An Introduction to the Winthrop Family Papers


Massachusetts Historical Society

Peter Olsen-Harbich, a Ph.D Candidate at William & Mary, reflects on his experience working with the Winthrop Family Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society.  Here is a taste:

Among the austere manuscripts of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s collection resides an unassuming assemblage. Weighing in at precisely ten boxes, it bears a substantive though middling rank in the vast archival stock of America. An additional marker of ordinary quality concludes the title of the collection: “Transcripts.” These are thus ten boxes of derivative, copied papers—primary documents by proxy only. Yet a full examination of the collection title suggests a content that is anything but mundane, for these are the “Winthrop Family Papers [Transcripts],” also known as Ms. N-2211, a trove of transcribed, unpublished correspondence from the family whose various progeny presided at the very center of seventeenth-century New England’s political orbit.

Read the rest here.

Are you looking for some good books on the Winthrop family?  Here are a few titles:

Francis Bremer, John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father

Edmund Morgan, The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop

Daniel T. Rodgers, As a City Upon a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon

Walter Woodward, Prospero’s America: John Winthrop Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606-1676.

Richard Dunn and Laetitia Yaendle, ed., The Journal of John Winthrop, 1630-1649: Abridged Edition.

When You’re Teaching Edmund Morgan’s *American Slavery, American Freedom* and a Student Brings Some Tobacco Leaves to Class…

Tobacco was life in seventeenth-century Virginia.  It defined everything about Chesapeake society–race, class, gender, labor patterns, family life, marriage, religion, economy, and politics.  So far I am having a great time teaching Edmund Morgan’s classic American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. (I hope my Colonial America students are enjoying it as well).

Today one of my more inspired students showed-up with some tobacco leaves.  He got them from an Amish tobacco grower here in south-central Pennsylvania.

Morgan Tobacco

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Historians


After his article “The First White President” appeared in The Atlantic, social critic Ta-Nehisi Coates tweeted:

Coates draws heavily from the work of American history, particularly historians of race and slavery.  I first encountered Coates when he writing blog posts on Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery–American Freedom.  I have been following him ever since.  Whatever one thinks about his views on race in America, Coates has done his homework.

At The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jordan Michael Smith writes about Coates’s relationship with historians.  Here is a taste:

When I spoke with him a few weeks ago, Coates was no less effusive about the significance of scholarship. “I really enjoy talking to historians, for the most part, because there’s so much — this is going to sound elitist but it’s true — there’s just a basic ignorance about facts in American history” among members of the public. He points to recent debates over the Confederacy, spurred by attempts to have monuments of Confederate leaders removed from public spaces. The disputes over whether Confederates were fighting to preserve slavery or states’ rights “would not fly in most history programs in this country,” he says. Even among journalists, he argues, there is a dearth of knowledge about something as crucial to understanding America as the Civil War.

There is in Coates’s work evidence of a fanboyish enthusiasm, an earnest affection for certain people, places, and things. They include rappers (his Twitter avatar is an image from an album by a member of the Wu-Tang Clan), the French language, and comic books. Among the adored are historians, political scientists, and sociologists. “He’s like our biggest supporter, and that’s really refreshing,” says Bryant Simon, a historian at Temple University. “I don’t know anyone else who deliberately” foregrounds a reliance on the work of academics to the same degree.

[Historian Manisha] Sinha describes Coates as “one of those rare writers who can effectively mine historians’ work. He has an intuitive grasp of the issues involved.” What Sinha finds particularly interesting is that Coates will develop his own take based on his reading, making him as much an active participant in the historicizing process as the people he reads.

Indeed, part of what sets Coates apart from other journalists or public intellectuals is that he tells his audience that historians’ works need to be consulted if they want to understand American history. Like any good high-school math student, Coates shows his work, illustrating which history books lead him to his conclusions.

Read the entire piece here.


Benjamin Carp on Edmund Morgan’s “Slavery and Freedom”


Edmund Morgan

As some of you may recall, Edmund Morgan’s 1972 Journal of American History article “Slavery and Freedomwon the 2016 Junto Blog “March Madness” tournament for the best journal article in early American history.

Over at Process: A Blog for American History (the official blog of the Organization of American Historians), Ben Carp of Brooklyn College reflects on the significance of Morgan’s essay.  I can’t think of a better person to do this right now.  Carp recently published a great essay on Morgan in Reviews in American History and has been tweeting about Morgan in honor of what would have been his 100th birthday (Morgan died in 2013). Follow along at #edmorgan100

Here is a taste of Carp’s post:

“Slavery and Freedom” is an article about Puritans, even though it doesn’t mention them at all; it’s about what happens when you try to colonize a place without them.

The article purports to be about how the Revolutionary leaders’ “dedication to human liberty and dignity” arose alongside “a system of labor that denied human dignity and liberty every hour of the day.” And indeed, we largely remember the piece for articulating “the central paradox of American history”: how the United States emerged as a beacon of freedom when so many African-Americans remained in chains, with entangled repercussions that still define the nation.

And yet the article spends surprisingly little time on the ideals of the Declaration of Independence or Virginia’s slave society, and neither does American Slavery, American Freedom. It’s an irony that Edmund S. Morgan (1916–2013), the article’s author, would have appreciated (call it the “the ‘Paradox’ paradox”): how an unintended argument became his most enduring legacy.

“Slavery and Freedom” began life as Morgan’s presidential address to the Organization of American Historians in April 1972. Morgan had analyzed the Puritan work ethic and the way that the Founders applied it to their rebellion. But when he tried to attribute the ethic to elite slaveowners like Thomas Jefferson, he realized the argument wouldn’t quite hold. So he looked more closely at history of early colonial Virginia to figure out why the South turned out differently. “Slavery and Freedom” was primarily interested in the problems of work and discipline, which led Morgan into discussions of English ideas about debt and idleness, Francis Drake and the Cimarrons, the cultivation of tobacco, the fate of laborers who completed their indentures, and Bacon’s Rebellion.

Read the rest here.

Edmund Morgan Wins Junto March Madness

Junto MarchA few years ago Morgan’s book American Slavery/American Freedom won the Junto March Madness tournament devoted to the best books in early American history.

This year Morgan’s 1972 “Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox” won the best article in early American history.  Morgan defeated Jill Lepore’s “Historians Who Love to Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography” in the final match.

Early American historians still love Edmund Morgan!

Let’s see what the good folks of the Junto come up with for next year’s March Madness. How about best history blogs or best books on Philip Vickers Fithian?

Teaching Old Historiography

MorganI love Joe Adelman‘s piece today at The Junto: “The Significance of Old Historiogaphy in American History.”

Adelman, who teaches American history at Framingham State University in Massachusetts, writes about trying to teach fresh new perspectives on American history when his students do not know the older work upon which the authors of these new perspectives are building.

Here is a taste:

The issue arose this week in my Native American history course when we read and discussed Drew Lipman’s article on the murder of John Oldham and the saltwater frontier…As part of his historiographical discussion, Lipman distinguishes his definition of “frontier” from that of Frederick Jackson Turner’s.[2] When this came up in our conversation, I paused and asked how many students were familiar with the Turner thesis. Only three students were, only two had read Turner’s essay in a college classroom—and they both read it in an English course (the same one). That seemed a little embarrassing to me as a teacher.

On a certain level, though, that level of engagement makes complete sense to me. Why should they have read it? Very few people conceptualize the “frontier” in the same way that Turner did 125 years ago, nor do they feel a need to respond directly to his argument as part of the historiography. It is, in many ways, totally outdated, more a primary source for views about Native Americans and the West in the 1890s (that’s how my two students read it in their English course, paired with something by Teddy Roosevelt) than a work of historical scholarship that requires engagement. At the same time, however, the Turner thesis or frontier thesis had such an enormous impact on historical scholarship for decades that it still matters on a certain level, enough so, for example, that cutting-edge, Bancroft-worthy research published within the last decade still name-checks Turner. So maybe students should encounter it, or at least have passing familiarity with it.

So I wonder–is it possible to teach both new perspectives and older historiogaphy in the short time that we have with our students each week?  I think it can be done. Let’s take my British Colonial America course, for example.

In this course, I largely stick with the classics.  I still, for example, have students read Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery/American Freedom.  We read Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Good Wives and Jon Butler’s seminar article “Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretation Fiction.”  I have assigned Richard White’s The Middle Ground and Dan Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country.

Most of these interpretations, of course, have been challenged by more recent scholarship. I am aware of this and use my class time to discuss these texts and get my students to think about the ways these particular works have been challenged.  Sometimes I even hand out bibliographies of scholarly works that have engaged with these classics or offer a different take on the subject matter. For example, when we discuss Morgan, I also want them to know something about the work of Kathleen Brown and Rebecca Goetz, among others.

In other words, don’t judge a course by its reading list.

But I imagine that one could turn this approach to teaching American history on its head by assigning the most recent work in a particular field and using class time to talk about the older works that made these new interpretations possible.

Whatever approach is taken, we want students to be exposed to historiography and historiographical development over time, multiple interpretations of the past,  and the process by which new interpretations are created.

Thanks, Joe.  This post is making me thing.

Edmund Morgan at 100

MORGAN-OBIT-articleLarge-v3Michael Hattem of Yale writes at Storify:

The hashtag #edmorgan100 was started by Ben Carp in anticipation of his article on Morgan being published in the academic journal, Reviews in American History.  Other historians have joined in to note and discuss the life and work of one of the most important American historians of the last century.

Review the twitter conversation that #edmorgan100 generated through Hattem’s storified tweets.

Was the United States "Created on Racist Principles?"

In his recent visit to Liberty University, Bernie Sanders said that the United States “in many ways was created, and I’m sorry to have to say this, from way back, on racist principles, that’s a fact.”

On Tuesday night in my online Gilder-Lehrman graduate course on colonial North America, I told my students that Sanders was correct. We spent the class studying colonial Virginia and discussed how the colony became a slave society near the end of the seventeenth century.  At the end of the lecture I took a cue from Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom and reminded my students about the ways the wealth generated by slavery in this tobacco colony enabled Virginia planters such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and others to be in a position to articulate some of America’s greatest statements about liberty and freedom.  Irony indeed.

Then today I read Sean Wilentz’s New York Times op-ed “Constitutionally, Slavery Is No National Institution.”  (It appears to stem from his recent Constitution Day Lecture at Princeton). Here is a taste:

…the myth that the United States was founded on racial slavery persists, notably among scholars and activists on the left who are rightly angry at America’s racist past. The myth, ironically, has led advocates for social justice to reject Lincoln’s and Douglass’s view of the Constitution in favor of Calhoun’s. And now the myth threatens to poison the current presidential campaign. The United States, Bernie Sanders has charged, “in many ways was created, and I’m sorry to have to say this, from way back, on racist principles, that’s a fact.”

But as far as the nation’s founding is concerned, it is not a fact, as Lincoln and Douglass explained. It is one of the most destructive falsehoods in all of American history.

Yes, slavery was a powerful institution in 1787. Yes, most white Americans presumed African inferiority. And in 1787, proslavery delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia fought to inscribe the principle of property in humans in the Constitution. But on this matter the slaveholders were crushed.

Read the entire piece to see how Wilentz supports his argument.  It is a rather odd piece. First, Wilentz seems to be responding to Sanders’s comments at Liberty, but Wilentz focuses specifically on the Constitution when Sanders’s remark seemed to be much more general in nature.  I think the Vermont senator meant to say, along with Morgan and others, that the roots of the United States are intricately bound with slavery and what today we call “racism.”  

Second, even if we do limit Sanders’s comment about racism and the American founding to the United States Constitution, it very hard to say that racism and slavery were not a part of the creation of this founding document.

Several scholars and historians have already replied to Wilentz.  Here are four:

Lawrence Goldstone at The New Republic

H. Robert Baker at Tropics of Meta

Julia Azari at Vox

Kevin Gannon at The Junto

Quote of the Day

“At Yale, when we arrived, all was calm; it was as if the ’60s never happened.  The students had only one agenda–to get an education–and one of the things they wanted to learn was how to write clearly.  During the permissive ’60s their high school teachers had urged them to ‘let it all hang out,’ regardless of grammar or syntax.  Now they found they had been deprived of knowing how to express themselves: how to harness the world they lived in.  My course looked like salvation in the desert.

The students’ cry for help wasn’t lost on Yale’s English Department.  At that time the department was the epicenter of ‘deconstruction’ and other faddish studies in the clinical analysis of texts.  Its emphasis was not on how to write but on how to dissect what other people had written.  The great writers on the Yale faculty weren’t the English professors; they were the history professors–robust stylists like Edmund S. Morgan, C. Vann Woodward, George Pierson, Jonathan Spence and John Morton Blum….”

-William Zinsser, Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past, p. 129

Quote of the Day

The late Edmund Morgan on writing and conducting research:

I do not employ much of a method in doing historical research except to read indiscriminately everything I can lay my hands on that may relate to whatever topic has excited my curiosity. I have no system….

The reason I do not like to talk about my own research while doing it is that I lose the impulse, the necessity, of putting what I think I have found in writing. I firmly believe that too much discussion amounts to “talking your book away.” But talking about other ideas excites my own thought processes.

If you have studied any part of history enough to be curious about it, enough to want to do some research, you already are aware of the generally accepted views, the orthodox views, the controversies among the experts in the field, what is taken for granted and what is in dispute. You want to learn a little more about some question, and you go to the source materials that are presumably the foundation of the orthodox views. You come across something that you had not known about, something that surprises you a little. Cultivate that surprise. Do not say to yourself, “Oh, I didn’t know that,” and go on with your reading. Stop right there. Ask yourself, Why did I not know that? Is it contrary to what I had been led to expect? Is it because I did not know enough? Or is it because the people who crafted the orthodox interpretations did not know enough? Or perhaps their angle of vision was limited by what came before….

I want to offer a couple of other pieces of advice. First, and probably most idiosyncratic, try to forget philosophies of history and theories of historical causation: Marxist, Straussian, postmodern, or whatever. You probably have one, conscious or unconscious, but try not to let it get in your way. Cultivate that surprise when the documents don’t seem to support your views. Next, try to keep your research and your writing together. Don’t wait until you think you have entirely completed your research before beginning to write. As soon as you begin to see connections between things that you had not noticed before, start writing what you think you have found out about them, even if these writings seem fragmentary. Don’t get too systematic. Don’t make elaborate outlines with headings and subheadings. Don’t spend a lot of time arranging your notes. Stop stalling and start writing.

Quote of the Day

From the Edmund Morgan obituary in The New York Times:

I would say that my ideal of writing history is to give the reader vicarious experience,” Professor Morgan told The William and Mary Quarterly. “You’re born in one particular century at a particular time, and the only experience you can have directly is of the place you live and the time you live in. History is a way of giving you experience that you would otherwise be cut off from.

Edmund Morgan Roundup at The Junto

The good folks at The Junto blog are planning a week-long roundtable on the legacy of Edmund Morgan.  I am looking forward to that. 

In the meantime, check out Jonathan Wilson’s collection of reflections (come on, Jonathan, throw us a bone!) in the immediate wake of Morgan’s death.  Of particularly note is Joseph Ellis’s piece at Newsweek and Claire Potter’s thoughts about Morgan and popular history.

Edmund Morgan, R.I.P.

Edmund Morgan, one of the greatest early American historians to ever practice the craft, passed away last night at the age of 97.

It is hard to summarize Morgan’s prolific career.  Many of his books, including American Slavery, American Freedom (1975) and The Stamp Act Crisis (1953–written with his wife Helen) continue to resonate in the field. Earlier this year I taught it for the fourth time in my career.  Scholars of Puritanism still wrestle with The Puritan Dilemma (1958), Visible Saints (1963), and The Puritan Family (1944). While the argument of these books have been challenged by more recent scholars of Puritanism, they continue to inform some of my lectures on colonial New England. Just a few weeks ago, after a visit to Newport, R.I., I ordered a copy of The Gentle Puritan: A Life of Ezra Stiles (1962).

Perhaps Morgan’s greatest legacy is the impressive group of graduate students that he taught. Off the top of my head, this group included John Murrin, Rosemarie Zagarri, John Mack Faragher, Joseph Ellis, Robert Middlekauf, Christine Heyrman, T.H. Breen, John Blasingame, and Karen Halttunen.  (I am sure I am missing many, many others, please add them to the comments section).

Here is a taste of the New York Times obit:

Edmund Sears Morgan was born on Jan. 17, 1916, in Minneapolis. His father, Edmund Morris Morgan, was an expert on the law of evidence and served as chairman of the committee that drafted the first uniform code of military justice for the armed forces in 1948.
Edmund grew up in Arlington, Mass., where the family moved after his father began teaching at Harvard’s law school. He enrolled in Harvard intending to study English history and literature, but after taking a course in American literature with F. O. Matthiessen, he changed to the newly offered major of American history and literature, with Perry Miller as his tutor. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1937, and, at the urging of the jurist Felix Frankfurter, a family friend, he attended lectures at the London School of Economics.
In 1942, he completed a doctorate in Harvard’s new program on the history of American civilization under Professor Miller’s supervision. His dissertation, on the domestic life of the Puritans, became his first book: “The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic Relations in 17th-Century New England” (1944).
In 1939 he married Helen Theresa Mayer, who died in 1982. He is survived by their two daughters, Penelope Aubin and Pamela Packard; his second wife, the former Marie Caskey, a historian; six grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. 
Although a pacifist, Professor Morgan became convinced, after the fall of France, that only military force could stop Hitler, and he withdrew the application he had submitted for conscientious objector status. During World War II, he trained as a machinist at the M.I.T. radiation laboratory, where he turned out metal parts and instruments for radar installations.  

Cannibalism in Jamestown

This semester in my British Colonial America course we read Edmund Morgan’s classic American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia.  At one point in the book Morgan described cases of cannibalism in the early years of the Jamestown settlement.  Here is the pertinent quote, from page 73:

[In Jamestown we find] the only authentic examples of cannibalism witnessed in Virginia.  One provident man chops up his wife and salts down the pieces.  Others dig up graves to ear corpses.

Indeed, during the so-called “starving time” in colonial Jamestown (winter of 1609-1610) there are at least six accounts of people describing acts of cannibalism.

According to this article in The Washington Post, we now have some skeletal remains that lend support to these accounts of cannibalism.  Here is a taste:

The proof comes in the form of fragments of a skeleton of a girl, about age 14, found in a cellar full of debris in the fort on the James River that sheltered the starving colonists. The skull, lower jaw and leg bone — all that remain — have the telltale marks of an ax or cleaver and a knife.

“Historians have to decide whether this type of thing happened,” said Owsley, who has examined thousands of skeletal remains, both archaeological and forensic. “I think that it did. We didn’t see anybody eat this flesh. But it’s very strong evidence.”

James Horn, head of research at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and a historian on the colony, said the discovery “adds a significant confirmation to what was reported to have occurred at Jamestown.” Further, it’s the only physical evidence of cannibalism of Europeans in any New World colony, although, as with Jamestown, there are written accounts of the practice in others.

“I tend to be sparing in the use of words like ‘unique.’ But I think this is one of those finds that literally is,” Horn said.

About 300 people inhabited the fort in November 1609. By spring, there were only 60. The girl, most likely a maidservant but possibly the daughter of a colonist, was one of the casualties.

Her bones were unearthed last August as part of the Jamestown Rediscovery archaeological project begun in 1994. About 18 inches of fill remain in the cellar, so it’s possible more of her skeleton will be found. Enough of her skull exists, however, to imagine what she might have looked like, using CT scanning, computer graphics, sculpture materials and demographic data.

While I was doing some research for this post I came across Rachel Hermann’s 2011 William and Mary Quarterly essay “The ‘tragiccall historie’: Cannibalism and Abundance in Colonial Jamestown” and her 2011 Chronicle of Higher Education essay “On Becoming a Cannibal Girl.”

"American Slavery, American Freedom" Wins Junto Pool

It’s official.  As expected, Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia is the winner of the The Junto blog’s early American history March Madness tournament.  Morgan handily defeated William Cronon’s Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England by a count of 65% to 35%.

Benjamin Park delivers the news:

Probably expected to most readers given the book’s performance thus far, we at The Junto are pleased to announce Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom to be the winner of the 2013 Early American History Tournament. Cronon put up a fight, but in the end Morgan pulled away with 65% of the vote. You could call this an end-to-end victory, since Morgan’s book received the most nominations, was never really challenged, and always seemed destined for the title. And this may be fitting: the book is magisterial in research, exquisitely written, and still relevant to any project on colonial history. (Not to mention it works great in the classroom!) It is a testament to its power that American Slavery is still en vogue three and a half decades after its release. Sure, there are problems, but the book still challenges and provokes any close reader, and that is one of scholarship’s true purposes.

I am sure the students in my British colonial America course are happy with the results. We read American Slavery, American Freedom earlier in the semester and I know that some of them voted in The Junto tournament.

In Praise of "American Slavery–American Freedom"

Whenever I teach my course in colonial American history (which, if all goes as planned, I will be teaching in Spring 2013), I assign Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom.  I know that scholars have challenged Morgan’s thesis about the origins of race and slavery in colonial Virginia, but the book still works with undergraduates as an entry point into this discussion. When my students read American Slavery-American Freedom they see the way an author builds toward proving a thesis about the past.  It is also incredibly well-written and accessible.

Some students complain that American Slavery-American Freedom is too long, but by the end of the semester most of them come to the realization that digesting the book in all its fullness and complexity reaps intellectual rewards.

At the heart of Morgan’s book is the notion that white “freedom” in colonial Virginia, and in America as a whole, would not have been possible without the Old Dominion becoming a slave society in the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion (1676). 

Over at The Atlantic”, Ta-Nehisi Coates reflects on how Morgan’s book has influenced his own thinking about race and freedom in America.  Here is a taste:

Morgan’s basic contention, one which I increasingly find convincing, is that American slavery made American freedom possible. Thus, it is an understatement–and perhaps even a falsehood–to cast slavery, as Condoleeza Rice has, as the “birth defect” of American freedom. The term “birth defect” conveys the notion of other possibilities and unfortunate accidents. But Morgan would argue slavery didn’t just happen as a byproduct, it was the steward. Put differently, slavery is America’s midwife, not it’s birth defect.

My own formulation for my text aims to push this notion further: America was not only made possible by slavery, it was made possible by prosecuting a perpetual war against its slaves, without which there may never have been an “America.”