AHA President, 1953


University of Chicago

From the American Historical Review 81:2 (April 1976)

Louis Gottschalk (February 21, 1899–June 23, 1975), president of the American Historical Association in 1953, died in Chicago on June 23, 1975. Born in Brooklyn in 1899, he received both his bachelor’s and doctorate degrees at Cornell University, where along with his friend and contemporary, the late Leo Gershoy, he was introduced to European history and in particular to the study of the French Revolution by Carl Becker. His first teaching years were spent at the universities of Illinois and of Louisville, but in 1927 he became associate professor at the University of Chicago, where he was department chairman from 1937 to 1942, and thereafter became Gustavus F. and Ann Swift Distinguished Service Professor. After his retirement in 1964 he taught full time for several years, and then part time, at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle.

Gottschalk’s talents revealed themselves early, and he remained prominent as a historian of the French Revolution for half a century. He was only twenty-two on receiving his PhD. In 1927 he published his Jean-Paul Marat, the first biography of an extremist of the French Revolution by an American historian. It was also one of the first American books, at least among those arising in university circles, in which the attempt was made to explain rather than to deplore the most radical phase of the French Revolution. The Marat was soon translated into French, and it was reprinted in America in 1966. In 1929 came his Era of the French Revolution, the first of the modern American college textbooks on the subject. About this time, Gottschalk decided to undertake a multivolume biography of the marquis de Lafayette. The first fruit of this enterprise, his Lafayette Comes to America, was published in 1935. Here the thought was developed, correcting a common misapprehension, that it was not a love of liberty that inspired Lafayette to go and seek a commission in the American army, but rather a youthful and martial ardor, with a desire for revenge against England; and that it was the American experience that aroused in him the love of liberty, and the admiration for George Washington, that he was to carry on into the French Revolution. Gottschalk thus showed the interest in the relationship between America and Europe, and in the impact of the American Revolution on the French, that he continued to feel throughout his life. It was in fact by Gottschalk, in 1931, that I was launched on my own work on similar transatlantic themes.

Books on Lafayette continued to appear at almost biennial intervals until 1950, and were resumed toward the end of the author’s life, until nine had been published, with a tenth nearly finished and awaiting publication. With this final volume, which is to reach until Lafayette’s repudiation of “Jacobinism” in July 1792, only the thirty-fifth year of Lafayette’s life had been attained, with forty-two more years still to go. The great project as conceived about 1930 had proved impossible to realize in full; there had been trouble in gaining access to certain Lafayette documents, and in any case the plan of treatment, involving an almost day-to-day account and an exhaustion of the sources, resulted in a slower tempo and greater multiplication of volumes than had been foreseen.

The interruption in the Lafayette series was due in part to the growth of other interests during and after World War II. Though committed in the Lafayette project to a narrative and almost annalistic approach, Gottschalk now became concerned with broader and more theoretical issues. He was active in the work of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) and was a member of its committee on historiography, which, through Charles Beard and others, published the well-known Bulletin 54 on historical causation in 1945. Other SSRC committees produced two collaborative works that Gottschalk edited, The·Use of Personal Documents in History, Anthropology and Sociology (1945) and Generalization in the Writing of History (1963). His Understanding History (1950) was a handbook of method, which his old master, Carl Becker, as an exponent of historical relativism, might have found surprisingly conservative in its technical doctrine. Gottschalk contributed much to the development of the Journal of Modern History in its early days, serving as associate editor from 1929 to 1943 and acting editor from 1943 to 1945, and being in fact mainly responsible during much of the editorship of Bernadotte Schmitt.

The war left him with a keen sense of the need for a firmer basis of international agreement. His interest in Europe’s world role was evident in his textbook for modern history, first published in 1951, written in collaboration with Donald Lach, whose own interests lay in European relations with Asia. Gottschalk at the same time was attracted by the UNESCO project for a new universal history, intended to overcome the Europe-centered conception of human development and to present a world view that persons of all nations, religions, and races might equally accept. He undertook, therefore, the author-editorship of the fourth volume of the UNESCO history, which appeared in 1969, under the English title of Foundations of the Modern World, 1300–1775. This work required the author-editor to consult with advisers of many nationalities and ideologies, whose conflicting ideas of the relative importance of things proved impossible to unify or harmonize, so that it is doubtful whether he was entirely satisfied with the result. The entire UNESCO history also appeared in French, and the greater magnificence of the French edition suggests that it may be more widely known to the French-reading than to the English-reading public. He taught at the University of Frankfurt in 1949, and in Japan in 1968.

For many years Gottschalk at Chicago and Crane Brinton at Harvard were recognized as the leading American historians of the French Revolution. Gottschalk knew Albert Mathiez personally in the 1920s, and from 1934 until his death he was on the council of the Société des études robespierristes, the somewhat obsolete name of the international society of experts on the French Revolution. As the years passed, Gottschalk came to see more weight in the views of Aulard and Lefebvre and to adopt a multischools approach in the historiography of the French Revolution. He was also well acquainted with Daniel Mornet, whose work on the Enlightenment greatly influenced him, and was a member of the Société l’histoire moderne. His whole career was a link between the worlds of historians in Europe and in the United States.

He was perhaps the youngest person, at least since many years ago, to be elected to the presidency of the American Historical Association. He received many other honors, becoming a chevalier of the Legion of Honor and receiving honorary degrees from the University of Toulouse, Hebrew Union College, and Augustana College at Rockford, Illinois. He was president of the interdisciplinary American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies in 1971. He was a member of the American Philosophical Society and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Vice-president for some years of the American Council of Learned Societies, he was also a recipient of its special prize of $10,000 for achievement in the humanities in 1959. He had entered the academic world at a time when it was rare and difficult for Jews to do so and was in all probability the first Jewish president of the American Historical Association. From time to time he participated actively in the work of the Hillel Foundation.

In his later years there was much that he could look back upon with satisfaction. Throughout his life he felt a warm attachment to Cornell University and to the memory of Carl Becker. It was especially gratifying to Gottschalk that means were eventually found to carry on his work by the editing of the papers of the marquis de Lafayette, and that this enterprise should be located at Cornell. His work and his personal qualities aroused the admiration of his coworkers and the devotion and gratitude of his students, a dozen of whom presented him with a volume of essays in his honor at the time of his retirement. His writings showed an unusual combination of opposite virtues, from the precision and exact attention to documentary sources in the Lafayette series, to the philosophical interest that produced the social science reports and the fourth volume of the UNESCO History of the Scientific and Cultural Development of Mankind. For his students, their association with him was an experience to be long cherished, and his influence was for many of them a decisive turning point in their own lives.—R.R. Palmer, Yale University



The Fall of Louis XVI, by Louis R. Gottschalk. Girard, Kan.: Haldeman-Julius Co., 1924.

The Consulate of Napoleon Bonaparte, by Louis R. Gottschalk. Girard, Kan.: Haldeman-Julius Co., 1925.

The Empire of Napoleon, by Louis R. Gottschalk. Girard, Kan.: Haldeman-Julius Co., 1925.

Restoration and reaction in France, 1814-1815, by Louis R. Gottschalk. Girard, Kan.: Haldeman-Julius Co., 1925.

Jean Paul Marat; a study in radicalism, by Louis R. Gottschalk. New York, Greenberg, 1927; Reprint, New York: B. Blom, 1966.

The era of the French Revolution (1715-1815), by Louis R. Gottschalk under the editorship of James T. Shotwell. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1929.

Lafayette comes to America, by Louis Gottschalk. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1935.

Lafayette joins the American Army, by Louis Gottschalk. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1937.

Lady-in-waiting; the romance of Lafayette and Aglaé de Hunolstein, by Louis Gottschalk. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins press, 1939.

Lafayette and the close of the American Revolution, by Louis Gottschalk Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1942.

The letters of Lafayette to Washington, 1777-1799, edited by Louis Gottschalk. New York: Priv. print. by H.F. Hubbard, 1944; 2d printing, edited and revised by Louis Gottschalk and Shirley A. Bill. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1976.

Lafayette between the American and the French Revolution (1783-1789). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950.

Lafayette in America, 1777-1783, by Louis Gottschalk. 1st Bicentennial ed. Arveyres, France: L’Esprit de Lafayette Society, 1975.

Lafayette: a guide to the letters, documents, and manuscripts in the United States, edited by Louis Gottschalk, Phyllis S. Pestieau, Linda J. Pike. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975.