Morgan, Lewis Henry (1818–1881)

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Lewis Henry Morgan was an American anthropologist and social philosopher. After graduating from Union College in 1840, he practiced law in Rochester, New York, from 1844 to 1864, but he devoted much of his time to anthropological research, which eventually became his exclusive interest. One of the most celebrated American scholars of his time, Morgan was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1875 and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1879. The results of his investigations into the life of various Indian tribes appeared in his League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee or Iroquois (Rochester, NY, 1851) and his later work, Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity (Washington, DC, 1871); these two books were hailed as pioneering achievements of the first order in the study of kinship systems by even the most outspoken of his critics.

Morgan's aim was not merely to describe how different civilizations had evolved; he wished to elicit from their history a general pattern of institutional progress. In his most ambitious work, Ancient Society (New York, 1877), Morgan sought to establish that human history falls into three main stagessavagery, barbarism, and civilizationand that each stage reflects a close correlation between economic and cultural achievements. Savagery was the period before pottery; barbarism was the ceramic era; civilization began with writing and the phonetic alphabet. The first two periods are further subdivided, and each subperiod is defined in terms of its characteristic technological innovations. The discovery of fire and the beginning of fishing, for example, are characteristic of the second subperiod of savagery, the invention of the bow and arrow of its third subperiod.

Although Morgan shared the view of his Swiss contemporary and fellow anthropologist Johann Jakob Bachofen that society had emerged from a state of primitive communism, and also accepted the Bachofen hypothesis of matrilineal descent, he had little interest in ancient myths and religions. His principal attention was focused on technological factors, kinship systems, and property systems, and their relations to social and political institutions. In spite of gaps and distortions, Morgan's account of the growth of civilization has been considered by so severe a critic of his ethnological theories as Robert H. Lowie to be a comprehensive scheme of cultural wholes far beyond anything attempted up to that time. Lowie has written, "Morgan's Ancient Society was a synthesis of sociological material that for the first time brought together material on Australian and American natives, on ancient Greece and Rome; and all this in an orderly arrangement prescribed by an evolutionary doctrine" (The History of Ethnological Theory, London, 1937, p. 56).

Moreover, Ancient Society speaks for a distinct social philosophy and philosophy of history. The collation and comparison of human institutions, inventions, and discoveries convinced Morgan of humankind's unity of origin, of the similarity of human wants in different societies at comparable stages of advancement, and of the uniformity in the operations of the human mind in similar conditions of society. He formed the view that the human race was "one in source, one in experience and one in progress" (Ancient Society, p. vi). The problem that preoccupied Morgan in his historical researches was the existence of social and economic inequality. He could not conceive that "a mere property career" was the final destiny of humankind. Man's obsession with private property, he felt, was only a transient stage of human civilization. For if it was not, it was bound to lead to society's self-destruction. If progress was to be the law of the future as it had been of the past, property would have to be diffused and if necessary controlled, so that "democracy in government, brotherhood in society, equality in rights and privileges, and universal education" would foreshadow the next higher plane of society, "to which experience, intelligence and knowledge are steadily tending" (Ancient Society, p. 552).

Morgan recognized that civilization could be aggressive as well as progressive. But his theory of social evolution has nothing in common with such imperialist notions as Rudyard Kipling's concept of the white man's burden. Progress, Morgan insisted, echoing Herder, is inherent in all cultures, civilized or not, and each has to advance along its own lines. Culture is a process, not an administrative imposition.

Although Morgan's theories were invoked by Karl Marx and by Friedrich Engels (notably in his Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State ) in support of their interpretation of history, Morgan's social message bears only superficial similarities with Marxist doctrines. Nonetheless, the optimistic flavor of his evolutionism had a powerful appeal to social reformers. At the same time this very quality made it suspect to the uncommitted social scientist.

See also Bachofen, Johann Jakob; Culture and Civilization; Engels, Friedrich; Herder, Johann Gottfried; Marx, Karl; Philosophy of Social Sciences.


additional works by morgan

Diffusion against Centralization. Rochester, NY, 1852.

The American Beaver and His Works. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1868.

Houses and House Life of the American Aborigines. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1881.

Pioneers in American Anthropology: The Bandelier-Morgan Letters. Edited by Leslie A. White. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1940.

works on morgan

Childe, V. Gordon. Social Evolution. New York: Schuman, 1951.

Colson, Elizabeth. Tradition and Contract: The Problem of Order. Chicago: Aldine, 1974.

Fortes, Meyer. Kinship and the Social Order: The Legacy of Lewis Henry Morgan. Chicago: Aldine, 1970.

Lowie, Robert H. "Evolution in Cultural Anthropology." American Anthropologist 48 (1946): 223233.

Lowie, Robert H. The History of Ethnological Theory. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1937.

Resek, Carl. Lewis Henry Morgan, American Scholar, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960. Contains a full bibliography.

Stern, Bernhard J. Lewis Henry Morgan, Social Evolutionist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1931.

White, Leslie A. "Evolutionism in Cultural Anthropology." American Anthropologist 53 (1951): 1118.

White, Leslie A. "Morgan's Attitude toward Religion and Science." American Anthropologist 46 (1944): 218230.

Frederick M. Barnard (1967)

Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)