In the mid-1940s, Edmund S. Morgan, a mild-mannered young
historian, was teaching at Brown and making a name in the quiet field of early
American studies. Having published a slim, well-received collection of essays
on the New England Puritans, he might have seemed the very model of the
unassuming scholar at the outset of a modest career, satisfied to refine the
work of great forebears in a narrow field. That wasn’t Edmund Morgan. The
Second World War was over. The United States was developing an energetic
vision, which would come to fruition in 1960 with the election of John F.
Kennedy, of its new global leadership role. In keeping with that vision, Morgan
launched a bold new interpretation of the nation’s founding.

Throwing out elder historians’ prevailing focus on the
founding generation’s self-interest (Clarence Alvord had said that George
Washington became a patriot to defend speculations in Indian land) and on its
class conflicts (Carl Becker had said that the Revolution was not only over British
rule but also over the rule of elite Americans), Morgan sought to identify the grand
principles that the revolutionary generation agreed on. “What the colonists had
to say about Parliamentary power and about their own rights deserved to be
taken seriously,” he explained later.

As the U.S. began to exercise new power around the
world, Morgan set out to show that the protests in the 1760s and ’70s against the
Stamp Act and other British policies offered slam-dunk evidence of a founding
American consensus on principles of rights. Inherent to the American character,
that consensus unified the colonists, he said, inspired the Revolution, and
brought about the United States. In the larger context of his work, and the
work of similarly minded colleagues, the lesson was that the founding American
commitment to rights persisted in postwar U.S. commitments to modern liberal

The impact of this interpretation was by no means limited to
the late 1940s and the 1950s. Historians who built out what Morgan largely began—what
became known as the consensus approach—turned early American history into a
booming field and made big names for themselves. Born about a century ago, in
Morgan’s generation, were Douglass Adair, Daniel Boorstin, Richard Hofstadter,
Forrest McDonald, and Bernard Bailyn. Born in succeeding decades were Pauline
Maier, Gordon Wood, Carol Berkin, Sean Wilentz, and Akhil Reed Amar, among
others. As dissertation advisers for scores of scholars, many of them have held
great sway in their profession.

Even more striking is their success in shaping conceptions
of the American founding widely held among the American public. That power and
some of its complications were seen in recent controversies involving two of
the younger members of the group (though not young anymore), Wood and Wilentz.
In late 2019, Wilentz organized a letter, also signed by Wood and three other
historians, criticizing The New York Times Magazine’s
much-discussed 1619 Project, which frames slavery, racism, and Black Americans’
struggles for equality as the key drivers of American history. The signers said
the 1619 Project ignored objective historical fact and was steeped in
politically influenced bias. In early 2020, Wilentz followed up with an essay
in The Atlantic whose title put the issue bluntly: “A Matter
of Facts.” Because these objections to the 1619 Project were made not on the
basis of a competing framework but on the basis of plain fact revealed by deep
expertise, they struck many readers as insurmountable on their face.

That’s how consensus history works. Anyone hoping to explore
the depths of America’s not-so-consensus-filled past will run into this
presumption, on the part of widely respected scholars, of their superior
objectivity as a basis for higher authority. The roots of that presumption can
be found in the approach launched by Edmund Morgan about 70 years ago.

It’s true that in scholarly circles, the consensus approach
has been subjected to intermittent criticism for years. But it’s been reflected
so thoroughly and for so long in museum exhibits, trade publishing,
broadcasting, op-eds, and political speeches that its credibility remains
unassailable with big segments of the interested public. I think that’s because
even those scholars who are critical of the Morgan framing of the nation’s
founding haven’t told the public the strange story of its dramatic and at times
even unsettling origins.

I first confronted the work of Morgan and his intellectual
allies and progeny in 2003. In response to the terrorist attacks of September
2001, I had begun trying to understand something of our nation’s founding
history, and amid what was turning out to be the run-up to the Iraq War, I
bumped into a half-submerged obstacle, another kind of war, an old one, among
historians, with big winners and losers and a lot of dirty fighting. How that
war was fought, how it tracked with the rise of U.S. power after World War II,
and how its victors came to define acceptable styles for discussing the
country‘s founding and meaning: That’s the story I have to tell you now. For it’s
the consensus framing that still stands, for so many of us, as the essential
truth about America.

In 1948, Edmund Morgan laid the first brick of what would
become the dominant postwar narrative of the American founding in a scholarly
essay in The William and Mary Quarterly that had the unassuming,
even downright boring, title: “Colonial Ideas of Parliamentary Power
1764–1766.” He followed it up with further essays, on the Sugar and Stamp
Acts and the colonial protests in response to those acts, which served as
intellectual background to a highly influential book, The Stamp Act
Crisis: Prologue to Revolution,
written in collaboration with Helen Morgan,
his wife. Published in 1953, the Morgans’ book would be assigned to generations
of undergraduate and graduate students and widely read by a lay audience.

The book’s success can be attributed in part to a
character-driven approach, feeling almost like reporting from the scene. That
feeling is deceptive. By declining to present an argument, and relying instead
on factual-sounding statements, the Morgans concealed a tendentious purpose. That
purpose is found only in Morgan’s related scholarly essays, where the book’s argumentation
can be seen in burgeoning force.

He was out to prove a peculiarly urgent claim. There was
universal intellectual consistency among the American colonists, he said,
regarding the moral basis of their objections to the British trade and
navigation acts that led to the American Revolution. This broad claim of
hyperconsistency may seem a bit strange now. Why would it matter so much to a
young history professor of the late 1940s to show such an unusual degree of
intellectual consistency, on one issue, among American colonials of the 1760s?

The answer lies in the nature of the hidden war that Morgan
was fighting. He had two big targets to take down. One target was progressive
history, as it was then known. The historian Charles Beard, born in 1874, had
developed a critique of the elite economic interests that, he said, were the
true engines behind the creation of the United States Constitution. To a degree
possibly surprising to modern schoolchildren taught about the Founders’ fealty
to high-minded principles inspired by the Enlightenment, Beard’s and other
progressive historians’ focus on the Founders’ economic elitism and the lower
classes’ struggle for equality was widely accepted, not only in the academy
but also by the public, when Morgan was coming up.

His other target was, in the context of the day,
conservative. The first half of the twentieth century had seen a lot of
British-friendly scholarship of the founding crisis. That work presented
Parliament’s changing policies of the 1760s and ’70s as more or less
reasonable. In this reading, the protesting Americans can come off as
inveterate smugglers, histrionically overreacting to tiny increments in
taxation, their appeals to the great principles of liberty masking—just as in
Beard’s take—self-interest.

In going up against those two elder schools of history,
Morgan represented a young, questing, postwar American liberalism. He and John
F. Kennedy were born less than 18 months apart. The 1961 inauguration speech,
with its famous line, “[T]he torch has been passed to a new generation of
Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and
bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage,” brought to its head an eagerness to
present the country as moderate, fair, and broadly middle class and to cast
assertive foreign policies as the beneficent spread around the world of
especially American talents for freedom and equality.

A lot of official energy, including public funding, overt and
covert, went into developing that viewpoint. The Central Intelligence Agency,
successor to the wartime Office of Strategic Services, didn’t just carry
out a wide range of intelligence and military operations but also encouraged
cultural expressions of American greatness through the University of Iowa
Writers’ Workshop, The Paris Review, abstract expressionism in painting,
and performances by Louis Armstrong. In the years before the failed U.S.
invasion of Cuba in 1961, many romantically inclined, highly educated liberals
found much mystique in the agency’s blend of scholastic thought and derring-do
in defense of American civilization.

The Ivy League history departments got in early. After the
U.S. entered the war, William Langer, a history professor at Harvard (Edmund Morgan
completed his doctorate there that year), became chief of the Research and
Analysis branch of OSS and brought in students and former students. Perry
Miller, the great Harvard historian of early New England and academic mentor
of Morgan, served in OSS’s Psychological Warfare Department. Yale became
supremely OSS- and CIA-connected, fostering such important spies as James Jesus
Angleton, who studied modernist poetry before becoming an early chief of CIA
counterintelligence, as well as such famous statesmen as McGeorge Bundy, national
security adviser to JFK and a promoter of American involvement in Vietnam. The
postwar academic programs known as area studies, including American studies,
“were manned, directed, or stimulated by graduates of the OSS,’’ Bundy himself
once noted. By the time Morgan started teaching at Yale, in 1955, and took part
in the rapid growth of its American studies program, the program described
itself as “designed as a positive and affirmative method of meeting the
threat of Communism.”

The opening of Edmund and Helen Morgan’s The Stamp
Act Crisis
 plays up the ancient-heritage mood. It tells of “a prophecy
delivered in the wilderness,” in a place “out of a fairy tale”: an “enchanted
castle” deep in the wild Virginia “paradise.” This turns out to be the home of
the colony’s former governor, Alexander Spotswood, who predicted as early as
1732 that Americans would always stand on their rights and never be taxed
without representation. Such mixtures of Arthurian national romantic spirit and
pragmatic colonial politics reflect the view that Morgan had been working up in
his essays in the late 1940s and early 1950s on the colonists’ responses to
British taxation. By clarifying a deep, even innate commitment to the
principles expressed in those protests, Morgan would show postwar Americans,
especially the college graduates who went on to staff the leadership class for
the next 50 years or so, who Americans essentially are and what their hopes for
the world essentially involve.

The young Morgan got his new interpretation rolling by
taking on an aging lion of the imperial school. Not a big name today, Lawrence
Gipson was a full generation older than Morgan and immensely important at the
time. His 15-volume The British Empire Before the American Revolution,
published from 1936 to 1970, is a work so dry and analytical, so empty of
storytelling, that it’s almost unreadable. He took a forgiving view of British
colonial policies and expressed skepticism about the colonists’ sincerity when
invoking the principle of rights. Morgan saw a soft spot in Gipson’s portrayals
of both British government and American colonials and focused his attack
relentlessly on it.

Gipson was alleging a contradiction between what the
colonists said they objected to when responding to the Sugar Act of 1764 and
the Stamp Act of 1765 and what they said they objected to only shortly later.
According to him, the colonists announced that they objected on constitutional
principle only to what were called internal taxes—taxes collected from citizens
within the colonies. The stamp tax, collected within the colonies, was
internal. It therefore violated the colonists’ constitutional rights, they
said, because such taxes could be imposed only with the consent of the taxed,
given through representation, and the colonists weren’t represented in
Parliament; only their representative legislatures could levy internal taxes.
But the colonists did not object on constitutional grounds to taxes collected
at ports, called external, levied to regulate the larger processes of the
empire. Parliament did have a right to tax colonial trade externally; it had no
right to tax colonists internally. That, according to the eminent Lawrence
Gipson, was the colonists’ position—at first.

And yet, according to Gipson, when the British repealed
internal taxes and instead placed duties on imports like tea, the colonists
turned on a dime, switched to a different principle, and continued to protest
anyway. Now they complained that these new external taxes, too, violated the
constitutional right of representation: These taxes were levied not to regulate
imperial trade but, like internal taxes, to raise revenue. The real principle,
it now emerged, wasn’t internal versus external, but regulation versus revenue.
Because the colonists got just as worked up over this new distinction as they’d
been over the old one, Gipson suggested that colonial outrage, for all of its
high-flown oratory of rights, originated more from a desire to continue in tax
avoidance than from a truly principled opposition to some supposedly awful

Morgan set out to disprove the inconsistency that Gipson was
pointing to. If Gipson claimed the colonists switched their principles, Morgan
would show that the colonists never switched, because they never objected, he
said, to internal taxes exclusively, and they never acquiesced in external
taxes. What they consistently objected to, early and late, was any tax,
internal or external, intended to raise revenue and therefore constitutionally
requiring representation. That was the constitutional principle. That was the
right. According to Morgan, Americans ruggedly clung to the principle and the
right. Claiming that they began by objecting exclusively to internal taxes was
only to parrot a British invention, indeed a Tory libel.

Crucial to Morgan’s new approach—and for the long
ramifications of his framing, as it came to dominate public discourse on the
American founding—he said he was basing this contention of colonial consistency
on a more fair and objective reading of the colonists’ petitions than earlier
readings. Thus the fight between the older and younger historian came down to
what those petitions literally, factually, said.

But it also came down to how the British literally,
factually, responded to those petitions. Gipson, in depicting the colonists as
overreactive, portrayed Parliament as relatively considerate of colonial
petitions, in some ways even sympathetic. Morgan, like the colonists
themselves, portrayed Parliament as aggravating its own tyranny by refusing
even to consider any American grievances. This possibly secondary question—how
did the British government respond to the petitions?—became one of the
hardest-fought issues between Morgan and Gipson. Yet in the Morgans’ book,
where so many students and other readers first encountered these issues, the
fight remains so obscured you wouldn’t know it’s there.

I sure didn’t. I was in the New York Public
Library’s research branch when I bumped into these diametrically opposed views,
by two major historians, of the colonists’ petitions and their reception by the
House of Commons. I was reading the Morgans’ book, and I came upon the section
covering the Stamp Act debates, held in the Commons in February 1765. The book
contends that the Commons was univocal in shutting down any consideration of the
petitions. It goes on to say that the few members who did object to the stamp
tax did so only on grounds of expediency and fairness and never on the
constitutional right of representation, a principle invoked only by the
colonists, and not by anybody in the House of Commons.

But this seemed strange, because I’d just read Gipson. He’d
been telling the opposite story. He said some members of Parliament did
speak on the question of right and even supported the colonists in invoking

Could two eminent scholars really be disagreeing on
something as elementary as what was and wasn’t said—literally, factually—during
the Stamp Act debates? Yes. It seemed they really could be. And yet both
historians cite the eyewitness record of those debates, so it seemed to me a
fairly straightforward job to determine which of the two I could better rely
on. Nobody would have recruited me for OSS Research and Analysis, but I can get
around a library if I have to, and I gave myself a simple task.

Compare the two historians’ accounts of parliamentary
debates on the act. Note where and on what grounds they differ. Note the
citations given for the differences, look up the primary sources, and see what
they really—literally , factually, objectively—say.

According to the Morgans, the House of Commons allowed no American
petition to be read into the record and debated, on the grounds of a univocal
recoil, by the Commons, from the Americans’ assertion of the right of
representation. The Morgans note that the Commons also had a procedural reason
for not hearing the petitions—protests against money bills of any kind were
routinely not heard—but they say that the important reason was the Americans’ asserting the right. That seemed like a pretty easy claim to verify in the
primary record. In the Morgans’ notes, I saw that their main source on the
issue was one Charles Garth. I easily found the source in The English
Historical Review.
A member of Parliament and participant in the debates,
Garth was reporting to South Carolina’s Committee of Correspondence, and just
as the Morgans say, he reported the House of Commons’ decision not to hear the American

But here’s where the trouble started. Garth provides a
mass of detail on why the Commons refused to hear those petitions, and the main
reason, he says, was the technical and procedural one disallowing the reading of
any petitions opposing a bill regarding money, on any grounds, sent by anybody.
Garth does note briefly that Virginia’s petition had been said to question the
authority of Parliament to tax Virginians. That must have struck the M.P.s because it’s no technicality; it’s the great constitutional principle. Still, in
Garth’s report, the procedural money-bill issue played a far more important
role in the M.P.s’ decision not to hear the petitions.

In their book, the Morgans have reversed their source’s
priorities. They make the money-bill issue less important to the M.P.s. They
cast the rights issue as the key reason the Commons refused to hear the
petitions. Their account so masterfully blends what their primary source
reported with what it didn’t report that if you don’t look up the source, and
don’t read it all, you have no reason to doubt that it says what the Morgans
say it does.

What about the other big stand the Morgans take, in
opposition to Gipson, regarding the Stamp Act debates? Their book asserts
without qualification that those few M.P.s who did speak against
the act objected only on grounds of inexpediency and unfairness, and never on
the principle of the right. Gipson, by contrast, portrays the Commons as by no
means entirely unsympathetic to the principle, and in support of his portrayal,
he cites a letter from Jared Ingersoll, Connecticut’s colonial agent in London,
reporting on the debates to that colony’s governor, Thomas Fitch. When I found
the Ingersoll letter, I was startled to see that Gipson was dead right, the
Morgans dead wrong. According to Ingersoll, William Beckford, alderman of
London, spoke in the House of Commons on the right. Even more notably, Beckford denied the
right of Parliament to tax the colonists.

How could the Morgans handle this glaring discrepancy
between their contention that nobody spoke on the rights issue and the
assertion, by an eyewitness, that Beckford did? I flipped quickly back through
the Morgans’ account and saw that they handle the discrepancy with consummate
ease. They erase it. They mention Beckford exactly once, not speaking on the
colonists’ rights but bringing a motion to adjourn the session; then they never
mention him again. In the Morgans’ book, Beckford’s speech in the debate
doesn’t exist, so he can’t speak in favor of the colonists on the right, and
Parliament remains univocal in ignoring a principle defended only by Americans.

 This is why the text of The Stamp Act Crisis reads
so smoothly and seems so calmly factual. A major impression has been created,
not by marshaling an argument, with all the muss and fuss that that entails,
but by misrepresenting the evidence most relevant to the thesis. And the
Morgans were unlikely to be caught making this move. What general reader could
be expected to hit the bump and start wondering about it?

Let’s face it: In the end, of course, the American petitions
weren’t heard by the House of Commons. The Stamp Act passed handily. So forget those
debates. Even more germane to the Morgans’ undercover assault on Gipson were
their sharply differing views of what the protesting Americans said they were
protesting. Do the petitions really show the colonists consistently rejecting
the internal/external tax issue, as Morgan insists a fair and objective reading
shows? Did the colonists really hold firm, from as early as 1764, as he says,
to a fundamental American principle, the right of representation in all taxes,
internal or external, imposed not for regulating trade but for raising revenue?

No. They didn’t. Not even close. To find that out, though,
you have to put the Morgans’ book down and read Morgan’s scholarly essays,
which led to the book. The book engages in flat-out erasure, but the essays do
have to go into detail, and reading them makes clear that, contrary to Morgan’s
assertions, the primary record offers a multitude of examples of well-informed
colonists taking contradictory, confused, ad hoc positions on
the great principle of taxation and right. So many examples of inconsistency
pop up, in fact, that every time Morgan stomps one down, he has to wheel around
and stomp down another. You can see him learning, when working on the essays,
what the book will have to steer so majestically around.

For one thing, Morgan has to rule out what Benjamin Franklin
said in the 1760s about parliamentary taxation in the colonies. “I am not much
alarmed about your schemes of trying to raise money on us,” Franklin
assured Richard Jackson, an M.P. and agent in London for some of
the colonies—contradicting Morgan’s assertion that all American patriots always
objected to any tax intended to raise revenue. When living in London, Franklin
testified in the House of Commons to the supposed all-importance to Americans of a bright
constitutional line between internal and external taxes. There’s no denying
that Franklin relayed to the British government an American position opposite
to the position that Morgan says Americans consistently took.

There’s no denying it, so Morgan doesn’t deny it. He suggests
instead that Franklin’s view can’t be counted against the claim of a
characteristic American consistency on principle, because Franklin was
inconsistent with the principle, so not characteristically American. Franklin could
be a wily situational advocate, and he took other positions on the issue as
well. Where he said things in keeping with Morgan’s vision of the American position
on taxation,  Morgan notes them; where he
contradicts Morgan, he gets pushed to the margins.

Another thing Morgan can’t deny is that in many pamphlets
and newspaper pieces, the colonists made constitutional objections exclusively,
at first, to internal taxation. He therefore rules out that whole category of
publishing as unreflective of American views. For him, only the legislatures’
official petitions to Parliament count as evidence. All of those petitions, he
says, denied Parliament’s right to tax Americans for revenue, on the grounds
that Americans weren’t represented in Parliament, and all of them avoided
making the internal/external distinction.

But by no means did all of the petitions deny Parliament’s
right, or avoid making the internal/external distinction, and you only have to
read the petitions, not just to find that out but also to watch the young
Edmund Morgan building a misleading picture of them. It’s a hard lesson—it was
for me—in the ways of scholarly sleight-of-hand.

Here’s how it works. Morgan begins with solid fact. New
York, he says, was firm in linking the right of representation not to the
internal/external distinction but to the revenue-raising issue. It’s true. The
New York petition explicitly denied, on the basis of the constitutional right
of representation, Parliament’s legal power to tax Americans for the purpose of
raising revenue, and because New York also didn’t expressly limit its
objections to internal taxes, as other petitions did, it also avoided
acquiescing in external taxes’ constitutionality. With New York, Morgan stands
on solid ground.

Right away, he gets shifty. Turning to Virginia’s petition,
he calls it “almost as plain” as New York’s. But Virginia’s petition limits its
objections, expressly, to internal taxes. It doesn’t do so by implication but
by explicitly demanding that the colony be governed by its own laws “respecting
their internal Polity and Taxation.”

The limitation imposed on “taxation” by the adjective
“internal” will seem clear to many readers, but Morgan says it’s not. In that
phrase, he says, Virginia intended “internal” to modify only “polity” and not
“taxation.” That’s because the phrase appears in other petitions too, and some
of them underwent changes that really do make “internal” not modify “taxation.”
Such variation might seem to many readers to indicate a certain inconsistency
in the American position. For Morgan, the versions where “internal” doesn’t
modify “taxation” become the standard, and he can thus inform us that we err in
thinking that, in the Virginia petition, an adjective modifies a noun it
clearly modifies.

Given the acrobatic extreme that “internal polity and
taxation” drives him to in the essay, it’s no surprise that in their book, the
Morgans characterize the Virginia petition in only one misleading
sentence, quoting a different section of the text and never even alluding to
the pesky phrase on internal taxation. You’d never know about the acrobatics—or
about the phrase “internal polity and taxation”—unless you read the essay.

New England’s petitions make Morgan’s essays strain even
harder. He acknowledges that Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut took
what he calls a “less precise” approach than other colonies. Calling
Rhode Island imprecise may be fair enough. Roping in the Massachusetts and
Connecticut petitions is fantastically unfair, both to the petitions and to the
unsuspecting reader. Because the Massachusetts petition, revised with input
from the governor, backed off an earlier draft’s categorical denial of
Parliament’s right to tax for revenue in any way, internal or external, the
officially submitted draft did end up making the constitutional distinction
between internal and external taxes that Morgan says Americans never made in
official petitions. Now Morgan has to contradict his own classification of
legislatures’ petitions as the sole useful barometer of American opinion. He
plays down the petition. He plays up a related letter that Massachusetts sent
to London, as well as a pamphlet by the lawyer James Otis, which do refer to
the revenue issue and deny the internal/external distinction. In this exceptional
case, a letter and a pamphlet are deemed more official than the petition,
because they express the view Morgan calls official, and the official documents

But it’s the Connecticut petition that finally drove Edmund
Morgan off the deep end—and drove me around the bend. 

Morgan tells his readers that Connecticut was guilty of the
same ambiguity as Rhode Island, whereas in fact, the Connecticut petition was the
loudest and clearest of all in making the distinction that Morgan says
Americans never officially made. Just reading the Connecticut petition
demolishes Morgan’s case, already tottering, for consistency of principle in
the early American protests. For one thing, Connecticut explicitly objected
only to internal taxes. But it also went all the way and explicitly endorsed
the right of Parliament to tax externally. Having demonstrated at great length
the unconstitutionality of internal taxation, the petition ends by actively
proposing a constitutional means of raising revenue in the colonies “by a
duty … on the importation of Negroes, and on the fur trade &c.”—i.e., external

So Morgan does his damnedest to make what the Connecticut
petition says disappear. In one place, he admits that it “came as
close” as any petition ever did to asserting a parliamentary right to tax
externally. In another, he acknowledges Connecticut’s external tax proposal for
revenue, while resorting to the classification scheme, labeling the petition
not a petition but a pamphlet. Once he compromises with it, calling it a “pamphlet
approved by the Assembly.” And once he admits that the document was written by
a committee, “deputed,” as he puts it, by the assembly. Still, he says, it
wasn’t addressed to King, Commons, and Lords, as petitions normally were, and was
circulated in published form within the colony, making it just a pamphlet.

But that’s not what the Public Records of the Colony of
Connecticut say about it. Those records are cited by Morgan, but so selectively
that I had to read the relevant section closely. The record says that in order
to prepare an address to Parliament, the committee was charged by the
Connecticut legislature with presenting reasons why internal taxes,
specifically and exclusively, are unconstitutional. It’s true that, as Morgan
says, those reasons were then circulated in pamphlet form within the colony;
the document is readily available in that form today, with Governor Fitch given
as its author. Yet the legislature approved the contents in full, and it
ordered copies sent to Richard Jackson, who normally presented petitions to
Parliament. With the Connecticut petition, as with Benjamin Franklin, Morgan spends
enormous intellectual energy trying to make American ideas seem less thorny and
complicated—simply less interesting—than they really are.

What emerges from reading all of the 1764 petitions is that
only New York’s took the line that Morgan says they all took. To call him less
objective and factual than he claims to be would be putting it far too mildly.
His whole story of an early American consistency on principle is made up. And
he misrepresents objective fact to support it.

Morgan might easily have mounted an argument to refute
Gipson’s reading of American inconsistencies as hypocritical: Gipson, too, cuts corners.
Morgan might have shown that the colonists gained a more consistent official
position over time. Connecticut did come to a better understanding of the
taxation issues. Franklin may always have had a more consistent private position
than he was willing to express in 1766; in 2002, Morgan published a biography of
Franklin for general readers that, though skeletal and breezy, briefly traced Franklin’s
developing thought on the Stamp Act matter. In the late 1940s and the 1950s, though,
in keeping with cultural and political imperatives of the day, Morgan’s whole effort
was to delegitimize any idea that was out of keeping with the notion of American
principles of right as innate, and therefore fixed. The colonists’ ideas, not
their interests, were paramount, but any evolution in their ideas was anathema.
He was out to define something essential in the American character and thereby
create a new master narrative, and to achieve that end, he concocted a false
portrayal of the colonists’ petitions.

And he supported that narrative by claiming a firmer grasp
on fact and a clearer window on truth than his competitors. To this day,
concoctions of the American past invoke fact and truth in just the same way.
One more problem with the 1764 Connecticut petition exposes the lengths to
which such concoctions have often been driven. When reading that petition,
something kept bugging me about its title, a long one, typical of the period: “Reasons
why the British Colonies, in America, should not be charged with
internal taxes, by Authority of Parliament; humbly offered, for consideration, in
behalf of the colony of Connecticut.” The title alone—“in behalf of the
colony of Connecticut”—shows that the document is an official petition, not a
pamphlet. Morgan’s calling it a pamphlet would have to be flatly contradicted
simply by his reference to the document in his text, and how on earth could he
have dealt with that?

Back I go to look at Morgan’s first important reference to
the Connecticut petition. It’s in the essay that I’ve called the opening lob in
his decisive postwar reframing, “Colonial Ideas of Parliamentary Power
1764–1766.” That’s where he began the process of redefining the American
founding in terms of grand principles publicly associated with the
postwar emergence of U.S. power around the world. More than 50 years after the
essay was published, the U.S. was taking up a global war on terror and
I was at a table in the New York Public Library wondering
how Morgan’s reference to the Connecticut petition’s title wouldn’t, just in
itself, wreck the thesis underlying a framing of the national founding that had
prevailed, all my life, in elite policy circles, and with the American public.

The title didn’t wreck the thesis because, in his reference
to the petition, Morgan changed the title. Here’s what he calls the document:
“Reasons why the British Colonies in America should not be charged with
Internal Taxes, by Authority of Parliament.”

Absent is “humbly offered, for consideration, in behalf of
the colony of Connecticut.” Without the legislature’s imprimatur, the document
might easily pass for a pamphlet.

This was peer-reviewed scholarship. Now you know something
about how the Morgan framing works.

 Nobody with a sincere interest in finding out what happened
in the past is supposed to have to do what I did. We want to believe that
arguments mounted by eminent historians will be at least somewhat transparent; that we may have some basis for evaluating the evidence they rely on; that we
won’t have to rebuild the case, on our own, from scratch.

But it must have seemed to the young Edmund Morgan that all
faith in U.S. commitments to rights and liberty would crumble to dust in the
face of the slightest acknowledgment of any mixed motives in the nation’s founding.
In 1956, in a very brief and enduringly popular book, The Birth of the
Republic 1763–1789,
he took on American self-interest directly and placed
it in a providential context. Yes, he admits there, self-interest existed at
the founding. It’s one of the more thrilling features of the founding, he says,
that every time self-interest raised its head, it combined with principle and
flowed toward higher aims. That’s the magical American thing, to him. And thanks
largely to Morgan, it became the magical American thing to many Americans.

I can assure you that consensus historians by no means
imitate Morgan’s postwar work on the founding or move in anything like
lockstep. They’ve produced major scholarly works of great nuance and sway, with
major differences. Famous examples include Maier’s Ratification,
Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Wilentz’s The
Rise of American Democracy,
 Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the
American Revolution,
 Berkin’s A Sovereign People, Amar’s America’s
 and Jill Lepore’s These Truths. Thanks to these
and other works, consensus ideas have formed the preconceptions of at least two
generations of educated Americans, including the leadership class, and the
overall effect has been just what Morgan wanted: sharply diminished attention
to economic interests and class struggles among founding-era Americans. Ideas,
not interests, dominate the narrative. The ideas point the way—with a multitude
of qualifications, disclaimers, and criticisms—to an ongoing settlement of
conflict in the flowering of the American achievement: liberal democracy.

That’s the legacy of Edmund Morgan’s success. Much of it can
be attributed to a way of writing. Consensus historians speak with Olympian
certainty. They’re not trying to create a framing—they’re stating the facts.
There’s no political agenda—they’re telling us how things were. We should
listen—because they know. In the face of a challenge, unflappability can
collapse quickly into testiness. In 1994, Gordon Wood, reacting to a revival of
class-oriented critiques of the founding, made a run for the high ground even
while sulking over being left behind. “I know it is naive and old-fashioned to
believe,” he wrote, “that our responsibility as historians is merely to
describe the past as it was and not to manipulate it in order to advance some
present political agenda.”

That’s what consensus history tells us to believe: It holds
a position so far above present influence that it can maintain the one true
angle on the past “as it was.” We can easily see, if we take our own look,
that the consensus past isn’t the past as it was. In Morgan’s work on the colonists’
petitions, it’s the past as it manifestly wasn’t. The consensus mode has
produced a vast and important body of history, based on a claim to superior
objectivity that was never anything but attitude.

For a notable recent exercise of attitude, and an example of
the persistent public success of the early Morgan style, I’ll end my long
journey with Sean Wilentz’s 2020 Atlantic essay criticizing
the 1619 Project. The essay’s assertions and ways of arguing for them make it a
classic of the early-Morgan genre: Wilentz places his criticism in the loftiest
possible context. Fending off recent assaults on objective fact by President
Trump and others, he takes up a mission to wield expertise and objectivity in
defense of truth, liberalism, and democracy.

His essay responds in part to one of the 1619 Project’s most
controversial claims: that preserving racial slavery was a prime motivation for
declaring American independence. In the British Somerset decision
of 1772, a judge ruled that an enslaved man couldn’t be held in bondage, and
the man was freed. The 1619 Project claims that Somerset planted
a fear in American slaveholders that the British government would abolish the
institution in the colonies. Hence the American countermove toward
independence. To shoot down the Somerset argument, and thus
shoot down preservation of slavery as a motivation for declaring independence,
Wilentz unrolls an impressive list of statistics to prove that there was no
significant American reaction to Somerset at all.

Just six newspapers in the South, he says, published only 15
reports about the case. Virtually all of those few reports were brief. There
was more coverage in American papers of the intrigues of the Queen of Denmark,
and most of the Somerset coverage ran in a tiny font on the second or
third page of four-to-six-page papers.

Done and done. Well-informed people commenting online on
Wilentz’s essay considered the case closed, and why wouldn’t they? When a
renowned Princeton professor makes such a masterful display of archival and
statistical research, coupled with such evident erudition in eighteenth-century
publishing, expertise and facts must win the day.

But the expertise on display is in the art of the bluff. The
facts lack the context that gives them meaning, which turns out to be pretty
much the opposite of what Wilentz says it is. He seems to have gotten all of
it—even the mention of the Queen of Denmark—from a single scholarly paper,
“Colonial Newspaper Reaction to the Somerset  Decision,” by
Patricia Bradley, presented in 1984 at the annual meeting of the Association
for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. He doesn’t cite it. That
paper didn’t include the three newspapers that were published that year in
North Carolina and Georgia, skewing Wilentz’s stats misleadingly downward, but
more important, the six newspapers that, as Wilentz says, did report on the
case were all of the papers published in those colonies that year. So it would
be a lot more objective to say that Somerset was covered by every
paper in all of those colonies than to say that only six covered it. The
coverage appeared not on front pages but on pages two and three, and in smaller
fonts, because Somerset was foreign news: In the eighteenth
century, the importance of news items wasn’t signaled by font size and page placement.
Anyway, Southern colonists didn’t get much news from local papers. They relied
on London publications, which reported heavily on Somerset. Nothing
that Wilentz has rolled out in tones of such grave authority and such
impressive performance of high expertise supports his claims.

But how would I know all that about eighteenth-century news,
and the scholarly paper that Wilentz relied on? Did I go back to the library and learn, on my own, everything one would have to know?

I couldn’t have learned that on my own. The facts I’ve
paraphrased come from a deeper layer of scholarship than any nonspecialist can
achieve: that of Joseph M. Adelman, associate professor of history at
Framingham State University and author of Revolutionary Networks: The
Business and Politics of Printing the News, 1763–1789
. At “The Junto,” a
lively group blog by junior scholars of early American history, Adelman
published a brief and thorough clarification of the issues that Wilentz’s essay
muddies so badly, based on his work with the relevant primary record. The post
is fun to read because a scholar is showing us one of the things that
historians can do and that we can’t. It has a kind of forensic playfulness.

Adelman can be so confident because he’s frank about what he
does and doesn’t know and can and can’t prove. That approach is a marked
departure from the one Wilentz and others inherited from the Morgan framing. It
means that I have to admit the possibility, of course, that Adelman is mistaken
as to where Wilentz got his information—and that I’m therefore wrong about some
of what I’ve said about Wilentz—and even admit that some of Adelman’s claims
about eighteenth-century printing might be subject to dispute. But what I think
is that in a blog post based on deep research, Adelman has demolished not only
Wilentz on Somerset but also, more importantly, an entire
approach to so-called fact. That’s one kind of scholarship. The other kind,
mighty and eminent, has all too often depended on bravura degrees of
distortion. When the past is invoked to stiffen the sinews of an epoch’s moods,
bear out political imperatives, dominate the narratives of national heritage,
and hold the center of middlebrow culture against all comers, mightiness and
eminence become both end and means. Edmund Morgan always took an unassuming
tone, but mightiness and eminence are what he achieved.

That’s what the 1619 Project wants, too: to own American
exceptionalism, define a foundational national character, build a platform for
determining public understanding of our history for generations to come—to
develop, ultimately, a new consensus regarding what the project sees as the
highest imperatives of learning history. Times have changed. The Morgan framing
was launched at universities. The 1619 Project was launched at a legacy media
brand, abruptly connecting itself, for reasons of its own, to a particular
reading of the nation’s past. While some might presume that a framing launched
at the Ivy League in the 1940s would have the edge on objectivity, I think my
experience shows otherwise. Another difference between the Morgan framing and
the 1619 Project: The project admits to being a framing, and to having

But the new young Morgan shouldn’t be expected to look like
the old young Morgan. What firmly links the 1619 Project to the Morgan framing
is a vaulting cultural ambition. In the grip of such ambition, the overriding
need is to win, and that can’t be done, I once was forced to learn, without
erasure, distortion, and dissociation from the messy realities of the past. At
thirtysomething, Edmund Morgan began to have a major influence on his time.
Long before he died, in 2013, at 97, he’d become the revered granddaddy of
founding history. There was a high cost to that influence. In the history
profession and other powerful institutions, dissociating from messy realities
is one of the ways the U.S. advanced its cause at home and abroad. Now
we may be seeing liberal democracy in crisis, at home and abroad, and if
American cultural endeavor is to have some part in a renewal, and even an
improvement, it can’t rely on the tactics of what I’ve called the Morgan
framing. Insupportable assertions, argumentative slipperiness, slapping away criticism, acrobatic bedazzlement,
presumption of authority, displays of testiness: Any genuinely fresh
confrontation with the past would have to scrap those tricks.  

It’s not fair. The tricks endowed at least two generations
of thinkers, overwhelmingly white and male, with unearned authority and
influence. Fairness would dictate that members of groups not overwhelmingly
white and male get a turn at practicing the same tricks, for the same rewards.

But we’re members of the public, you and I. Getting in our
heads is how the great victories in America have always been won. To avoid
being forever bluffed, forever tricked—forever Morganed—our descendants will
have to be warier than we were, and maybe more playful, too.

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