AHA President, 1966


University of Pennsylvania

From the American Historical Review 78:3 (June 1973)

Roy F. Nichols (March 3, 1896–January 12, 1973) was not only a gifted historian in the older tradition of carefully researched and finely written narrative, but one of the leaders of his generation in bringing political history closer to the social sciences. Serving as representative of the American Historical Association on the board of the Social Science Research Council from 1935 through 1956, on its guiding Problems and Policy Committee during most of this period, and as chairman of the board from 1949 to 1953, he was responsible for a large part of the program of the council in the field of history. This included sponsoring many conferences and monographs as well as the council’s Bulletins 54 (1946) and 64 (1954) on historiography. He participated actively in both the planning and writing of the council’s Generalization in History (1963).

His academic career was a model of the rapid completion of graduate work and early promotion wished for by all young historians. Born March 3, 1896, in Newark, New Jersey, he took an AB from Rutgers in 1918, an MA in 1919, and completed his PhD at Columbia in 1923. After teaching at Columbia from 1922 until 1925 he went to the University of Pennsylvania as assistant professor and, in 1930, became a full professor.

Meanwhile, in 1920, he married Jeannette Paddock, who also received her doctorate in history from Columbia in 1923. For the next half century they were a partnership working continuously on historical projects both jointly and separately. Late in life Roy Nichols said that “a common historical interest has produced a ‘career’ which belongs to us both and cannot really be thought of in two parts.” Jeannette Nichols has published many articles that represent strictly her own interests, but mutual contributions were seldom absent from their work. Eventually Jeannette Nichols, whose personal interests are primarily in economics and finance, was drawn into the history department of the University of Pennsylvania, first as an associate professor teaching American economic history and from 1960 to 1964 as chairman of the graduate program in economic history. Had ill health not intervened late in that decade, a joint biography of John P. Sherman would have been published. They shared the title of historian of the university, and Jeannette Nichols is continuing work on a history of the University of Pennsylvania since the beginning of World War II.

In his major historical writing Roy Nichols sought to bring the philosophy more than the specific methods of political scientists and social psychologists to bear upon history. His doctoral thesis was The Democratic Machine, r850-r854, published the year he received his degree. Unusually mature for a first book, it initiated a long-range project on the nature of democracy and its party politics from 1850 to the outbreak of the Civil War. The second volume, Franklin Pierce, appeared in 1931 and the concluding volume, The Disruption of American Democracy (1948), was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1949. Turning back to earlier origins of the causes for the breakdown of the democratic process in 1861 he wrote a series of studies relating political institutions to particular American characteristics: Advance Agents of American Destiny (1956); Religion and American Democracy (1959); The Stakes of Power, 1845–1877 (1961); and Blue Prints for Leviathan, American Style (1963). His final major publication was the autobiographical An Historian’s Progress (1968) in which he treated the events of his distinguished career with the detached objectivity of the trained historian. During the entire period of the writing of these last five books he was also a major figure in the administration of the university. Had his final illness not prevented it, he would have been editor of a history of the city of Philadelphia, which is now being completed by others.

Nichols’s gift for writing and felicitous, witty expression made him much in demand as a teacher and lecturer. He taught as a visitor at Columbia (1944–45) and Stanford (1952) and in 1948-49 held the Pitt professorship and received an MA at the University of Cambridge. As late as 1962 he and Jeannette Nichols accepted the rigors of serving as lecturers in India and Japan. Following an LHD from Rutgers in 1941, so many colleges and universities awarded him honorary degrees-nine in all-that the late-comers were hard put to find a title he did not already possess.

Believing that our neglected social history had to be recovered at the grass-roots level, he imparted a new vigor to the study of state and local history in Pennsylvania. As early as 1932–33 he was selected president of the Middle States Association of History Teachers. In the latter of these two years he was elected to the board of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, one of the oldest and most respected societies in the nation, of which he was honorary vice-president at the time of his death. He was instrumental in organizing the Pennsylvania Historical Association and served as its president from 1936 to 1939. More than a decade of work with the Federation of Pennsylvania Historical Societies led him to its presidency for 1941–42. At the same time he worked as a member of the commission planning the bicentennial of the University of Pennsylvania and as a member of the Historical Commission of the Commonwealth. From 1946 to 1957 he was president of the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania. In 1960 he was named to the new Philadelphia Historical Commission, which he chaired from 1967 until his resignation because of ill health in 1970. Meanwhile, he served as director of the Philadelphia Atheneum from 1956 on and as its vice-president in 1966. In 1962 he received its Haney medal for his book The Stakes of Power. Governor Shafer’s committee of 100,000 Pennsylvanians gave him an award of excellence in 1967. In honor of his services to the history of the state, as well as of his distinction in the nation, Pennsylvania History devoted the entire January 1971 issue to his career and writing.

His achievements of national scope also brought him many honors. In 1945 he was elected to the American Philosophical Society and from 1953 to 1969 he represented the society as chairman of the board of the Benjamin Franklin papers. For a decade (1958–68) he served on the board of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences. A member of numerous committees of the American Historical Association going back to 1925, he was elected to the council in 1943, to the vice-presidency in 1965, and to the presidency in 1966. He was a senator of Phi Beta Kappa after 1961 as well as a director or officer of numerous other honorary and learned societies. In 1969 he was made honorary consultant in American history to the Library of Congress.

Even-tempered, genial, and efficient in carrying out responsibilities, he was widely in demand for administrative services. An important trustee of Rutgers from 1944 on, he became a member of its Board of Governors in 1958. The most important use of Nichols’s administrative abilities, however, was at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1952 he became dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the following year accepted the additional title of vice-provost. As a member of the highest staff committees he participated in most of the important decisions of the university. His unusual services to higher education were recognized in the presidency of the Association of Graduate Schools in 1964 and the chairmanship of the Council of Graduate Schools of the United States in 1965. His many positions and natural eloquence led to severe demands on his time and energy in representing the university at formal occasions. Accounting for his ability to do so much Nichols said that his work was a hobby and a recreation as well as a vocation. After his retirement as emeritus professor in 1966, the university named its graduate residence hall the Nichols Building in memory of the “distinguished services” of both the Nicholses.

He died in Philadelphia on January 11, 1973, survived by no close relatives except Jeannette Nichols, who hopes to complete their unfinished tasks. Friends wishing to commemorate him may contribute to the Nichols Fund for Historical Projects at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104.—Thomas C. Cochran, University of Pennsylvania



The disruption of American democracy. New York: Macmillan, 1948.

The genesis of the Marshall plan, by Roy F. Nichols. Nottingham: University of Nottingham, 1949.

Religion and American democracy, by Roy F. Nichols. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959.

The stakes of power, 1845-1877. New York, Hill and Wang, 1961; Reprint, Rev. ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

The Democratic machine, 1850-1854. New York: AMS Press, 1967.

The invention of the American political parties, by Roy F. Nichols. New York: Macmillan, 1967.

A historian’s progress, by Roy F. Nichols. 1st ed. New York: Knopf, 1968.

Federalism as a democratic process: essays, by Roscoe Pound, Charles H. McIlwain, Roy F. Nichols. Washington: Zenger Pub., 1978; 1942.

Advance agents of American destiny, by Roy F. Nichols. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980; 1956.

Franklin Pierce: young hickory of the Granite Hills, by Roy Franklin Nichols. 2nd ed., completely rev. Norwalk, Conn.: Easton Press, 1988.