Lewis Henry Morgan

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Related to Lewis Henry Morgan: Margaret Mead, Herbert Spencer, Franz Boas
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Morgan, Lewis Henry


Born Nov. 21, 1818, in Aurora, N.Y.; died Dec. 17, 1881, in Rochester, N.Y. American ethnologist and archaeologist, historian of primitive society, and progressive public figure. Member of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (1875).

An attorney by profession, Morgan practiced law and later engaged in commerce. He early became interested in the Iroquois. Morgan founded a society for the study and aid of the Indians (1840); he decried the despoilment, discrimination, and extermination of Indians in the USA. In 1847 he was adopted by the Seneca, an Iroquoian tribe, under the name “One Lying Across” (that is, across the boundary between the Indians and the Whites).

The League of the Iroquois (1851), Morgan’s first major work, remains to this day the most important study of the Iroquois. In later works, most notable of which was Ancient Society, or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress From Savagery Through Barbarism to Civilization (1877; Russian translation, 2nd ed., 1934), Morgan emerged primarily as a historian of primitive society who asserted the ideas of the unity of mankind and its progressive development. His view of the clan as the universally and historically basic unit of primitive society occupied a central position in his theories. Related to this were his theses of the development of property from collective to private forms and of the evolution of the family and marriage from group to individual forms.

Morgan also worked out a scientifically valid periodization of primitive history, subdividing it into periods of savagery and barbarism and each of these into three subperiods. The most prominent proponent of evolutionism in ethnology, Morgan was in fact able to move away from evolutionism and, in the words of F. Engels, “within the bounds of his own field independently rediscovered, in Marxist fashion, the materialist understanding of history” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 36, p. 97).

Morgan’s ideas are still the subject of a controversy between the progressive and reactionary trends in ethnology. The data of modern ethnology and archaeology indicate that a number of Morgan’s minor theses require greater clarification, but his theories about primitive society retain their significance and continue to be developed by Marxist science.


Doma i domashniaia zhiznamerikanskikh tuzemtsev. Leningrad, 1934. (Translated from English.)


Marx, K. “Konspekt knigi L’iuisa G. Morgana ’Drevnee obshchestvo.’” In Arkhiv Marksa i Engel’sa, vol. 9. Moscow, 1941.
Engels, F. Proiskhozhdenie sem’i, chastnoi sobstvennosti i gosudarstva. In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 21.
Kosven, M. O. L. G. Morgan: Zhizn’ i uchenie, 2nd ed. Leningrad, 1935.
Semenov, Iu. I. “Uchenie Morgana, marksizm i sovremennaia etnografiia.” Sovetskaia etnografiia, 1964, no. 4.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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Lewis Henry Morgan's pioneer investigation into the socio-political structures of the Iroquois Indians in 1842 in order to replicate the system in his fraternal society, the Grand Order of the Iroquois, has entered the folklore of post-colonial American anthropology (Tooker 1983: 142, 1992: 359; Trautmann 1987: 40-43; van der Grijp 1997: 105).
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Trautmann and Kabelac's The Library of Lewis Henry Morgan provides the material and intellectual context necessary to begin to understand Morgan and his genius.
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Lewis Henry Morgan's will of 1881 left his fortune and his library to the University of Rochester, and that university, in 1963, came around to establishing a lecture series in his name.