J.H. Hexter (1910–96)
R. W. Davis, March 1997
J. H. “Jack” Hexter, emeritus professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis and at Yale University, who launched a major scholarly effort to chronicle the history of modern freedom, died of congestive heart failure at his home in St. Louis on December 8, 1996. He was 86.
A specialist in British history, Hexter conducted research and taught at major American universities for more than 60 years, including Queens College in New York City (1939–57), Yale University, and Washington University in St. Louis for two extended periods.
Hexter earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati in 1931. He went on to Harvard University where he earned a master’s degree in 1933 and a doctoral degree in 1937. He also received honorary degrees from the University of East Anglia in Britain and from Brown, Washington, Portland, and Cincinnati universities in the United States.
Hexter began his scholarly career with an important book, The Reign of King Pym, published by Harvard University Press in 1941 and which is still in print. His work on Thomas More and Machiavelli are presented in The Vision of Politics on the Eve of the Reformation, published in 1973. Hexter was also renowned as a brilliant and witty critic, as demonstrated in his books Reappraisals in History (1961) and On Historians (1979). His academic career was filled with numerous prestigious scholarly appointments including four Guggenheim fellowships and two Fulbright fellowships.
Hexter served on the editorial boards of several important academic journals in the field of British history and was president of the Conference of British Studies from 1973 through 1975. He served as the Sir John Neale Lecturer in London in 1975 and as the Camp Lecturer at Stanford University in 1977. He was a long-time member of the Royal Historical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the AHA.
During his tenure at Washington University from 1957 to 1964, Hexter was for three years the chair of the history department. In 1964 he went to Yale, where he developed and directed the Yale Center for Parliamentary History, and its important publication program. He retired from Yale in 1978 and returned to Washington University as a Distinguished Historian in Residence, and subsequently became John M. Olin Professor of the History of Freedom. He retired in 1990 at the age of 80.
In 1986 at the age of 76 Hexter founded and became the director of Washington University’s Center for the History of Freedom, where he soon launched a 20-year project to create the world’s first comprehensive study of the development of modern freedom. The first volume of the Making of Modern Freedom series was published in 1992.
His greatest contribution was to see well before anyone else saw it—in the early 80s—the great importance the desire for freedom was to have in the history of the world in the ensuing years. Long before it became apparent to the rest of the world in 1989, Hexter realized how much people yearned for freedom and how hard they would struggle to achieve it. He spent much of the 1990s lobbying for creation of a federal program to encourage ex-soldiers to become teachers. He presented this idea in a paper to the American Philosophical Society, wrote opinion pieces for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and lobbied Congress for the passage of legislation he helped to shape. His efforts were rewarded in 1994 when Congress appropriated $65 million for the “Troops to Teachers” program.
When Hexter returned to Washington University from Yale, his Yale colleague, historian Edmund Morgan wrote:
Oh some speak very softly,
and some are most polite,
And some will make concessions, and admit you may be right,
But I’m for disputation,
and a good old fashioned fight,
Says that rough, tough, wreckster,
—J. H. Hexter
Friends and colleagues who remember Jack say that the description above sums up the Jack Hexter that many knew and loved.
Jack Hexter is survived by his wife of 54 years, Ruth Mullin Hexter of St. Louis; by 2 sons, Christopher Hexter of St. Louis and Richard Hexter of Shreveport, Louisiana; 2 daughters, Anne Green and Eleanor Stevens, both of Silver Spring, Maryland; and 14 grandchildren.
—R. W. Davis
Washington University, St. Louis