Lewis H. Morgan  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
19th-century anthropology, Ancient Society

Lewis Henry Morgan (November 21, 1818 – December 17, 1881) was a pioneering anthropologist and social theorist, and one of the greatest American social scientists of the nineteenth century. He is best known for his work on kinship and social structure, his theories of social evolution, and his ethnography of the Iroquois. Adopted by the Left after his death, Morgan is the only American social theorist to be cited by Darwin, Marx and Freud. Combined with an exhaustive study of classic Greek and Roman sources, he crowned his work with his magnum opus Ancient Society (1877).

Work in ethnology

Morgan became interested in the Native Americans during his days with the Grand Order of the Iroqouis. While studying their society, he was formally incorporated as an adopted member. They named him Tayadaowuhkuh, meaning bridging the gap (between the Iroquois and the European-Americans.)

Morgan was lucky enough to meet and form a friendship with Ely S. Parker, of the Seneca tribe and the Tonawanda Reservation. Classically educated and a diplomat on behalf of the Seneca, Parker had also studied law. With his help, Morgan studied the culture and the structure of Iroquois society. He wrote the book The League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee or Iroquois (1851), recognizing the importance of Parker's contribution by dedicating it to him and "our joint researches." This work, which presented the complexity of Iroquois society, became a pathbreaking work of ethnography and a model for future anthropologists to emulate .

In that first book, Morgan presented the kinship system of the Iroquois with unprecedented nuance. After putting aside scholarship to devote himself to his own family and his work as a lawyer, his interest in kinship and human social organization was reignited in the late 1850s. This time, expanding his research far beyond the Iroquois. He set himself the task of collecting and sorting the systems of relationship terms used by tribes spanning the greater part of the United States of America, and then to peoples across the globe. With the help of local contacts and after intensive correspondence over the course of years, this research culminated in Morgan's seminal Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity (1871), which was printed by the Smithsonian Press. In this work, Morgan set forth his argument for the unity of humankind. At the same time, he presented a sophisticated schema of social evolution based upon the relationship terms, the categories of kinship, used by peoples around the world. Through his analysis of these kinship terms, Morgan discerned that the structure of the family and social institutions develop and change according to a specific sequence.

In the years that followed, Morgan developed his theories. Combined with an exhaustive study of classic Greek and Roman sources, he crowned his work with his magnum opus Ancient Society (1877). In this book, Morgan elaborated upon his theory of social evolution. He introduced a critical link between social progress and technological progress. He emphasized the centrality of family and property relations. He traced the interplay between the evolution of technology, of family relations, of property relations, of the larger social structures and systems of governance, and intellectual development. Looking across a vastly expanded span of human existence, Morgan presented three major stages: savagery, barbarism, and civilization. These stages were further divided and defined by technological inventions, like use of fire, bow, pottery in the savage era; domestication of animals, agriculture, metalworking in the barbarian era; and development of alphabet and writing in the civilization era. (In part, this was an effort to create a structure for North American history that was comparable for the three ages of European pre-history, developed by scholars in Denmark during these years.)

Morgan's final work, Houses and House-life of the American Aborigines (1881), was an elaboration on what he had originally planned as an additional part of Ancient Society. In it, Morgan presented evidence, mostly from North and South America, that the development of house architecture and house culture reflected the development of kinship and property relations.

Many specific aspects of Morgan's evolutionary position have been rejected by later anthropologists. But his achievements remain impressive. He founded the sub-discipline of kinship studies. Anthropologists remain interested in the connections which Morgan outlined between material culture and social structure. His impact has been felt far beyond the Ivory Tower. Although Karl Marx never finished his own book based on Morgan's work, Engels continued where Marx left off, so Morgan, a capitalist, railroad lawyer and Republican state legislator, strongly influenced Engels' sociological theory of dialectical materialism (The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, 1884). In fact, Morgan became the preeminent anthropologist in the Communist bloc.

Although Morgan would be shocked to see the impact that his work has had on the Left, the connections are not hard to understand. His Yankee republicanism was radical in many ways. He believed that American greatness rested upon the diffusion of property and political power. He was strongly against class systems and anything that smacked of feudalism. An American patriot of deep conviction, he believed that wage-earning would be and should be only a stage of life in the United States: after the Civil War, he grew increasingly worried about the concentration of wealth and power. In his social theory he makes it clear: progress is driven by greed. While he saw progress as necessary and desirable, he also mourned the losses; he was nostalgic for the virtues that he saw among the classical Stoics, among Native Americans and other "primitive" peoples. He was concerned that what he called "the mere property career" was spinning out of control. His faith in the human capacity to learn, to cope with the surroundings, to adapt, to, in short, progress, enabled him to overcome his ambivalences. Looking to the future, he foresaw a revival, in new form, of "the liberty, equality and fraternity" of primitive peoples.




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