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Allan Nevins

Allan Nevins (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.


Born in Camp Point, Illinois, Nevins was educated at the University of Illinois, where he earned an M.A. in English in 1913. He worked as a journalist in New York City and began writing books on history. In 1929, he joined the history faculty of Columbia University, and in 1931 was named Dewitt Clinton Professor of History there. He was appointed Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University from 1940 to 1941 and again from 1964 to 1965. In 1948 he 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. After he retired from Columbia, he relocated to California, where he worked at the Henry E. Huntington Library. He died in Menlo Park, California, in 1971.

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.

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. It has been compared favorably to The Civil War: A Narrative, by the Mississippi-born novelist and historian Shelby Foote. Nevins's Ordeal of the Union has a slight but perceptible pro-Union bias, just as Foote's three-volume masterwork has a slight but perceptible sympathy for the Confederate cause.

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.

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 with sensitivity and nuance 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.

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[]

  • 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 same 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)


  • Gerald L. Fetner, Immersed in Great Affairs: Allan Nevins and the Heroic Age of American History (2004)

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