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History Doyen: Winthrop D. Jordan

Winthrop D. Jordan passed away on February 23, 2007.  Click here for his obituary.

This HNN Doyen profile was published in the summer of 2006.

What They're Famous For

Winthrop D. Jordan is the William F. Winter Professor of History F.A.P. Barnard Distinguished Professor Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Mississippi. He received his AB from Harvard University, his MA from Clark University, and his Ph.D. from Brown University where he was awarded the Distinguishing Alumnus citation from the Graduate School. Jordan was briefly an Instructor of history at Phillips Exeter Academy and later a Professor of history at University of California, Berkeley, 1963-82, where he was also Associate Dean for Minority Group Affairs Graduate Division., 1968-70. He is the author of several books, including the award winning and groundbreaking White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 and Tumult And Silence At Second Creek, he is also the co-author of several textbooks for junior high and high school students. Jordan is the recipient of seven book awards, including the National Book Award and a two time winner of the Bancroft Prize.

Jordan retired from teaching in 2004. To mark this event his former students edited and contributed essays as a tribute to the career of one of America's great thinkers and perhaps the most influential American historian of his generation. The anthology was published in 2005 as Affect and Power: Essays on Sex, Slavery, Race, and Religion in Appreciation of Winthrop D. Jordan. In the introduction Sheila L. Skemp described Jordan's impact on his students: "Jordan's legendary seminar-an introduction to the discipline, a requirement for every M.A. student in the Department of History, and experience no student will easily forget... He teaches his students to have an open mind about just what those voices from the past are saying. No matter how relevant his own work is, Jordan never allows his own political or ethical agenda to interfere with his reading of the sources, and he urged his students to put their own preconceived notions aside as well. When their work led them in new directions and they arrived, often despite themselves, at unexpected conclusions, no one was more delighted than Jordan to discover that common wisdom is neither infallible nor particularly wise."

Personal Anecdote

My distinguished medical career ended when as a college sophomore I got a D- in Chem 1A. I took no history courses in college. Partly this was owing to being a history professor's son, but also because I had taken a great deal of history at the secondary school level. Yet the principal reason was that Harvard offered a much less demanding major in its new Department of Social Relations. That major offered an appealingly wide range of courses in the social sciences and, fully as important, a lot less work. I spent nearly as much time singing with the Harvard Krokodiloes as going to classes.

After graduating in Social Relations I spent nearly a year in a home-office management training program at the Prudential Life Insurance Company. After several months at their headquarters in Newark, I realized that my interests and abilities were less than a good fit with bureaucratic management. So I cast about for a job teaching something ? anything (perhaps English, Physics, French, or History) ? at a prep school. Serendipitously, it turned out that Phillips Exeter was looking for someone to teach history, and we agreed that I should start work on an M.A. in U.S. history at Clark University. Teaching the extremely bright students at Exeter led me toward getting a Ph.D. In a stroke of good fortune I was denied admission at Harvard and then chose Brown because I was admitted there. I gradually became aware of how lucky I was, as I became interested in early American history because of the marvelous books at the John Carter Brown Library. Also, perhaps because of my undergraduate acquaintance with cultural anthropology, I found dealing with the 16th-18th centuries interesting and intellectually profitable because their denizens lived in cultures so different from modern ones.

At that time (the latter 1950s) the field of history was still dominated by my fellow male "WASPS." In the 1960s I enthusiastically welcomed signs of broadening in the profession and especially the slackening of the outrageous, falsely genteel anti-Semitism that had sapped the moral integrity of the old establishment.

Thus my undergraduate background meant that my approach to history was strongly influenced by the social sciences of the early 1950s. For my Ph.D. dissertation, I chose a subject that I thought of as a study of an old culture which was still imposing a crushing weight on the nation's publicly stated political and moral ideals. More particularly, I aimed to understand the large component of emotion and indeed irrationality that characterized the attitudes of the white majority toward "Negroes" in this country. Certainly "ideas" mattered in such an investigation, but they were often so blatantly absurd (especially in the "Age of Reason") that I was constantly led to pondering the cultural dimensions of affect concerning "race." No doubt I was influenced by the developing civil rights movement of the late 1950s, though I steered clear of reading much about it in newspapers. More important, the revelations about the wartime Holocaust in Europe loomed over the social sciences in those years; indeed it was no longer possible to think about "racial prejudice" without being acutely aware of the horrifying consequences of politicized anti-Semitism. I thus came to history with intellectual interests and perspectives that virtually dictated the kinds of topics that would engage my attention throughout my historical career. In addition, my mother's side of the family was still steeped in a Quaker and strongly abolitionist tradition. Less obviously, my exposure to the barbarous prose of the social sciences led to a determination on my part to write in language that at least attempted a measure of grace and clarity.

My dissertation dealt with a matter about which historians had written little. Even after Kenneth Stampp's revolutionary study, The Peculiar Institution (1956) and the massive amount of research stimulated by Stanley Elkins's assertions about "Sambo" in his Slavery (1959), white opinions about blacks took a back seat to "black culture," which by the early 1970s was being called the "hottest field" in historical studies. 

Many years after publication of White over Black (1968) I wrote more directly about certain black slaves as they became involved in a conspiracy near Natchez, Mississippi. Over this long period, however, I also published short pieces on "other" subjects that seemed to me closely related to racial attitudes in American culture. These topics included past definitions of the temporal stages of the human life-cycle as well as familial imagery in political thought. Yet there was indeed an intellectual glue that bound such explorations together with my further inquiries into important matters about race that White over Black had failed to cover, including the culture of Tudor England and development of the United States's unique one-drop racial rule. If I had to name this glue, I would call it "affect."

Because I had focussed on "thought" that was not intellective, I warmly welcomed a recent retrospective assessment of White over Black by Lawrence Shore in History and Theory which concluded that the book had shown that "if you ignore the evidence it is easy to deny the power of the irrational." Indeed such persistent denial must be easy, since so many historians had and have been achieving it for years. Denial has recently spilled over into discussions of "race." I hope soon to write about the modern social and scientific conceptualizations of "race," which has proven such an appallingly dangerous term that many critics want to ban the word itself and to claim, mistakenly, that it is totally foreign to natural science including evolutionary biology. For present purposes I will merely emphasize that human beings constitute a single entity, whether it is called a single species, a breeding population, a gene pool, children of God, or the family of man. I personally find great value and aptness in all these designations. My doubts arise only in regard to the second term in the species name, Homo sapiens.

Quotes By Winthrop D. Jordan

Winthrop D. Jordan in "White Over Black American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812"

This study attempts to answer a simple question: What were the attitudes of white men toward Negroes during the first two centuries of European and African settlement in what became the United States of America? It has taken a rather long time to find out, chiefly because I have had to educate myself about many matters concerning which at the outset I was very ignorant. This book does something to answer the question, but I am aware that it affords only partial illumination. Like most practicing historians today, I have assumed the task of explaining how things actually were while at the same time thinking that no one will ever really know. Which is to say that this book is one man's answer and that other men have and will advance others. I hope that mine is a reasonably satisfactory one, but I shall be enormously surprised— and greatly disappointed—if I am not shown to be wrong on some matters.

Winthrop D. Jordan in "White Over Black American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812"

The dilemma was apparent. Virginia's distress was then America's writ large. The white American wanted, indeed had, to remain faithful to himself and to his great experiment. In doing so he was caught between the necessity, on the one hand, of maintaining his identity as the fruit of England's and Europe's loins and as the good seed of civilization planted in the wilderness, and on the other, the necessity of remaining faithful to his own image as the world's exemplar of liberty and equalitarianism, as the best hope of the civilization which he cherished. Whichever path he took he seemed to abandon part of himself, so that neither could be taken with assurance or good conscience. Individual Americans divided according to their private necessities, while at the same time the nation divided in response to pressures generated by economic, demographic, and cultural differences, but no American and no section of America could rest at ease with the decision. For Virginians especially, for many Americans, and for the nation as a whole it was impossible to make a clearcut choice. 

 Within every white American who stood confronted by the Negro, there had arisen a perpetual duel between his higher and lower natures. His cultural conscience--his Christianity, his humanitarianism, his ideology of liberty and equality--demanded that he regard and treat the Negro as his brother and his countryman, as his equal. At the same moment, however, many of his most profound urges, especially his yearning to maintain the identity of his folk, his passion for domination, his sheer avarice, and his sexual desire, impelled him toward conceiving and treating the Negro as inferior to himself, as an American leper. At closer view, though, the duel appears more complex than a conflict between the best and worst in the white man's nature, for in a variety of ways the white man translated his "worst" into his "best." Raw sexual aggression became retention of purity, and brutal domination became faithful maintenance of civilized restraints. These translations, so necessary to the white man's peace of mind, were achieved at devastating cost to another people. But the enormous toll of human wreckage was by no means paid exclusively by the Negro, for the subtle translation of basic urges in the white man necessitated his treating the Negro in a fashion which tortured his own conscience, that very quality in his being which necessitated those translations. So the peace of mind the white man sought by denying his profound inexorable drives toward creation and destruction (a denial accomplished by affirmations of virtue in himself and depravity in the Negro) was denied the white man; he sought his own peace at the cost of others and found none. In fearfully hoping to escape the animal within himself the white man debased the Negro, surely, but at the same time he debased himself.

 Conceivably there was a way out from the vicious cycle of degradation, an opening of better hope demanding an unprecedented and perhaps impossible measure of courage, honesty, and sheer nerve. If the white man turned to stare at the animal within him, if he once admitted unashamedly that the beast was there, he might see that the old foe was a friend as well, that his best and his worst derived from the same deep well of energy. If he once fully acknowledged the powerful forces which drove his being, the necessity of imputing them to others would drastically diminish. If he came to recognize what had happened and was still happening with himself and the African in America, if he faced the unpalatable realities of the tragedy unflinchingly, if he were willing to call the beast no more the Negro's than his own, then conceivably he might set foot on a better road. Common charity and his special faith demanded that he make the attempt. But there was little in his historical experience to indicate that he would succeed.

About Winthrop D. Jordan

"The author has put simple solutions and flashy theories aside and brought to his task a patience, skepticism, thoroughness, and humility commensurate with the vast undertaking. He combines these qualities with imagination and insight. The result is a massive and learned work that stands as the most informed and impressive pronouncement on the subject yet made." -- C. Vann Woodward, New York Times Book Review reviewing "White Over Black American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812"

Brown University, Providence, RI, lecturer in history, 1959-61; College of William and Mary, Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, VA, fellow, 1961-63; University of California, Berkeley, assistant professor, 1963-67, associate professor, 1967-69, professor of history, 1969-1982. William F. Winter Professor of History F.A.P. Barnard Distinguished Professor Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Mississippi, 1982-2004.

Area of Research: 
Afro-American History, Early American History.

Harvard University, A.B., 1953;
Clark University, M.A., 1957; 
Brown University, Ph.D., 1960

Major Publications: 

●  White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812, (University of North Carolina Press, for Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1968).

●  The White Man's Burden, (Oxford University Press, 1974).

●  Tumult and Silence at Second Creek: An Inquiry Into a Civil War Slave Conspiracy, (Louisiana State University Press, 1993).

Editor, Contributor, Joint Author:

●  (Editor) Samuel Stanhope Smith, An Essay on the Causes of the Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species, Harvard University Press, 1965.

●  (With Miriam Greenblatt and John S. Bowes) The Americans, the History of a People and a Nation, (Science Research Associates, 1982).

●  (With others) The United States, (Prentice Hall, 1982).

●  (With Ernest R. May, James F. Marran, John S. Bowes, Miriam Greenblatt and others) The American People: A History from 1877, (McDougal, 1986).

●  (With Ernest R. May) The American People: A History to 1877, (McDougal, 1986).

●  (Editor with Sheila L. Skemp) Race and Family in the Colonial South: Essays, (University Press of Mississippi, 1987).

●  (With Greenblatt and Bowes) The Americans: A History, (McDougal, 1994).

●  (Editor) Slavery and the American South : essays and commentaries, (University Press of Mississippi, 2003).

NB:  Jordan has also contributed numerous articles and book review to professional journals.


Jordan's many awards include fellowships from the Institute of Early American History and Culture, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Social Science Research Council and the Center for the Advanced Study of the Behavioral Sciences, as well as a Distinguished Alumnus Citation from Brown University’s Graduate School. 
1968, Winner of the Francis Parkman Prize, Society of American Historians;
1969, Winner of the National Book Award;
1969, Winner of the Bancroft Prize, Columbia University;
1968, Winner of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award, Phi Beta Kappa all for White Over Black American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 
1993, Winner of the Bancroft Prize;
1993, the Eugene M. Kayden National University Press Book Award;
1992 the Jules and Frances Landry Award all for Tumult and Silence at Second Creek An Inquiry Into a Civil War Slave Conspiracy.
1976, Fellowship Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS).

Additional Info:

Jordan worked at Prudential Life Insurance Co., Newark, NY, as a management trainee, 1953-54; and then at Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, NH, as an instructor in history, 1955-56.

Jordan has been widely reported in the press and has made several appearances on C-Span regarding the debate to whether Thomas Jefferson did in fact father his slave Sally Hemmings's children, based on his claim in White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (1968) that "She bore five, from 1795 to 1808; and though he was away from Monticello a total of roughly two-thirds of this period, Jefferson was at home nine months prior to each birth."