October 24, 2012
By Nike Nivar
AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, AHA Today features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series. The members featured in this column have been randomly selected and then contacted by AHA staff. If you would you like to nominate a colleague for the AHA Member Spotlight, please contact Nike Nivar.
Thomas C. Mackey is a professor of history at the University of Louisville. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky, and has been an AHA member since 2001.
Current school or alma mater/s
University of Louisville, 1991 to present. BA, Beloit College, 1978; PhD, Rice University, 1984. Golieb Legal History Postdoctoral Fellow, New York University School of Law, 1984–85.
Fields of interest
United States legal/constitutional history, era of Abraham Lincoln, Gilded Age/Progressive Era
When did you first develop an interest in history?
Growing up, I had the good fortune to travel to Europe and live for a time in London. I can recall being fascinated with the school building I attended even though it was a fairly new one—the original building had been destroyed during the 1940/41 Blitz. During a visit to Flanders the acres and acres of British, Commonwealth, French, and German cemeteries sparked the historian’s questions of “why” and “how.” By the time of my undergraduate studies, I had become more interested in the political history of the West, and of the United States in particular. In time, those broad interests narrowed to questions of why public policy makers made the choices they did within the range of legal and constitutional choices available to them. Thus, I ended up in the borderland of legal and social/public policy history asking questions about vice and vice control earlier in my career and more recently asking questions about the public policy choices in the era of Abraham Lincoln.
What projects are you working on currently?
Through my participation in the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial, the Civil War Sesquicentennial, and because middle school, high school, and higher education teachers asked me to find primary source documents for them, I have edited, and the University of Tennessee Press is publishing, a three-volume work of full-text documents (with headnotes) titled A Documentary History of the American Civil War. Volume One, Legislative Achievements will be published in late 2012/early 2013 and the two following volumes (Volume Two: Political Arguments; Volume Three: Judicial Decisions) the following years. My next monographic project, tentatively called “‘It Cant be called Stealin’: Law-Mindedness among Civil War Soldiers,” examines how Civil War soldiers reacted to the varieties of laws they encountered and created during the United States Civil War.
What is the last great book or article you have read?
“Great” book is a slippery decision, but I am (finally) completing Michael Burlingame’s massive, detailed, engaging, insightful, fruitful, and at times quirky 2008 two-volume biography, Abraham Lincoln: A Life (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press). While not the place to start reading on Lincoln and his era, this work provides the texture of the era with a clear argument supplemented with psychological insights that will be long debated and discussed.
What do you value most about the history profession?
I value the comments and criticisms of friends and anonymous reviewers who have checked my occasional excesses; but, overall, the liberty I have experienced to pursue my own ideas, researches, writing, and arguments has proven invaluable to me. From graduate school to the present, I value the liberty I have found in all of the History Departments I have worked as I have followed my historical questions and inquiries.
Other than history, what are you passionate about?
I plead guilty to being a baseball guy. I like the numbers involved in tracking baseball, I like the history of baseball in the United States, I like the stadiums, I like pitching, I like the divisional and pennant races, and I even like some of the food. For me, escaping the office for a cold adult beverage and a baseball game just makes sense—go figure.
Any final thoughts?
While I acknowledge the concerns about the current state of the discipline, the profession also needs to step back a bit and recognize the enormous strengths of the historical enterprise. An impressive pool of talented scholars exists who work in a stunning array of fields and approaches pursuing History. The dedication of the persons who heard the call of History and who have followed their inquiries into the multiple histories of the human experience is exceptional. The numerous locations, fields, approaches, and questions in the profession suggest the overall richness of the History endeavor. I am also struck by the commitment of the private and state institutions to support History and its practitioners even in this fiscal environment. Challenges exist; challenges that no doubt will ebb and flow; but the hard work—and valuable fruit—of historical studies endure.