Charles Budd Forcey (1925-2008)
Alice Kessler-Harris, May 2008
Historian of the Progressive Era
Charles Budd Forcey, known to his friends as "Pete," died on February 8, 2008. He was best known for his pathbreaking book, The Crossroads of Liberalism: Croly, Weyl, Lippmann and the Progressive Era, 1900–25, published in 1961. That book emerged just in time to make its mark on the new revisionist history of the 1960s. In it, Forcey argued that the early decades of the 20th century witnessed the emergence of a new form of liberalism—more concerned with government intervention on behalf of social justice than with the rights of individuals. It quickly became a classic, widely cited for illuminating a new political direction that would eventually change the popular understanding of liberalism and chart a course toward the New Deal and late 20th-century social provision. The Crossroads of Liberalism provoked many historians, including Forcey, into searching for the sources of successive waves of reform. Pete Forcey also completed an important textbook, A Strong and Free Nation.
At a moment in time when the profession was just opening up to a new generation of students influenced by the civil rights and anti-war movements of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Pete Forcey channeled their skepticism into new forms of teaching and inquiry. Those of us who were his students in the '60s welcomed his unabashed conviction that new questions would rise out of the politics of the moment. We were not surprised that he welcomed the turmoil provoked by that restless decade. After all, he had written in the introduction to The Crossroads of Liberalism that the book had grown "out of my strong sense during World War II that the world we live in had become the plaything of madmen." Forcey's students will remember him as a fierce advocate of good writing. He taught his students to use language parsimoniously; to avoid the passive voice; to keep their readers in mind as they turned obscure documents into relevant sources.
Pete Forcey was born in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, in 1925 and attended the Lawrenceville School and Princeton University. He served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy from 1943 to 1946, returning from the Pacific to earn an MA at Columbia University where he worked with Richard Hofstadter, and then a PhD at the University of Wisconsin with Howard K. Beale. He taught at several universities, including Miami University of Ohio, Columbia University, and Rutgers University, before joining the faculty at Binghamton University in 1967. There he combined the life of a farmer with that of an academic. He and his wife, Linda Rennie Forcey, raised their blended family of six children and lovingly restored an 1811 farmhouse along with the land that surrounded it. When I last visited them there, I drove up to find Forcey supervising the delivery of lumber that he was preparing to chop and store for the winter. Forcey retired from Binghamton as professor emeritus in 1991.
Always engaged politically, Pete Forcey took many opportunities to travel and teach abroad. He was a Fulbright lecturer at Xavier University in the Philippines in 1964–65.The family spent a sabbatical year in Nimes, France, in 1973–74. He and Linda traveled also to India and Senegal, and taught in the Semester at Sea program. In 1999, Linda and Pete Forcey moved to Fort Myers, Florida, where they indulged their shared passion for sailing even as they remained professionally active. This idyll has now been tragically interrupted. On holiday in Mexico, Forcey was stung by a bee and suffered a severe anaphylactic reaction. After two weeks in a Cuernavaca, Mexico, hospital, he was evacuated to Fort Myers where he died three weeks later. We will miss him. But we will remember the strong force for integrity he brought to the profession and to all of us who knew him.