Jackson Turner Main (1917-2003)
David Burner, January 2005
Jackson Turner Main died in Boulder, Colorado, on October 19, 2003. The immediate cause of death was a lung malfunction, but he also suffered from strains of Alzheimer's disease. Throughout his illness he remained cheerful and affable, enjoying life and seeing friends. He is survived by his wife Gloria Lund and three children.
Jackson Turner Main, as is well known, was the grandson of Frederick Jackson Turner. Though he grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, he was born in Chicago to John Smith Main and Dorothy Turner, the daughter of the historian of the frontier. Among his many childhood memories was of Aldo Leopold, a neighbor and the author of The Sand County Almanac, whom he recalled as something of a curmudgeon. As a young man he also knew Max Farrand and Charles Homer Haskins. As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, he studied colonial history under Curtis Nettels; Kenneth Stampp was his section leader. At the University of Wisconsin graduate school he studied with Merle Curti, William Hesseltine, and Merrill Jensen. He absorbed the best of each: the kindness and breadth of Curti, the precision of Hesseltine, and some of the views of Jensen.
The Antifederalists: Critics of the Constitution, 1781–1788, published in 1961, was the first of Jackson Turner Main's seven books, and made him the initial winner of the Jamestown Prize; it has recently been reissued in paperback by the University of North Carolina Press. The talk of graduate students at every major university at the time and later, this study based in extensive archival work argues the cases for opponents of the Constitution. It contributed to cracking the consensus school of American historiography. The Antifederalists demonstrates for revolutionary America what graduate students in the later 1960s realized of their own time: that tension has always existed between the democratic impulses of ordinary citizens and what the work refers to as the aristocratic tendencies of the wealthy and powerful.
In 1965 appeared The Social Structure of Revolutionary America, a pioneering work in quantitative social history drawing heavily on tax lists and probate records. Main's continuing interest in the social bases of political behavior is witnessed by The Upper House in Revolutionary America, 1763–1788, published in 1967, and Political Parties before the Constitution together with The Sovereign States, both issued in 1973.
Whatever the continuities may have been between the many Progressive historians who taught at Wisconsin and the writers of the New Social History that began to publish in the 1960s, Jackson Turner Main contented himself with doing systematic quantitative research to answer important questions about the era of the American. Revolution. In 1985, during his retirement, he revisited these issues with a characteristic sophistication in Society and Economy in Colonial Connecticut. His final project was a comparative study ranging from Asia to early modern Europe and North America: Inherited or Achieved? The Social Origins of the World's Leaders. His conclusion: the British colonies were the most open to leadership by men of ordinary backgrounds, a pattern especially common in frontier regions. This last work, published in 1998 when he was 82, affirms much of the work of his grandfather on the significance of the frontier in American history.
Colleagues and students found in him a generosity and modesty that he combined with unyielding standards of professionalism buttressed by scrupulous scholarship. He will be remembered with fondness and great respect.
State University of New York at Stony Brook