Jan Ellen Lewis (1949–2018)

Historian of Early America; AHA Member

Ann Fabian and Beryl Satter | Nov 1, 2018

Jan Ellen LewisOur colleague Jan Ellen Lewis passed away on August 28, 2018. Lewis was a scholar of gender, race, and politics in early US history and dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and professor of history at Rutgers University–Newark.

Born in St. Louis in 1949, Lewis received an AB in history from Bryn Mawr College (1971) and master’s degrees in American culture (1972) and history (1974) from the University of Michigan. She joined the faculty at Rutgers–Newark in 1977, the year she completed her PhD. She was the sole woman in the history department and later became its first woman chair. She helped to reshape the department, hiring historians who shared her commitments to Newark’s diverse student body and the Newark community. Lewis also taught in the PhD program at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.

Her dissertation, directed by Kenneth Lockridge and Leslie Owens, became her first book, The Pursuit of Happiness: Family and Values in Jefferson’s Virginia (1983). The questions she asked in that study—about gender, class, and race and about Thomas Jefferson’s own families, white and black—shaped her scholarly career. Lewis’s influential 1987 article “The Republican Wife: Virtue and Seduction in the Early Republic” dissected popular literature on seduction to analyze that era’s faith in virtue, and concomitant helplessness against raw inequalities of power.

Lewis helped build her generation’s scholarship on the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman who bore him several children. In 1999, Lewis co-organized, with Peter S. Onuf, a groundbreaking conference in which top scholars of the early republic considered the meanings of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship. The conference papers, published as Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture, included Lewis’s essay “The White Jeffersons,” a moving meditation on Jefferson’s lifelong refusal to acknowledge his black offspring. “How are we to reckon the costs entailed upon the Hemings family first by their father’s silence and then by his white family’s lies?” Lewis asked. “And how are we to reckon the costs to the nation of an evasion compounded and elaborated until it became a thing in itself, a cornerstone of our civic culture?”

Lewis also collaborated with James Horn and Onuf on The Revolution of 1800: Democracy, Race, and the New Republic (2002), and with several colleagues on the college-level textbook Of the People: A History of the United States (2012). She did pioneering work on the history of emotions, publishing “Mother’s Love: The Construction of an Emotion in Nineteenth-Century America” (1989) and, in collaboration with Peter N. Stearns, An Emotional History of the United States (1998).

In 2015, Professor Lewis served as president of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR); at the time of her death, she was president-elect of the Society of American Historians. Her SHEAR presidential address, “What Happened to the Three-Fifths Clause: The Relationship between Women and Slaves in Constitutional Thought, 1787–1866,” will be republished in a forthcoming volume of Lewis’s recent writings. She also served the AHA as chair of the Committee on Women Historians; member of the Nominating Committee; and member of the American Historical Review Board of Editors.

Colleagues and students will long be grateful for Lewis’s unparalleled gifts as an administrator, powers she used to foster social justice at Rutgers–Newark. She served as acting dean at critical junctures in the early 2000s, and then as dean of the School of Arts and Sciences in 2014. Lewis was the force behind numerous progressive changes within the university. Under her leadership, the school made its first faculty hires in LGBT studies. She strengthened interdisciplinary programs and departments, including the African and African American Studies department, the American studies PhD program, and the MFA in Creative Writing, a program that, like Rutgers–Newark as a whole, has taken empowering the voices of minority, immigrant, and first-generation college students as its mandate. Lewis helped the university achieve these goals, as Rutgers–Newark makes news for its diversity and its unusual success at graduating first-generation college students. In keeping with Lewis’s lifelong passion for justice, the Jan Ellen Lewis Endowed Scholarship Fund has been established to enable low-income students to attend Rutgers University–Newark.


Ann Fabian
Rutgers University–New Brunswick (emerita)

Beryl Satter
Rutgers University–Newark


Tags: In Memoriam North America


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