History, The Department of.

History, The Department of. For a department that has been a favorite with undergraduates since the 1920s, History was a long time a-borning. Witherspoon lectured on history, and although he felt that it was ``subservient to the interests of religion,'' he was also concerned with what would now be called social and intellectual history. History was used to fill a few small cracks in the curriculum in the nineteenth century, but it seems to have been largely chronology and made little impression on undergraduates. The first faculty member to have the title of Professor of History -- Charles Woodruff Shields (1869-1882) -- was also Professor of the Harmony of Science and Revealed Religion. He wrote a long (18 pages) and anguished letter to the trustees in 1872 begging to be relieved of his elective courses in history. His petition was refused, but finally, in 1883, William Milligan Sloane was made Professor of History and Political Science. He was a professional historian, author of a number of useful books, but he departed for Columbia in 1896.

Meanwhile, the two most famous writers of history at Princeton were not considered historians. Woodrow Wilson, who was actually a political scientist.

When Wilson set up the departmentat system in 1904, history, politics, and economics were lumped together. A young preceptor had to be a versatile man to jump from medieval history to international law to money and banking. A few survived these hardships and became distinguished scholars -- notably Edward S. Corwin and Charles H. McIlwain (the latter, alas, lost to Harvard). Some relief came when economics split off in 1913, but it was only in 1924, under the pressure of the Four-Course Plan, that history was separated from politics.

Three key appointments determined the future of the history department. One of Wilson's last acts was to name Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker to the faculty. Wertenbaker became an eminent writer on early American history, and a revered teacher of many graduate students. In 1912 the two Halls, ``Beppo'' and ``Buzzer,'' joined the Department. They were entirely different in temperament and interest; one student wrote of the ``aristocratic Mr. Hall who believes in democracy'' [Beppo] and the ``democratic Mr. Hall who believes in aristocracy'' [Buzzer]. But they were both great undergraduate teachers, and they set such a high standard that no young instructor coming to Princeton could feel comfortable if he were a poor teacher.

This combination of solid scholarship and excellent teaching was reinforced when Dana Carleton Munro joined the department in 1916. For 20 years (1916-1936) first ``old Dana'' Munro (his son, Dana Gardner Munro, joined the Department in 1932), and then Wertenbaker held the chairmanship of the history department. They began the work of recruiting the remarkable group of young men who were to carry the department to a peak of professional excellence while making it one of the best teaching units in the University. These were the years of the famous freshman course called ``Historical Introduction,'' taught first by Joseph C. Green and then by John Pomfret. It was an exhausting course, both for those who took it and those who taught it. (Green took refuge in the State Department, Pomfret in the presidency of William and Mary, and later in the directorship of the Huntington Library.) But in spite of its rigorous nature the course gave students a taste for historical studies, and enrollments in the Department began to grow.

These were also the years in which Raymond Sontag, Robert Albion, Elmer Beller, Joseph Strayer, E. Harris (``Jinks'') Harbison, Robert Palmer, Gordon Craig, Cyril Black, and Eric Goldman began their Princeton careers. Sontag had played an important role in recruiting the younger members of the group, especially during his chairmanship (1939-1941), but he was lured to Berkeley in 1941. The others remained to form the nucleus of the postwar department.

The Second World War put the department in a difficult position. Many of the regular members left for service in the armed forces or in Washington. Meanwhile, the government flooded the campus with thousands of young soldiers, sailors, and marines, all of whom -- it was considered -- needed a course in American history to be saved. To teach these multitudes, the department recruited one of the most distinguished -- if not the most professional -- groups it ever had on its roster. Professors of art, philosophy, political science, and music, who had few students in their own fields, became instant experts on the Revolution and the Civil War. The professor of music wrote a ``Fanfare for History'' in memory of his experience; it is said to be somewhat dissonant.

In 1945 the department came back to normal as far as its personnel was concerned, but found that the new generation of undergraduates had an insatiable appetite for history of all sorts. This posed three problems: to recruit new members to handle the increased enrollment, to add new fields to meet the needs of a new age, and to keep other universities from stealing its best men. The first two problems were solved more easily than the third. Jerome Blum and Charles Gillispie came immediately after the war; Frank Craven (as a replacement for Wertenbaker) four years later. All three added greatly to the strength of the department. ``Young Dana'' Munro had begun teaching Latin American history before the war; his work was continued by Stanley Stein. Cyril Black built up a strong program in Russian studies. Then Charles Gillispie assembled a remarkable group of men in History of Science, while Marius Jansen started Far Eastern Studies at a high level. Joint appointments strengthened the old ties between History and Near Eastern Studies. A little later Robert Tignor began giving courses in African History. This was quite a change from the old curriculum, restricted to European and American history and heavily political in emphasis.

During the chairmanship of Joseph Strayer (1941-1961) the department reached the peak of excellence at which Munro, Wertenbaker, and Sontag had aimed. The teacher-scholar tradition was stronger than ever. Harbison was one of the best preceptors the University ever had and was an expert on the Reformation. Craig's lectures rivaled those of ``Buzzer'' Hall in popularity, and his work on German history was praised on both sides of the Atlantic. Courses in Russian history (Black), medieval history (Strayer), and American diplomatic history (Challener) drew surprisingly large numbers of students. Palmer's great book Age of the Democratic Revolution was appearing; Julian Boyd's remarkable edition of the Jefferson Papers was well under way; Arthur Link was getting out the first volumes of the Wilson Papers. It was generally recognized that Princeton had one of the three or four best history departments in the country. The generous gift of $5,000,000 to the department by Shelby Cullom Davis '30 was a recognition of this eminence.

The premature death of Harbison and the departure of Craig and Palmer to other universities left serious gaps in the department's program. Student demands for new types of history and more specialized courses complicated the problem. The chairmen of the 1960s and early '70s (Blum, Stone, Challener, and Gillispie) had much rebuilding to do. Lawrence Stone's willingness to come to Princeton from Oxford filled one of the biggest holes (sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England), while Arno Mayer picked up the work in modern Europe and Robert Darnton took on eighteenth-century Europe and the French Revolution. Another group of promising young assistant professors (including, for the first time, two women) was recruited. As of 1976, Princeton was still considered one of the best places to study history, and undergraduate enrollment in history was larger than that in any other department.

Five Princeton historians have served as president of the American Historical Association: the elder Munro in 1926, Wertenbaker in 1947, Boyd in 1964, Palmer in 1970, and Strayer in 1971.

Joseph R. Strayer


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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