McMaster, John Bach

McMaster, John Bach (1852-1932) began his monumental eight-volume History of the People of the United States while he was an instructor in civil engineering at Princeton. His interest in American history had been stimulated by contact with the still expanding frontier on a fossil-collecting trip he led to Wyoming in 1878. His Princeton colleagues were apparently unaware of this interest, and the publication of the first volume of his history in 1883 led President McCosh to remark that ``the sun had risen without a dawn.'' According to William Berryman Scott, who as a graduate student had accompanied McMaster to Wyoming, William Milligan Sloane, Professor of History and Political Science, tried to induce the trustees to establish a chair of American history for McMaster. But, said Scott, Sloane ``encountered that density and obtuseness which sometimes afflicts governing bodies. McMaster had been teaching engineering; why shouldn't he stick to that? Ne sutor ultra crepidam [Shoemaker, stick to your last]; they remembered that much Latin.''

The University of Pennsylvania thereupon called McMaster, who was only thirty-one, to a professorship in American history, which he held for thirty-seven years. His innovative books led the way in the development of social and economic history, which previously had been largely neglected for war and politics.

In 1925 Princeton invited him back to receive an honorary doctorate of letters. ``His aim,'' Dean West said in presenting him for the degree, ``was . . . to portray intimately the real life of the American people . . . to live in the times which he described and to see things as they were and thus to see the truth of history.''

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

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