13: 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

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