Historian Robert Middlekauff, author of the seminal work The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789, passed away recently. Since JAR’s inception in 2013, we’ve seen the passing of other prominent historians of the founding era of the United States, including Pauline Maier and JAR contributors Thomas Fleming, John A. Nagy, Robert Carver Brooks, and C. E. Pippenger. We asked our contributors which historian, living or dead, has had the most influence on them, and why?
Alec D. Rogers
Joanne Freeman’s Open Yale Course on the Revolution is what brought me back to this period of history. Her contingency-based approach to history and reminders that the Founders were human beings not unlike ourselves made me really want to understand why those who had the most to lose undertook such a risky venture. Her scholarship on the role honor played in this period also helped me understand how differently people thought at different times, and how important it is to understand the culture in which they lived to understand why they did what they did.
Robert A. Caro never wrote about the Revolution, but his 1975 Francis Parkman Prize Award said it best: He exemplifies the union of historian and artist. As a journalist-turned-historian, he combines disciplined sourcing and exhaustive research with a nonacademic writing style that results in 1,300-page biographies you can’t put down (not to mention two Pulitzers). Read his description of pre-New Deal Texas Hill Country, or how Lyndon Johnson spent the hours immediately after Kennedy’s assassination, and you’re left breathless and humble. We wait anxiously for Caro’s fifth and final volume of “The Years of Lyndon Johnson.” Caro compares favorably with gamechangers like Gibbon, Braudel, and Bailyn.
Daniel M. Sivilich
Reed Akhil Amar. I read his 1998 book The Bill of Rights in 2014 and it was the first work of constitutional history that I ever read. I only bought it because it was on sale. I understood that I could be a liberal originalist. Amar is unrivaled in explaining why the Constitution says what it does. Why was this lone sentence important to the framers? How was it an issue in England and America? How far back can you trace this idea?
David Hackett Fischer. I’ve been a historical interpreter at Washington Crossing Park since 2014, and those of us who give guided tours there are required to read Washington’s Crossing and have a reasonable degree of familiarity with his account of the “Ten Crucial Days” campaign, which is the focus of our tour. I heard him speak in person when the book was released in 2004 and have read it, or the portions that I highlighted, so many times that my copy is starting to fall apart. It has been a basic reference for my literary activity as well.
William H. J. Manthorpe, Jr.
We readers on the Revolution have also lost Catherine Cox, professor at University of North Carolina, historian, and author of Boy Soldiers of the American Revolution. Robert Middlekaupff wrote the Preface to her posthumously published book. He praised her as someone who used the limited historical sources available to imagine the boys’ lives. But to do so she tentatively began each narrative with the words, “Perhaps it was like this.” That has encouraged me to give it a try and follow her example.
Robert S. Davis
I am most familiar with Thomas Fleming. He represented scholarship not really revisionist as much as accurate and thorough, reality over the past’s mutually agreed upon public legend. Such writers, American and British, as Fleming wrote with a prose that had a readability that matched the quality of their modern research.
Todd W. Braisted
While we have indeed lost many notable and acknowledged giants in the field of American Revolution writing, some I have had the honor to know personally, I am going to mention here someone I never met, someone who sadly passed away in 1976, when America’s Bicentennial was just beginning and whose appearances would have been timely. I speak of Adrian Leiby. Leiby is never going to be remembered among the pantheon of great writers on the conflict. Truth is, he was a church historian, not someone particularly familiar with the revolution or the military. However, his seminal work, The Revolutionary War in the Hackensack Valley was the inspiration and template for everything I have done since. The book, published in 1962, was based mostly on primary research, using collections from the United States, Canada and England. Using his footnotes, I reached out to all of those institutions covered in his notes, and learned the art of primary research. If it was not for him, I may never have realized that all these thousands upon thousands of original documents existed today, and were accessible to an average guy like me. When you are fifteen years old, that is a big revelation. If Adrian Leiby were alive today or at any point after 1976, I would very much enjoy buying him a beer and having a long chat with him.
Bruce L. Petersen
Professor Carroll Quigley who taught the Development of Civilizations course in the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service from which I graduated in 1965. He inspired me to understand history as more than dates and names and the truth of Faulkner’s observation that the past is never dead. It’s not even past. We are forgetting our past at our peril.
There are three contemporary historians who tend to work together as if they were one, having the most influence on me—Charles Baxley, C. Leon Harris and Will Graves. It is almost impossible to look at the Southern Theater of the American Revolution, especially in South Carolina, without crossing their paths. Charles, with SCAR, established a standard of research not to be exceeded. Pick up any contemporary work about the revolution in the South and chances are you will find Charles Baxley mentioned in the preface. Will and Leon, with the posting on-line of over 20,000 pension applications have given us a body of work that will fill many holes in our understanding of the revolution. Among those who know him, Leon is known as a true “Renaissance man”—work with him and it will quickly become apparent why. Will gave me one of my favorite memories of the fellowship that exists between top-notch scholars. When I had a problem transcribing an impossible document, Will responded to my request for help by simply stating “I will do this for you.” (At least one other well-known, published historian had given up on the document.) Will quietly puzzled it open, returned it to me, giving us a primary document that may someday lead to a better understanding of a major unsolved puzzle. These three individuals are examples of what characteristic the best historians—scholars so good at what they do they have no need to prove themselves to others.
The credit would go to John Nagy who talked me into establishing the American Revolution Round Table of Northern Delaware—and asked Thomas Fleming to be the first speaker for our group! Needless to say, thanks to both of these fellows—my life—and the visitation numbers at Hale Byrnes House—continue to grow more interesting every year!
Joseph E. Wróblewski
The historian that led to my study of impact in the cause of American Independence by two Poles, Casimir Pulaski and Thaddeus Kosciuszko, was Colonel Francis C. Kanjecki (West Point, Class of ‘43) and founder of Southwest Polonia Press. Having a passing interest in these two individuals, due to my ethnic background, Col. Kanjecki’s books led me into doing in-depth research on the accomplishments of these two fascinating fighters in the Patriot Cause. Col. Kanjecki wrote two books on Pulaski, Cavalry Commander of the American Revolutionand the Pulaski Legion;one on Thaddeus Kosciuszko, Military Engineer of the American Revolution.
William M. Welsch
My one historian was really a pair, at least for Rebels and Redcoats: The Living Story of the American Revolution by George F. Scheer and Hugh F. Rankin. Scheer was the newspaper man and Rankin the historian. Their 1956 volume was my initial scholarly introduction to the American Revolution, from which all my other related activities and interests have flowed. While much new has been added to the mixture, I still believe this is a good place to start. I was fortunately enough to recently replace my paperback copy with a signed first edition hardback. The two volume The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six by Commager and Morris is a close second.
The late historian Bernard Bailyn, whose Pulitzer Prize winning book The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution got me interested in the political thought of Colonial and Revolutionary America. A special fiftieth anniversary edition of the book was published in 2017 (Harvard), with a new preface by Bailyn addressing the Founders’ keen interest in the use and misuse of power.
Simon Schama—not the finest, certainly not the easiest to read, but the one I admire the most. There is no doubt his personal and distinctive books have enraged the traditionalists, who complain he oversimplifies history. Poussin taking a sweeping brush to the historical canvas when the intricacies of Holbein are required. But these criticisms are invariably leveled by third division academics who can’t write. If you believe history is counting the number of steps ‘Traveler’ took between Petersburg and Appomattox, then stay away. But if you want to know what it was like to be there during the start of the French Revolution, ever wondered why African slaves retreated behind British lines, or why the Nazis transformed Germany’s Teutonic forests into a cult, his work provides a unique perspective. His writing is razor sharp, with not a wasted word, though he occasionally falls into the trap of trying too hard to be idiosyncratic and ‘hip.’ But overall his books are thought provoking and engaging. The epitome of what a historian should be. I’d award a solid ten but like many creative Englishman (Lennon, PG Woodhouse et al) who give up Cricket, Cambridge and tea, for the Red Sox, Columbia and Cafe Americano, I fear we have seen the best of him.
Barbara Tuchman (A Distant Mirror; The Guns of August) and Edmund Morris (The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt; Theodore Rex). Both showed an author did not have to be a “professional” historian in a university to write well researched and serious history that also appealed to the general reader.
Mark R. Anderson
Colin Calloway. I came across The American Revolution in Indian Country in the mid-90s and it opened my eyes to a vast world for Revolutionary War study, beyond just the thirteen colonies and British Isles. His approach subsequently inspired me to ensure that the diverse and complex socio-cultural motivations of the conflict’s participants would be an essential part of my own research and writing. In the quarter century since my first encounter with Calloway, he has continued to expand our collective understanding of the colonial-, Revolutionary-, and Early Republic-era Native American world and have reached an ever-expanding audience.
My influencer is Charles Royster (a student of Middlekauff). I read A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783 relatively early in my study of the period. I had spent most of my effort on who, what, when, and where, but Royster’s writing taught me to look for the “why.” I learned the importance of words and the subtle—and occasional not-so-subtle—differences between period’s and today’s meanings. He altered the way I think about my work and the way I write. Charles Royster suffered a debilitating stroke in 2005. He died in February, 2020.
Raymond Phineas Stearns. winner of a 1966 National Book Award on science in the British colonies, guided me through a graduate project on colonial American newspapers. at the University of Illinois (Urbana). He opened my eyes to a number of other historians, classmates and colleagues of his, like Carl Bridenbaugh, whose work on the small cities on the North American continent was essential to this project. As ironic as it turned out, years after Stearns’ death, my wife and I bought a small farm in rural Gloucester County, Virginia, that once was owned by John Clayton. Clayton, known as the colonial Audubon, was a central figure in Stearns’ book on science. Clayton’s book on botany was featured in the Long Library at Trinity in Dublin as a major work from the North American colonies when I was there decades ago. Thank you, Raymond Stearns!
Jane Hampton Cook
The historian who has had the most influence on me is David McCullough. He spoke at the White House about John Adams the first week of September in 2001. When everything changed days later on 9/11, my existing desire to write about our nation’s history and presidents grew stronger. Admiring McCullough’s literary style, I wrote about John Quincy and Louisa Adams in a book called American Phoenix and about the Madisons in The Burning of the White House, the 9/11 of the War of 1812.
Joseph Ellis because of his in-depth knowledge of the early founding of the country and his ability to present material in an interesting and easily readable manner.
Pauline Maier has arguably had the most influence on my work as a historian. When I first started digging into the historiography of the Revolution, Maier’s From Resistance to Revolutionreally stuck with me. The ways in which she utilized ideological and social mechanisms to trace colonists’ progression from resistance to opposition to revolution undoubtedly prompted my tendency to think of the Imperial Crisis in discrete developmental phases. Moreover, I find it truly inspirational that a female historian produced such a seminal work in the early 1970s, and I’m truly grateful that she blazed the trail for future generations of women studying early America.
My mother Kathleen A. White. Though she was not a writer, she did tours for many years at Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell and talked about the Founders and the Revolutionary Era incessantly. She read every book about that era she could get her hands on. She named me after Alexander Hamilton and my brother Phil was named after his son.
Gregory J. W. Urwin
I read Thomas Fleming’s Now We Are Enemies: The Story of Bunker Hill as a freshman in high school, which cemented my lifelong interest in the War of Independence. Fleming’s empathy for the battle’s participants from both sides, along with his fluid prose, made history come to life for me. Since then, many academic historians–Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, John Shy, Ira Gruber, Sylvia Frey, Caroline Cox, Matthew Spring, Larry Babits, Michael McDonnell, Wayne Bodle, James Kirby Martin, Mark Edward Lender, Holly Mayer—have shaped my thinking about the era, but Tom Fleming retains a place in my heart.
My answer would be Frances Manwaring Caulkins. Ms. Caulkins is a standout amongst Connecticut historians who composed authoritative histories of Norwich and New London, Connecticut during the nineteenth century. I routinely come back to study her writings.
John G. McCurdy
The one historian of the Revolutionary Era that I would recognize is John Shy. Shy is emeritus professor of History at the University of Michigan. His book Toward Lexington is beautifully written and it situated the American Revolution in an Atlantic context long before it was fashionable to do so. His subsequent collection of essays (A People Numerous and Armed) was likewise instructive and inspired. He was—and remains—the leading voice of military history in the Revolution. In fact, I just returned from an academic conference on the Revolution (www.amphilsoc.org/meanings-independence) and when we came to the topic of the War for Independence, several speakers noted that Shy’s work is still the touchstone of the field. Finally, I would add that even at an advanced age, John Shy is kind and helpful. When I was writing Quarters, he took me to lunch and offered helpful suggestions.
Susan Brynne Long
Kenneth Lockridge is the reason I went to graduate school. As an undergraduate, I appreciated the American Revolution, but I didn’t feel like I knew it. Somewhere between political and diplomatic histories of the era, I lost the forest in the trees. When I read A New England Town: The First Hundred Years: Dedham, Massachusetts, 1636-1736, I learned that the people of early America did not consider themselves early Americans. Lockridge taught me that early America was a local place filled with local places, each with its own political, economic, and social makeup. A New England Town helped me to grasp the impossibility of a revolution among people who thought of their colonies, and later their states, as sovereign countries. Early American localism was a formidable obstacle in the way of revolution. No concept in the study of early American history has proved more influential in the development of my research.
Gordon Wood, Brown University, Pulitzer Prize for The Radicalism of the American Revolution.
Derrick E. Lapp
Don Higginbotham was one of the early developers and proponents of the “new military history”—the integration of social, intellectual, economic, and cultural aspects of warfare into the study of the American Revolution. I first encountered Daniel Morgan, Revolutionary Rifleman as an undergraduate in 1989 and was hooked. His books The War of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Policies, and Practice, 1763—1789 and War and Society in Revolutionary America: The Wider Dimensions of Conflict are bedrocks of the field (and of my own bookshelf).
James Kirby Martin
Many historians have had a profound influence on me over the years; but for this piece let me select Charles Edwin “Pip” Pippenger. Pip had an amazing scientific career, publishing over 150 papers and participating in the writing of six medical-related books. His field, in which he was an international leader, related to discovering better medical treatments for persons suffering from epilepsy. In retirement Pip became an enthusiastic amateur historian who focused his research activities on the Champlain Valley region during the Revolutionary War. He and I corresponded frequently. Pip’s depth of knowledge was truly impressive, as were his collections of primary source materials, which today reside in the archives at Fort Ticonderoga. It’s my honor to recognize him for his outstanding work in both medical science and early American history. Pip left us in early August 2021. He was a true gentleman scholar, very worthy of our abiding remembrance and emulation. Count me among those who miss him and his giving manner greatly.
Thomas Fleming. He made history readable.
Joseph J. Ellis. He has both a gift for writing and an unmatched ability to critically analyze the personalities of the Founders that is both thought-provoking and that abhors the interpretive extremes of hagiography and demonization.
I’ve had two mentors: Al Young and Pauline Maier—seemingly an odd couple, but not for me. Al was a central figure for bottom-up historians, and he guided much of my work. Pauline, too, explored the popular roots of the nation’s founding in all her books, and that thread ties her major works into a body. She broke new ground by uncovering the ninety “other” declarations of independence, many fashioned by ordinary people. In our lunchtime jams, while researching Ratification, she gleefully shared passages from Massachusetts town meetings, where little known characters laid out the issues in untutored terms.
Mary V. Thompson
The historian who had the most influence on me was Professor Joseph Miller (1939-2019) from the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia when I was in graduate school. Joseph Miller taught what was probably the finest course I’ve ever taken. Entitled “Slave Systems,” it compared slavery over many thousands of years and in many cultures. Since the late 1980s, when I first began working on slavery at Mount Vernon, those lessons proved immensely helpful. Sadly, he died shortly before the publication of “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret”: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon.
Richard J. Werther
David McCullough. I know many academically trained historians have lower regard for “popular historians” like McCullough, but his work has done much to encourage me, another non-academically trained historian, to read and write about history. I met him once at a book signing, and his simple advice to me was “write about what you like.” This encouraged me to look at topics that intrigued me rather than what I thought others might be interested in reading. This has made the writing process enjoyable for me. McCullough has also spoken up against declining historical literacy, a huge problem today.
In 1994, the A&E television network broadcast a series on the American Revolution. One of its memorable contributors was Thomas Fleming. He called the American Revolution “a great story.” He mastered the telling of that story. I began with Now We Are Enemies and concluded with Beat The Last Drum. Thomas Fleming’s narratives sparked my imagination and put me in the streets of Boston, trenches of Brooklyn heights, frozen ground of Morristown & Valley Forge, and smoking ruins of Yorktown, Virginia. I had the pleasure of corresponding with him years ago, and he set me on the path I stroll today.
The “historian” who has had the biggest influence on me passed away this past year. He was actually a sociologist from Vermont: James Loewen. His book Lies My Teacher Told Me is probably the most important book for my historical “awakening.” I started to question all sources and the motives of authors after I read his book. I wish that I had been made aware of the lies earlier in my education. Luckily, I was able to meet him many years ago, and now I proudly show off his autograph!
Robert Greenhalgh Albion’s The Rise of New York Port, 1815-1860 gave me a deeper understanding of the role of Gotham’s waterfront in world affairs. Despite its title, the book covers the colonial and revolutionary periods as well. Other works include Sea Lanes in Wartime: The American Experience, 1775-1942. His spouse, Jennie Barnes Pope, was a frequent collaborator. Albion began teaching at Princeton in the early 1920s and became Harvard’s inaugural Gardiner Professor of Oceanic History and Affairs in 1949. His always popular classes were collectively known as “Boats.” In 1955 Dr. Albion founded the Frank C. Munson Institute of American Maritime History at the Mystic Seaport Museum. He retired from Harvard in the mid-1960s and then served as president of the Maine Historical Society.
Arthur B. Cohn
Although I have benefited from the generosity of many fine historians, J. Robert Maguire, of Shoreham Vermont has been my mentor. I met J. Robert more than forty-years ago when his vast knowledge helped guide me to discover elements of the submerged cultural legacy of the American Revolution contained within Lake Champlain. Bob made possible our discovery of the “Great Bridge” (The Revolutionary Journal of Col. Jeduthan Baldwin, 1775-1778, Printed for the De Burians, Bangor, Maine, 1906) which spanned the lake between Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence. Bob’s impeccably researched article about the Battle of Valcour Island provided a context to clarify Benedict Arnold’s actions in Ferris’s Bay, Vermont on October 13, 1776 (J. Robert Maguire, “Dr. Robert Knox’s Account of the Battle of Valcour Island,” Vermont History, Montpelier Vermont, Volume XLVI, Number 3, Summer 1978). Today, Bob’s brilliant article onMajor John Andre, (J. Robert Maguire, “Self Portrait of Major John Andre,” The Bulletin of the Fort Ticonderoga Museum, Volume XVI, Number 3, 2000) is serving as my guide to a new study of this tragic figure. J. Robert Maguire was one of the finest, most generous and yet most modest scholars I have ever known. Like a beloved father, Bob steadily encouraged me to believe I might have something to add.
Nancy Bradeen Spannaus
The late Forrest McDonald’s biography of Hamilton significantly shaped my understanding of Hamilton’s economic policies, with his appreciation of the role of Emmerich Vattel in Hamilton’s thinking; his emphasis on Hamilton’s fight against speculation and oligarchy; his understanding of importance of credit; and his insight into how Hamilton’s system served an entirely different purpose than the British system. He underscored the fact that Hamilton was primarily a nation-builder, and thus was concentrated on using financial means to achieve his political vision of a free, prosperous agro-industrial nation, not on government finance per se.
Nancy K. Loane
To know Valley Forge, you must read Joseph Lee Boyle, the former historian at Valley Forge National Historical Park. His books, research, and writings are vital to anyone—like me—who is fascinated with the Valley Forge story. Lee’s eight volumes of Writings from the Valley Forge Encampment offer many interesting details about camp. His articles for the JAR include one about Native Americans at Valley Forge. Lee has also written for the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography and published several books, including those on the Connecticut and New Jersey infantries at Valley Forge. Thanks, Lee Boyle!
The historian who has had the biggest impact on me is Charles Blockson, scholar and author, whose Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University in Philadelphia has over 500,000 items. Blockson’s book, Pennsylvania’s Black History(1975), inspired a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated to lead the successful campaign to create the Patriots of African Descent in the Revolutionary War monument and historical marker at Valley Forge National Park in 1993. The monument includes Blockson’s quote, “Throughout these historic and hallowed campsites were courageous Black Patriots who participated in our nation’s bitter fight for independence.”