History Doyens: Harold M. Hyman


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

Harold M. Hyman, 7-31-06

What They’re Famous For

Harold M. Hyman is William P. Hobby Professor of History, Emeritus, and director of the Center for the History of Leadership Institutions at Rice University, and is best known for his work on the legal and constitutional climates of the mid- to late-nineteenth-century United States. He is author of several books and articles on the Civil War and Reconstruction, Abraham Lincoln, internal security evolution, civilian-military relationships, and the impact of modern law firms. His Era of the Oath: Northern Loyalty Tests during the Civil War and Reconstruction Harold  Hyman JPG (1954), won the American Historical Association’s Beveridge Prize. Hyman has lectured and taught at major universities, law schools, and think tanks, and is past president of the American Society for Legal History.

In 1997 on the occasion of being named Professor Emeritus and his partial retirement from Rice University where Hyman stopped teaching undergraduate courses but continued graduate courses and PhD advising, Hyman told Rice University News and Media Relations: “So far it doesn’t seem to be any different. I love teaching. I love being around students. [Becoming a professor emeritus] is a little like other milestones in life-being born, getting married… The only thing I know is being a historian…. [Rice has] been a very good place in almost every way-good students, good colleagues. By and large, the administration encouraged one to do what one should be doing-teaching and writing-and didn’t intrude.”

Personal Anecdote

Many Depression-decade high school dropouts enlisted in the pre-Pearl Harbor military. In mid-1941 I joined the Marines. That December, Imperial Japan attacked me, serially and seriously, on Oahu, Midway and Guadalcanal islands and elsewhere. I resented these sporadic and dangerous intrusions personally, for two reasonable reasons. First, Japan’s assaults might have impaired me physically. Second, the aggressive Japanese tactics repeatedly disrupted our military mail service.

The latter consequence irked me primarily because, as Japan’s troops and my Marine duties permitted, I was trying to master high school completion courses, by correspondence. Even when stationed too briefly in Australia and New Zealand I bypassed the many beckoning bars, bimbos, and brothels in order to work on those demanding lessons, with growing enthusiasm for those in history. In addition to preserving my virtue this belated studiousness paid off, I assumed, when, in 1944, I, again encamped on a Pacific atoll, received by mail a glossy New York high school diploma.

Sadly, I learned later that my abstention from wartime sins was superfluous. Without informing me, in 1943 or `44 New York had granted diplomas without course completions to all ultimately uniformed high school dropouts.

So, to more autobiography. Once again a civilian, I found that my wartime experiences, including the prophylactic correspondence courses, had unfitted me for the blue-collar ruts my several siblings accepted. By mid-1946 I was married (still am, to the same splendid lady) and earning a superior salary. But while attending evening junior college classes I rediscovered my war-kindled interest in history and quit my job. Financed by my breadwinning wife and the GI Bill, by 1948 I had a BA from UCLA, then, in 1952, a Columbia University PhD, both in history. Faculty positions followed, at Earlham College (where, with a PhD, I earned less in 1952 than I had, when a high school graduate, in 1946), Arizona State, UCLA, Illinois, and, in 1968, an endowed chair at Rice University.

Harold  Hyman JPGI retired from Rice in 1997 because, as the fall term began, a freshman asked me if, long ago, I had taught at UCLA. My affirmative reply triggered his response that, forty-plus years earlier, his future grandfather (!!) had taken my US Constitutional & Legal History course and now sent regards. It was time.

For me, however, it proved not to be a good time. My encrusted habit was to work hard. For five decades, I, in addition to teaching, had published a baker’s dozen well- received books and many articles, essays, papers, etc. Retirement, I assumed, would mean unimpeded opportunity for further research and writing.

But, once becoming a retired octogenarian, I fell prey to squads of surgeons, phalanxes of physicians, and platoons of pharmacists. They, and the federal pharmaceutical boondoggle of 2005-6, consumed my time, energy, and funds. My ambitious post-retirement research and writing plans wither. Since retiring I’ve published only some scholarly articles, op-ed essays especially about Iraq and domestic civil liberties, and book reviews, and evaluated manuscripts for publishers. Too physically uncertain to kayak and fish as I had also hoped to do, by default I look backward a lot.

I look back less to the generations of undergraduates who, voluntarily or not, endured my lectures and exams, than to the roughly sixty PhDs and MAs whose theses and dissertations I had the privilege to oversee. They and I taught each other a lot.

When I taught successfully they learned to ask significant questions of the past, to find through patient research relevant facts to justify reasonable judgments about worthy topics, and to express themselves clearly (passive voice and technical gobbledygook prohibited). I urged each graduate student to think of a dissertation as a book a-borning. It had first to survive seminar criticisms, then those of anonymous external referees, and, when appropriate, then deserve my positive recommendations to a publisher that it become a book. Harold Hyman JPGI emphasized the advantages a new PhD gained by retaining a dissertation’s core topic and perhaps widening its chronological coverage and/or employing alternative supplemental interpretations, perhaps by this means conceiving a second book or other major publication.

It worked for a pride of “my” PhD’s. They taught me a great deal, especially through their distinguished, topically linked, yet disparate studies in broadly defined areas of American constitutional and legal history. Their writings help better to illuminate many endlessly contentious paths to our present, paths that include gender and race equality, war powers, Lincoln, the Civil War and Reconstruction, civil-military relationships, loyalty-security policies, federalism (including city-state), control of epidemics, and judicial biography.

Despite their achievements and my own, my frustrated post-retirement research and writing plans now inspire a curmudgeon’s sour closing notes, especially about technology’s impacts on higher education. Remember my earnest wartime devotions in pursuit of a high school diploma? Today, nominally academic entities hire cadres of e-mail peddlers to tout the effortless acquisitions of secondary school diplomas, BAs. MAs, and even PhDs. In legitimate collegiate institutions undergraduates and graduate students easily muster long rosters of primary and secondary sources with which to decorate footnotes and bibliographies. What insights, I worry, have the students gained? As a retiree I’m pleased not to have to sit in on the unending committees that now grope toward some self-respecting accomodation with these and derivative problems. But mine is a guilty pleasure. My instinct was to enlist in frays. Now I can not.

Muted, I wonder when I try to balance my emotions with calmer reason, are these technological marvels in research aids less problems than opportunities, as many respected colleagues insist? And, I ask as historian, is electronic data retrieval fundamentally more upsetting than was true of libraries’ innovative card catalogs a century ago?

Damn. History again intrudes its disturbing questions that blunt excessively simple responses to changes.


By Harold M. Hyman

  • Historians have attended more to victims’ assertions of unmerited injuries than to justifications by officials, a sensitivity which reflects attitudes of our time, when the suggestion that Staatsrecht was ever an adequate reason for imposition of any security procedures is shrugged away because strong suspicion exists that, currently, such devices are overblown.However deserving this judgment may be about today’s restraints, extrapolation of similar judgments to 1861-65 presents substantial difficulties. The question of feasible alternatives to what came in after the Sumter bombardment has received little attention. Actual disloyalty existed in dangerous quantity and frightening concentration; some security measures were in order or else efforts were wasted to restore by arms the disrupting union of states. A society resentful of restraints was unlikely to accept unnecessary security fetters as passively as proved to be the case. False pleas of necessity could scarcely have convinced alert, self appointed monitors of American institutions, morals, and ways.

    The notion that officials could act secretly or mask excesses with fictions of mythical underground conspiracies was dubious at best. The anti disloyalty recourses of the Lincoln Administration were imperfect and galling; but they were neither irrelevant nor cynical. — Harold Hyman in “A More Perfect Union: The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the Constitution”

  • “The oaths did not identify the loyalty of federal pensioners. Well into the twentieth century the government continued its investigations of pension claims arising from the Civil War. Literally thousands of cases involved the definition of wartime loyalty. Proof or disproof rested not, upon oaths, but upon evidence. Nor did test oaths serve to identify the Southern Unionist, as the Southern Claims Commission learned when it labored for nine years to that end. The Commission came to disregard oaths as a matter of form, and to depend upon evidence to prove a claimant’s wartime Unionism. Of the thirty-four “standing interrogatories” which the Commission asked every claimant, only one concerned his willingness to swear to his past loyalty. And in many cases this requirement was waived in the light of local conditions which might have made a Southerner, however ardent a Unionist, give momentary aid to the Confederacy. Yet that same Southerner (to whom Congress paid federal funds after the Claims Commission approved his appeal) stood barred from federal employment, office, and juries because of a test oath of past loyalty. The jurors’ test oath was as much a failure as an identification of loyalty as any of the Civil War tests. Enforced diligently almost anywhere in the South, it crippled the courts. Unenforced as it came to be, it was a mere form, to which Southerners swore unthinkingly and uncaringly. And not one prosecution for the many perjuries ever arose, even when Radicals controlled the federal courts in the South.And so they failed, these loyalty tests of the Civil War and Reconstruction, for they did not measure loyalty. They failed for the nation, were condemned by the courts, and eventually were discarded. They failed also in the states, where the courts invalidated them or constitutional and legal reform repealed them. They failed, for as Samuel Butler said in Hudibras :

    He that imposes an oath makes it,
    Not he that for convenience takes it;
    Then how can any man be said
    To break an oath he never made?
    Harold Hyman in “Era of the Oath: Northern Loyalty Tests During the Civil War and Reconstruction”

  • “Meanwhile Lewis Stanton had commissioned his father’s friend George C. Gorham, former Secretary of the U. S. Senate, to write a biography. An intimate of the Stanton family, G. A. Mendall, confided to Frank A. Flower, a young Wisconsinite who was also interested in preparing a life of Stanton, that “Gorham is a pungent, bitter writer. . . . [There will be] a good deal more Gorham than Stanton in it.” And so it proved to be. When the two-volume Gorham book appeared in 1899, it fell far short of the hopes of the Stanton family and admirers, though it was a totally favorable view of its subject. In a review, George W. Julian unhappily admitted that “this is not the final Life of Edwin M. Stanton,” and concluded that Gorham had prepared “a healthy and inspiring story” for young people. Gorham’s Stanton remains, however, an indispensable source collection, for the author never returned to the Hutchison branch of the Stanton family the large number of manuscripts he had received from them to aid him in his task, some of which appear in the book.In 1905, using materials supplied by the Lamson members of the family, Flower published a Stanton biography. Stanton’s cousin, the wartime Ohio legislator Benjamin Stanton, after reading some of Flower’s manuscript, was sure that “you hit the character of Stanton exactly.” But Flower was no more capable than Gorham of delineating character or of constructively balancing conflicting pieces of evidence. He was a warm admirer of the War Secretary, and his book is as onesided a defense of its subject as its predecessor. Also, like Gorham, Flower failed to return to the Stanton family the papers he had received from them.

    Six years later, the diary of Gideon Welles went into print. Its caustic assertions concerning Stanton’s role in public affairs and his alleged inadequacies in matters of character made an immediate and lasting impression. Jesse Weik admitted that it had “completely upset my notion of Seward, Stanton, and Grant. I have always been such an admirer of all three that I sometimes regret that I ever read Mr. Welles’ estimate. But the great thing is his vindication of Andrew Johnson.”

    The vindication of Johnson continued for the next forty years, almost without contradiction. Then, in 1953, Fletcher Pratt published his study of Stanton, which, although it corrected some tenacious misapprehensions, did not provide the needed full study of his life. There, until now, the Stanton story has rested. — Harold Hyman in “Stanton: The Life and Times of Lincoln’s Secretary of War”

  • “Even more questionable is the thesis that a loyalty-security system is necessary at all. That the present apparatus has been conceived in haste and nourished in a substandard partisan environment is patent. There can be no doubt that it has been a major factor in the unsavory tendencies toward a fearful conformity which have marked the domestic American scene since the victorious close of World War II. Social tensions, translated into political pressures, brought loyalty-testing perilously close to disrupting much in the American system of government which the loyalty-security system was designed to protect.But the executive departments must protect themselves against future espionage and infiltration as well as against past acts. Indeed, fear of the past and the future, rather than judicious consideration of the present, has been the major obstacle to effective executive loyalty testing. At no time have any of the federal agencies supplied the primary need of a valid loyalty program–a definition, a standard, a viable agreement on what loyalty is. Lacking this prerequisite, subjectivity, partisanship, sheer stupidity, and vindictiveness in the operation of the executive system have justified the criticisms made of it.

    Harold  Hyman JPG Defining loyalty is a philosophical problem. The difficulties involved in its realization are endless. Men in the present and past have ignored this need. They relied on loyalty oaths and other tests which prescribed absolutes of past conduct for suspected disloyalists. Mere emulation of the past in an uncritical search for security in the future is to turn a deaf ear to history and to the present needs of political democracy involved in unprecedented crisis. If executive officials have advanced beyond Lincoln’s use of loyalty-oath tests, they have not yet reached Lincoln’s calm appraisal of human nature and democracy’s resiliency: “On principle, I dislike an oath which requires a man to swear he has not done wrong. It rejects the Christian principle of forgiveness on terms of repentance. I think it enough if a man does no wrong hereafter. ” …

    Three decades ago, William Butler Yeats offered this doleful prophecy of mid-century life:

    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Herman Melville was more hopeful almost a century ago when, as civil war and mass disloyalty rent the land, he offered this poetical plea for moderation and humility:

    Yea and Nay–
    Each hath his say;
    But God he keeps the middle way.
    None was by
    When He spread the sky;
    Wisdom is vain, and prophesy.

    Between Melville’s humanistic skepticism and Yeats’s dreary pessimism rests the measure of the current generation, seeking absolutes of loyalty and of much else. Absolute security, as Justice Holmes said in another connection, is achieved only in the graveyard. Never in America’s history have loyalty tests provided security. That security has emerged from within, from strengths garnered by lives and sacrifices freely offered. Until the past history of the inutility of loyalty tests to provide loyalty is recognized, American unity and Americans’ rights will suffer. — Harold Hyman in “To Try Men’s Souls: Loyalty Tests in American History”

  • Hyman, who has served as president of the American Society for Legal History for the past two years and vice president two years before that, has been a history professor at Rice for 27 years. For him, interacting with the younger generation through his association gives him great satisfaction. More specifically, several of his former history doctoral students are set to present papers at the association’s annual meeting, which will be held in Houston later this month.
    “It’s a very good feeling to see intellectual offspring doing good things,” Hyman said. “Being president is a wonderful experience. It’s gratifying to see that so many of them [younger members] are energetic and talented. So there’s no reason to cry about the younger generation.”
    The society is a national as well as international scholarly society made up of about 2,000 members who share an interest in the history of law and the constitution. Members include historians of law, law academics, law practitioners, judges, social scientists and “a scattering of wonderful amateurs” from all 50 states and abroad, Hyman said.
    “This society is one of few forums where practicing lawyers and academics [historians] can come together,” Hyman said. “The best experience is just to see the seriousness members take. We create this arena where people can talk that otherwise wouldn’t talk. And we encourage that.”
    The society has made important contributions to scholarship with papers on race, gender, law, legal rights in wartime, among others, Hyman said.
    “We’ve learned a great deal out of the research this society encourages,” he said. “I’ve been honored to be elected.”
    Hyman has been a member of the society for 45 years and will pass along the title in late October at the annual meeting. — Harold Hyman in a Rice Univerity article on the occassion of his retirement from the presidency of the American Society for Legal History

About Harold M. Hyman

  • “For more than a generation J. G. Randall’s Constitutional Problems under Lincoln (first published in 1926 and revised in 1951) has stood alone in its field, so exhausative in its research, so authoritative in its judgments as to be the virtually unquestioned on the constitutional history of the Civil war era. Now Randall’s work faces a serious challenger in Harold M. Hyman’s A More Perfect Union, a comprehensive reinterpretation of American constitutional developments during the 1860s… To examine these and other major differences would require a book at least as long as Randall’s or Hyman’s. It is enough here to say that both books have great merit. On technical matters, such as legislative history and provisions of the several confiscations acts, students will continue to turn to Randall’s precise and elegant chapters. For the broader intellectual, social and political background of such legislation, they must consult Hyman. In short, Randall’s study has not yet been replaced, but it finally has in Hyman’s book a worthy companion on the shelf of indispensable books on American constitutional history.” — David Herbert Donald reviewing “A More Perfect Union: The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the Constitution” in the “Journal of American History”
  • “This is “Civil War and Reconstruction” constitutional history in a new key. Although the author deals with a number of constitutional problems that Randall and his contemporaries touched upon nearly two generations ago, his focus of interest is different….Hyman is concerned above all with the fashion in which the successive shocks of secessions and the subsequent suppression of a large-scale rebellion transformed the living constitutional system into a dynamic instrument adequate to all the exigencies of battle, conquest, occupation, emancipation, and finally reconstruction that successive crises called for….All this is excellent….But Hyman’s study, in aggregate assessment, must be set down as superior work. — Alfred H. Kelly reviewing “A More Perfect Union: The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the Constitution” n the “Journal of Southern History”
  • Brilliantly displays every characteristic of a definitive study–depth, range, detail, point of view, and lucidity….Disposes, once and for all, of the durable myth of [Stanton’s] complicity in Lincoln’s assassination, and clarifies, to a large extent, his highly complicated role in the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. — New Yorker reviewing “Stanton, the Life and Times of Lincoln’s Secretary of War”
  • Union and Confidence: The 1860s is the third volume in “a retrospective series” commissioned by Dun and Bradstreet Companies, Inc. Harold Hyman, among the nations better-known Civil War historians, was requested to probe “the business aspect of the 1860s as well as the political and social history of the era.” …The book, in a measure, is a compilation of generalizations, stated forthrightly and competently…. All Civil War historians will not agree with every interpretative comment or generalization. Some will disagree with more than others-and that is the way it should be. But all will welcome Union and Confidence as a provocative and scholarly book. — Frank L. Klement reviewing “Union and Confidence: The 1860s” in “American Historical Review”
  • “This is constitutional history as it should be written, but seldom is. Combining an excellent sketch of Chase’s life with the social, intellectual, and moral climate of the times, Hyman provides a brilliant analysis of two landmark decisions. He also presents a stimulating, original, and provocative treatment of the Chase Court that sheds new light on our understanding of the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments.” — John Niven, editor of The Salmon P. Chase Papers reviewing “The Reconstruction Justice of Salmon P. Chase In Re Turner and Texas v. White”
  • “A profound, highly disturbing, illuminating, thoroughly documented study of the oath as a loyalty test in the U.S…. Extremely important.” — Library Journal reviewing “To Try Men’s Souls Loyalty Tests in American History”
  • Harold Hyman JPG “Hyman set out to tell the story of the powerful Houston law firm Vinson and Elkins as an exercise in legal history, a field that he believes is the poorer for its lack of good histories of firms; this lack, he suggests, is primarily due to the difficulty that historians face in gaining access to firm records. Although many scholars have faced this problem, Hyman has been amazingly successful in his own efforts to find a firm agreeable to giving him access to personnel and records on a fairly impressive scale… All in all, six hundred dense pages is an awful lot of reading for the history of just one law firm. The patient reader is, however, rewarded with a comprehensive sweep to the tale and with a fair view of the changes in the firm and in the law and politics that its lawyers practiced. — Steve Sheppard reviewing “Craftsmanship and Character: A History of the Vinson & Elkins Law Firm of Houston, 1917-1997”

Basic Facts

Teaching Positions:
City College (now City College of the City University of New York), New York, NY, instructor in modern history, 1950-52;
Earlham College, Richmond, IN, assistant professor of history, 1952-55;
University of California, Los Angeles, visiting assistant professor of American history, 1955- 56;
Arizona State University, Tempe, associate professor of American history, 1956-57;
University of California, Los Angeles, professor of history, 1963-68;
Rice University, Houston, TX, William P. Hobby Professor of History, 1968–, chairman of history department, 1968-70.

Area of Research:

B.A. 1948, University of California at Los Angeles;
M.A. in History, 1950 Columbia University;
Ph.D. in History, 1952 Columbia University

Major Publications:

  • Era of the Oath: Northern Loyalty Tests during the Civil War and Reconstruction, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1954, reprinted, Hippocrene Books, 1978).
  • To Try Men’s Souls: Loyalty Tests in American History, (University of California Press, 1959, reprinted, Greenwood Press, 1981).
  • (With Benjamin P. Thomas) Stanton: The Life and Times of Lincoln’s Secretary of War, (Knopf, 1962, reprinted, Greenwood Press, 1980).
  • Soldiers and Spruce: The Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen, the Army’s Labor Union of World War I, (University of California Press, 1963).
  • A More Perfect Union: The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the Constitution, (Knopf, 1973).
  • Union and Confidence: The 1860s, (Crowell, 1976).
  • (With William Wiecek) Equal Justice under Law: Constitutional History, 1835-1875, (Harper, 1982).
  • Quiet Past and Stormy Present?: War Powers in American History, (American History Association, 1986).
  • American Singularity: The 1787 Northwest Ordinance, the 1862 Homestead- Morrill Acts, and the 1944 G.I. Bill, (University of Georgia Press, 1986).
  • Oleander Odyssey: The Kempners of Galveston, Texas, 1854-1980s, (Texas A & M University Press, 1990).
  • The Reconstruction Justice of Salmon P. Chase: In Re Turner and Texas v. White, (University Press of Kansas, 1997).
  • Craftsmanship and Character: A History of the Vinson & Elkins Law Firm of Houston, 1917-1997, (University of Georgia Press, 1998).

Editor, Contributor, Joint Author:

  • The Radical Republicans and Reconstruction Policy, 1861-1870, (Bobbs- Merrill, 1966).
  • New Frontiers of the American Reconstruction, (University of Illinois Press, 1966).
  • (With Leonard W. Levy) Freedom and Reform: Essays in Honor of Henry Steele Commager, (Harper, 1967).
  • H. C. Allen and others, Heard ’round the World: The Impact Abroad of the Civil War, (Knopf, 1969).
  • (And author of introduction) Carleton Parker, The Casual Laborer and Othe Essays, (new edition of 1919 original, University of Washington Press, 1972).
  • (And author of introduction, with wife, Ferne Hyman) The Circuit Court Opinions of Salmon Portland Chase, (new edition of 1875 original, Da Capo Press, 1972).
  • (And author of introduction) Sidney George Fisher, The Trial of the Constitution, (new edition of 1862 original, Da Capo Press, 1972).
  • Edward McPherson, The Political History of the United States of America during the Great Rebellion, 1860-1865, (new edition of 1865 original, Da Capo, 1972).
  • (With Hans L. Trefousse) McPherson, Handbook of Politics, six volumes, new edition of 1894 original, Da Capo, 1972-73.
  • (With Trefousse) McPherson, The Political History of the United States of America during the Period of Reconstruction, new edition of 1871 original, Da Capo, 1973.
  • (With Kermit L. Hall and Leon V. Sigal) The Constitutional Convention as an Amending Device, American Historical Association/American Political Science Association, 1981.

Editor, with Stuart Bruchey, of the “American Legal and Constitutional History Series,” Garland Publishing, 1986-87. Member of board of editors, Reviews in American History, 1964–, Ulysses S. Grant Association, 1968– American Journal of Legal History, 1970–, and Journal of American History, 1970-74.

Awards and Grants:

Albert J. Beveridge award, American Historical Association, 1952, and Sidney Hillman award both for Era of the Oath: Northern Loyalty Tests During the Civil War and Reconstruction;
Sidney Hillman award for To Try Men’s Souls: Loyalty Tests in American History.

Additional Info:

U.S. Marine Corps, 1941-45; became master technical sergeant.
U.S. Veterans Administration, Los Angeles, CA, rehabilitation officer, 1946-48.
Member of the American Historical Association, Organization of American Historians, Illinois State Historical Society, Los Angeles Civil War Round Table.

Posted on Sunday, July 30, 2006 at 7:51 PM

History Doyens: Walter T.K. Nugent


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

Walter T.K. Nugent, 7-17-06

What They’re Famous For

Acclaimed historian Walter Nugent is Emeritus professor of history since 2000 and was the Andrew V. Tackes Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, where he has taught since 1984. Walter Nugent JPGBefore that he was Professor of History at Indiana University for twenty-one years. As a visiting professor he has also taught and lived in England, Israel, Germany, Poland, and Ireland. He has published 11 books and well over a hundred essays and reviews on American and comparative history. In 2000 he was awarded the Caughey prize of Western History Association for best book in Western history for Into the West: The Story of Its People which has been called “the most comprehensive and fascinating account to date of the peopling of the American West.” and an “epic social-demographic history.” He lives with his wife, the historian Suellen Hoy, in Highland Park, Illinois.

Personal Anecdote

Demography is destiny, or so it’s been for me. My enormous good luck is to have become a historian and to have been a faculty member at two excellent research universities. Good demographic timing helped produce this result, starting with being born in 1935, during the Depression. The birth rate was the lowest ever up to then. Whenever people looked for someone from my small cohort, my chances of being picked were always good.

I was also the fortunate beneficiary of discrimination — my mother was forced to quit her elementary-teaching job after she became pregnant with me. As a result, her considerable force and talent as a teacher focused on me, so that I was reading, writing, and reckoning at an early age. Two uncles, one a brother of my mother’s and the other of my father’s, both Catholic priests, also invested in me: one put me through college and saw to it that I learned how to play and sing liturgical music. That let me earn my way through graduate school. The other gave me a spinet piano when I was five and also opened my ears to Beethoven and other great music with his collection of ’78s. Benedictine monks, my undergraduate teachers at a small college in Kansas, opened for me a broad universe of history, literature, and philosophy. Most influential were Brendan Downey, a Missourian with an Oxford degree in English; Victor Gellhaus, a Kansas medievalist whose Ph.D. was from Munich; Peter Beckman, a historian of America and the West; and Eugene Dehner, an inspiring zoologist and ornithologist.

In grad school, I thought I would write a dissertation on whether there was a Catholic side to Progressivism. I did such a lousy job on my orals in that field that the faculty member I’d talked to (lengthily) about it said, “forget it.” I realized much later that the topic would have been a quagmire; I was extremely lucky to have failed my way out of it. Instead, with some personal knowledge of small farmers on the Great Plains, I decided to see if sources substantiated the then-current idea that the 1890’s Populists had been anti-Semites and nativists. I returned to Kansas, and found out that they weren’t (though some others were). This produced a dissertation, a book (The Tolerant Populists), and job offers. Again, demography favored me. Baby-boomers were entering college, enrollments were soaring, and the job market for young would-be academics was hotter than ever before or since.

Walter  Nugent JPGIndiana University became my home for over twenty years. Then and now, it has had strong international programs. For nine years I had the honor and pleasure of directing its Overseas Study Programs. Watching the huge changes in hundreds of undergraduates who went on junior-year programs, from provincials to young cosmopolitans, was probably the most rewarding work I ever did as an educator. Travels to programs also brought invitations to lecture in Europe and Israel. In the mid-1980s, just under fifty (a good age for such invitations), the University of Notre Dame asked me to become dean of its College of Arts and Letters, which brought with it an endowed chair. I wisely decided that I’d had enough of administration and declined. But when they offered me the endowed chair anyway, I accepted and enjoyed a decade and a half of well-supported research and teaching.

After my book on Populism, the next two were in Gilded-Age economic history. Then, while I was a dean at Indiana, I turned to textbook projects. Some collapsed; others became books (e.g., From Centennial to World War, on the Gilded Age and Progressive Era). A long effort to write a text for the American history survey course fizzled out, but during it I became convinced of the great importance of the demographic substrate of passing events. This led me both to quantitative data and to Braudel. American history, it seemed to me, could be arranged into three plateaus, defined by declining rates of population growth. Just then I was invited to give the 1979 Paley lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the three-fold scheme became the lectures, called “The Graying of America,” and then a small book, Structures of American Social History (1981).

Next came migration. Still influenced by Braudel, I wrote Crossings: The Great Transatlantic Migrations, 1870-1914 (1991), which treated the Atlantic and the lands around it – Europe, North America, South America – as a unified arena of human motion and action in the “age of steam.” During those years I also wrote essays on comparative migration and settlement, the processes that formed the American West. People came there from all points of the compass; the traditional east-to-west Turnerian story did not explain it. The result was Into the West: The Story of Its People (1999). About then, I retired from teaching and indulged myself by writing a family history, pulling together about twenty-five years of sporadic archival research into Making Our Way (2003). My current project is to connect the territorial acquisitions of the United States since 1782 to the process of settlement. The continental acquisitions ended in 1854 and the settlement process in the 1920s, but offshore acquisitions continued past 1945 and global empire-building into our own day. The new book will be called The Habit of Empire.

If my luck continues to hold, I will continue writing history through my eighth decade and beyond, as have exemplars such as Ed Morgan, Bob Remini, Bill McNeill, and Bernie Weisberger. If it doesn’t, I can always be thankful for an enormously satisfying (as well as lucky) life as a historian. And I haven’t even mentioned my family. That’s for another time.


By Walter Nugent

  • The Populists have been accused of nativism, both of a personal kind and of an ideological kind; instead, they were friendlier and more receptive to foreign persons and foreign institutions than the average of their contemporary political opponents. They have been accused of ‘conspiracy-mindedness’; for them, however, tangible fact quite eclipsed neurotic fiction. They have been accused of anti-Semitism, both personal and ideological; instead they consistently got along well with their Jewish neighbors and consistently refrained from extending their dislike of certain financiers, who happened to be Jews, to Jews in general. They have been accused of chauvinism and jingoism, especially with reference to the Spanish-American War; instead, such lukewarm support as they gave collectively to Cuban intervention was based on quite different grounds, and as a group they strongly opposed the imperialism that the war engendered…. In the case of Kansas, the largest of the wheat-belt Populist states, the… principal criticisms of Populism voiced by recent writers… should be replaced with a viewpoint so much in contrast as to be practically the opposite…. [T]he Populists of Kansas … were people who were seeking the solution of concrete economic distress through the instrumentality of a political party…. This involved profoundly the political co-operation of the foreign-born, and it involved a deep respect and receptivity for non-American institutions and ideas. — Walter Nugent in “The Tolerant Populists: Kansas Populism and Nativism” (1963)
  • Anyone who has undertaken historical research or who has prepared a set of course lectures in history knows that these things involve a creative process…. But the beginning undergraduate… does not realize this. History is something fixed on a printed page; how it arrived there he seldom asks, and when he does ask he can find no answer. In his beginning chemistry or zoology course he is treated to something very different…. he finds himself in a laboratory where he must himself become involved…. If it is important for him to know how science is done, shouldn’t it also be worth knowing how history is done? — Walter Nugent in “Creative History: An Introduction to Historical Study” (1967)
  • The subject of this book is the response of groups in American society to changing social conditions in the years immediately following the Civil War…. In order to sketch these group changes… I will relate them here to a question of public policy that was also an economic issue, and a moral issue. This was, in contemporary language, the “money question”… fundamentally the question of what the proper standard of money ought to be. For various reasons, to be described, this was very close to saying what the proper moral standard ought to be. — Walter Nugent in “Money and American Society, 1865-1880” (1968)
  • The central observation of the book [is]… that the rate of population growth, although nearly always declining since the seventeenth century, did not drop steadily or constantly. The decline instead forms a pattern of several sudden drops from higher to lower plateaus. That pattern allows us to divide American history into periods in a new way and on a solid factual base. This book is not a full-scale demographic history, but a framework for a social history based on a demographic observation. — Walter Nugent in “Structures of American Social History” (1981)
  • Crossings: The Great Transatlantic Migrations, 1870-1914 JPG…[I]f, as Braudel demonstrated, the Mediterranean was the brilliant center of the late sixteenth-century world, surely the Atlantic was the center of the late nineteenth…. Here… is the demographic mosaic of the transatlantic region from 1870 to 1914…. That region, for present purposes, includes Europe, North America, South America, and to a slight degree Africa. All of the societies of the region experienced natural demographic growth, that is, more births than deaths, but at widely varying rates. They also experienced change through migration, some as donors of people, others as receivers, and a few as both…. The cumulative picture of movement is one of a swarming or churning of people back and forth across the Atlantic highway, fed by growing railroad networks on either side of it. –- Walter Nugent in “Crossings: The Great Transatlantic Migrations, 1870-1914” (1992)
  • Into the West describes how the [American] West got its people: why they came and mostly stayed. What myths, ideals, and dreams drove them there? Who were they? Why did they make the West more urban, earlier, than almost anywhere else in the country? How did it become more ethnically and racially diverse than any other region…? How did the West lead the nation’s profound change from a farming people to city dwellers and suburbanites, for the West was the final, most concentrated cockpit of that transformation?…. This book is not driven by any thesis. But it does have one continuing plot line, which is also a premise and a hope. The briefest way to phrase it is e pluribus unum. … The national center of gravity has shifted and continues to shift. The worldview westward, from Manhattan to vagueness, no longer suffices. The myth of homesteading has already been consigned to the past, and gold rushing, California dreaming, and the macho cowboy are overdue for overhaul. A new national story, one that must include all the American people, whatever their ancestors’ origins, is also overdue. — Walter Nugent in “Into the West: The Story of Its People” (1999)
  • If this story has a moral, it may be: don’t be shocked at whom your grandchildren marry or how well they do. –- Walter Nugent in “Making Our Way: A Family History of Nugents, Kings, and Others” (2003)

About Walter Nugent

  • “Conceding that Kansas Populists were sometimes ‘confused, ill-informed, and behind the times,’ the author nevertheless makes a vigorous defense of their basic rationality and common sense – and this without rudeness or discourtesy to writers of the opposite persuasion. He denies that the Populists retreated to a dream world of ‘agrarian Arcadias,’ or that paranoiac thinking was characteristic of them…. His book is an even-tempered and valuable contribution to the literature on Populism.” –- C. Vann Woodward in Mississippi Valley Historical Review, on “The Tolerant Populists”
  • “Its greatest value lies in his demolition of the charge that Populists, at least those in Kansas, were anti-Semitic, anti-alien, and xenophobic.” –- Paul. W. Gates in Political Science Quarterly, on “The Tolerant Populists”
  • “On the level of the narrative itself, there is no doubt that Nugent has made a solid and fresh contribution to historical knowledge…. His scholarship is generally sound, his prose is vigorous, and he clarifies the internal relationship between the various aspects of the money question in a coherent synthesis. Most important, he keeps the subject more firmly in international context than any of his predecessors, combining his American materials with original work in European archives…. The book is a welcome and useful addition to the cumulative scholarship that is re-shaping our understanding of political and economic developments in the post-Civil War period.” –- Morton Rothstein in Political Science Quarterly on “Money and American Society, 1865-1880”
  • What gives Nugent’s book its distinctive character is the author’s use of the money question to explain why the 1870s constituted a ‘watershed of the future.’ Although well aware that other factors were present, Nugent contends that, in the context of the depression, it was the money question that ‘turned Arcadia into a battlefield.’ The monetary discourse of the 1870s was to be echoed in the 1890s, and its ‘spawn… were hardened rhetoric, class divisions, social antagonism, and the inability to consider a serious, wide, and realistic range of answers to the social concerns of the time.'” — Sidney Fine in Journal of American History, on “Money and American Society”
  • Professor Nugent’s rather inexpressive title conceals a study which should be read by all historians of the United States. It may be that a handful of them who have been trained in demographic skills will be acquainted with what he has to say; the rest, if they are honest with themselves, will find that in brief compass he has marshaled an array of facts and figures about America’s population which will force rigorous rethinking about the main trends and many of the formative factors in the development of the country. … [B]y relating each and every development in the population story to its social and economic antecedents or consequences it compels a reconsideration of the factors which lie at the heart of the American experience and obliges historians to think again about which of them are significant. -– The Economist (London), on “Structures of American Social History”
  • [G]iven the present state of historical research in American demographic development, this small volume is an extremely useful survey of what we know and, by implication at least, of what we do not know about the subject…. This book deserves to be popular among both those seeking a general introduction to the demographic foundations of social history and among historians and graduate students in search of research topics. — Allan G. Bogue in American Historical Review, on “Structures of American Social History”
  • “Nugent’s work is the ideal – the only – narrative companion to any quantitative analysis of late-nineteenth century population movements in the Atlantic economy. Crossings is a first, an ambitious and well-executed attempt to condense, synthesize, and re-examine from an international comparative perspective the captivating stories of the millions on the move in the age of mass migration.” –- Alan M. Taylor in Journal of Economic History on “Crossings: The Great Transatlantic Migrations, 1870-1914”
  • “This is a well-researched, wide-ranging, and serious study of migration from Europe to America (North and South)…. The U.S. experience is compared to immigration to Canada, Argentina, and Brazil and is found to be different but not unique or exceptional. The study emphasizes strong underlying similarities in immigration to North and South America in employment patterns, the effect of the expanding frontier, and the demographic structure of the immigrant population. Nugent… has given us a brilliant analysis of a critical chapter of migration history…. — Ira Glazier in American Historical Review on “Crossings”
  • Nugent’s primary purpose is ‘to pull together in one place the main contours of population change in the Atlantic region,’ 1870 to 1914, and to test the validity of two interpretive concepts, American exceptionalism and the theory of demographic transition, a corollary of modernization theory…. [T]he author succeeds admirably well in achieving his goals…. Nugent’s study, well illustrated and documented, deserves a wide readership and will become a must for courses on migration history. It is analytically incisive and illuminating by its comparative approach. It also stands as a model on how to overcome national narrowness.” — Dirk Hoerder in International Migration Review on “Crossings”
  • Into the West JPG“Walter Nugent’s Into the West is an engaging and important book about “how the West got its people.” It is not really a demographic history, nor is it simply a history of migration, although Nugent gives at least some account of virtually every western immigrant group. It is instead an attempt to discern the motives involved in movement: why people came and why they stayed. And since motives do not translate directly into results, it tries to discern the actual results of the demographic churning of the western part of the continent…. Nugent writes compellingly about homesteading and agrarian settlement, a topic that has largely gone out of fashion…. He points to California with its own distinctive tradition of latifundia as another, longer lasting version of rural society and agricultural landholding. -– Richard White in Journal of American History on “Into the West”

Basic Facts

Teaching Positions:
University of Notre Dame, Andrew V. Tackes Professor of History, 1984-2000; emeritus, 2000-present;
Washburn University of Topeka, Instructor in History, 1957-58;
Kansas State University, Temporary Instructor 1961; Assistant Professor of American History, 1961-63;
Indiana University, Assistant Professor of History 1963-1964; Associate Professor 1964-68; Professor of History 1968-84. Associate Dean, College of Arts & Sciences, 1967-71, and in Central Administration, 1972-76; Director of University Overseas Study Programs, 1967-76; Acting Chair, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Literatures, 1968-69; Chair, Department of History, 1974-77.

Columbia University, lecturer, summer 1966;
New York University, lecturer, summer 1967;
Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Fulbright Senior Lecturer, 1978-79;
Paley Lecturer in American Civilization, Feb. 1979; lecturer summer 1982;
Warsaw University, visiting scholar, spring 1979, spring 1982;
Hamburg University, visiting scholar, summer 1980;
Tel Aviv University, Kenneth B. Keating lecturer, Nov. 1987;
University College Dublin, Mary Ball Washington Fulbright chair, 1991-92;
Pacific Lutheran University, Schnackenberg lecturer, 1993;
Huntington Library, Ray Allen Billington lecturer, 1993; Steinbeck Centennial lecturer, Oct. 2002;
University of Indianapolis, Sutphin lecturer, Oct. 1999;
University of Utah, David E. Miller lecturer, Nov. 1999;
Calvin College, Mellema lecturer, Apr. 2001.

Area of Research:
American West; Gilded Age/Progressive Era; demographic history, especially migration; comparative history

St. Benedict’s College (Atchison, Kansas), A.B. in history, 1954
Georgetown University, M.A. in European history, 1956
University of Chicago, Ph.D. in American history, 1961

Major Publications:

  • The Tolerant Populists: Kansas Populism and Nativism, (University of Chicago Press, 1963).
  • Creative History: An Introduction to Historical Study, (J. B. Lippincott, 1967; Second edition 1973).
  • The Money Question during Reconstruction, (W. W. Norton, 1967).
  • Money and American Society, 1865-1880, (Free Press, 1968).
  • Modern America, (Houghton Mifflin, 1973)
  • From Centennial to World War: American Society 1876-1917, (Bobbs-Merrill, 1977)
  • Structures of American Social History, (Indiana University Press, 1981; paper, 1985)
  • Crossings: The Great Transatlantic Migrations, 1870-1914, (Indiana University Press, 1992. Revised edition, 1995).
  • Into the West: The Story of Its People, (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999).
  • Making Our Way: A Family History of Nugents, Kings, and Others, (privately printed, 2003).

Editor, Contributor, Joint Author:

  • (with Martin Ridge), The American West: The Reader, (Indiana University Press, 1999).
  • (0riginal co-editor with Andrzej Bartnicki), Historia Stanów Zjednoczonych. (History of the United States), 5 vols.; (Warsaw 1995).
  • (co-edited with Malcolm Rohrbough), The Trans-Appalachian Frontier, Book series, Six volumes now in print, since 1996.
  • (co-edited with Martin Ridge), The American West in the Twentieth Century, Book series, Six volumes now in print, since 1991
  • (consultant and co-author), Chronicle of the American West, Forthcoming, 2007.


Newberry Library fellow, summer 1962;
Guggenheim fellow, 1964-65;
St. Benedict’s College, D. Litt. honoris causa, 1968;
NEH summer seminars, director, 1979, 1984, 1986;
NEH-Huntington Library fellow, 1979-80;
Walter Nugent  JPGIndiana Association of Historians, President, 1980-81;
Mead Distinguished Research Fellow, Huntington Library, 1985;
Beinecke Fellow in Western Americana, Yale University, 1990;
Society of American Historians, elected a fellow, 1991;
Warsaw University, Medal of Merit, 1992;
Choice outstanding academic book, for Crossings, 1992;
U.S. Information Agency, Academic Specialist grant to Brazil, 1996;
Immigration History Society, elected to executive board, 1996-99;
Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, President, 2000-02;
Caughey prize of Western History Association for best book in Western history (Into the West), 2000;
Western History Association, honorary life member, 1998; President, 2005-06.

Additional Info:

U.S.-Israel Educational Foundation (the Fulbright Program in Israel), Board of Directors, 1985-89.
Organist, St. Bride’s Church, Chicago, 1955-57, 1958-61.
Hadassah Associates (life member).
Contributor to professional journals since 1962
Referee or consultant to various publishers and journals; to universities on tenure and promotion cases.
Member of peer review panels for Council on International Exchange of Scholars (the Fulbright Program), National Endowment for the Humanities, Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education, the Huntington Library;
Member of various book- and article-prize committees of the Western History Association, United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa, Agricultural History Society.
Member, Council on Foreign Relations (New York), 1984-99.

Posted on Sunday, July 16, 2006 at 7:57 PM

History Doyens: Winthrop D. Jordan


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

Winthrop D. Jordan, 7-3-06

Winthrop D. Jordan passed away on February 23, 2007. Click here for his obituary.

This HNN Doyen profile was published in the summer of 2006.

What They’re Famous For

Winthrop D. Jordan is the William F. Winter Professor of History F.A.P. Barnard Distinguished Professor Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Mississippi. He received his AB from Harvard University, his MA from Clark University, and his Ph.D. from Brown University where he was awarded the Distinguishing Alumnus citation from the Graduate School. Jordan was briefly an Instructor of history at Phillips Exeter Academy and later a Professor of history at University of California, Berkeley, 1963-82, where he was also Associate Dean for Minority Group Affairs Graduate Division., 1968-70. He is the author of several books, including the award winning and groundbreaking White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 and Tumult And Silence At Second Creek, he is also the co-author of several textbooks for junior high and high school students. Jordan is the recipient of seven book awards, including the National Book Award and a two time winner of the Bancroft Prize.

Jordan retired from teaching in 2004. To mark this event his former students edited and contributed essays as a tribute to the career of one of America’s great thinkers and perhaps the most influential American historian of his generation. The anthology was published in 2005 as Affect and Power: Essays on Sex, Slavery, Race, and Religion in Appreciation of Winthrop D. Jordan. In the introduction Sheila L. Skemp described Jordan’s impact on his students: “Jordan’s legendary seminar-an introduction to the discipline, a requirement for every M.A. student in the Department of History, and experience no student will easily forget… He teaches his students to have an open mind about just what those voices from the past are saying. No matter how relevant his own work is, Jordan never allows his own political or ethical agenda to interfere with his reading of the sources, and he urged his students to put their own preconceived notions aside as well. When their work led them in new directions and they arrived, often despite themselves, at unexpected conclusions, no one was more delighted than Jordan to discover that common wisdom is neither infallible nor particularly wise.”

Personal Anecdote

My distinguished medical career ended when as a college sophomore I got a D- in Chem 1A. I took no history courses in college. Partly this was owing to being a history professor’s son, but also because I had taken a great deal of history at the secondary school level. Yet the principal reason was that Harvard offered a much less demanding major in its new Department of Social Relations. That major offered an appealingly wide range of courses in the social sciences and, fully as important, a lot less work. I spent nearly as much time singing with the Harvard Krokodiloes as going to classes.

After graduating in Social Relations I spent nearly a year in a home-office management training program at the Prudential Life Insurance Company. After several months at their headquarters in Newark, I realized that my interests and abilities were less than a good fit with bureaucratic management. So I cast about for a job teaching something ? anything (perhaps English, Physics, French, or History) ? at a prep school. Serendipitously, it turned out that Phillips Exeter was looking for someone to teach history, and we agreed that I should start work on an M.A. in U.S. history at Clark University. Teaching the extremely bright students at Exeter led me toward getting a Ph.D. In a stroke of good fortune I was denied admission at Harvard and then chose Brown because I was admitted there. I gradually became aware of how lucky I was, as I became interested in early American history because of the marvelous books at the John Carter Brown Library. Also, perhaps because of my undergraduate acquaintance with cultural anthropology, I found dealing with the 16th-18th centuries interesting and intellectually profitable because their denizens lived in cultures so different from modern ones.

At that time (the latter 1950s) the field of history was still dominated by my fellow male “WASPS.” In the 1960s I enthusiastically welcomed signs of broadening in the profession and especially the slackening of the outrageous, falsely genteel anti-Semitism that had sapped the moral integrity of the old establishment.

Winthrop Jordan JPGThus my undergraduate background meant that my approach to history was strongly influenced by the social sciences of the early 1950s. For my Ph.D. dissertation, I chose a subject that I thought of as a study of an old culture which was still imposing a crushing weight on the nation’s publicly stated political and moral ideals. More particularly, I aimed to understand the large component of emotion and indeed irrationality that characterized the attitudes of the white majority toward “Negroes” in this country. Certainly “ideas” mattered in such an investigation, but they were often so blatantly absurd (especially in the “Age of Reason”) that I was constantly led to pondering the cultural dimensions of affect concerning “race.” No doubt I was influenced by the developing civil rights movement of the late 1950s, though I steered clear of reading much about it in newspapers. More important, the revelations about the wartime Holocaust in Europe loomed over the social sciences in those years; indeed it was no longer possible to think about “racial prejudice” without being acutely aware of the horrifying consequences of politicized anti-Semitism. I thus came to history with intellectual interests and perspectives that virtually dictated the kinds of topics that would engage my attention throughout my historical career. In addition, my mother’s side of the family was still steeped in a Quaker and strongly abolitionist tradition. Less obviously, my exposure to the barbarous prose of the social sciences led to a determination on my part to write in language that at least attempted a measure of grace and clarity.

My dissertation dealt with a matter about which historians had written little. Even after Kenneth Stampp’s revolutionary study, The Peculiar Institution (1956) and the massive amount of research stimulated by Stanley Elkins’s assertions about “Sambo” in his Slavery (1959), white opinions about blacks took a back seat to “black culture,” which by the early 1970s was being called the “hottest field” in historical studies.

Many years after publication of White over Black (1968) I wrote more directly about certain black slaves as they became involved in a conspiracy near Natchez, Mississippi. Over this long period, however, I also published short pieces on “other” subjects that seemed to me closely related to racial attitudes in American culture. These topics included past definitions of the temporal stages of the human life-cycle as well as familial imagery in political thought. Yet there was indeed an intellectual glue that bound such explorations together with my further inquiries into important matters about race that White over Black had failed to cover, including the culture of Tudor England and development of the United States’s unique one-drop racial rule. If I had to name this glue, I would call it “affect.”

Because I had focussed on “thought” that was not intellective, I warmly welcomed a recent retrospective assessment of White over Black by Lawrence Shore in History and Theory which concluded that the book had shown that “if you ignore the evidence it is easy to deny the power of the irrational.” Indeed such persistent denial must be easy, since so many historians had and have been achieving it for years. Denial has recently spilled over into discussions of “race.” I hope soon to write about the modern social and scientific conceptualizations of “race,” which has proven such an appallingly dangerous term that many critics want to ban the word itself and to claim, mistakenly, that it is totally foreign to natural science including evolutionary biology. For present purposes I will merely emphasize that human beings constitute a single entity, whether it is called a single species, a breeding population, a gene pool, children of God, or the family of man. I personally find great value and aptness in all these designations. My doubts arise only in regard to the second term in the species name, Homo sapiens.


By Winthrop D. Jordan

  • This study attempts to answer a simple question: What were the attitudes of white men toward Negroes during the first two centuries of European and African settlement in what became the United States of America? It has taken a rather long time to find out, chiefly because I have had to educate myself about many matters concerning which at the outset I was very ignorant. This book does something to answer the question, but I am aware that it affords only partial illumination. Like most practicing historians today, I have assumed the task of explaining how things actually were while at the same time thinking that no one will ever really know. Which is to say that this book is one man’s answer and that other men have and will advance others. I hope that mine is a reasonably satisfactory one, but I shall be enormously surprised— and greatly disappointed—if I am not shown to be wrong on some matters. — — Winthrop D. Jordan in “White Over Black American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812”
  • “The dilemma was apparent. Virginia’s distress was then America’s writ large. The white American wanted, indeed had, to remain faithful to himself and to his great experiment. In doing so he was caught between the necessity, on the one hand, of maintaining his identity as the fruit of England’s and Europe’s loins and as the good seed of civilization planted in the wilderness, and on the other, the necessity of remaining faithful to his own image as the world’s exemplar of liberty and equalitarianism, as the best hope of the civilization which he cherished. Whichever path he took he seemed to abandon part of himself, so that neither could be taken with assurance or good conscience. Individual Americans divided according to their private necessities, while at the same time the nation divided in response to pressures generated by economic, demographic, and cultural differences, but no American and no section of America could rest at ease with the decision. For Virginians especially, for many Americans, and for the nation as a whole it was impossible to make a clear cut choice.
    White  Over Black JPG Within every white American who stood confronted by the Negro, there had arisen a perpetual duel between his higher and lower natures. His cultural conscience–his Christianity, his humanitarianism, his ideology of liberty and equality–demanded that he regard and treat the Negro as his brother and his countryman, as his equal. At the same moment, however, many of his most profound urges, especially his yearning to maintain the identity of his folk, his passion for domination, his sheer avarice, and his sexual desire, impelled him toward conceiving and treating the Negro as inferior to himself, as an American leper. At closer view, though, the duel appears more complex than a conflict between the best and worst in the white man’s nature, for in a variety of ways the white man translated his “worst” into his “best.” Raw sexual aggression became retention of purity, and brutal domination became faithful maintenance of civilized restraints. These translations, so necessary to the white man’s peace of mind, were achieved at devastating cost to another people. But the enormous toll of human wreckage was by no means paid exclusively by the Negro, for the subtle translation of basic urges in the white man necessitated his treating the Negro in a fashion which tortured his own conscience, that very quality in his being which necessitated those translations. So the peace of mind the white man sought by denying his profound inexorable drives toward creation and destruction (a denial accomplished by affirmations of virtue in himself and depravity in the Negro) was denied the white man; he sought his own peace at the cost of others and found none. In fearfully hoping to escape the animal within himself the white man debased the Negro, surely, but at the same time he debased himself.
    Conceivably there was a way out from the vicious cycle of degradation, an opening of better hope demanding an unprecedented and perhaps impossible measure of courage, honesty, and sheer nerve. If the white man turned to stare at the animal within him, if he once admitted unashamedly that the beast was there, he might see that the old foe was a friend as well, that his best and his worst derived from the same deep well of energy. If he once fully acknowledged the powerful forces which drove his being, the necessity of imputing them to others would drastically diminish. If he came to recognize what had happened and was still happening with himself and the African in America, if he faced the unpalatable realities of the tragedy unflinchingly, if he were willing to call the beast no more the Negro’s than his own, then conceivably he might set foot on a better road. Common charity and his special faith demanded that he make the attempt. But there was little in his historical experience to indicate that he would succeed. — Winthrop D. Jordan in “White Over Black American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812”

About Winthrop D. Jordan

  • “The author has put simple solutions and flashy theories aside and brought to his task a patience, skepticism, thoroughness, and humility commensurate with the vast undertaking. He combines these qualities with imagination and insight. The result is a massive and learned work that stands as the most informed and impressive pronouncement on the subject yet made.” — C. Vann Woodward, New York Times Book Review reviewing “White Over Black American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812”
  • “A monumental work of scholarship, brilliant in conception and execution, humane, convincing, informed by warmth and wit, illuminating reading for all those concerned with America’s tragedy. . . . As an historian with keen psychological insights into his material, Winthrop Jordan is uniquely qualified to illuminate America’s anguished dilemma.” — Publishers Weekly reviewing “White Over Black American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812”
  • “White Over Black will stand as a landmark in the historiography of this generation. Its richness and insight, its sensitive, penetrating analysis of the unspoken as well as the explicit, its union of breadth with depth, make it a brilliant achievement.” — Richard D. Brown, New England Quarterly
  • “[A] rare thing: an original contribution to an important subject. In helping us understand today’s racial crisis, Jordan has ideally fulfilled the historian’s function of investigating the past in order to enlighten the present.” — The judges for the 1969 National Book Award for History and Biography
  • “This monumental study is a tremendously important block, fascinating and appalling, of American social and cultural history. . . . Though the study was begun years before the current civil rights agitation, it is quite indispensable for a full appreciation of the realities and wellsprings and the dilemmas of the contemporary struggle.” — The Phi Beta Kappa Senate award committee for the 1968 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award
  • “One of the most remarkable feats of detective work achieved by a modern historian.” — David Brion Davis, New York Review of Books reviewing “Tumult and Silence at Second Creek An Inquiry Into a Civil War Slave Conspiracy”
  • “This work represents the reconstruction of history at its very best.” — John Hope Franklin reviewing “Tumult and Silence at Second Creek An Inquiry Into a Civil War Slave Conspiracy”
  • Tumult and Silence at Second Creek JPGThis book, Winthrop D. Jordan tells us in his opening sentence, “is a story, but at the same time it is not.” With this paradox, Mr. Jordan characterizes the outcome of more than 20 years of investigation into events that occurred nearly a century and a half ago. “Tumult and Silence at Second Creek: An Inquiry Into a Civil War Slave Conspiracy” is at once an effort to capture the experience of black and white Mississippians confronting the implications of the Civil War for Southern slavery and also — and perhaps even more fundamentally — an exploration into the nature of historical inquiry and interpretation.
    Mr. Jordan, a professor of history and Afro-American studies at the University of Mississippi, has written a work of historical scholarship that leaves its scaffolding standing and visible, a study in which the process of discovery is at least as important as the result. He not only invites the engaged reader to participate in the struggle to understand the past, but he also includes almost all the available evidence in appendixes. — Drew Gilpin Faust reviewing “Tumult and Silence at Second Creek An Inquiry Into a Civil War Slave Conspiracy”
  • “What Jordan brings forth, in more subtlety and detail than space allows to examine here, is the complexity of slave life, of contradictions and ambiguities-both black and white-overloyalty and betrayal, trust and violence, sex and domination, freedom and bondage, oppression and resistance, paternalism and independence, and life and death in the slave South.
    This is both a fascinating and fustrating study, fasvcinating for what Jordan is able to wring out of a small handful of skimpy documents, and fustrating for what he is unable to explain because history would surrender nothing further, even to his skilled hands.” — C. Peter Ripley, Florida State University reviewing “Tumult and Silence at Second Creek An Inquiry Into a Civil War Slave Conspiracy”
  • “I think it is so good for us to go back. The issue of slavery is such an enduring topic. Dr. Jordan is a premier historian in the United States. His book ‘White Over Black’ is a model for other historians.” — David Sansing, professor emeritus of history University of Mississippi at the Porter L. Fortune, Jr. History Symposium in 2000
  • “At the annual meeting of the Organization of American historians, in the Spring of 1998, an overflow crowd gathered to honor the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Winthrop Jordan’s magisterial work, White Over Black. Many of us old folks remembered where we were when the book first appeared, as we marveled at the impact it made on the profession then-an impact that continues to have reverberations even today. Young scholars joined the conversation, acknowledging that their comprehensive exam lists invariably include White Over Black as a “must read.” Audience members and panelists alike commented on the book’s merits and their memories of reading it in graduate seminars or undergraduate courses. The panel continued in an appropriately academic fashion, until a young woman stood up and asked to be heard. She was from the Carribean island of Dominica, and had first encountered White Over Black as a young woman. The book, she said simply changed her life. It was the first thing she had ever read that enabled her to understand herself, who she was. and what her relationship to the rest of the world was all about. The book, moreover, moved her to become a historian, so that she too, could join a community that asked the right questions and, at least on occassion, arrived at the right answers. Most historians would give anything to know that just once their work has had a profound-and positive- effect on someone’s life. Winthrop Jordan experiences that sense of satisfaction more often than most of us.” — Sheila L. Skemp in the introduction for “Affect and Power: Essays on Sex, Slavery, Race, and Religion in Appreciation of Winthrop D. Jordan”
  • Finally Winthrop Jordan set me off in the right direction as I began this essay as a chapter of my dissertation. His guidance, criticism, and inspiration call for a special debt of gratitude.” — David J. Libby in “Affect and Power: Essays on Sex, Slavery, Race, and Religion in Appreciation of Winthrop D. Jordan”

Basic Facts

Teaching Positions:
Brown University, Providence, RI, lecturer in history, 1959-61; College of William and Mary, Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, VA, fellow, 1961-63; University of California, Berkeley, assistant professor, 1963-67, associate professor, 1967-69, professor of history, 1969-1982. William F. Winter Professor of History F.A.P. Barnard Distinguished Professor Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Mississippi, 1982-2004.

Area of Research:
Afro-American History, Early American History.

Harvard University, A.B., 1953;
Clark University, M.A., 1957;
Brown University, Ph.D., 1960

Major Publications:

  • White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812, (University of North Carolina Press, for Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1968).
  • The White Man’s Burden, (Oxford University Press, 1974).
  • Tumult and Silence at Second Creek: An Inquiry Into a Civil War Slave Conspiracy, (Louisiana State University Press, 1993).

Editor, Contributor, Joint Author:

  • (Editor) Samuel Stanhope Smith, An Essay on the Causes of the Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species, Harvard University Press, 1965.
  • (With Miriam Greenblatt and John S. Bowes) The Americans, the History of a People and a Nation, (Science Research Associates, 1982).
  • (With others) The United States, (Prentice Hall, 1982).
  • (With Ernest R. May, James F. Marran, John S. Bowes, Miriam Greenblatt and others) The American People: A History from 1877, (McDougal, 1986).
  • (With Ernest R. May) The American People: A History to 1877, (McDougal, 1986).
  • (Editor with Sheila L. Skemp) Race and Family in the Colonial South: Essays, (University Press of Mississippi, 1987).
  • (With Greenblatt and Bowes) The Americans: A History, (McDougal, 1994).
  • (Editor) Slavery and the American South : essays and commentaries, (University Press of Mississippi, 2003).

Jordan has also contributed numerous articles and book review to professional journals


Jordan’s many awards include fellowships from the Institute of Early American History and Culture, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Social Science Research Council and the Center for the Advanced Study of the Behavioral Sciences, as well as a Distinguished Alumnus Citation from Brown University’s Graduate School.
1968, Winner of the Francis Parkman Prize, Society of American Historians;
1969, Winner of the National Book Award;
1969, Winner of the Bancroft Prize, Columbia University;
1968, Winner of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award, Phi Beta Kappa all for White Over Black American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812
1993, Winner of the Bancroft Prize;
1993, the Eugene M. Kayden National University Press Book Award;
1992 the Jules and Frances Landry Award all for Tumult and Silence at Second Creek An Inquiry Into a Civil War Slave Conspiracy.
1976, Fellowship Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS).

Additional Info:

Jordan worked at Prudential Life Insurance Co., Newark, NY, as a management trainee, 1953-54; and then at Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, NH, as an instructor in history, 1955-56.

Jordan has been widely reported in the press and has made several appearances on C-Span regarding the debate to whether Thomas Jefferson did in fact father his slave Sally Hemmings’s children, based on his claim in White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (1968) that “She bore five, from 1795 to 1808; and though he was away from Monticello a total of roughly two-thirds of this period, Jefferson was at home nine months prior to each birth.”

Posted on Sunday, July 2, 2006

%d bloggers like this: