Samuel Eliot Morison

Samuel Eliot Morison

Infobox Military Person
name= Samuel Eliot Morison
lived= July 9, 1887May 15, 1976
placeofbirth= Boston, Massachusetts, United States

caption=Samuel Eliot Morison in his official U.S. Navy portrait
allegiance= United States
branch=United States Navy
serviceyears= 1942 – 1946
rank= Rear Admiral (Reserve)
battles= 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, 1887May 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 by the parents of African American children and civil rights leaders for justifying slavery.



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. 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 passed away 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

Unlilke 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".

Criticism of textbook for justifying slavery

Morison and his "Growth of the American Republic" co-author Henry Steele Commager were asked by delegations of African Americans to remove racist passages from the 1950 edition of their widely used history textbook. [cite web|url=| ] The following is an excerpt from the passages targeted as a false and objectionable justification for slavery.

According to several sources, the entry was not removed until 1962 despite requests for change to the earlier editions that began in 1944. ["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).]

In the Spring 2004 edition of "History of Education Quarterly", Jonathan Zimmerman wrote the following:

The authors finally removed the passage in the 1962 version of their text book. The passage echoes the thesis of [ "American Negro Slavery"] (1918) by Ulrich Bonnell Phillips. This view, popularized by most white historians until the mid twentieth century, relied on the one-sided personal records of slave-owners and portrayed slavery as a mainly benign institution. [cite web|url=] |] ]

Pulitzer Prize winning historian Leon F. Litwack found the widely used textbook offensive, saying;

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)
* "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

*Emerson-Thoreau Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1961)
*Gold Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1962)
*Balzan prize for history (1962)
*Presidential Medal of Freedom (1964)

Military and foreign honors

*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)

Book prizes

*Pulitzer Prize in biography for "Admiral of the Ocean Sea" (1943)
*Pulitzer Prize in biography for "John Paul Jones" (1960)
*Bancroft Prize for "The Rising Sun in the Pacific" (1949)
*Bancroft Prize for "The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages" (1972)

(years listed are when prizes were awarded)

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)


*"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)


* Official U.S. Navy biography (

* Keegan, John. "The Price of Admiralty"
* Washburn, Wilcomb E. "Samuel Eliot Morison, Historian" from The William and Mary Quarterly 3d Series, Vol. XXXVI, July 1979 (
* [ Lepore, Jill, "Plymouth Rocked", "The New Yorker", April 24, 2006]

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