Biographer Jean Edward Smith ’54 believed in correcting the historical record, chiseling away the calcified reputational patina of historical figures and reexamining them. To do it, he began work each day at 6 a.m. and wrote, longhand on a legal pad, until noon. He penned 17 books, some of them bestsellers: FDR won the Francis Parkman Prize, and Grant was nominated for the Pulitzer.
According to Montserrat Miller, a colleague of Smith’s at Marshall University, historians of the 20th century too often ascribed major events to long-term economic, social, and cultural developments — and in so doing discounted human agency. “Jean Edward Smith could see where individuals working with other individuals in groups could make a significant difference and change the course of a historical path,” she says.
Smith grew up near the levers of power in Washington, D.C., where his father was a barber in the Capitol and his mother was a secretary at the Justice Department. As a graduate of Princeton’s ROTC program, he was stationed in Germany, where he developed an appreciation for European history and met his wife, Christine. Afterward, he attended Columbia for a Ph.D. in public law and government. While there, he wrote a book about the Berlin Wall, The Defense of Berlin,which was accepted as his dissertation.
After a brief stint at Dartmouth, Smith joined the faculty at the University of Toronto, where he remained for 35 years. In the 1970s, he turned his attention away from European history and toward American figures. He made a literary splash in 1996 with John Marshall: Definer of a Nation, now seen as one of the most authoritative accounts of the life of the 19th-century Supreme Court justice. Bill Clinton said the book showed him “how as chief justice in Marbury v. Madison[Marshall] built the case for the American nation, and that’s one of the most important things in American history.”
Two books in particular completely recast reputations. “Ulysses Grant needed refurbishing in a way,” says Sanford Lakoff, a professor of political science at UC-San Diego, who consulted on most of Smith’s books. “Until Jean wrote the biography, many of the historians of the Civil War were Southerners, and they disparaged Grant’s achievements as a general and as a president.” Writing about Reconstruction, earlier historians wrote “from a white-supremacist point of view — The Birth of a Nation with footnotes,” Richard Brookhiser wrote in reviewing Grant in The New York Times Book Review. Grant — wrote Brookhiser, a historian — had freed his own slaves and “crushed” the Ku Klux Klan.
Likewise, Smith spiffed up another legacy in Eisenhower in War and Peace, writing in 2012, “With the exception of Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower was the most successful president of the 20th century,” citing his avoidance of several military actions, creation of the interstate highway system, and restoration of “the nation’s sanity” after McCarthyism.
There was no reputational burnishing for George W. Bush, however. In his 2016 biography, Smith called Bush “unprepared for the complexities of governing … untutored, untraveled, and unversed in the ways of the world.”
Smith’s legacy, according to Miller, is another reminder of the power of historical analysis. “His body of work can teach readers and scholars of history that the approaches we take can always be reexamined,” she says. “And that history is never set in stone.”
Carrie Compton is an associate editor at PAW.
OCT. 13, 1932 | SEPT. 1, 2019