Publication Date

March 30, 2023

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam


  • United States



Herbert Sloan height=

Photo courtesy Sloan family

In 1975, Herbert Sloan had been well launched on a promising career: in law. Sloan was born in Baltimore on September 27, 1945. His father, Herbert Elias Sloan, gained fame at the University of Michigan as the first surgeon to perform open-heart surgery in the state. Young Sloan grew up as a “faculty brat” in Ann Arbor, where he attended the University High School. He enrolled at Stanford University, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1969. Three years later, he earned a law degree from the University of Michigan, winning its celebrated moot court prize. He was immediately snapped up by Hughes Hubbard & Reed, a prestigious New York City law firm, where he specialized in bankruptcy law. But Sloan found the practice of law to be crushingly boring, and he longed to pursue his passion: history.

In 1976, he abandoned the legal profession and enrolled in the history doctoral program at Columbia University. At that time, many historians were eager to explore the lives of those whom the profession had neglected—the enslaved, working-class people, women. But in a pattern that would recur, Sloan went in an opposite direction from most others. He chose to study the most famous of the Founding Fathers—Thomas Jefferson and friends. Sloan was intrigued especially by Jefferson’s anguished relationship to debt. Jefferson had inherited debts, and married into larger ones, which compounded as he spent lavishly on Monticello and on consumer goods—especially books. Hounded by creditors, Jefferson realized he would die bankrupt. Sloan perceived that Jefferson’s fear of debt shaped his thinking about public policy. Government debt resulted in oppressive taxation that inevitably crushed future generations. Jefferson drew more on contemporary political economy than on (classical) republicanism, or so Sloan argued.

Sloan spent nearly two decades on this project—most of his 12 years in the Columbia graduate program, and another seven as an assistant professor at Barnard College, where he was hired in 1986. His book, Principle and Interest: Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Debt (Oxford Univ. Press, 1995), was a major achievement; Richard John described it as “richly textured, carefully argued, and extraordinarily learned” (Journal of Economic History, 1997).

Sloan’s contrarian perspective was a constant in his professional life. He was overheard asking students in his constitutional history course, “Don’t they teach Latin in high school anymore?” Sloan also shocked students—and some colleagues—by affirming that the American Revolution was a “colossal mistake.” Each year, he gave a talk on Constitution Day to scholars and general audiences, in which he contended that the nation’s founding document was a jerry-built mess of contradictions, culminating in its promise of securing the “blessings of liberty” while building the legal scaffolding of American slavery. Yet he was a fastidious scholar, serving in advisory roles for the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, the Center for Jefferson Studies, and the Papers of John Jay, and he consulted on countless projects in early American history.

He also served in numerous capacities at Barnard and Columbia. He chaired the Barnard history department (2007–10) and Barnard’s First-Year Seminar Program (1998–2005), and he was long affiliated with the Barnard Center for Research on Women, Columbia’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter, and other campus organizations. He also served on nearly 100 dissertation defenses and oral examinations at Columbia.

Despite his contrarianism, which at times edged into proud curmudgeonliness, Sloan was a beloved figure on Morningside Heights. He won multiple teaching awards. Scores of graduate students, lost in the shuffle of the great university, found in Sloan someone willing to discuss any scholarly issue well into the night. Colleagues cherished Sloan’s astounding erudition—and his generosity in sharing lavish critiques of their manuscripts.

Sloan retired in 2015 but continued to work on his biography of Nancy Randolph, which remained uncompleted at the time of his death. He also taught some courses as an adjunct. When the adjunct faculty at Columbia went out on strike in 2021, Sloan, though hobbled, marched on the picket line.

Sloan died on October 23, 2022. He is survived by his four siblings: Ann Sloan Devlin, Elizabeth Sloan Smith, John K. Sloan, and Robert A. Sloan.

Mark C. Carnes
Barnard College, Columbia University

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