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".
Originally intending to major in mathematics until Albert Bushnell Hart talked him into researching some papers of an ancestor stored in his wine cellar, Morison's Harvard dissertation was the basis for his first book The Life and Letters of Harrison Gray Otis, Federalist, 1765–1848 (1913), which sold 700 copies. After earning his Ph.D. at Harvard, Morison became an instructor in history at the University of California, Berkeley in 1912. 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 Paris Peace Conference until June 17, 1919.
In 1922–1925 Morison taught at Oxford University as the first Harmsworth Professor of American History. 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 published The Maritime History of Massachusetts, 1783-1860. In the 1930s Morison published 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) and The Story of the 'Old Colony' of New Plymouth (1956) and editing the definitive work, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–1647 (1952).
During his time at Harvard, Morison became the last professor to arrive on campus via horseback. 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.
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 Harvard Columbus Expedition, led by Morison and including his wife and Captain John W. McElroy, Herbert F. Hossmer, Jr., Richard S. Colley, Dr. Clifton W. Anderson, Kenneth R. Spear and Richard Spear, left on 28 August 1939 aboard the 147 foot ketch Capitana for the Azores and Lisbon, Portugal from which they sailed on the 45 foot ketch Mary Otis to retrace Columbus' route using manuscripts and records of his voyages reaching Trinidad by way of Cadiz, Madeira, and the Canary Islands. After following the coast of South and Central America the expedition returned to Trinidad on 15 December 1939. The expedition returned to New York on 2 February 1940 aboard the United Fruit liner Veragua. 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 a lieutenant commander in the US Naval Reserve, and was called at once to active duty. 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.
Morison was promoted 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 and was promoted to Rear Admiral on the basis of combat awards.
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.
In 1955, Morison retired from Harvard University. 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 Holmes 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.
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.
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. Elizabeth died in 1945. In 1949, Morison married Baltimore widow Priscilla Barton. Priscilla died in 1973.
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."
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 later with Commager's student William E. Leuchtenburg. The book originated as Morison's two-volume Oxford History of the United States (Oxford University Press, 1927). 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 interpretation of the history of American slavery during the first half of the twentieth century, despite the intense criticism by some African-American scholars for its alleged racist underpinnings. Phillips's theories remained authoritative, considered by many white scholars 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. 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 a result of innate racial or ethnic characteristics. In the 1962 edition of the textbook, Morison removed additional content that these critics found offensive.
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. Morison appears to have based this story on inaccurate, now refuted, information. On October 21, 2014 the US Navy issued a letter of apology to the last surviving member of the RAAF Hudson crew, who had sighted and duly reported the approach of the Japanese Naval Task Force; the letter states that "RAdm. Morison's criticism was unwarranted".
Some degree of criticism has been leveled at Morison for his description of the ItalianRegia Marina as having been considered by the British seamen as nothing but a joke, and which he explicitly called "Dago Navy". Italian historian Giorgio Giorgerini wrote that this use of a racial slur is the proof of a rather gratuitous and offensive attitude towards the Italian Navy that could have been at least more prudent in its expression. William M. McBride observed that Morison's disparaging remark was not the only example of a racist attitude from "inherently superior Anglo-Saxons" towards the Italians.