James M. McPherson: A Life in American History

One measure of the affection felt throughout the profession for historian James M. McPherson might be the number of students, colleagues, and fans who willingly showed up—many with coffee in hand and suitcases in tow—to celebrate his career at an 8:30 a.m. session on the final day of the AHA’s 126th annual meeting. Panel chair and Clemson University professor Vernon Burton described his mentor and PhD advisor as not only a “famous historian,” but as “America’s historian.”

When not extolling his virtues as a teacher, friend, and battlefield guide, the panel—including historians Catherine Clinton, Judith Hunter, and Thavolia Glymph—praised his 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom as the best single-volume account of the Civil War era. It is precisely the book’s synthetic ability that most impressed panelist James Oakes, professor at the Graduate Center, CUNY. The book is social history, political history, military history (to such a degree that University of North Carolina professor Joseph Glatthaar titled his talk: “Jim McPherson, Closet Military Historian”), and even economic history. “There are four or five pages on tax policy!” Oakes said, seeming surprised anew, and the “enormous consequences” felt by how differently “the North and South funded the war.”

Enthusiasm for great books was in no short supply at this year’s conference. What makes this enthusiasm notable is its durability—not all books written 25 years ago continue to command unqualified praise. That left the audience with a certain amount of anxiety: if it’s so good, so complete, more than one member of the audience asked, “what have we to add?” Oakes professed to having some trouble with this issue himself. Asked to write a new volume, he declined—concerned not only about his ability to achieve such breadth, but because he wondered: “Why?” McPherson himself (after graciously demurring that “I’ve learned as much from my students and colleagues as they’ve learned from me”) looked to W.E.B. DuBois for inspiration, and encouraged his audience to carry on studying “the impact of the War on ordinary people.”

A panel that began with a slide show of McPherson’s life, from his 1930s North Dakota childhood onwards, couldn’t help but mix a bit of biography with history. McPherson acknowledged, for instance, that living through the demonstrations of the Vietnam era inclined him to make “connections between protests and war.” The passionate defense of Abraham Lincoln—his moderation and gradualism—mounted by panelist and Princeton University professor Sean Wilentz made more than one audience member wonder about the roughing up Wilentz had given our current president at the previous day’s session on “Historians and the Obama Narrative.” But, perhaps taking heed of Oakes’ warning that we look to the past not for precedence but for its own historical significance, no comparisons—however tempting—were drawn between the Civil War president and our own.

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