Why did I become an historian and an historian of France for that matter? And once an historian, why did I take on the subjects that I did? It’s not hard to put together answers to such questions, but it must be kept in mind that they are, like all historical explanations, retrospective constructions and to be regarded in just that light, not as truth, but as interpretation.
“Mr. Gardner, please come to see me in my office this afternoon at four o’clock if that is convenient.” It was mid-term time in the fall of my sophomore year at Ohio Wesleyan University. The summons was from Dr. Henry Clyde Hubbart, whose book, The Older Middle West, 1840-1880, published in 1936 had established him as the indisputable senior figure in the History Department.The course was American Constitutional History, a traditional prerequisite for law school. Normally, it was only open to seniors. I had gained admission as a sophomore through the intervention of another professor, David Jennings, who feared that Hubbart would not continue to teach in retirement. So, I was pretty nervous about this command appointment, all the more so because my exam book was the only one Hubbart had not given back during class time. What did that mean? I feared the worst.
Comments and cautions about a life committed to writing abound and have probably been with us since script was invented. Five hundred years ago, Erasmus assailed the scholarly life in a satire that sharpened the edge of truth to cutting point: “people who use their erudition to write for a learned minority… do not seem to me favoured by fortune but rather to be pitied for their continuous self-torture. They add, change, remove, lay aside, take up, rephrase, show to their friends, keep for nine years and are never satisfied.” And that is the good news. As matters progress: “their health deteriorates, their looks are destroyed, they suffer partial or total blindness, poverty, ill-will, denial of pleasure, premature old age and early death.” Read on, if your courage permits.
In the fall semester of 1964 I took two graduate seminars at Berkeley in the subfields of American history I was then considering as a specialty. One was in diplomatic history, taught by Visiting Professor Gerald Wheeler. He was substituting for the Department’s on-leave Armin Rappoport, whose two-semester lecture course I had taken the year before as a first-year grad student. The other was Robert Middlekauff’s seminar in colonial history, or as we would say now, British North America. That seminar was largely intellectual history simply because much of it was devoted to the works of Perry Miller. Reading Miller and participating in Middlekauff-led discussions made it clear to me that intellectual history was the path I wanted to take.
Born in 1928 in Hannover, Germany, into a Jewish family, the new restrictions on Jews meant my being kicked out of the equivalent of the fifth grade in November 1938. The family had already applied for immigration into the United States, and we went to England to await the calling up of our “Quota Numbers” under the arrangement for such cases worked out by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in addition to the famous Kindertransport. Our numbers came up in the summer of 1940, and we left for the United States on September 1.
As an undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the mid-1950s, I was excited by the teaching of Robert Kelley, a young and vibrant teacher and who was making his mark in the profession with his accounts of intellectual and cultural influences on past American and British politics. When I arrived as a graduate student at UCLA in the later 1950s, Bradford Perkins was also lecturing about Anglo-American relations while he was working on his renowned trilogy of books dealing with the run-up to the War of 1812. Like Kelley, Perkins in his teaching spoke learnedly and amusingly not only about his specialty in Anglo-American relations but also about U.S. relations with the entire world. He inspired me to take up diplomatic history in part because the field was so broad that I could read almost anything I wanted and call it work.
I arrived at Princeton in the summer of 1975, just months after the fall of Saigon. At the time I was a serving officer in the United States Army and a veteran of the Vietnam War. The army, generously from my point of view, was sending me to graduate school to prepare me to teach at West Point. To emphasize: The army sent me to Princeton not to become a professional historian but to acquire knowledge sufficient to enable me to convey to cadets some basic grasp of U.S. history. After a three-year teaching stint, I would return to soldiering.