H. W. Brands

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H. W. Brands
H w brands 2012.jpg
H. W. Brands
Born Henry William Brands
1953 (age 61–62)
Nationality American
Other names Bill Brands
Occupation Historian
Known for American history

Henry William Brands (born August 7, 1953) is an American educator, author and historian. He has authored 25 books on U.S. history and biography. He is the Dickson Allen Anderson Centennial Professor of History and a Professor of Government at the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned his Ph.D. in history in 1985. His works have twice been selected as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.[1][2][3]

Early life and education[edit]

Born in 1953, Brands grew up in Oregon in the Portland metropolitan area. He attended Jesuit High School, where he was a three sport athlete and national merit scholar. Brands enrolled at Stanford University studying mathematics and history, receiving his undergraduate degree in history in 1975.[4] Following graduation he worked for a year doing sales in his family's cutlery business before returning to Jesuit to teach mathematics. He taught at the high school for the next five years while earning a M.A. in Liberal Studies from Reed College in 1978, followed by a M.S. in Mathematics from Portland State in 1981. During this time he realized that he wanted to write, and determined his love of history might provide an avenue for him to do so.[5] He enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin to study under historian Robert A Divine. He wrote his dissertation on the Eisenhower administration and its foreign policy during the Cold War, earning his Ph.D. in History in 1985.[6]


In his first year Brands worked as an oral historian at the University of Texas School of Law. The following year he taught at Vanderbilt University. In 1987 he took a position at Texas A&M University, where he remained for seventeen years. In 2005 he joined the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is the Dickson Allen Anderson Centennial Professor of History and Professor of Government. He holds the Jack S. Blanton Sr. Chair in History.

Brands is an animated lecturer who presents history through stories. Brands initially intended to write a history of the United States in six volumes, but he could generate no interest in a publisher for such an endeavor. He chose to come at the issue from the perspective of biographies, a genre for which a broad interest was well established. His biographical works are really 'life and times' stories with the emphasis on the times. Researching an historical period he looks for characters by which to tell the story of the time, creating through them a voice the readers can identify with.[7] Personal notes and writings, letters and diary entries are all items of great interest to Brands as they allow the period to come alive.[7] Said Brands: "History is a story... in fact, it is the best story I can think of."[5]

Though the focus in a biography, the subject's life and experience, must necessarily be more narrow than a general history of the time would be, Brands uses these biographies with the intention of relating the history of the period in an interesting way. One method used is he describes the overall events transpiring, then cuts back to the personal writings of the individual. The subject's perception of the world is placed for the reader within the broader perspective of the age. Examples of Brands' biographical histories include his biographies on Benjamin Franklin, covering the Colonial Period and the Revolutionary War, Andrew Jackson, covering the War of 1812, Western Expansion and the conflict over the National Bank, Ulysses S. Grant, covering the Sectional Crisis, the Civil War and Reconstruction, Theodore Roosevelt, covering the Industrial Era and the Progressive Movement, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, covering the Great Depression, the New Deal, the Second World War, and the ascension of the U.S. as an international power.[8]

Brands views his writings as an extension of his classroom, where his teaching of history is centered upon creating an interesting narrative. "It is more important to me that my students come out of my class believing 'This story is interesting and I might want to know more about it' than to fill them up with information." Brands holds that whatever information students may learn in a classroom will slip away with time, but creating an interest in history can result in learning that will continue throughout a student's life.[7] "If I can remind them or convince them that history is interesting than I feel I have succeeded, because unlike Chemistry or Physics, History is a subject that anyone can teach themselves... if they are interested."[9] As an author and contributor to school textbooks, he believes this objective is particularly important in these works. Commented Brands: "I happen to think it is absolutely critical to write textbooks that engage the students."[5] One of the textbooks Brands co-authored is titled American Stories: A History of The United States, the title of which supports the view that history is best taught as a narrative.

He takes a progressive view on the founders and the U.S. Constitution, arguing that the founders were at heart radicals who were willing to challenge the status quo in search of a better future. That being so he believes that Americans today should not be constrained by the views of self-government held by the founders. "In revering the founders we undervalue ourselves and sabotage our own efforts to make necessary improvements in the republican experiment they began. Our love of the founders leads us to abandon and even betray the principles they fought for."[10] He believes the framers would not want the Constitution to be interpreted by the idea of original intent, and believes that we are in error when we view the founders in a "deified" way.[5]

Brands believes that Americans place too much importance on the individual in the White House. "We have this very interesting relationship with the presidents where the president is supposed to be one of us, but on the other hand he represents everybody so he is sort of above all of us. We make too much of presidents, but we can hardly help ourselves."[11] Though noting the power of the Office of the President has increased greatly since the opening of the twentieth century, when the United States emerged as a significant world power and U.S. foreign policy became far more important, Brands believes that popular focus on the president is excessive. "We have a cult of the president, where we make too big a deal of the president."[12]

Besides teaching history in his university courses, Brands has written extensively. In addition to his writings on US political history, Brands has works on the economic development of the United States and key leaders in corporate America. His books are known for their readability and narrative thrust.[13] He has authored twenty-four books, co-authored three others with T. H. Breen, and produced numerous articles that have been featured in newspapers and magazines. His writings have received critical and popular acclaim. The First American was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Los Angeles Times Prize, as well as a New York Times bestseller. The Age of Gold was a Washington Post Best Book of 2002 and a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller. Andrew Jackson was a Chicago Tribune Best Book of 2005 and a Washington Post bestseller. What America Owes the World was a finalist for the Lionel Gelber Prize in international affairs. The Wages of Globalism was a Choice Outstanding Academic Book winner. Lone Star Nation won the Deolece Parmelee Award. Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was his second finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He has appeared in the documentaries The Presidents (2005), 10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America (2006), America: The Story of Us (2010) and The Men Who Built America (2012). His writings have been published in several countries and translated into German, French, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.[6]


  • Cold Warriors: Eisenhower's Generation and American Foreign Policy (1988)
  • The Specter of Neutralism: The United States and the Emergence of the Third World, 1947-1960 (1989)
  • India and the United States: The Cold Peace (1990)
  • Inside the Cold War: Loy Henderson and the Rise of the American Empire, 1918-1961 (1991)
  • Bound to Empire: The United States and the Philippines (1992), ISBN 0-19-507104-2
  • The Devil We Knew: Americans and the Cold War (1993)
  • The United States in the World: A History of American Foreign Policy (1994)
  • Into the Labyrinth: The United States and the Middle East, 1945-1993 (1994)
  • The Reckless Decade: America in the 1890s (1995), ISBN 0-312-13594-7
  • Since Vietnam: The United States in World Affairs, 1973-1995 (1995)
  • The Wages of Globalism: Lyndon Johnson and the Limits of American Power (1995)
  • TR: The Last Romantic (1997), ISBN 0-465-06958-4
  • What America Owes the World: The Struggle for the Soul of Foreign Policy (1998)
  • Masters of Enterprise: Giants of American Business from John Jacob Astor and J. P. Morgan to Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey (1999)
  • The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (2000), ISBN 0-385-49328-2
  • The Strange Death of American Liberalism (2001)
  • The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream (2002)
  • Woodrow Wilson (2003), ISBN 0-8050-6955-0
  • Lone Star Nation: The Epic Story of the Battle for Texas Independence (2004), ISBN 0-385-50737-2
  • Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times (2005)
  • The Money Men: Capitalism, Democracy, and the Hundred Years' War Over the American Dollar (2006), ISBN 0-393-06184-1
  • Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (2008), ISBN 978-0-385-51958-8
  • America Past and Present coauthored textbook; (9th Edition, 2010)
  • American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900 (2010)
  • American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (2010)
  • Greenback Planet: How the Dollar Conquered the World and Threatened Civilization as We Know It (2011)
  • American Stories: A History of The United States, coauthored textbook (2nd ed. 2011)
  • The Murder of Jim Fisk for the Love of Josie Mansfield [American Portraits series] (2011)
  • The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace (2012)
  • The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr [American Portraits series] (2012)

Edited books[edit]

  • The Foreign Policies of Lyndon Johnson: Beyond Vietnam (1999)
  • The Use of Force after the Cold War (2000)
  • Critical Reflections on the Cold War: Linking Rhetoric and History (2000), with Martin J. Medhurst
  • The Selected Letters of Theodore Roosevelt (2001)


  1. ^ "2001 Finalists". The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 17 March 2014. 
  2. ^ "2009 Finalists". The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 17 March 2014. 
  3. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions". The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 17 March 2014. Nominated Finalists are selected by the Nominating Juries for each category as finalists in the competition. 
  4. ^ Muscolino, Joe (2013-05-28). "Behind the Books with H.W. Brands, Author of The Man Who Saved the Union". Biographile. 
  5. ^ a b c d C-Span In Depth interview, 3 July, 2005
  6. ^ a b "H.W. Brands Biography". BookBrowse. 5 July 2011. 
  7. ^ a b c Hollister, Stacy (October 2010). "A Q&A With H. W. Brands". Texas Monthly. Retrieved 19 March 2014. 
  8. ^ H. W. Brands (2012-08-16). "Hauenstein Lecture: The Cost of Greatness". Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies. Retrieved 2014-03-10. 
  9. ^ "LQ Podcast 34: H. W. Brands". Lapham's Quarterly Podcast. 2013. Retrieved 2014-03-03. 
  10. ^ Brands, H.W. (September 2003). "Our reverence for the Fathers has gotten out of hand". Atlantic Monthly. 
  11. ^ H. W. Brands (2013-03-07). "Hauenstein Lecture: Persona of the Presidency". Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies. Retrieved 2014-03-12. 
  12. ^ Brands, H.W. (2012-11-30). "Don't Dare to Be Great: The Paradoxes of Presidential History". SMU Center for Presidential History. 
  13. ^ Vognar, Chris (28 January 2011). "Interview: H.W. Brands writes history for real people". Dallas News. Retrieved 19 March 2014. 

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