I was truly honored to meet Jesse Lemisch at the American Historical Association annual meeting in New York over the past weekend. My partner, Monique Laney, took this picture of us. I suspect that many people at the reception did not know who he is. That is a pity; his life and career has been so rich and his studies so important.
I first read Dr. Lemisch’s work while in graduate school. He is a Revolutionary War era historian and like so many others who have analyzed that pivotal event in American history he subscribes to the statement of Carl Becker: “The war was not about home rule, but about who would rule at home.” In other words, was the American Revolution truly a revolution or not? Dr. Lemisch firmly believes that the Revolution was truly revolutionary, but was turned back by the forces of order and conservatism, and his work supports that thesis.
The first of his works that I read was “Jack Tar in the Streets: Merchant Seamen in the Politics of Revolutionary America,” published in the William and Mary Quarterly in 1968. In this work Lemisch described how American merchant sailors became the foot soldiers of revolution in New York and elsewhere, protesting for greater equanimity during the Stamp Act crisis and thereafter. They became the shock troops of the Sons of Liberty and the American Revolution. He insisted that they were rational resistors of the oppression of the British colonial system.
I was blown away by this analysis, Lemisch explained beautifully why this group would take up arms to overthrow the most powerful government in the world; they acted out of a sense of their own self-interests and their desire for a better place for them and their families. Small wonder that readers of the William and Mary Quarterly voted this one of the ten most influential articles published in that journal during the last fifty years.
After being exposed to “Jack Tar in the Streets” I read everything I could find by Jesse Lemisch. I also learned a little more about his background. He was a “New Left” historian when that term actually meant something, mixing historical analysis with present-day activism. He forever wanted to change not just our understanding of history but also our present world; he believed history could help to do so.
As a young man in his thirties his ideals had been shaped by the Cold War and the social upheavals of the 1960s. In 1969 he presented a paper at the American Historical Association annual meeting that set the profession on fire. It was “Present-Mindedness Revisited: Anti-Radicalism as a Goal of American Historical Writing Since World War II.” His thesis was simple, American historians were tacitly buttressing the status quo through their largely consensus-driven historical accounts. He recognized that historical neutrality, the sin qua non of the profession, was actually a dodge since it failed to call out injustice when apparent in history and too often explained it away. Lemisch argued for an overt involvement in the fray with the historian as actor. Seeking objectivity, he believed, was tantamount to supporting the forces of conservatism.
Lemisch was exiled for these ideas; his paper was condemned as being ill-mannered. His calling out of some of the most revered historians of the time was viewed as unwarranted. He could not get it published and he could not find a permanent position at a university, despite is genuine contributions to the history of the American Revolution. Nonetheless, other historians circulated his paper informally; I read a copy that Burl Noggle had at LSU in the latter 1970s. Lemisch’s paper eventually found publication as a small book, On Active Service in War and Peace: Politics and Ideology in the American Historical Profession, by New Hogtown Press in Canada in 1975.
Eventually Jesse Lemisch found a position at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. Some 80 years old now he is still active. He remains upset about the conservatism of American society, the injustices that exist, and the complicity of the historical profession in supporting and even celebrating that status quo (I’m thinking of David McCullough among others). In 2012 he called for an “Occupy the American Historical Association” to force the profession to address the current historian job crisis. He also has a remarkable recollection of what happened regarding his critique of the historical profession in a March 2014 post available here: “Higham, Hofstadter and Woodward: Three Liberal Historians?”
When I talked to Jesse Lemisch at the AHA I was overcome by his graciousness and his sense of proportion. He said he could never stop challenging the current state of society; he said he is the last of the “New Left” historians, engaged as ever. In rereading On Active Service in War and Peace, available for free download, I was struck by how appropriate his arguments still are and how a new generation of historians might benefit from them. It was a pleasure and an honor to meet Jesse Lemisch for the first time.