What They’re Famous For
Harold M. Hyman is William P. Hobby Professor of History, Emeritus, and director of the Center for the History of Leadership Institutions at Rice University, and is best known for his work on the legal and constitutional climates of the mid- to late-nineteenth-century United States. He is author of several books and articles on the Civil War and Reconstruction, Abraham Lincoln, internal security evolution, civilian-military relationships, and the impact of modern law firms. His Era of the Oath: Northern Loyalty Tests during the Civil War and Reconstruction (1954), won the American Historical Association’s Beveridge Prize. Hyman has lectured and taught at major universities, law schools, and think tanks, and is past president of the American Society for Legal History.
In 1997 on the occassion of being named Professor Emeritus and his partial retirement from Rice University where Hyman stopped teaching undergraduate courses but continued graduate courses and PhD advising, Hyman told Rice University News and Media Relations: “So far it doesn’t seem to be any different. I love teaching. I love being around students. [Becoming a professor emeritus] is a little like other milestones in life-being born, getting married… The only thing I know is being a historian…. [Rice has] been a very good place in almost every way-good students, good colleagues. By and large, the administration encouraged one to do what one should be doing-teaching and writing-and didn’t intrude.”
Many Depression-decade high school dropouts enlisted in the pre-Pearl Harbor military. In mid-1941 I joined the Marines. That December, Imperial Japan attacked me, serially and seriously, on Oahu, Midway and Guadalcanal islands and elsewhere. I resented these sporadic and dangerous intrusions personally, for two reasonable reasons. First, Japan’s assaults might have impaired me physically. Second, the aggressive Japanese tactics repeatedly disrupted our military mail service.
The latter consequence irked me primarily because, as Japan’s troops and my Marine duties permitted, I was trying to master high school completion courses, by correspondence. Even when stationed too briefly in Australia and New Zealand I bypassed the many beckoning bars, bimbos, and brothels in order to work on those demanding lessons, with growing enthusiasm for those in history. In addition to preserving my virtue this belated studiousness paid off, I assumed, when, in 1944, I, again encamped on a Pacific atoll, received by mail a glossy New York high school diploma.
Sadly, I learned later that my abstention from wartime sins was superfluous. Without informing me, in 1943 or `44 New York had granted diplomas without course completions to all ultimately uniformed high school dropouts.
So, to more autobiography. Once again a civilian, I found that my wartime experiences, including the prophylactic correspondence courses, had unfitted me for the blue-collar ruts my several siblings accepted. By mid-1946 I was married (still am, to the same splendid lady) and earning a superior salary. But while attending evening junior college classes I rediscovered my war-kindled interest in history and quit my job. Financed by my breadwinning wife and the GI Bill, by 1948 I had a BA from UCLA, then, in 1952, a Columbia University PhD, both in history. Faculty positions followed, at Earlham College (where, with a PhD, I earned less in 1952 than I had, when a high school graduate, in 1946), Arizona State, UCLA, Illinois, and, in 1968, an endowed chair at Rice University.
I retired from Rice in 1997 because, as the fall term began, a freshman asked me if, long ago, I had taught at UCLA. My affirmative reply triggered his response that, forty-plus years earlier, his future grandfather (!!) had taken my US Constitutional & Legal History course and now sent regards. It was time.
For me, however, it proved not to be a good time. My encrusted habit was to work hard. For five decades, I, in addition to teaching, had published a baker’s dozen well- received books and many articles, essays, papers, etc. Retirement, I assumed, would mean unimpeded opportunity for further research and writing.
But, once becoming a retired octogenarian, I fell prey to squads of surgeons, phalanxes of physicians, and platoons of pharmacists. They, and the federal pharmaceutical boondoggle of 2005-6, consumed my time, energy, and funds. My ambitious post-retirement research and writing plans wither. Since retiring I’ve published only some scholarly articles, op-ed essays especially about Iraq and domestic civil liberties, and book reviews, and evaluated manuscripts for publishers. Too physically uncertain to kayak and fish as I had also hoped to do, by default I look backward a lot.
I look back less to the generations of undergraduates who, voluntarily or not, endured my lectures and exams, than to the roughly sixty PhDs and MAs whose theses and dissertations I had the privilege to oversee. They and I taught each other a lot.
When I taught successfully they learned to ask significant questions of the past, to find through patient research relevant facts to justify reasonable judgments about worthy topics, and to express themselves clearly (passive voice and technical gobbledygook prohibited). I urged each graduate student to think of a dissertation as a book a-borning. It had first to survive seminar criticisms, then those of anonymous external referees, and, when appropriate, then deserve my positive recommendations to a publisher that it become a book. I emphasized the advantages a new PhD gained by retaining a dissertation’s core topic and perhaps widening its chronological coverage and/or employing alternative supplemental interpretations, perhaps by this means conceiving a second book or other major publication.
It worked for a pride of “my” PhD’s. They taught me a great deal, especially through their distinguished, topically linked, yet disparate studies in broadly defined areas of American constitutional and legal history. Their writings help better to illuminate many endlessly contentious paths to our present, paths that include gender and race equality, war powers, Lincoln, the Civil War and Reconstruction, civil-military relationships, loyalty-security policies, federalism (including city-state), control of epidemics, and judicial biography.
Despite their achievements and my own, my frustrated post-retirement research and writing plans now inspire a curmudgeon’s sour closing notes, especially about technology’s impacts on higher education. Remember my earnest wartime devotions in pursuit of a high school diploma? Today, nominally academic entities hire cadres of e-mail peddlers to tout the effortless acquisitions of secondary school diplomas, BAs. MAs, and even PhDs. In legitimate collegiate institutions undergraduates and graduate students easily muster long rosters of primary and secondary sources with which to decorate footnotes and bibliographies. What insights, I worry, have the students gained? As a retiree I’m pleased not to have to sit in on the unending committees that now grope toward some self-respecting accomodation with these and derivative problems. But mine is a guilty pleasure. My instinct was to enlist in frays. Now I can not.
Muted, I wonder when I try to balance my emotions with calmer reason, are these technological marvels in research aids less problems than opportunities, as many respected colleagues insist? And, I ask as historian, is electronic data retrieval fundamentally more upsetting than was true of libraries’ innovative card catalogs a century ago?
Damn. History again intrudes its disturbing questions that blunt excessively simple responses to changes.
By Harold M. Hyman
The notion that officials could act secretly or mask excesses with fictions of mythical underground conspiracies was dubious at best. The antidisloyalty recourses of the Lincoln Administration were imperfect and galling; but they were neither irrelevant nor cynical. — Harold Hyman in “A More Perfect Union: The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the Constitution”
He that imposes an oath makes it,
Not he that for convenience takes it;
Then how can any man be said
To break an oath he never made?
– Harold Hyman in “Era of the Oath: Northern Loyalty Tests During the Civil War and Reconstruction” “
Six years later, the diary of Gideon Welles went into print. Its caustic assertions concerning Stanton’s role in public affairs and his alleged inadequacies in matters of character made an immediate and lasting impression. Jesse Weik admitted that it had “completely upset my notion of Seward, Stanton, and Grant. I have always been such an admirer of all three that I sometimes regret that I ever read Mr. Welles’ estimate. But the great thing is his vindication of Andrew Johnson.”
The vindication of Johnson continued for the next forty years, almost without contradiction. Then, in 1953, Fletcher Pratt published his study of Stanton, which, although it corrected some tenacious misapprehensions, did not provide the needed full study of his life. There, until now, the Stanton story has rested. — Harold Hyman in “Stanton: The Life and Times of Lincoln’s Secretary of War”
Defining loyalty is a philosophical problem. The difficulties involved in its realization are endless. Men in the present and past have ignored this need. They relied on loyalty oaths and other tests which prescribed absolutes of past conduct for suspected disloyalists. Mere emulation of the past in an uncritical search for security in the future is to turn a deaf ear to history and to the present needs of political democracy involved in unprecedented crisis. If executive officials have advanced beyond Lincoln’s use of loyalty-oath tests, they have not yet reached Lincoln’s calm appraisal of human nature and democracy’s resiliency: “On principle, I dislike an oath which requires a man to swear he has not done wrong. It rejects the Christian principle of forgiveness on terms of repentance. I think it enough if a man does no wrong hereafter. ” …
Three decades ago, William Butler Yeats offered this doleful prophecy of mid-century life:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Herman Melville was more hopeful almost a century ago when, as civil war and mass disloyalty rent the land, he offered this poetical plea for moderation and humility:
Yea and Nay–
Each hath his say;
But God he keeps the middle way.
None was by
When He spread the sky;
Wisdom is vain, and prophesy.
Between Melville’s humanistic skepticism and Yeats’s dreary pessimism rests the measure of the current generation, seeking absolutes of loyalty and of much else. Absolute security, as Justice Holmes said in another connection, is achieved only in the graveyard. Never in America’s history have loyalty tests provided security. That security has emerged from within, from strengths garnered by lives and sacrifices freely offered. Until the past history of the inutility of loyalty tests to provide loyalty is recognized, American unity and Americans’ rights will suffer. — Harold Hyman in “To Try Men’s Souls: Loyalty Tests in American History”
“It’s a very good feeling to see intellectual offspring doing good things,” Hyman said. “Being president is a wonderful experience. It’s gratifying to see that so many of them [younger members] are energetic and talented. So there’s no reason to cry about the younger generation.”
The society is a national as well as international scholarly society made up of about 2,000 members who share an interest in the history of law and the constitution. Members include historians of law, law academics, law practitioners, judges, social scientists and “a scattering of wonderful amateurs” from all 50 states and abroad, Hyman said.
“This society is one of few forums where practicing lawyers and academics [historians] can come together,” Hyman said. “The best experience is just to see the seriousness members take. We create this arena where people can talk that otherwise wouldn’t talk. And we encourage that.”
The society has made important contributions to scholarship with papers on race, gender, law, legal rights in wartime, among others, Hyman said.
“We’ve learned a great deal out of the research this society encourages,” he said. “I’ve been honored to be elected.”
Hyman has been a member of the society for 45 years and will pass along the title in late October at the annual meeting. — Harold Hyman in a Rice Univerity article on the occassion of his retirement from the presidency of the American Society for Legal History
About Harold M. Hyman
City College (now City College of the City University of New York), New York, NY, instructor in modern history, 1950-52;
Earlham College, Richmond, IN, assistant professor of history, 1952-55;
University of California, Los Angeles, visiting assistant professor of American history, 1955- 56;
Arizona State University, Tempe, associate professor of American history, 1956-57;
University of California, Los Angeles, professor of history, 1963-68;
Rice University, Houston, TX, William P. Hobby Professor of History, 1968–, chairman of history department, 1968-70.
Area of Research:
B.A. 1948, University of California at Los Angeles;
M.A. in History, 1950 Columbia University;
Ph.D. in History, 1952 Columbia University
Editor, Contributor, Joint Author:
Editor, with Stuart Bruchey, of the “American Legal and Constitutional History Series,” Garland Publishing, 1986-87. Member of board of editors, Reviews in American History, 1964–, Ulysses S. Grant Association, 1968– American Journal of Legal History, 1970–, and Journal of American History, 1970-74.
Awards and Grants:
Albert J. Beveridge award, American Historical Association, 1952, and Sidney Hillman award both for Era of the Oath: Northern Loyalty Tests During the Civil War and Reconstruction;
Sidney Hillman award for To Try Men’s Souls: Loyalty Tests in American History.
U.S. Marine Corps, 1941-45; became master technical sergeant.
U.S. Veterans Administration, Los Angeles, CA, rehabilitation officer, 1946-48.
Member of the American Historical Association, Organization of American Historians, Illinois State Historical Society, Los Angeles Civil War Round Table.
Posted on Sunday, July 30, 2006 at 7:51 PM