Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Highlights of a Life

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. was born in Columbus in 1917. His father was a professor of history at Ohio State University, and remained on the faculty until his son was a year old. His mother, Elizabeth (Bancroft) Schlesinger, was a descendant of the famous 19th century historian, George Bancroft. While their son was too young to remember living in Columbus, the children spent many summers in Xenia with their grandparents. “I have always felt an Ohioan in spirit,” Schlesinger remarked many years later.

The Schlesinger family settled in Cambridge Massachusetts, his father having accepted a position at Harvard University. Arthur Jr. went to public schools, but prepared for an Ivy League education by attending Phillips Exeter Academy. At age 16 he entered Harvard, where he won the LeBaron Russell Briggs Prize for a freshman essay. He graduated summa cum laude with membership in Phi Beta Kappa.

Schlesinger’s senior thesis caught the attention of top historians, who urged him to submit his research for publication. Barely a year out of college, Schlesinger became the author of Orestes A. Brownson: A Pilgrim’s Progress, published by Little, Brown. A biography of the 19th century American Catholic intellectual, the book’s impact launched Schlesinger’s career as a respected historian, and won him fellowships to both Harvard and Cambridge. He spent his Harvard fellowship collecting research for his next book, the groundbreaking work that would win the young academic a Pulitzer Prize in history.

In 1940, Schlesinger married Marian Cannon. Soon after the birth of boy/girl twins, Schlesinger was separated from his family to serve in World War II. He was assigned to the Office of War Information in Washington, DC, and later with the Office of Strategic Services, during which time he finished work on his next book, The Age of Jackson.

Schlesinger was discharged in 1945, the same year his book was published. Hailed as a landmark in the writing of U.S. history, The Age of Jackson won the 1946 Pulitzer Prize in history. Schlesinger’s groundbreaking work re-evaluated the presidency of Andrew Jackson. It provoked a never-ending controversy among historians by challenging the accepted interpretation of Jacksonian democracy.

What’s more, sales of the book far exceeded the author’s expectations. No one was more surprised at the book’s commercial success than the author’s wife, who was at work on a children’s book to support her husband’s “unprofitable studies.”

Schlesinger accepted a faculty position at Harvard, making the 28-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winner the institution’s youngest associate professor of history. As his academic reputation soared, so did his interest in liberal politics. He took a leave from Harvard in 1952 and in 1956 to campaign for Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. Also in the mid-50’s, Schlesinger began work on what many historians believe to be his greatest achievement. The first three volumes of The Age of Roosevelt – published between 1957 and 1960 –were Book-of-the-Month Club selections. Forty years later, an 83-year-old Schlesinger told the New York Times Book Review that he plans to complete the fourth volume of the series he began so long ago.

In 1960, Schlesinger joined the Kennedy administration as special assistant to the president. In the aftermath of the president’s 1963 assassination, Schlesinger was compelled to document his experience. Using notes he had been taking at Kennedy’s request — for the purpose of the president’s own memoirs — Schlesinger wrote A Thousand Days: Kennedy in the White House. The highly-acclaimed bookwon Schlesinger the prestigious National Book Award and his second Pulitzer Prize.

Schlesinger left government service soon after Kennedy’s assassination. He was disillusioned by Lyndon Johnson and criticized his Vietnam policies in The Bitter Heritage: Vietnam and American Democracy, 1941-1966 (1967).
In 1968, Schlesinger came forward to support Robert Kennedy’s bid for the White House, a campaign that ended in a second Kennedy shooting. It is said that Schlesinger’s ideology was affected profoundly by Robert Kennedy’s assassination, expressing pessimistic views in his next book, The Crisis of Confidence: Ideas, Power and Violence in America (1969).

Divorced in 1970, Schlesinger married Alexandra Emmet in 1971. They named their son Robert Emmet Kennedy.

Schlesinger coined the term “imperial presidency” during the Nixon administration, condemning Nixon, Johnson, and others for abusing their presidential powers in his 1973 book, The Imperial Presidency. He won a second National Book Award for Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978). In the late sixties, Schlesinger was named Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, retiring in 1996.

Schlesinger’s most recent work, War and the American Presidency (2004), studies the impact of unilateralism in the Bush administration. The 162-page book looks at American foreign policy post-9/11, and criticizes the decision to wage a preventive war in Iraq. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., 88 years old and still living in New York (in November 2005), has said that he hopes to soon finish his memoirs.

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