079: Ted Widmer, 44


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

79: Ted Widmer, 1-7-08

Basic Facts

Position: Beatrice and Julio Mario Santo Domingo Director and Librarian, John Carter Brown Library (July 2006 to present)
Area of Research: American history and politics
Education: Ph.D., History of American Civilization, Harvard University, 1993
Major Publications: Widmer is the author of Martin Van Buren (Henry F. Holt/Times Books, 2005); Campaigns: A Century of Presidential Races, co-authored with Alan Brinkley (DK Publishing, 2001);Edward L. Widmer JPG Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City (Oxford University Press, 1999); recipient of the 2001 Washington Irving Literary Medal. American Speeches, a two-volume definitive collection of political speeches from the American Revolution to the end of the 20th century, (Library of America, 2006). He is also the editor of The Harvard Lampoon, 1876-2001 (published privately, 2001).
Widmer is currently working on Ark of the Liberties: America and the World (a history of the idea that the United States is the world’s source of liberty); to be published by Farrar Straus Giroux in 2008.
Widmer is also the author of numerous scholarly journal articles, book chapters and reviews, and he is also a frequent contributor to a variety of text and online publications, including the New York Observer, New York Times, Boston Globe, Baltimore Sun, Salon, Slate, The Guardian, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times.
Awards: Widmer is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
Fellow, New America Foundation (2007);
Gilder-Lehrman Fellowship (2005);
Washington Irving Literary Medal (2001, for Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City);
Fellow, W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Studies, Harvard (1995-6);
Fellow, John Carter Brown Library (1994);
Stephen Botein Teaching Award, Harvard University (1994);
Mellon Fellowship in the Humanities.
Additional Info:
Widmer is formerly the inaugural Director, C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience and Associate Professor of History, Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, 2001-2006.
Widmer was also Special Assistant to former President Clinton, and served in the Clinton White House as Senior Advisor to the President for Special Projects, as Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, and as Director for Speechwriting at the National Security Council.
Widmer was Contributing Editor, George (1996-1997), and is Contributing Editor, The American Scholar (2005-present).
Widmer was also a Lecturer on History and Literature, Harvard University, 1993-1997 (received 1994 Stephen Botein Prize for Teaching Excellence).
Senior Research Fellow, New America Foundation (2007); Consultant to The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (2000-present); Board of Trustees, Harvard Lampoon (1996-present); Juror, Robert F. Kennedy Book Prize (2006); Advisory Board of the Lincoln Prize (for best book on the Civil War or Lincoln); Elected to Massachusetts Historical Society, 2002; Elected to American Antiquarian Society, 2006. He also discovered the earliest baseball box score (1845) featured on front page of New York Times (October 4, 1990).

Personal Anecdote

I have often wondered if it’s healthy to spend so much time living in the past. Is it not a little bit creepy to stalk people who lived so long ago, peering through windows into their private lives, extrapolating enormous conclusions about conditions we cannot possibly experience?

Of course, that has never stopped me for a second from doing all of those things. Nor you – for while else would you interrupt a perfectly productive day to read a gossipy anecdote about a random historian? Thank God HNN came along when it did to provide this long-overdue professional service.

For me, the past was always there, even in childhood, beckoning in the most subtle and alluring ways. It may have started with baseball cards. I remember learning that older ones were more valuable, so perhaps it was merely an economic calculation, but I don’t think so. Even as a kid, I remember thinking that the older cards were exotic; nothing was odder in Nixon-era America, with all of its facial hair, than to see those crewcuts peering out from a piece of cardboard printed two decades earlier. What civilization could have produced them?

Because I grew up in Providence, a city overflowing with the detritus of the Industrial Revolution, there were old things everywhere – old libraries, old diners, old people. It was wonderful, and I haunted thrift shops and Salvation Armies looking for outdated items to read, wear, or listen to. One day I came across Elvis Presley’s “I Forgot to Remember to Forget” (25¢) – perhaps an early signpost on the way to a history career?

In such an environment, liking history seemed a foregone conclusion. There is a rule in New England that all grade schools are required to take field trips to Plimoth Plantation and Sturbridge Village, where reenactors speak in fake English accents about crop rotation. In spite of that, I found the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries fascinating, and began what I suppose was my own form of reenactment, studying US history in school, college and beyond. Over time, I gradually began to like the 19th and 20th centuries too, and I now find myself in the frustrating position of finding everything that has ever happened to be of interest.

For that reason, it is satisfying to now be the director of a research institution, responding to eternally new and different requests from a global community of scholars. The JCB is unusually comprehensive in its scope, covering the entire hemisphere from Columbus to about 1825, so there is no shortage of topics to think about. While I’m glad to be back in my hometown, I’m also grateful that I was able to work at different times in completely different environments, including a huge university (Harvard), a tiny college (Washington College) and a place that was not either (the Clinton White House). But that’s quite a long anecdote in itself. Perhaps I’ll save that one for HNN’s feature on Old Historians – I’m getting close to eligibility.


By Ted Widmer

  • “What exactly was Young America? I hope I have clarified a widely misunderstood phenomenon. Young America was several things at almost the same time; a literary clique in the 1840s, a political junto in the early 1850s, and an expansive attitude prevalent afterward. These manifestations were essentially distinct from one Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York Cityn JPG another, except for the ubiquitous presence of John O’Sullivan, always straining after novelty and excitement. If nothing else, I hope this study has reestablished the importance of this actor, both central and evanescent, in the cultural politics of the antebellum scene….John O’Sullivan discovered this pretended destiny, and then discovered more slowly the harsher destiny he had also ushered in. How could it be otherwise? No one of his generation had more invested in the outcome, and few paid as high a price for destiny’s manifestation. But for all his bombast and backsliding, his early idealism still holds out the possibility of something better for “the Great Nation of Futurity,” always just a little bit ahead of the present tense. It is difficult, then as now, to separate “America” from the United States, and one generation from another. Yet it is still exciting to strive for “new history,” as O’Sullivan did in 1837, and countless others have done since, knowing they will end up as old history when all is said and done. Edward L. Widmer in “Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City”
  • Martin Van Buren had always cared about the future – he boasted in his inaugural that he was the first president born after independence, and insisted that “I belong to a later age.” In certain ways, he had brought Martin Van Buren JPG the future into existence, removing the old-fashioned politicians who failed to get it, and helping America grow from infancy into something like adolescence – a perfect word to convey the turbulent mood swings, lingering pustules of animosity, and general bad hair of the Van Buren era.He deserves to be reconnected to that future – to us. Not falsely praised – he would not want that. Well, all right, he would. Rather, Van Buren’s life should be honestly reexamined for the truths of his own time and ours. A grand total of six American communities were named after him, presumably during his brief moment in the sun, in Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Missouri, and Ohio [ck Iowa, Michigan, Tenn.]. Their combined population adds up to about 10,000 people, far more than have ever read a book about him. After all that he lived through, he deserves more. Perhaps this profile will begin the process of explaining him more fully, expanding upon the effort he began alongside the Adriatic, with the sirens singing their entreaties, and Clio whispering in his ear. – Edward L. Widmer in “Martin Van Buren”About Ted Widmer
  • Young America brings to life an unwritten chapter in post-Jacksonian America. Edward L. Widmer explores the fascinating area where politics, literature, and ideology conspire and collide, and he restores to their proper place a striking cast of writers, polemicists, and rogues. This is a book for all aficionados of American history.” — Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. reviewing “Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City”
  • Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City is an indispensable, masterful new contribution to nineteenth-century US historiography. By detailing the controversial role the manic rhetorician John O’Sullivan played in both launching the incomparable Democratic Review and promulgating the gospel of Manifest Destiny, Edward L. Widmer has recaptured the halcyon days of the Jackson era with vivid precision.” — Douglas Brinkley reviewing “Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City”
  • “Young America is an important, wide-ranging, and fascinating book. With wit, good sense, and lively prose, Edward L. Widmer recovers the social energy and cultural excitement of New York in the 1840s, when a generation of politico-literary intellectuals, as Emerson disdainfully called them, associated themselves with real politics and serious art. Held together by John O’Sullivan, the bigger-than-life editor of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review , Young America sustained a robust discussion of political and cultural democracy, at once nationalist and metropolitan, that gave intellectual significance to the Democratic Party even as it provided a sustaining and lively literary community for both canonical and forgotten writers. What Widmer describes is the first instance of a modern social type, the literary intellectual committed to democratic politics.” — Thomas Bender, Dean for the Humanities and Professor of History, New York University reviewing “Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City”
  • “Widmer’s book offers the finest account to date of the culture and politics of New York in the explosive 1830s and 1840s. With literary grace and analytical gusto, he guides us through the writings and relationships of the most important intellectuals of the day. Along the way we are compelled to rethink the meanings of democracy, both in that time and our own.”– Lou Masur, Professor of History, City College of New York reviewing “Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City”
  • “Edward L. Widmer has written a winning and utterly invigorating book that rescues Young America from its own self-destruction, brilliantly restoring its standing amid the pre-eminent political and cultural developments of the ante-bellum period….it is a rare author whose skill as a stylist so complements the able orators and writers he brings to light.” — Times Literary Supplement reviewing “Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City”
  • “Fortunately, this Rodney Dangerfield of presidents has landed a splendid biographer. In remarkably few pages, Ted Widmer, director of a research center at Washington College in Maryland, rescues Van Buren from what E. P. Thompson once termed ”the enormous condescension of posterity,” by subsuming a failed presidency within a more momentous career. Widmer deftly explains how the pioneering party boss built a formidable machine, using the trick bag of personal contacts and legislative reforms perfected by Lyndon Johnson over a century later. Van Buren grasped that the political future lay more with leaders from booming New York — the wealthiest, most populous, most ethnically diverse state in the nation — than with the grandees of Virginia and Massachusetts who had been in charge since the days of the Continental Congress…. Van Buren, as Widmer wisely concludes, was one of those “not-quite-heroic” figures without whom no democracy would operate for long. He didn’t achieve greatness, but he set a great insight in spin: without vibrant opposition parties, self-government becomes a mockery of its ideals. For that alone, Little Van deserves to be remembered as a big man indeed. — Michael Kazin reviewing “Martin Van Buren” in the NYT
  • “Clinton administration speechwriter Widmer sparks his assessment of the eighth president with the contemporary allusions, color, and humor of a good speech. Van Buren had a tough, undistinguished single term (1837-41). The first great U.S. depression hit days after he succeeded his mentor, Andrew Jackson, and he declined to deal with slavery, which became an elephant-in-the-bedroom issue during his administration. His finest achievements preceded and followed his presidency. After John Quincy Adams’ 1824 selection as president by the House of Representatives despite Jackson’s winning a plurality of the vote, Van Buren, a consummate schmoozer and deal maker, built the Democratic Party, mollifying the slave-holding South to do so. In 1848, however, he led the antislavery Free Soil ticket, at the risk of destroying the party he had created. Further endearing him, Van Buren was the first rags-to-riches president and the first (of two; the other is Kennedy) lacking Anglo-Saxon forebears. Contra Widmer, however, he didn’t enjoy the third-longest postpresidency, after Hoover and Carter, but the fifth, after Adams I and Ford, as well. — Ray Olson, American Library Association reviewing “Martin Van Buren”
  • “Great guy. Good teacher. Always interested in what we have you say.”… “Cool guy! I really enjoyed my American Studies course with him and having him as my thesis advisor. And he likes rock and roll!”… “Flexible teacher and very knowledgeable about American history. He’s a bit soft spoken, but he’s always got something good to say.”… “Widmer’s a great guy and was very passionate about 18th century America and George Washington.” — Anonymous Students

Posted on Sunday, January 6, 2008 at 7:36 PM

Leave a comment


  1. Susan Fox

     /  July 18, 2010

    Dear Mr. Widmer,

    I am writing a book about three women who lived and worked in Afghanistan from 1968-70 with the Peace Corps.
    My research led me to your article in the Boston Globe referencing the 50th anniversary of John Kennedy’s speech on the Senate floor: “The Challenge of Imperialism.”
    (Boston Globe July 15, 2007)
    I wish to reference Kennedy’s quote: “The most powerful single force in the world today is neither communism nor captialism, neither the H-bomb nor the guided missle–it is man’s eternal desire to be free and independent.”

    I wish to reference your quote: “By emphasizing America’s desire to spread freedom in the Middle East, he couldn’t have sounded ore like today’s nerconservative archeticts of the Iraq war. By stressing the impossibvility of spreading freedom through force, he couldn’t have sounded more different. ”

    If the Boston Gobe holds the copyright to these remark, could you kindly direct me to the proper channel to obtain permission.

    Thank you
    Susan Fox

  2. Thank you for writing “079: Ted Widmer, 44 | History
    Editor… Bonnie K. Goodman”. I reallymight certainly be coming back for a
    lot more browsing and commenting here in the near future.
    Many thanks, Krystle


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