History Department Mourns the Passing of our Long-Term Colleague and Friend, Herb Sloan
Herb Sloan Memorial, December 2: Reflections by Mark Carnes
Herb Sloan was a friend and colleague for over a third of a century. I’m honored to reflect on his extraordinary life. But I do so with some trepidation.
I doubt that he would have approved of this event—a memorial service in Sulzberger Parlor. Herb disdained formulaic pieties. He abhorred emotional gushes. He would scoff at our words of praise. And
he would chortle at my suit—my slavish adherence to pointless convention. As best I can recall, Herb never wore a tie or jacket—anywhere.
In other words, Herb Sloan was unique. So are we all, of course. We all contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman observed. But Herb Sloan was unique in a unique way.
I suspect that his uniqueness was partly a product of his upbringing, especially growing up beneath the lengthy shadow of his famous father, Herbert Elias Sloan, a professor of surgery at the University of Michigan who performed the first open- heart surgery in the state. Herb spoke of his father almost as if he were a legend.
Herb did not follow his father into medicine, but he did pursue an impeccably stellar academic career: phi beta kappa from Stanford in 1969; law degree from the University of Michigan in 1972. Then he was immediately snapped up by a top corporate law firm in New York City, where he practiced bankruptcy law.
But he found the practice of law to be excruciatingly boring. After several years he quit and resolved instead to lead a life of the mind—and to pursue his real interest: history.
He enrolled at Columbia in 1976. But while most would-be historians at the time were eager to explore the lives of those whom the historical profession had neglected—slaves, working-class people, women—Herb went in the opposite direction. He chose to study dead White men. And not just any dead White men, but the most famous of the Founding Fathers—Thomas Jefferson & Co.
Sloan was intrigued 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 various consumer goods—especially books. Hounded by creditors, Jefferson realized he would die a 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.
Herb worked on this transformative thesis in graduate school: 12 years! Then he labored on it nearly another decade at Barnard. In the end, he produced a gem. Principle and Interest: Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Debt (Oxford University Press, 1995) was a masterpiece of the historical craft—a work that will forever change the way historians think about Jefferson.
Reviewers recognized that Herb had accomplished something special. Joseph Ellis noted that Herb’s unflattering portrait of Jefferson had transformed the field: “We have now moved past filiopietism and ancestor worship.” He added that while Jefferson had had plenty of fierce critics, “Sloan’s book, with its combination of impeccable scholarship and studied irreverence, will prove a much more formidable adversary.” Reviewer Cathy Matson referred to “Sloan’s dazzlingly fresh perspective.” Richard John described Principle and Interest as “richly textured, carefully argued, and extraordinarily learned.” Other reviewers were equally enthusiastic.
But the reviewers were not uncritical. And they shared pretty much the same criticism. Herb’s research was utterly exhausting. John, while praising the book’s thesis, noted that the detail was “lavish and sometimes overpowering.” Richard Latner objected to “Sloan’s excessive and often distracting end notes which constitute fully one-third of the book.” A consummate scholar, Herb was fastidious, perhaps to a fault.
Principle and Interest was the intellectual triumph of Herb’s scholarship. But it also reveals much about Herb as a person.
Historian Herb showed that although Jefferson aspired to be an important intellectual—the new republic’s political visionary—Jefferson succumbed to the enticements and excesses of the new nation. Jefferson fell prey to the allure of material goods. He dissipated mental energies on conspicuous consumption.
Herb, by contrast, resisted such distractions. He spent little on creature comforts. He devoted himself to the life of the mind. His sole consumer splurges, as best we could tell, were books, classical CDs, and the Gourmet Garage. Perhaps his favorite moment of the day was when he sat on a campus bench, drinking his morning coffee with a pastry purchased from the cart at the corner of West 116th Street. He knew every faculty member by name and would happily strike up a conversation with those who felt like discussing the latest bungle in Washington or a recent book review on any and all subjects.
Over the years, my colleagues in history and political science watched as his office in Lehman filled with books—floor to ceiling. Our concern mounted as the towering stacks loomed over Sloan—and over the students who cowered while meeting with him during office hours.
Most academics love books. Certainly I do. The difference is that Herb read all of his books. No, let me correct that. He didn’t read his books, he devoured them. Our offices in Lehman were above the library, but often I found it easier, when I needed a book, to go to Herb and ask if he owned it. Often he did, and he’d point to one of the stacks. I’d take the book—carefully—and, looking through it, see that it was filled with Herb’s annotations and corrections—even the footnotes. Sometimes he’d simply write, “Harrumph!” Over the years, I borrowed over a dozen books from Herb—randomly chosen. Every one of them was heavily annotated. A few weeks ago, Carl Wennerlind, mentioned that HE was staggered to find that Herb’s books were so copiously annotated.
A fastidious scholar, Sloan served on advisory boards for The Papers of Thomas Jefferson and the Center for Jefferson Studies, the Papers of John Jay Advisory Committee, 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 (2007-2010) and Barnard’s First-Year Seminar Program (1998-2005), and was long affiliated with the Barnard Center of Research on Women, Columbia’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter, and other campus organizations. He also served on nearly 100 dissertation defenses or oral examinations at Columbia University.
Sloan’s contrarian perspective was a constant in his professional life. “What’s the matter with you people?” he was overheard asking students in his constitutional history class. “Don’t they teach Latin in high school any more?” 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 to 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. And Herb was the only human being, during the past half century, to use “harrumph” in academic discourse.
But anyone who got to know Herb learned that his curmudgeonly mannerisms were a facade, an elaborate performance. They learned, as did we in the history department, that when you asked Herb to look at your manuscript, he would spend countless hours on it. We learned of the undergraduate students he mentored and helped launch on careers. We learned of the graduate students who, lost in the shuffle of the great University, found in Herb someone willing to discuss any scholarly issue deep into the evening. We learned—as have those of you in this room—that beneath that armor of curmudgeonliness, of Sloanian hyper-rationality, there lay a heart of gold.
As I say these words, I can hear Herb’s stout rebuttal. “Mark, as usual, you are trafficking in shameless myth-making, in rank puffery. If it walks like a curmudgeon, if it talks like a curmudgeon, if it uses ‘harrumph,’ for example, then it IS a curmudgeon. Just call it like it is.”
But, Herb. I don’t buy it. We here, in Sulzberger, don’t buy it. We respect your decades-long quest to see the world as it really is, to separate the wheat from the academic bullshit, to distill human experience into its clear, rational core. And, yes, we will always admire your noble and often solitary pursuit of knowledge; maybe we will promise to better emulate your intellectual rigor and diligence. Perhaps we will even resolve to read the books in our libraries.
But, like it or not, Herb, you also touched those of us who are here today in personal and emotional ways. We will recall your innumerable kindnesses, your boundless generosity, your steadfast loyalty, and even your disarming foibles.
I say this, Herb, knowing full well your response.
Mark C. Carnes