Remembering Joe Ernst
I first met Joe Ernst in 1967 when he was asked to lead the Revolutionary era seminar while Merrill Jensen was on leave. That was a singular honor for a recent (1962) University of Wisconsin Ph.D. Those were heady years to study the Revolution, and Joe was in the forefront of a group of young scholars who were challenging the emphasis on elite ideology put forward by historians such as Edmund Morgan and Bernard Bailyn. Joe’s emphasis was less on history “from the bottom up” than on the role of interest in shaping the actions of both the wealthy and the common folk. His pathbreaking work included his book, Money and Politics in America, 1775–1775 (1973), and his essay in Alfred Young’s collection The American Revolution(1976).
Soon after his stint in Madison he received an appointment at York University in Toronto, a recently established institution. I joined him there in 1970, delighted I could continue our spirited discussions about political economy, the Revolution, and the changing shape of historiography. Joe, as all of us who worked with him agreed, was an extraordinary, charismatic teacher. He lectured without notes, and commanded the rapt attention of the several hundred students who enrolled in his US survey course. He made every lecture a voyage of discovery, pausing often to reflect on the material he was presenting. His fourth-year seminar on the Revolution was also much admired. He regularly brought his students to Williamsburg, thereby combining his love for long road trips with his interest in early America.
After his retirement from York in the early 1990s he devoted himself to his family–his wife Michele Greene, his five children, and 14 grandchildren. I knew that from our lunches together, and it became even clearer at his memorial service where many grandchildren spoke about the trips they had taken with Joe, the sage advice he gave them, and the delight he took in sharing with them his love of U.S. history.