Samuel Eliot Morison: Wikis


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Samuel Eliot Morison
July 9, 1887 – May 15, 1976
Rear Adm. Samuel Eliot Morison USNR.jpg
Samuel Eliot Morison in his official U.S. Navy portrait
Place of birth Boston, Massachusetts, United States
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch United States Navy
Years of service 1942–1946
Rank Rear Admiral (Reserve)
Battles/wars World War II
Awards Legion of Merit with Combat Distinguishing Device "V"

Commander of the Order of the White Rose of Finland
Vuelvo Panamericano Medal, awarded by the Republic of Cuba (1943)
Cavaliero Ufficiale of the Italian Order, Ordine al Merito della Repubblica (1961)
Commander of the Spanish Order of Isabella the Catholic (1963)

Samuel Eliot Morison, Rear Admiral, United States Naval Reserve (July 9, 1887 – May 15, 1976) was an American historian, noted for producing works of maritime history that were both authoritative and highly readable. A sailor as well as a scholar, Morison garnered numerous honors, including two Pulitzer Prizes, two Bancroft Prizes, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His general history textbooks were both widely used and criticized for justifying slavery. His critics included parents of African American children, civil rights leaders, fellow historians, and an anti-racist population.




Samuel Eliot Morison was born in Boston, Massachusetts to John Holmes Morison (1856–1911) and Emily Marshall (Eliot) Morison (1857–1925) and named for his grandfather Samuel Eliot. His early childhood is charmingly described in a memoir of 1962, entitled "One Boy's Boston."

He married twice and was the father of four children by his first wife, Elizabeth S. Greene. (One of these children, Emily Morison Beck became the editor of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.) After his wife Elizabeth's death in 1945, he married again to a Mrs. Priscilla B. Shakelford.

Morison died on May 15, 1976 of a stroke at the age of 88, and his ashes are buried at Northeast Harbor, Maine.

His grandson Michael Noyes Morison was known as "Franklin D. Churchill," storyline president of the Millennium Wrestling Federation. He died in June 2006.

Academic career

His schooling was typical for a member of a Brahmin family: he attended Noble and Greenough School (1897–1901) and St. Paul's (1901–03) before enrolling at Harvard, where he would remain for much of his academic life.

Morison earned his AB from Harvard in 1908, studied at the École Libre des Sciences Politiques in Paris (1908–1909), and returned to Harvard where he obtained his Ph.D. in 1912. His doctoral thesis, The Life and Letters of Harrison Gray Otis, became Morison's first book.

Upon receiving his doctorate, Morison went to Berkeley to serve as an instructor in history, and, in 1915, returned to Harvard in the same capacity. After spending 1922–25 at Oxford as Harmsworth Professor of American History, he became full professor at Harvard in 1925. Morison was promoted to Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History in 1941 and retired from Harvard in 1955.

Morison continued writing prolifically after his retirement. He received the Balzan prize for history 1962 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Lyndon Johnson in 1964.


Morison held that experience and research should be combined synergetically for writing vivid history. For his Pulitzer-winning Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Morison combined his personal interest in sailing with his scholarship by chartering a boat and sailing to the various places that Christopher Columbus was then thought to have visited.

Official Historian of US Navy during World War II

Statue of Morison on the Commonwealth Avenue mall.

Unlike World War I, for which the US military had not prepared a full-scale official history of any branch of service, it was decided that World War II would be meticulously documented. Professional historians were attached to all the branches of the US military; they were embedded with combat units to witness the events about which they would later write.

Toward this end, in 1942, Morison was commissioned into the United States Naval Reserve with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. The result was the History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, a work in fifteen volumes that covered every aspect of America's war at sea, from strategic planning and battle tactics to the technology of war and the exploits of individuals during the conflict. A one-volume abridgement of the official history, The Two Ocean War, was published in 1963.

In recognition of his achievements, the Navy awarded him the Legion of Merit and eventually promoted Morison to the rank of Rear Admiral (Reserve). In addition, the Oliver Hazard Perry class guided-missile frigate, USS Samuel Eliot Morison, was named in his honor. A bronze statue of Morison is on the Commonwealth Avenue mall in Boston, Massachusetts, between Exeter and Fairfield Streets.

The celebrated British military historian Sir John Keegan has hailed Morison's official history as the best to come out of the Second World War.

One of his research assistants on that project, Henry Salomon, went on to conceive the epic NBC documentary series Victory at Sea.

Criticized for racism

Morison and his co-writer Henry Steele Commager were heavily criticized by African American leaders, intellectuals and historians for their textbook The Growth of the American Republic. Their description of slavery in America and their depiction of African American life after the emancipation were called into question. The original editions of the textbook echoed the thesis of American Negro Slavery (1918) by Ulrich Bonnell Phillips. This view, sometimes called the Phillips school of slavery historiography, was popularized by most white historians until the mid twentieth century, and relied on the one-sided personal records of slave-owners and portrayed slavery as a mainly benign institution.[1] To quote the Pulitzer Prize winning historian Leon F. Litwack:

The textbook was my first confrontation with history. I asked my 11th grade teacher for the opportunity to respond to the textbook's version of Reconstruction, to what I thought were distortions and racial biases. (I had already read Howard Fast's Freedom Road.) The research led me to the library—and to W. E. B. Du Bois's Black Reconstruction, with that intriguing subtitle: An Essay Toward a History of the Part which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880. Armed with that book, I presented what I thought to be a persuasive rebuttal of the textbook.
Litwack , [2]

However, despite the criticism, which began in 1944, changes were not made until 1962, when the text was revised to present a more modern and more balanced version of events.[3]

Books by Samuel Eliot Morison

Most of these have been reprinted and reissued.

  • The Life and Letters of Harrison Gray Otis, Federalist, 1765–1848 (1913)
  • The Maritime History of Massachusetts, 1783-1860 (1921)
  • The Oxford History of the United States (1927)
  • Builders of the Bay Colony: A Gallery of Our Intellectual Ancestors (1930; 2nd ed., 1964)
  • The Growth of the American Republic (with Henry Steele Commager, New York: Oxford University Press, 1930 [as Oxford History of the United States; 7th ed., 1980]. Revised and abridged edition with Samuel Eliot Morison and William E. Leuchtenberg. Published by Oxford University Press in 1980 as A Concise History of the American Republic, rev. 1983.
  • Three Centuries of Harvard: 1636–1936 (Harvard University Press, 1936)
  • Portuguese Voyages to America in the Fifteenth Century (Harvard University Press, 1940)
  • Admiral of the Ocean Sea(Little Brown, 1942)
  • History as a Literary Art: An Appeal to Young Historians (1946)
  • History of United States Naval Operations in World War II (1947–1962)
  • Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–1647 (editor) (1952)
  • Christopher Columbus, Mariner (Little, Brown and Company, 1955)
  • John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography (Little, Brown and Company, 1959)
  • The Story of Mount Desert Island (1960)
  • One Boy's Boston: 1887-1901 (Houghton Mifflin, 1962)
  • The Two-Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War (1963)
  • The Oxford History of the American People (1965)
  • The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages (1971)
  • Samuel De Champlain: Father of New France (1972)
  • The European Discovery of America: The Southern Voyages (1974)
  • A Concise History of the American Republic (with Henry Steele Commager and William E. Leuchtenberg) (1976)


Lifetime achievement honors

Military and foreign honors

Book prizes

(years listed are when prizes were awarded)

Honorary degrees

In Honor of Samuel Eliot Morison


  • "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." History as a Literary Art: An Appeal to Young Historians (1946)
  • "America was discovered accidentally by a great seaman who was looking for something else; when discovered it was not wanted; and most of the exploration for the next fifty years was done in the hope of getting through or around it. America was named after a man who discovered no part of the New World. History is like that, very chancy." The Oxford History of the American People (1965)
  • "But sea power has never led to despotism. The nations that have enjoyed sea power even for a brief period—Athens, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, England, the United States—are those that have preserved freedom for themselves and have given it to others. Of the despotism to which unrestrained military power leads we have plenty of examples from Alexander to Mao." The Oxford History of the American People (1965)


  1. ^ ""].  
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  3. ^ "Statement of Principle" (ms, 15 June 1944), frames 265–66; press release by Benjamin J. Davis, Jr., 15 June 1944, frame 264, both in reel 22, Part 16B, Papers of the National Association For the Advancement of Colored People (Bethesda, MD: University Publications of America, 1994).

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