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Samuel Eliot Morison
Samuel Eliot Morison in his official U.S. Navy portrait
Born (1887-07-09)July 9, 1887
Died May 15, 1976(1976-05-15) (aged 88)
Place of birth Boston, Massachusetts
Place of death Boston, Massachusetts
Allegiance United States United States of America
Service/branch United States Navy Seal United States Navy
Years of service 1942–1946
Rank US-O8 insignia.svg Rear Admiral (Reserve)
Battles/wars World War II
Awards See article

Samuel Eliot Morison, Rear Admiral, United States Naval Reserve (July 9, 1887 – May 15, 1976) was an American historian noted for his works of maritime history that were both authoritative and highly readable. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1912, and taught history at the university for 40 years. He won Pulitzer Prizes for Admiral of the Ocean Sea (1942), a biography of Christopher Columbus, and John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography (1959). In 1942, he was commissioned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to write a history of United States naval operations in World War II, which was published in 15 volumes between 1947 and 1962. He retired from the navy in 1951 as a rear admiral. Morison wrote the popular Oxford History of the American People (1965), and co-authored the classic textbook The Growth of the American Republic (1930) with Henry Steele Commager. Over the course of his distinguished career, Morison received eleven honorary doctoral degrees, including degrees from Harvard University (1936), Columbia University (1942), Yale University (1949), and the University of Oxford (1951). Morison also garnered numerous literary prizes, military honors, and national awards from both foreign countries and the United States, including two Pulitzer Prizes, two Bancroft Prizes, the Balzan Prize, the Legion of Merit, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.[1]

Early life (1887–1912)

Samuel Eliot Morison was born July 9, 1887 in Boston, Massachusetts to John Holmes Morison (1856–1911) and Emily Marshall (Eliot) Morison (1857–1925). He was named for his maternal grandfather Samuel Eliot—a historian, educator, and public-minded citizen of Boston and Hartford, Connecticut. The Eliot family, which produced generations of prominent American intellectuals, descended from Andrew Eliot, who moved to Boston in the 1660s from the English village of East Coker. The most famous of this Andrew Eliot's direct descendants was poet T.S. Eliot, who titled the second of his Four Quartets "East Coker".[2]

Morison attended Noble and Greenough School (1897–1901) and St. Paul's (1901–1903) prior to entering Harvard University, where he was a member of the Phoenix S K Club. At the age of fourteen, he learned to sail, and soonafter learned horsemanship—both skills would serve him well in his later historical writings.[3] He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1908. After studying at the École Libre des Sciences Politiques (1908–1909), Morison returned to Harvard, earning his Ph.D. in 1912. That year he became an instructor in history at the University of California, Berkeley.

The scholar and historian (1913–1941)

Morison's Harvard dissertation was the basis for his first book, The Life and Letters of Harrison Gray Otis, Federalist, 1765–1848 (1913). In 1915, he returned to Harvard and took a position as an instructor. During World War I, he served as a private in the US Army. He also served as the American Delegate on the Baltic Commission of the Peace Conference until June 17, 1919.[1]

From 1922–1925, Morison taught at Oxford University as Harmsworth Professor of American History—the first American to hold that position.[4] In 1925, he returned to Harvard, where he was appointed a full professor. One of several subjects that fascinated Morison was the history of New England. As early as 1921, he wrote The Maritime History of Massachusetts, 1783-1860. In the 1930s, Morison wrote a series of books on the history of Harvard University and New England, including Builders of the Bay Colony: A Gallery of Our Intellectual Ancestors (1930), The Founding of Harvard College (1935), Harvard College in the Seventeenth Century (1936), Three Centuries of Harvard: 1636–1936 (1936), and The Puritan Pronaos (1936). In later years, he would return to the subject of New England history, writing The Ropemakers of Plymouth (1950), The Story of the 'Old Colony' of New Plymouth (1956), and editing the definitive work, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–1647 (1952).[1]

Morison was known during his time at Harvard to be the last professor to arrive on campus via horseback.[5] He was chosen to speak at the 300th Anniversary celebration of Harvard in 1936 and a recording of his speech is included as part of the "Harvard Voices" collection.[6]

In 1938 Morison was elected as an honorary member of the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati.

In 1940, Morison published Portuguese Voyages to America in the Fifteenth Century, a book that presaged his succeeding publications on the great explorer, Christopher Columbus. In 1941, Morison was named Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History at Harvard. For Admiral of the Ocean Sea (1942), Morison combined his personal interest in sailing with his scholarship by actually sailing to the various places that Christopher Columbus was then thought to have visited. The book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1943.

The war years and military service (1942–1952)

In 1942, Morison met with his friend President Franklin D. Roosevelt and offered to write a history of United States Navy operations during the war from an insider's perspective by taking part in operations and documenting them. The President and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox agreed to the proposal. On May 5, 1942, Morison was commissioned Lieutenant Commander, US Naval Reserve, and was called at once to active duty.[1] The result of Morison's proposal was the History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, published in 15 volumes between 1947–1962, documenting everything from strategy and tactics to technology and the exploits of individuals—a work which British military historian Sir John Keegan has called the best to come out of that conflict. Issued as The Rising Sun in the Pacific in 1948, Volume 3 won the Bancroft Prize in 1949.[1]

Morison went on to the rank of Captain on December 15, 1945. On August 1, 1951 he was transferred to the Honorary Retired List of the Naval Reserve, promoted to Rear Admiral on the basis of combat awards.[1]

In History as a Literary Art: An Appeal to Young Historians (1946), Morison argued that vivid writing springs from the synergy of experience and research:

American historians, in their eagerness to present facts and their laudable concern to tell the truth, have neglected the literary aspects of their craft. They have forgotten that there is an art of writing history.[7]

Later years (1953–1976)

In 1955, Morison retired from Harvard University.[1] He devoted the rest of his life to writing. In quick succession, Morison wrote Christopher Columbus, Mariner (1955), Freedom in Contemporary Society (1956), The Story of the 'Old Colony' of New Plymouth, 1620–1692 (1956), Nathaniel Homes Morison (1957), William Hickling Prescott (1958), Strategy and Compromise (1958), and John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography (1959), which earned Morison his second Pulitzer Prize.

In the early 1960s, Morison's focus returned to his New England youth, writing The Story of Mount Desert Island, Maine (1960), One Boy's Boston, 1887–1901 (1962), Introduction to Whaler Out of New Bedford (1962), and A History of the Constitution of Massachusetts (1963). In 1963, The Two Ocean War was published, a one-volume abridged history of the United States Navy in World War II.

In 1964, Morison received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon B. Johnson. In presenting the distinguished historian with the highest civilian award in the United States, Johnson noted:

Scholar and sailor, this amphibious historian has combined a life of action and literary craftsmanship to lead two generations of Americans on countless voyages of discovery.[8]

Morison's later years would also be devoted to books on exploration, such as The Two Ocean War (1963), The Caribbean as Columbus Saw It (1964), Spring Tides (1965), The European Discovery of America (1971–1974), and Samuel de Champlain: Father of New France (1972). His research for the latter book included sailing many of the routes taken by Champlain, and tracing others by airplane.

Morison's first marriage to Elizabeth S. Greene produced four children—one of whom, Emily Morison Beck, became editor of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.[9] Elizabeth died in 1945. In 1949, Morison married Baltimore widow Priscilla Barton. Priscilla died in 1973.

Death and legacy

Morison died of a stroke on May 15, 1976. His ashes are buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Northeast Harbor, Maine. He enjoyed considerable recognition during his lifetime, receiving two Pulitzers, two Bancroft Prizes, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences' Emerson-Thoreau Medal (1961), and numerous honorary degrees, military awards, and honors from foreign nations.[10]

On July 19, 1979, the frigate USS Samuel Eliot Morison was launched, honoring Morison and his contributions to the United States Navy. Morison's legacy is also sustained by the United States Naval History and Heritage Command's Samuel Eliot Morison Naval History Scholarship.[11] Boston's Commonwealth Avenue Mall features a bronze statue depicting Morison in sailor's oilskin.

Morison's last known public appearance was on April 8, 1976, when he served as the ribbon cutter to open the USS Constitution Museum. "The Museum’s research library and an annual award given by the Museum for scholarship in history are both named in his honor."[12]

The Naval Order of the United States also awards an honor in Morison's name—the Samuel Eliot Morison Award for Naval Literature.



Morison was criticized by some African-American scholars for his treatment of American slavery in early editions of his book The Growth of the American Republic, which he co-wrote with Henry Steele Commager and William E. Leuchtenburg.[13] First published in 1930, the first two editions of the textbook, according to these critics, echoed the thesis of American Negro Slavery (1918) by Ulrich Bonnell Phillips. This view, sometimes called the Phillips school of slavery historiography, was considered an authoritative source on the history of American slavery during the first half of the twentieth century,[14] despite the intense criticism by some African-American scholars for its alleged racist underpinnings. Phillips' theories were considered by many to be ground-breaking and progressive when first proposed. In 1944, the NAACP began its criticism of The Growth of the American Republic. In 1950, Morison, while denying any racist intent—he noted his daughter's marriage to the son of Joel Elias Spingarn, the former President of the NAACP—reluctantly agreed to most of the demanded changes.[15] Morison refused to eliminate references to slaves who were loyal and devoted to their masters because they were treated well, and to some positive "civilizing" effects of the American system of slavery. Morison also refused to remove references to stereotypes of African Americans that he believed were vital in accurately depicting the racist nature of American culture in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—an era when even the most enlightened progressive thinkers routinely explained many aspects of human behavior as being a result of innate racial or ethnic characteristics.[16] In the 1962 edition of the textbook, Morison removed additional content that these critics found offensve.[13]

Battle of Savo Island

In his semi-official account of the Battle of Savo Island, a disastrous defeat for the U.S. Navy in World War II, Morison partly blamed the defeat on the failure of an Australian aircrew to inform the Americans of the approaching Japanese forces.[17] Morison appears to have based this story on inaccurate, now refuted, information.[18][19]

Honors and awards

Military, civilian, and foreign honors

Honorary degrees

  • Trinity College, Hartford (1935)
  • Amherst College (1936)
  • Harvard University (1936)
  • Union College (1939)
  • Columbia University (1942)
  • Yale University (1949)
  • Williams College (1950)
  • University of Oxford (1951)
  • Bucknell University (1960)
  • Boston College (1961)
  • College of the Holy Cross (1962)

Literary prizes

  • Loubat Prize (1938) for The Founding of Harvard College (1935) and Harvard College in the Seventeenth Century (1936)
  • Pulitzer Prize (1943) for Admiral of the Ocean Sea (1942)
  • Bancroft Prize (1949) for The Rising Sun in the Pacific (1948)
  • Pulitzer Prize (1960) for John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography (1959)
  • American Academy of Arts and Sciences Emerson-Thoreau Medal (1961)
  • American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal (1962)
  • Balzan Prize (1962) for History of United States Naval Operations in World War II (1963)[10]
  • Bancroft Prize (1972) for The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages (1971)


The following is a list of books written by Samuel Eliot Morison arranged alphabetically.

  • Admiral of the Ocean Sea. 2 vols. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1942.
  • American Contributions to the Strategy of World War II. London: Oxford University Press, 1958.
  • The Ancient Classics in a Modern Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1939.
  • Builders of the Bay Colony. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1930.
  • By Land and By Sea. New York: Knopf, 1953.
  • The Caribbean as Columbus Saw It. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1964. (with Mauricio Obregon)
  • Christopher Columbus, Mariner. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1955.
  • The Class Lives of Samuel Eliot and Nathaniel Homes Morison, Harvard 1839. Boston: Privately printed, 1926.
  • The Conservative American Revolution. Washington, DC: Society of the Cincinnati, 1976.
  • Doctor Morison's Farewell to the Colonial Society of Massachusetts. Boston: Merrymount Press, 1939.
  • The European Discovery of America. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971–1974.
  • The Events of the Year MDCCCCXXXV. Boston: Merrymount Press, 1936.
  • The Founding of Harvard College. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1935.
  • Francis Parkman. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1973.
  • Freedom in Contemporary Society. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1956.
  • The Growth of the American Republic 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930.
  • Harrison Gray Otis, 1765–1848: The Urbane Federalist. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969.
  • Harvard College in the Seventeenth Century. 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936.
  • Harvard Guide to American History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963. (with Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Frederick Merk, Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Jr., and Paul Herman Buck)
  • Historical Background for the Massachusetts Bay Tercentenary in 1930. Boston: Massachusetts Bay Tercentenary, Inc., 1928, 1930.
  • Historical Markers Erected by Massachusetts Bay Colony Tercentenary Commission. Texts of Inscriptions As Revised By Samuel Eliot Morison. Boston: Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1930.
  • History As A Literary Art. Boston: Old South Association, 1946.
  • A History of the Constitution of Massachusetts. Boston: Special Commission on Revision of the Constitution, 1963.
  • A History of the Constitution of Massachusetts. Boston: Wright & Potter, 1917.
  • History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. 15 vols. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1947–62.
  • An Hour of American History: From Columbus to Coolidge. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1929.
  • Introduction to Whaler Out of New Bedford. New Bedford: Old Dartmouth Historical Society, 1962.
  • John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1959.
  • Life and Letters of Harrison Gray Otis. 2 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1913.
  • Life in Washington a Century and a Half Ago. Washington, DC: Cosmos Club, 1968.
  • The Maritime History of Massachusetts, 1783–1860. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1921.
  • Nathaniel Homes Morison. Baltimore: Peabody Institute, 1957.
  • A New and Fresh English Translation of the Letter of Columbus Announcing the Discovery of America. Madrid: Graficas Yagues, 1959.
  • Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–1647. Editor. New York: Knopf, 1952.
  • Old Bruin: Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, 1796–1858. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1967.
  • One Boy's Boston, 1887–1901. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.
  • The Oxford History of the American People. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.
  • Oxford History of the United States. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1927.
  • The Pilgrim Fathers: Their Significance in History. Boston: Merrymount Press, 1937.
  • Portuguese Voyages to America in the Fifteenth Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1940.
  • A Prologue to American History: An Inaugural Lecture. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922.
  • The Proprietors of Peterborough, New Hampshire. Peterborough: Historical Society, 1930.
  • The Puritan Pronaos. New York: New York University Press, 1936.
  • Ropemakers of Plymouth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950.
  • Sailor Historian: The Best of Samuel Eliot Morison. Edited by Emily Morison Beck. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.
  • Samuel de Champlain: Father of New France. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972.
  • The Scholar in American: Past, Present, and Future. New York: Oxford University Press, 1961.
  • The Second Voyage of Christopher Columbus. New York: Oxford University Press, 1939.
  • Sources and Documents Illustrating the American Revolution, 1764–1788, and the Formation of the Federal Constitution. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923.
  • Spring Tides. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
  • The Story of Mount Desert Island, Maine. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960.
  • The Story of the 'Old Colony' of New Plymouth, 1620–1692. New York: Knopf, 1956.
  • Strategy and Compromise. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1958.
  • These Forty Years. Boston: Privately printed, 1948. (Address to the 40th Reunion, Harvard Class of 1908)
  • Three Centuries of Harvard, 1636–1936. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936.
  • The Two Ocean War. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1963.
  • Vistas of History. New York: Knopf, 1964.
  • William Hickling Prescott. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1958.
  • The Young Man Washington. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1932.[20]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 "Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison". Naval History and Heritage Command. Retrieved October 19, 2011. 
  2. Sailer, Steve. "Samuel Eliot Morison And America's Displaced Protestant Establishment". VDare. Retrieved October 26, 2011. 
  3. Washburn, Wilcomb E. "Samuel Eliot Morison, Historian" in The William and Mary Quarterly July 1979, pp. 325-352.
  4. Carrigg, John (Fall 1994). "Samuel Eliot Morison and His Catholic Sympathies". The Dawson Newsletter. Retrieved October 26, 2011. 
  5. Harvard Gazette
  6. Harvard Voices Collection
  7. Hornfischer, James D.. "Revisiting Samuel Eliot Morison's Landmark History". Retrieved November 9, 2011. 
  8. "Remarks at the Presentation of the 1964 Presidential Medal of Freedom Awards". The American Presidency Project. Retrieved October 25, 2011. 
  9. Martin, Douglas (March 31, 2004). "Emily Morison Beck, 88, Who Edited Bartlett’s Quotations, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved October 25, 2011. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 "Prizewinners". International Balzan Prize Foundation. Retrieved October 25, 2011. 
  11. "Samuel Eliot Morison Naval History Scholarship". Naval History and Heritage Command. Retrieved 25 October 2011. 
  12. USS Constitution Museum Samuel Eliot Morison Page
  13. 13.0 13.1 Zimmerman, Jonathan. "Brown-ing the American Textbook". History of Education Quarterly. Retrieved March 18, 2005. 
  14. Revisiting Blassingame's The Slave Community: The Scholars Respond. Ed. Al-Tony Gilmore. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1978, pp x–xi, ISBN 0-8371-9879-8.
  15. Jumonville, Neil. Henry Steele Commager: Midcentury Liberalism and the History of the Present. The University of North Carolina Press, 1999, p. 147.
  16. Gossett, Thomas F. (1963). Race: The History of an Idea in America. New York: Oxford University Press. 
  17. Pilot's Tea Blamed for Loss of Australian Cruiser
  18. War At Sea: A Naval History of World War II
  19. The Battle of Savo Island - August 9, 1942
  20. "Samuel Eliot Morison Bibliography". Naval History and Heritage Command. Retrieved October 20, 2011. 

Further reading

  • Keegan, John. The Price of Admiralty: The Evolution of Naval Warfare. New York: Viking, 1989.
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. "The Gilberts & Marshalls" in Life Magazine, May 22, 1944.
  • Pfitzer, Gregory M. Samuel Eliot Morison's Historical World: In Quest of a New Parkman. Boston: Northeastern, 1991.
  • Washburn, Wilcomb E. "Samuel Eliot Morison, Historian" in The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Series, Vol. XXXVI, July 1979.
  • Faith of a Historian Presidential address read at the annual dinner of the American Historical Association in Chicago on December 29, 1950. American Historical Review 56:2 (January 1951): 261-75.

External links

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