Allan Nevins

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Allan Nevins
Born Joseph Allan Nevins
(1890-05-20)May 20, 1890
Camp Point, Illinois
Died March 5, 1971(1971-03-05) (aged 80)
San Mateo, California
Residence United States
Institutions Columbia University
Alma mater University of Illinois
Doctoral students Bernard Bellush, John Nevin
Spouse Mary Fleming Richardson

Joseph Allan Nevins[1] (May 20, 1890 – March 5, 1971) was an American historian and journalist, renowned for his extensive work on the history of the Civil War and his biographies of such figures as President Grover Cleveland, Hamilton Fish, Henry Ford, and John D. Rockefeller, as well as his public service.

Early and Family Life and Education[edit]

Nevins was born in Camp Point, Illinois, the son of Emma (née Stahl) and Joseph Allan Nevins, whom he later described as a stern Presbyterian farmer.[2][3][4][5] After education in local public schools, Nevins attended the University of Illinois, where he earned an M.A. in English in 1913. He married Mary Fleming (Richardson) in 1916, and the couple ultimately had two daughters, Anne Elizabeth and Meredith.


Nevins wrote his first book, The Life of Robert Rogers (1914) (about a Colonial American frontiersman and Loyalist) and a history of the University of Illinois (1917) during his postgraduate studies in that institution. He then accepted positions with the New York Evening Post and The Nation and worked as a journalist in New York City for twenty years, as well as continued writing and editing history books. He resigned from the Nation in 1918, and the Post about a year after publishing its history (The Evening Post: A Century of Journalism) in 1922. In 1923 Nevins published American Social History as Recorded by British Travellers (reissued as America through British Eyes in 1957) and The American States During and After the Revolution, 1775–1789 in 1924. He resigned from the Post to become literary editor of the New York Sun in 1924, and gave up that position to become an editorial writer with the New York World about a year later. He also continued his extensive private research in the New York Public Library and published The Emergence of Modern America, 1865–1878 in 1927, and a biography of explorer John Charles Frémont, Frémont:The West’s Greatest Adventurer in 1928. During a leave of absence from his newspaper job, Nevins spent a term teaching American History at Cornell University.[6] .[7]

He covered the campaigns of Al Smith and particularly after the 1928 Presidential Campaign which he covered for Walter Lippmann, grew dismayed at what he perceived as intolerance and provincialism, religious bigotry and racial prejudice in the American South, which as a historian he contrasted to religious freedom and separation of church and state that the same region had brought to the new nation in the revolutionary era.[8]

In 1929, Nevins joined the history faculty of Columbia University, where he remained for three decades until his mandatory retirement in 1958. In 1931 he gave up his journalism job in order to become a full-time faculty member and in 1939 succeeded Evarts Boutell Greene (his teacher at Illinois and mentor at Columbia), as the Dewitt Clinton Professor of History. His major works during this period (discussed below) included: Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage (1932)(for which he won his first Pulitzer Prize, History of the Bank of New York and Trust Company, 1784-1934 (1934), Hamilton Fish: The Inner Story of the Grant Administration (1936)(for which he won his second Pulitzer Prize), The Gateway to History (1938), a two volume biography of John D. Rockefeller, The Heroic Age of American Enterprise (1940; rewritten and expanded as A Study in Power: John D. Rockefeller, Industrialist and Philanthropist in 1953).

During World War II, Professor Nevins taught (as Harmsworth Professor of American History) at Oxford University from 1940 to 1941. In 1942, he published America: The Story of A Free People (with Henry Steele Commager, reworked and republished 1954). Nevins served as special representative of the Office of War Information in Australia and New Zealand in 1943-1944, and in 1945-1946 worked in London as chief public affairs officer at the American embassy.

Upon returning to Columbia, Nevins began working on a multi-volume series on the American Civil War. The first volume The Ordeal of Union (1947) won the Bancroft Prize and a $10,000 Scribners Literary Prize. In 1948 Nevins created the first oral history program to operate on an institutionalized basis in the U.S., which continues as Columbia University's Oral History Research Office. In addition to publishing four more volumes of the Civil War series, Nevins reworked the Rockefeller biography to cast a more favorable light upon the magnate. In 1954 with Frank Hill, Nevins published the first of a three-volume biography of Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company, Ford: The Times, the Man, and the Company.

After retiring from Columbia, Nevins relocated to California, where he worked as senior researcher at the Huntington Library in San Marino, and also returned to Oxford from 1964 to 1965. Nevins also headed the national Civil War Centennial Commission, edited its 15-volume Impact series and finished the final six volumes of his eight volume series on the American Civil War. He also published Herbert H. Lehman and His Era (1963) and James Trustlow Adams: Historian of the American Dream (1968).

As a historian, Nevins supervised more than 100 doctoral dissertations, published over 50 books and possibly more than 1000 articles, as well as served as president of the American Historical Association, the Society of American Historians, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Death and Legacy[edit]

Nevins died in Menlo Park, California, in 1971. He was buried at Kensico Cemetery in Westchester County, New York.[9] Historians including Ray Allen Billington compiled Allan Nevins on History (1975) to celebrate his accomplishments. His granddaughter Jane Mayer also became a writer. The Society of American Historians awards an Allan Nevins prize annually in his honor.


Nevins wrote more than 50 books, mainly political and business history and biography focusing on the nineteenth century, in addition to his many newspaper and academic articles. The hallmarks of his books were his extensive, in-depth research and his vigorous, almost journalistic writing style. The subjects of his biographies include Grover Cleveland, Abram Hewitt, Hamilton Fish, Henry Ford, John C. Frémont, Herbert Lehman, John D. Rockefeller, and Henry White. The biographies provide in-depth coverage of United States political, economic and diplomatic history of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Nevins's biography of Grover Cleveland won the 1933 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography. He also added significantly to the scholarship on President Cleveland by publishing a volume of Cleveland's correspondence spanning the years 1850-1908.

Ordeal of the Union[edit]

Nevins' greatest work was Ordeal of the Union (1947–71), an 8-volume comprehensive history of the coming of the Civil war, and the war itself. (He died before he could address Reconstruction, and thus his masterwork ends in 1865.) It remains the most detailed political, economic and military narrative of the era. Nevins's Ordeal of the Union has a slight but perceptible pro-Union bias, just as Shelby Foote's three-volume masterwork has a slight but perceptible bias towards the Confederacy.[citation needed] The last two volumes jointly won the 1972 U.S. National Book Award in History.[10]

Nevins also planned and helped to edit a pioneering 13-volume series exploring American social history, "A History of American Life".

His biographer explains the Nevins style:

Nevins used narrative not only to tell a story but to propound moral lessons. It was not his inclination to deal in intellectual concepts or theories, like many academic scholars. He preferred emphasizing practical notions about the importance of national unity, principled leadership, [classical] liberal politics, enlightened journalism, the social responsibility of business and industry, and scientific and technical progress that added to the cultural improvement of humanity.

John D. Rockefeller[edit]

Nevins wrote several books on John D. Rockefeller and the Rockefeller family, including the three-volume authorized biography of John D. Rockefeller. These projects later attracted the criticism of business journalist Ferdinand Lundberg:

It was in the course of doing work for the five Rockefeller books that Nevins developed the interesting thesis that the American corporate adventurers to whom Matthew Josephson gave the enduring name of ‘The Robber Barons’ were in fact American heroes, builders of the American civilization and democracy. He invited other historians to follow in his footsteps in this thesis, but so far nobody has conspicuously accepted. And if anyone does, one will be able to see the American intellectual horizon further muddled. I have given writers like Nevins the sobriquet of ‘counter-savants’. A savant, or man of learning, is devoted to increasing knowledge. And knowledge has the function of deepening understanding. A counter-savant, however, is a man of knowledge who uses his knowledge, for reasons known only to himself, to obfuscate understanding, to confuse readers. The fact is that Nevins’ corrective portrait of Rockefeller is not only false with respect to the central character, but frustrates understanding with the unsophisticated reader. (The Rockefeller Syndrome, New York: Lyle Stuart, 1975, p. 145.)

Contrary to Lundberg's observations, historians and biographers such as Jean Strouse, Ron Chernow, David Nasaw, and T. J. Stiles have written in the Nevins vein, chronicling the lives and careers of such figures as J. Pierpont Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Though these later biographers did not go so far as Nevins did in conferring heroic status on their subjects, they recognized the importance of such historical and biographical investigations to establishing a clearer and more complex understanding of the American past in general, and the history of American economic development in particular.

John F. Kennedy[edit]

An enthusiastic supporter of then-Senator John F. Kennedy, Nevins wrote the foreword to the inaugural edition of Kennedy's Profiles in Courage. He also joined his friend, frequent co-editor, and Columbia colleague Henry Steele Commager in organizing "Professors for Kennedy", a political advocacy group that played key roles in the 1960 presidential election. In the late 1960s, Nevins and Commager parted ways over the issue of the war in Vietnam—a war that Commager opposed on constitutional grounds and Nevins supported as a necessary part of the struggle in the cold war against Communism.


On radio, Nevins was the host of the 15-minute Adventures in Science, which covered a wide variety of medical and scientific topics. As a segment of CBS' Adult Education Series, it was broadcast from May 6, 1938 until August 18, 1957, airing on various days, usually in the late afternoon.

Major books[edit]

  • The Evening post; a century of journalism (1922)
  • The American states during and after the revolution, 1775-1789 (1927) online edition
  • A History of American Life vol. VIII: The Emergence of Modern America 1865-1878 (1927)
  • Frémont, the West's greatest adventurer; being a biography from certain hitherto unpublished sources of General John C. Frémont, together with his wife, Jessie Benton Frémont, and some account of the period of expansion which found a brilliant leader in the Pathfinder (1928) online edition
  • Polk; the diary of a president, 1845–1849, covering the Mexican war, the acquisition of Oregon, and the conquest of California and the Southwest, (1929)
  • Henry White; thirty years of American diplomacy (1930)
  • Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage (1933)
  • Letters of Grover Cleveland, 1850–1908; (1933)
  • Dictionary of American Biography (1934–36); Nevins wrote 40 articles on Alexander Hamilton, Rutherford B. Hayes, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, etc.
  • Abram S. Hewitt: with some account of Peter Cooper. (1935)
  • Hamilton Fish; the inner history of the Grant administration, (1936) online edition vol 1 online edition vol 2
  • The Gateway to History 1938. online edition
  • The emergence of modern America, 1865-1878 (1941)
  • Ordeal of the Union (1947–1971).
    • 1. Fruits of Manifest Destiny, 1847–1852;
    • 2. A House Dividing, 1852–1857;
    • 3. Douglas, Buchanan, and Party Chaos, 1857–1859;
    • 4. Prologue to Civil War, 1859–1861;
    • 5. The Improvised War, 1861–1862;
    • 6. War Becomes Revolution, 1862–1863;
    • 7. The Organized War, 1863–1864;
    • 8. The Organized War to Victory, 1864–1865
  • Ford with the collaboration of Frank Ernest Hill, 3 vols. (1954–1963)
  • John D. Rockefeller: The Heroic Age of American Enterprise. 2 vols. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. (1940)
  • Study In Power: John D. Rockefeller, Industrialist and Philanthropist. 2 vols. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. (1953)