According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a historian is “a student or writer of history, one who produces a scholarly synthesis”. Apart from this concise meaning, a historian is also a person who preserves and transmits old traditions and ideas forward to the next generation, they become responsible for the structuring of the world. The United States of America, as one of the biggest countries in the world and one arguably holding the most global influence, has a complex and vibrant history. This is not only due to its large geographical area but also the fact that it is home to many cultures and identities and as such recording or classifying this information can be a formidable task.
Here are some American historians who have made considerable contributions to the formation and understanding of U.S. history
- Joe Medicine Crow: (October 27, 1913 – April 3, 2016, aged 102)
A War Chief of the Crow nation and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Joe Medicine Crow was also a Native American writer and historian whose writings are considered landmark studies on Native American history and reservation culture, especially lectures about the Battle of the Little Bighorn (1876).
Even before anything else, Crow had been monumental in the understanding of the Battle of the Little Bighorn by providing an oral testimony he had heard from his step-grandfather, White Man Runs Him, a scout and an eyewitness to said battle.
After receiving a Bachelor’s in sociology and psychology, he went on the earn a Master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Southern California. His thesis was on “The Effects of European Culture Contact upon the Economic, Social, and Religious Life of the Crow Indians”.
Crow served as a scout in the U.S. Army during the Second World War, receiving a Bronze Star Medal and the Legion d’honneur for his bravery and accomplishments. He has also crowned the War Chief due to his accomplishment of the difficult requirements for it. After the war we went on to write about the crow nation in books like Crow Migration Story, Medicine Crow, the Handbook of the Crow Indians Law and Treaties, Crow Indian Buffalo Jump Techniques, and From the Heart of Crow Country.
As the centre of formation of many educational institutes and a tribal spokesperson, Joe Medicine Crow has been an extremely influential historian in and of U.S. history.
2. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois: (February 23, 1868 – August 27, 1963, aged 95)
Known for his concept of the ‘Veil’ and ‘Double Consciousness’, W.E.B Du Bois is perhaps one of the most famous American historians who talked about the struggles of the black people in the country.
Du Bois primarily challenged the racism prevalent in his time, he strongly protested lynching as well as the Jim Crow laws. As a proponent of Pan-Africanism, he helped to organize several Pan-African Congresses for the freedom and independence of African colonies.
After World War I, Du Bois documented the prejudice and racism widespread in the U.S. Army and military by surveying American black soldiers who served in France.
As an author, Du Bois wrote “The Souls of Black Folk” and “Black Reconstruction of America”, both works that are still in heavy academic use to understand the lives and struggles faced by black people then and now. By presenting his work “Reconstruction and its beliefs” at the annual conference of the American Historical Association, he challenged the mainstream view that Reconstruction had been a disaster caused by the incompetent blacks, but instead a time that established democracy, free public schools and new social welfare legislation.
W.E.B. Du Bois and his staunch stance against racism backed by scientific research continue to influence writers and historians even today to document and fight against the struggles faced by African Americans.
3. Howard Zinn: (August 24, 1922 – January 27, 2010, aged 87)
Zinn was born to a working-class Jewish couple, he was a World War II veteran, a historian, philosopher, socialist thinker and playwright. He wrote over 20 books, and extensively about the anti-war movement, civil rights movement and the United States labour history. He described himself as “something of an anarchist, something of a socialist. Maybe a democratic socialist.”
As a young man, he was the Activities Director of the Apprentice Association, who met weekly to discuss radical books; this heavily shaped his political views.
In his book “The Politics of History” Zinn talked about his contributions to the war, especially bombings that were carried out in Europe and the role of the U.S. Army in detail in the Second World War.
After the war, Howard Zinn pursued a PhD in history and a minor in political science with his thesis on the coal strikes in Colorado in 1914. Later during and after the Vietnam war, Zinn continued with a consistent Anti-war stance and wrote one of the earliest books “Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal” which, as the name suggests, asked for the U.S.’s withdrawal from Vietnam; and even opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
4. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: (September 10, 1938 -, age 83)
Dunbar-Ortiz majored in history at the San Francisco State College (1963) and later completed her doctorate in the same from the University of California in 1974. She also holds an MFA from Mills College in creative writing and the Diplôme of the International Law of Human Rights at the International Institute of Human Rights, France.
She has been heavily involved in feminist politics, founding Cell 16 in 1968, one of the first organisations that advanced the concept of separatist feminism; as well as has written and pioneered developments for the rights of indigenous people of America, especially the “An Indigenous People’s History of the United States”.
She witnessed the Contra War in the region of Honduras and documented them in two books – Caught in the Crossfire: The Miskitu Indians of Nicaragua (1985) and Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War (2005). These continue to be valuable sources of information about the conflict as well as the propaganda spread by the Reagan administration during that time.
5. George Bancroft: (October 3, 1800 – January 17, 1891, aged 90)
As a prominent U.S. politician, Bancroft held many pivotal positions in his lifetime, serving as the U.S. Minister to both Germany and the U.K. as well as the U.S. Secretary of the Navy.
He graduated from Harvard College at the age of seventeen (17), and then studied in Germany at various institutes and more so with distinct personalities of the time, from Goethe to Byron.
He wrote the “History of the United States” which saw multiple editions and continues to hold its place as one of the most comprehensive histories of colonial America. In “History of the United States, from the Discovery of the American Continent,” he analysed the United States of America in great detail up to the year 1789.
He established the U.S. Naval Academy, the first of its kind, in 1845 by using the existing laws to his advantage despite congress’s initial unwillingness for it. As a democrat he was also highly influential in the politics of his time, writing one of the five manuscripts of the Gettysburg Address, and was a member of multiple societies. Bancroft continues to be a central pillar of U.S. history with multiple ships and monuments made in his honour.
6. William Edward Brandon: (September 21, 1914 – April 11, 2002, aged 88)
An American historian and writer, Brandon served as a photographer during the Second World War for the United States Army Air Forces.
He initially published fiction and poetry and later wrote for publications like The Paris Review, Esquire, etc. In 1955, he penned “The Men and the Mountain”, an account of John Fremont’s attempt to cross the Rocky Mountains in 1848. He also wrote about the Native-American position in American history as well as culture. His last work, published posthumously, was “The Rise and Fall of North American Indians: From Prehistory Through Geronimo”.
7. Anne Applebaum: (July 25, 1964 -, age 57)
A Polish-American historian and journalist, Applebaum writes about the development of civil society in Europe and the history of Communism. She completed her master’s degree from the London School of Economics in international relations and went on to study at Oxford.
Her book “Gulag: A History” which received a Pulitzer in 2004 was the result of her historical research on the prison camp system of the Soviet Union. In the early 2000s, she wrote about the social and political issues prevalent in the U.S. extensively and later went on to form and conduct various international studies on democracy in different countries. Applebaum continues to advocate for and write about the need for democracy and critically analyse and critique the actions of various counties.
8. Samuel Flagg Bemis: (October 20, 1891 – September 26, 1973, aged 81)
A two-time Pulitzer awardee and the President of the American Historical Association (1961), Bemis is considered one of the great historians that talked about early American diplomacy.
Graduating with a PhD from Harvard in 1916, he held many teaching positions at various Ivy League colleges. A nationalistic man, he wrote “Jay’s Treaty: A Study in Commerce and Diplomacy” and “Pinckney’s Treaty: America’s Advantage from Europe’s Distress, 1783–1800”, the latter winning him a Pulitzer for History.
The second work to do so under the category of Biography and Auto-Biographies was the biography he wrote – “John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy “(1949) and was followed by “John Quincy Adams and the Union” (1956) that covered said president’s term and further life in a positive light.
Samuel Bemis was and maintains to be one of the first and most in-depth historians to write about the emergence and path of the formation of American diplomacy.
9. Doris Helen Kearns Goodwin: (January 4, 1943 -, age 79)
A prolific biographer of American Presidents, Goodwin has written “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”; “The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga”; “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism.”; and “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream”.
She completed her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1964 from Colby College and in 1968 earned her PhD in government from Harvard University. Her thesis was on – “Prayer and Reapportionment: An Analysis of the Relationship between the Congress and the Court.”
During her time as an intern at the White House, Goodwin was actively involved in anti-Vietnam War efforts and despite being discovered was able to keep her job.
Her work “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front During World War II (1994).” won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for History.
In her latest work “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” she talks about her earlier studies of the U.S. Presidents and the stories of their struggles during their terms and their understanding of leadership.
10. David Gaub McCullough: (July 7, 1933 -, age 88)
A recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006, McCullough has written and narrated multiple documentaries beginning with “The Johnstown Flood”, published in 1968, that documented the U.S.’s arguably worst flood disaster.
He graduated from Yale University with honours in Literature in 1955, and during his time was influenced by many other prominent names including Pulitzer-Prize-winning Thornton Wilder. Described often as a social historian, he went on to write “The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge” and the “The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal”. His biography “John Adams”, the third on an American President, sheds light and provides depth to an integral time in U.S. history and was one of the bestsellers in non-fiction, it also won him a Pulitzer in Best Biography and Autobiography.
His works continue to hold the theme and his idea that “history is the story of people”, an approach that has persistently won him national and international awards.
McCullough refuses to comment on contemporary political issues, choosing rather focus on the ones that have passed away.