Top Young Historians: 8 – Thomas J. Brown

Thomas J. Brown, 45

Top Young Historians: Index

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Associate Professor of History and Associate Director of the Institute for Southern Studies, University of South Carolina.
Areas of Research: U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction
Education: Ph.D., Harvard University, 1995
Major Publications: Dorothea Dix, New England Reformer (Harvard University Press, 1998); co-editor of Hope and Glory: Essays on the Legacy of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment (University of Massachusetts Press, 2001); editor of The Public Art of Civil War Commemoration: A Brief History with Documents Thomas J. Brown JPG (Bedford/Saint Martin’s, 2004) and Reconstructions: New Perspectives on the Postbellum United States (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2006).
Brown is currently working on a book about Civil War monuments tentatively titled The Reconstruction of American Memory: Civic Monuments of the Civil War.
Awards: In May 2005 undergraduates at the University of South Carolina gave Brown the Richard A. Rempel Award, presented annually to a faculty member who has shown exemplary concern for students.
Additional Info: Brown worked as a federal judicial clerk for two years and as an attorney for three years after graduating from Harvard Law School in 1984. He is completing for publication a book about the permanent residents of Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina, by his longtime friend Ted Ashton Phillips, Jr., the last of the great Charleston antiquarians, who moved in with the subjects of the book much too soon in January 2005.

Personal Anecdote:

My interest in history builds on an upbringing in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., as part of a large family in which my father would take the children into town every Sunday afternoon to give my mother a rest and entertain us at the museums and other historic sites. These excursions fostered stronger attachments to the American procession than he intended. It is not surprising that my research has come to focus on civic monuments as attempts to unify past and present on public stages for everyday life.

I have so far enjoyed little success in reproducing those childhood experiences and their gratifications with my son and daughter, though they have generously indulged my reminiscences. My son did see a prospect of physical adventure in my accounts of climbing the stairs to the top of the Washington Monument, and I was delighted when he said that he would like to make the ascent while we were visiting his grandparents a couple years ago. Lucian was at that point twelve years old, edging daily across the precipice of childhood into the abyss of adolescence. The Washington Monument rose up before me as a parenting opportunity as grand if as solitary as its appearance on the Mall. I prepared to improve our exercise with casual observations about the dream of Revolution that suffused the decorations on the staircase wall or the fear of alien change that prompted Know-Nothings to seize the uncompleted monument in the 1850s.

I am wary of sliding into a classroom mode with my children and was particularly cautious about dampening a readiness that was powerful enough to help Lucian awaken at the early hour necessary for us to come into town and pick up tickets for admission to the monument much later in the day. We wandered over to the Lincoln Memorial, which is close to the heart of my research specialty, but I spared him my lectures on the memorial or on Lincoln himself. We spent most of the morning in Lucian’s favorite part of Washington, its small Chinatown, where we bought a soft drink in a Chinese- labeled bottle that he kept in his room long afterwards. For my gateway to the empyrean of history I planned to bank on the Washington Monument, as the early republic did.

When we returned in the afternoon and fell into the line, I saw that we were being funneled toward an elevator. I flagged a National Park Service ranger and explained that we wanted to walk up the monument. He laughed, not entirely in a kind way, and informed me that climbing up the stairs had not been permitted since the 1976 Bicentennial. I could see that the ranger had not been alive then.

Lucian was disappointed to miss the challenge of the ascent but positively disgusted to be identified with someone who was so cluelessly old to a twenty-five-year-old whom he considered unfathomably old. The doorway of the past as a medium of communication had never been more firmly slammed in my face. I hope for more success with my students and readers. As for Lucian, I look forward to learning from him about contemporary Asia and hiking up hills together.

Quotes

By Thomas J. Brown

  • Although many historians would later describe her wartime work as a reluctant interruption of her crusade for the insane, Dix hurried to volunteer precisely because she recognized that the Civil War presented a chance to bring her antebellum mission to a climax. As the commander of ‘an army of nurses,’ she could be-as she had always sought to become-the link between the regeneration of individuals and the reform of American society. Saving the lives of the wounded and guiding the souls of the dying, she would personify the force of exemplary moral character in the ordeal of suffering she had long anticipated. She would not merely tend to soldiers; she would help to heal the nation. — Thomas J. Brown, in Dorothea Dix, New England Reformer
  • About Thomas J. Brown

  • This well written and copiously researched work presents a sympathetic and intimate portrait of one of the best-known reformers in antebellum America…What Brown presents is a surprisingly intimate portrait that still acknowledges Dix’s many shortcomings–her limited view of women’s rights, her blindness on the issue of slavery, and her lingering nativism. Despite Dix’s personal limitations, however, Brown recognizes her many successes in convincing parsimonious legislatures to build asylums and putting the plight of the mentally ill on a national stage. Brown tells a story that is closely focused on Dix, but also manages to reveal valuable information about education, religion, medical professionalism, women’s history and the political quagmire of antebellum America. — Stephan D. Andrews, Journal of the Early Republic
  • “The strengths of Brown’s biography are obvious: it is impressively researched and well written; it provides insights into Dix’s career; and it offers a window into the complex cultural world of that era. The most original part of the book lies in the detailed analysis of Dix’s failure to secure federal land grants to endow state mental hospitals and her abortive role as superintendent of nurses during the Civil War; both episodes illuminate the sources of her career and the fragility of her moral ideology. Brown’s biography will appeal most to scholars seeking the define the character and ideology of mid-nineteenth-century social activism…It is clear that Brown has made in important contribution, and future scholars will profit from his insights.” — Gerald N. Grob, Journal of American History
  • Professor Thomas J. Brown, Department of History, University of South Carolina. Tom is a brilliant historian (also a lawyer), who has published an important biography of Dorothea Dix, is a key figure in Southern Studies at his university, and and is a specialist on Civil War memorials and monuments. He is brilliant. — David Herbert Donald, Charles Warren Professor of American History and of American Civilization Emeritus at Harvard University
  • “I thought Brown was excellent. He’s absolutely brilliant and conveys his knowledge effectively.” — Anonymous student
  • Posted on Sunday, December 25, 2005 at 12:10 AM

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