of the book and used it for my class assignments.  As I read the book, I discovered an error where Morgan argued that prior to the ratification of the United States Constitution, every state constitution had a bill of rights.  I compared this to my research on Alexander Hamilton’s argument in the Federalist Paper, No. 84 where he stated that a bill of rights was absent from the New York state constitution (amongst others).  I decided to write to Morgan to find out how he had reached the conclusion for his book because it was in direct contrast to Hamilton’s assertions.

I half expected Morgan to receive my letter and thought a reply from him was unlikely.  Imagine my surprise when he not only wrote back but also chose to do so in old-fashioned style:  pen to paper.  Indeed, he graciously acknowledged my letter and after complimenting me, admitted his error in concluding that all states had a bill of rights prior to the ratification of the United States Constitution.  Morgan mentioned that he had corrected the error in later editions of the book but asserted that even with those corrections he had taken some liberties.

For an historian of his repute to respond to my letter, accept his error, and offer encouragement was a refreshing experience.  I found Morgan’s thoughtfulness and humility most charming.  The Birth of the Republic and Morgan’s letter are two of my most cherished possessions as an American historian.  They are a constant reminder to me of my brief but significant brush with a great historian and an incredible man.    

* You can read The New Criterion article here.  


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