In Memoriam: Richard P. McCormick
Paul G.E. Clemens, May 2006
From the In Memoriam column of the May 2006 Perspectives
Richard P. McCormick (1916–2006) reshaped our understanding of American political history, made a distinctive contribution to colonial history with a series of finely crafted studies of early New Jersey, and authored one of the very best institutional studies of American higher education ever written.
McCormick is most widely known for his work in American political history: The History of Voting in New Jersey, 1664–1911 (1953); The Second American Party System: Party Formation in the Jacksonian Era (1966); and The Presidential Game: The Origins of American Presidential Politics (1982). McCormick's fundamental accomplishment was to establish the crucial role of parties in the political process, and thus to downplay the connections that traditional interpretations of American politics assumed among class, ethnicity and religious affiliation, issues, elections, and public policy. When McCormick began his work, the grand synthesis in American history was political, and the politics of that synthesis were based primarily on class, or at least economic issues. Voters divided along economic lines, voted on economic issues, and elected candidates who then carried out appropriate economic policy. The struggle over such policies—the tariff, banking, internal improvements, lien law, and the like—was at the heart of American political history, and thus central to American history generally. Focusing on the Jacksonian Period, McCormick demonstrated that parties were virtually autonomous players in American politics, "more adept," as a retrospective review of The Second American Party System put it, "at electing candidates, than in articulating convictions, educating voters, or fulfilling policy goals." His work, however controversial, launched a new era in the writing of American political history (focusing on the relationship between elections and the electorate) and helped initiate the deconstruction of the presidential synthesis as the primary storyline of the American experience.
McCormick, however, also achieved distinction as a historian of the 18th century. In a number of major articles and two books, Experiment in Independence: New Jersey in the Critical Period, 1781–1789 (1950) and New Jersey from Colony to State (1964), McCormick documented the importance of the Middle Colonies/States, in general, and New Jersey, in particular, in the colonial era and the development of the early Republic. Writing against New England's historiographic dominance of the field, McCormick demonstrated how the problems of state building that confronted New Jersey settlers and public officials mirrored and occasionally shaped the American experience. More generally, his studies were models of what carefully argued state studies—the 1950s equivalent of the local studies of the social history era—could contribute to our understanding of institutional and political history.
McCormick spent virtually his entire career at Rutgers University. He earned a BA in history from Rutgers College in 1938, and his master's from the Graduate School in 1940, before going to the University of Pennsylvania for a PhD (1948). He returned to Rutgers as an instructor in 1945, and remained here for the rest of his career, except for a wonderful year (1961–62) as a visiting professor at Cambridge University. He was a faculty member there when Rutgers became a state university. He was a leader of faculty protest when the Board of Trustees fired two professors who, in a United States Senate hearing, had invoked their Fifth Amendment privilege not to testify about alleged membership in the communist party. He was at Rutgers when the history department sponsored some of the initial "teach-ins" over the Vietnam War, and he helped mediate the issues raised in the black student protests that occurred on the Newark campus in 1969. As an emeritus professor, he continued to share his reflections with colleagues on such controversial issues as the university's commitment to a high-profile, intercollegiate athletics program. Over the decades, he served as university historian, chair of the History Department, and dean of Rutgers College, always with distinction and always with an abiding concern for nurturing the many new colleagues who joined him at Rutgers over the years.
He taught in an era when the American history survey was given in packed classrooms before hundreds of students. As Jack Reynolds, now a professor of political history, but in the 1970s a teaching assistant for McCormick, notes, what lingers in memories from those years is "how effortlessly he made lecturing seem. There was no room or need for the kinds of pyrotechnics we are used to in the multimedia classroom today. His delivery was not especially dramatic, like that of his colleague Warren Susman, with whom he often taught, yet he fully held student attention. He had enough experience in the classroom by that time that he had honed his lectures down to their essential elements. He managed to maintain his popularity with the more conservative students of the late 1970s just as he had established his respect among their more "radical" older siblings a decade earlier. McCormick was also an accomplished mentor of graduate students. Among the graduate students with whom he worked were Carl Prince (NYU, emeritus), Peter Levine (Michigan State, emeritus), Larry Gerlach (Utah), and Lloyd Ray Gunn (Utah). Several of his students who began as outstandingly well-trained political historians went on to write about sports history, an irony that McCormick found both perplexing and amusing.
McCormick's long connection with Rutgers led to three scholarly studies of the university. In 1964, he publishedth Rutgers: A Bicentennial History (1964), a work that chronicles the history of the school from a small religious college in the 1760s to a state institution in the 20th century, and also provides a compelling social and policy analysis of the rise of higher education in America. And from this work followed his carefully argued studies The Case of the Nazi Professor (1989), co-authored by David Oshinsky and Daniel Horn, that probed the university's role during the 1930s in the firing, by a professor with Nazi sympathies, of a Jewish department member, as well as The Black Student Protest Movement at Rutgers (1990), which analyzed the origins and impact of 1960s student protest at the university. McCormick's unrivaled knowledge of the history of New Jersey and of the university meant he was often called to Trenton for his expert testimony before state officials; it also made him a notable supporter of historical preservation efforts around the state.
McCormick was married to Katheryne Levis and had two children, Dorothy Boulia and Richard L. McCormick. His son became a political historian as had his farther, and is currently president of Rutgers University.
In 2002, the American Historical Association honored Richard P. McCormick with the Award for Scholarly Distinction.
—Paul G. E. Clemens