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History Doyen: Harold M. Hyman

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."

Personal Anecdote

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.

Quotes By Harold M. Hyman

From Harold Hyman in "A More Perfect Union: The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the Constitution"

Historians have attended more to victims' assertions of unmerited injuries than to justifications by officials, a sensitivity which reflects attitudes of our time, when the suggestion that Staatsrecht was ever an adequate reason for imposition of any security procedures is shrugged away because strong suspicion exists that, currently, such devices are overblown.

 However deserving this judgment may be about today's restraints, extrapolation of similar judgments to 1861-65 presents substantial difficulties. The question of feasible alternatives to what came in after the Sumter bombardment has received little attention. Actual disloyalty existed in dangerous quantity and frightening concentration; some security measures were in order or else efforts were wasted to restore by arms the disrupting union of states. A society resentful of restraints was unlikely to accept unnecessary security fetters as passively as proved to be the case. False pleas of necessity could scarcely have convinced alert, selfappointed monitors of American institutions, morals, and ways.

 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.

From Harold Hyman in "Era of the Oath: Northern Loyalty Tests During the Civil War and Reconstruction"

The oaths did not identify the loyalty of federal pensioners. Well into the twentieth century the government continued its investigations of pension claims arising from the Civil War. Literally thousands of cases involved the definition of wartime loyalty. Proof or disproof rested not, upon oaths, but upon evidence. Nor did test oaths serve to identify the Southern Unionist, as the Southern Claims Commission learned when it labored for nine years to that end. The Commission came to disregard oaths as a matter of form, and to depend upon evidence to prove a claimant's wartime Unionism. Of the thirty-four "standing interrogatories" which the Commission asked every claimant, only one concerned his willingness to swear to his past loyalty. And in many cases this requirement was waived in the light of local conditions which might have made a Southerner, however ardent a Unionist, give momentary aid to the Confederacy. Yet that same Southerner (to whom Congress paid federal funds after the Claims Commission approved his appeal) stood barred from federal employment, office, and juries because of a test oath of past loyalty. The jurors' test oath was as much a failure as an identification of loyalty as any of the Civil War tests. Enforced diligently almost anywhere in the South, it crippled the courts. Unenforced as it came to be, it was a mere form, to which Southerners swore unthinkingly and uncaringly. And not one prosecution for the many perjuries ever arose, even when Radicals controlled the federal courts in the South.

And so they failed, these loyalty tests of the Civil War and Reconstruction, for they did not measure loyalty. They failed for the nation, were condemned by the courts, and eventually were discarded. They failed also in the states, where the courts invalidated them or constitutional and legal reform repealed them. They failed, for as Samuel Butler said in Hudibras:

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?

From Harold Hyman in "To Try Men's Souls: Loyalty Tests in American History"

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.

About Harold M. Hyman

David Herbert Donald reviewing "A More Perfect Union: The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the Constitution" in the "Journal of American History"

For more than a generation J. G. Randall's Constitutional Problems under Lincoln (first published in 1926 and revised in 1951) has stood alone in its field, so exhausative in its research, so authoritative in its judgments as to be the virtually unquestioned on the constitutional history of the Civil war era. Now Randall's work faces a serious challenger in Harold M. Hyman's A More Perfect Union, a comprehensive reinterpretation of American constitutional developments during the 1860s... To examine these and other major differences would require a book at least as long as Randall's or Hyman's. It is enough here to say that both books have great merit. On technical matters, such as legislative history and provisions of the several confiscations acts, students will continue to turn to Randall's precise and elegant chapters. For the broader intellectual, social and political background of such legislation, they must consult Hyman. In short, Randall's study has not yet been replaced, but it finally has in Hyman's book a worthy companion on the shelf of indispensible books on American constitutional history.

Teaching Positions

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.


B.A. 1948, University of California at Los Angeles;
M.A. in History, 1950 Columbia University;
Ph.D. in History, 1952 Columbia University

Major Publications

● Era of the Oath: Northern Loyalty Tests during the Civil War and Reconstruction, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1954, reprinted, Hippocrene Books, 1978).

● To Try Men's Souls: Loyalty Tests in American History, (University of California Press, 1959, reprinted, Greenwood Press, 1981).

● With Benjamin P. Thomas) Stanton: The Life and Times of Lincoln's Secretary of War, (Knopf, 1962, reprinted, Greenwood Press, 1980).

● Soldiers and Spruce: The Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen, the Army's Labor Union of World War I, (University of California Press, 1963).

● A More Perfect Union: The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the Constitution, (Knopf, 1973).

● Union and Confidence: The 1860s, (Crowell, 1976).

● (With William Wiecek) Equal Justice under Law: Constitutional History, 1835-1875, (Harper, 1982).

● Quiet Past and Stormy Present?: War Powers in American History, (American History Association, 1986).

● American Singularity: The 1787 Northwest Ordinance, the 1862 Homestead- Morrill Acts, and the 1944 G.I. Bill, (University of Georgia Press, 1986).

● Oleander Odyssey: The Kempners of Galveston, Texas, 1854-1980s, (Texas A & M University Press, 1990).

●  The Reconstruction Justice of Salmon P. Chase: In Re Turner and Texas v. White, (University Press of Kansas, 1997).

● Craftsmanship and Character: A History of the Vinson & Elkins Law Firm of Houston, 1917-1997, (University of Georgia Press, 1998).

Editor, Contributor, Joint Author

● The Radical Republicans and Reconstruction Policy, 1861-1870, (Bobbs- Merrill, 1966).

● New Frontiers of the American Reconstruction, (University of Illinois Press, 1966).

● (With Leonard W. Levy) Freedom and Reform: Essays in Honor of Henry Steele Commager, (Harper, 1967).

● H. C. Allen and others, Heard 'round the World: The Impact Abroad of the Civil War, (Knopf, 1969).

● (And author of introduction) Carleton Parker, The Casual Laborer and Othe Essays, (new edition of 1919 original, University of Washington Press, 1972).

● (And author of introduction, with wife, Ferne Hyman) The Circuit Court Opinions of Salmon Portland Chase, (new edition of 1875 original, Da Capo Press, 1972).

● (And author of introduction) Sidney George Fisher, The Trial of the Constitution, (new edition of 1862 original, Da Capo Press, 1972).

● Edward McPherson, The Political History of the United States of America during the Great Rebellion, 1860-1865, (new edition of 1865 original, Da Capo, 1972).

● (With Hans L. Trefousse) McPherson, Handbook of Politics, six volumes, new edition of 1894 original, Da Capo, 1972-73.

● (With Trefousse) McPherson, The Political History of the United States of America during the Period of Reconstruction, new edition of 1871 original, Da Capo, 1973.

● (With Kermit L. Hall and Leon V. Sigal) The Constitutional Convention as an Amending Device, American Historical Association/American Political Science Association, 1981.

● 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.

Additional Info:

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.