Robert V. Remini
Remini in 2005
|Born||Robert Vincent Remini|
July 17, 1921
New York City, New York
|Died||March 28, 2013 (aged 91)|
|Alma mater||Fordham University|
|Spouse||Ruth T. Kuhner|
Robert Vincent Remini (July 17, 1921 - March 28, 2013) was an American historian and a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He wrote numerous books about President Andrew Jackson and the Jacksonian era, most notably a three-volume biography of Jackson. For the third volume of Andrew Jackson, subtitled The Course of American Democracy, 1833-1845, he won the 1984 U.S. National Book Award for Nonfiction. Remini was widely praised for his meticulous research on Jackson and thorough knowledge of him. His books portrayed Jackson in a mostly favorable light and he was sometimes criticized for being too partial towards his subject.
Remini also wrote biographies of other early 19th century Americans, namely Martin Van Buren, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John Quincy Adams, and Joseph Smith. He served as Historian of the United States House of Representatives from 2005 until 2010 and wrote a history of the House, which was published in 2006.
Robert Vincent Remini was born on July 17, 1921 in New York City. His parents were William Remini and Loretta Tiernay Remini, and he was the elder brother of William and Vincent Remini. His father worked as a credit manager for a coal company. Remini recalled that his original plan in life was to become a lawyer. He explained that this was "not because [he] was intrigued by the law, but because it seemed like a worthy profession then for a child of the Great Depression." Remini received his B.S. from Fordham University in 1943. He then enlisted in the United States Navy and was involved in anti-submarine warfare during World War II. His reading of history while in the Navy caused him to want to be a historian. "I remember we docked at Boston and I went to the library and took out all nine volumes of Henry Adams' history of the U.S. under Jefferson and Madison," he told the Chicago Tribune. "I loved it. Right then I realized that by God, it was history I loved, not law." "When I told my parents, they were shocked," Remini recalled. "'Oh!' they said. 'You will starve.'" Remini married Ruth T. Kuhner, whom he had met in kindergarten, in 1948 and they had three children: Elizabeth Nielson, Joan Costello, and Robert W. Remini.
Remini received his M.A. from Columbia University in 1947 and his PhD from Columbia in 1951. At Columbia, he studied under historian Richard Hofstadter. Hofstadter suggested that he write his dissertation on Martin Van Buren. The dissertation eventually turned into his first book, Martin Van Buren and the Making of the Democratic Party (1959). The book examines Van Buren's role in building a cross-sectional coalition which formed the foundation for the rise of Jacksonian democracy and the eventual creation of the Democratic Party. Remini was named an assistant professor of history at Fordham in 1951 and remained there until 1965. Historian Richard K. McMaster, who graduated from Fordham University in 1962, wrote in 2009 that Remini was great at "making American history an interesting story." McMaster said, "I remember him as a remarkably kind man, genuinely interested in his students and encouraging of our efforts at research. He had the uncanny ability to present the Age of Jackson with such immediacy that you might think he'd had lunch in the Ramskeller with Martin Van Buren. He is an American treasure."
In 1965, Remini joined the faculty of the University of Illinois at Chicago, then known as the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle (UICC). He was the school's first chairman of the History Department, serving in that role from 1965 until 1971. Remini later founded the UIC Institute for the Humanities, which he chaired from 1981 to 1987. Remini retired in 1991. During his career, he served as a visiting professor at the Jilan University of Technology in China, the University of Richmond, the University of Notre Dame, and Wofford College. When writing history, Remini employed self-discipline to try to better himself. "I was trained by Jesuits, and you were rewarded if you did good and punished if you did bad," he said. "I decided that I had to write nine pages a day. And if I did, I got a martini. If not, I didn't."
The House of Representatives passed a measure introduced by Representative John B. Larson, a former high school history teacher, directing the Librarian of Congress to facilitate the writing of a history of the House of Representatives. Remini was then asked by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington to write a Congressional history, The House. Remini accepted the task and the book was published in 2006. The book was considered to be "nonpartisan, readable, and stocked with memorable characters." The work led to his appointment as Historian of the United States House of Representatives by Speaker Dennis Hastert on April 28, 2005. He was 83 at the time of his appointment. As House Historian, Remini was credited for his non-partisanship, especially after previous House Historians had been fired over partisan issues. He enjoyed visiting the Library of Congress as House Historian. "He was like a kid in a candy shop," said his daughter, Joan Costello. "He was so tickled and thrilled to be able to read the rare books, documents and letters available to only a few." He retired in 2010 and was succeeded by Matthew Wasniewski.
Remini is best known for his work on America's seventh President Andrew Jackson. After his book on Van Buren, he initially planned on writing a full biography of him until deciding to write about Jackson instead. In the 1960s, Remini wrote a series of short books about Jackson, which were The Election of Andrew Jackson (1963), Andrew Jackson (1966), and Andrew Jackson and the Bank War (1967).
Remini's initial books on Andrew Jackson convinced him to write a fuller account of the man's life. This led to the writing of his book Andrew Jackson, published in three volumes (1977, 1981, 1984), which is considered his magnum opus. It was originally conceived as a single volume, but Remini tried to convince his editor, Hugh Van Dusen, to allow for two. He at first refused, saying, "I can't sell two volumes." Remini recalled, "We were sitting there in the middle of The Marriage of Figaro and he turned to me and he said, 'You can have two volumes,' and that was the beginning of it. Then, when the presidential years grew to be more than another volume, I needed a third volume. I took him to see Tristan und Isolde -- and it worked!" The finished series totaled approximately 1,600 pages. "There was an electrifying dynamism about Jackson that I found irresistible," Remini said. He went on to call him "the embodiment of the new American." He added, "This new man was no longer British. He no longer wore the queue and silk pants. He wore trousers, and he had stopped speaking with a British accent."
Remini's books on Jackson have generally received praise.Jon Meacham read Remini's trilogy in high school and later wrote his own biography of Jackson, which Remini read in manuscript form. Meacham said, "He was practicing a kind of narrative historical biographical craft at exactly the moment when most of the academy was moving toward intellectual and group-driven history." He described Remini as "someone who never believed that his interpretation was the last word." Meacham continued, "You cannot write about Jackson without standing on Remini's shoulders."Daniel Walker Howe, a historian who took a rather critical view of Jackson, speaks favorably of Remini, writing: "A forthright admirer of his subject, Remini is laudatory in his assessments of Jackson's achievements. At the same time, he is also a meticulous scholar who does not allow his prejudices to get in the way of the evidence he finds." Of Remini's trilogy, Joel H. Silbey says that "one comes away with the feeling that here is how Jackson saw himself, might have set forth his won case, and wished to be remembered." In his own biography of Jackson, historian H. W. Brands calls Remini's three volume series "[a] monumental work of research and exposition by the dean of Jackson studies." The final volume, Andrew Jackson: The Course of American Democracy, 1833-1845, won the 1984 U.S. National Book Award for Nonfiction.
While Remini has been credited for his unique focus on Jackson the individual, he has also received criticism for seeing things too much from Jackson's point of view and for identifying too closely with his subject. "No historian knows more about Andrew Jackson than Robert V. Remini," John William Ward, also a Jackson biographer, wrote in a 1981 review of the second volume of the Jackson trilogy, Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Freedom, 1822-1833. He added that Remini "has mastered in all their complex detail the many issues and events of Jackson's private and public life, but in doing so he has come to see the world too much from Jackson's point of view." "Seeing the world through Old Hickory's eyes, we appreciate him as a complex human being," history professor Andrew R.L. Cayton wrote in a New York Times book review of Remini's Andrew Jackson and his Indian Wars (2001). "The problem . . . is that we see the world only through Jackson's eyes." A 1984 review by James M. Banner of the New York Times of the final volume of Remini's Jackson trilogy says that "he cannot be said to be respectful of interpretations more skeptical than his own, nor of being detached." Banner argues that Remini's work is "a biography of the old school, governed by an old strategy and unabashed in its sympathies." He concludes by declaring that Remini's three volumes are not "the right vehicle for what we need."
Remini took a moderate view of Jackson's behavior during the Bank War. He believed that the Bank had "too much power, which it was obviously using in politics. It had too much money which it was using to corrupt individuals. And so Jackson felt he had to get rid of it. It is a pity because we do need a national bank, but it requires control." He refuted the idea that the collapse of the Bank was responsible for the Panic of 1837, which he describes as "a world-wide economic collapse", but conceded that it "may have exacerbated" the crisis. Remini partially defended Jackson's Indian removal policies. He held that had Jackson not orchestrated the removal of the Five Civilized Tribes from their ancestral homelands, they would have been totally wiped out, just like other tribes-namely, the Yamasee, Mahican, and Narragansett-which did not move. In his review of Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars, Andrew Denson criticizes Remini's "silly" conclusion that Jackson's support for Indian removal saved the Indians from extinction, pointing to the continued existence of other Indian communities east of the Mississippi River as evidence to the contrary.
Remini wrote a one-volume abridgment to the original three-volume series, called The Life of Andrew Jackson, which was published in 1988. He delivered a lecture on Jackson at the White House in 1991.
Remini also wrote biographies of other prominent Americans of the early 19th century, namely Martin Van Buren, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John Quincy Adams, and Joseph Smith. His 1991 biography of Clay, entitled Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union, was well-received. Brian Boylan of the Los Angeles Times credits Remini for the ability to write a fair biography of Clay even after his extensive work on Jackson, who was Clay's "bitter enemy." Remini "treats Clay with such affection and care that after half a century of being a vague name in pre-Civil War American history, Henry Clay springs to life in all his fascinating brilliance." Historian Otis A. Singletary writes that the biography of Clay was "thoroughly researched and written in a lively and engaging style." Remini enjoyed recounting how, once when he was delivering a speech on the steps of Clay's home Ashland, a large thunderclap struck, which he regarded as a sign of Jackson's disapproval. The biography of Webster, published in 1997 as Daniel Webster: The Man and His Time, won the D.B. Hardeman Prize.
In 2008, Remini published A Short History of the United States, which was just under 400 pages long. According to a book review:
Remini's final chapters are slightly rushed and his judgments too general to be useful, but these flaws are easily overshadowed by his masterful middle sections focusing on the 19th century (his scholarly specialty). In contrast to some surveys of American history, like Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States or William Bennett's America: The Last Best Hope, Remini delivers an objective narrative of this nation's history that readers of all political stripes will appreciate.
His last work was At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise that Saved the Union (2010). In a review of the book, Russell McClintock praises Remini for his engaging writing style and depiction of Clay, which he calls "both heroic and credible," but accuses him of overemphasizing the importance of compromise and overlooking times when it did not work. McClintock summarized his thoughts by calling the book "a concise and lively account of a critical but understudied episode that, while it breaks no new scholarly ground, does raise valuable points about the importance of compromise in republican government."
The following is a list of all of the books written by Remini.