Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


Uncommon Sense

The following is from the Uncommon Sense archives. It first appeared in the Spring 2004 issue, no. 118.

An Exceptional Historian: Jackson Turner Main (1917–2003)

Jackson Turner Main died at his home in Boulder, Colorado, on October 19, 2003, at the end of a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease and interstitial lung disease. He was 86 years old. His survivors include his wife, Gloria Lund Main, three children, and four grandchildren.

Jack Main was born in Madison, Wisconsin, on August 6, 1917, to John Smith Main and Dorothy Turner Main, the daughter of Frederick Jackson Turner. According to a memoir Jack composed in 1999, one of his earliest memories was of a “Milwaukee Major of over ninety” who appeared at Turner’s “court” around 1922. “His father,” Jack wrote, “had fought in the American Revolution! [I] shook his hand and was admonished to remember. . . . So you, dear readers, can shake my hand: it has touched one that had known the revolution.”

To shake Jack’s hand was indeed to come in contact with that, and—for good measure—virtually the whole history of our profession in the United States. A photograph from 1918 shows Turner holding Jack up to blow out the candle on his first birthday cake. As a young man Jack knew Charles Homer Haskins, Max Farrand, and Roger Merriman. As an undergraduate he studied with Curtis Nettels; Kenneth Stampp was his section leader. In graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, where he received his Ph.D. in 1948, he worked with Merle Curti, William Hesseltine, and Merrill Jensen. Over a long, productive career Jack proved himself equal to the best of them.

In all, Jack published seven books. The Antifederalists: Critics of the Constitution, 1781–1788 (1961) won the first Jamestown Prize. A close observation of both the social geography and the intellectual dimensions of Anti-Federalism, its stature as a classic work has been confirmed by its return to print as an OIEAHC paperback. The Social Structure of Revolutionary America followed in 1965: a pioneering work in quantitative social history, and the first systematic attempt to use probate inventories and tax lists to make large arguments about the social and economic contexts of the Revolution. Jack’s interests continued to focus on political behavior and its social bases in The Upper House in Revolutionary America, 1763–1788 (1967), Political Parties before the Constitution (1973), and The Sovereign States (1973). Taken together, these five books and his numerous articles forged a link between the long line of Progressive historians associated with Wisconsin who had come before, and the generation of Neo-Progressive scholars who began to establish themselves in the 1970s.

In truth, however, the historiographical position of his work mattered little to Jack. What concerned him most was to ask good questions and then to use whatever sources he needed, in the most systematic and disciplined way possible, to answer them. His last works, both published in retirement, were superb examples of this commitment to original investigation and intellectual rigor. Society and Economy in Colonial Connecticut (1985) returned to the issues and sources he had interrogated twenty years earlier in Social Structure, but now did so with a degree of methodological sophistication that had more than a little to do with his long association with his wife, Gloria, and her work with probate records. His final project was the largest and most creative of all. Inherited or Achieved? The Social Origins of the World’s Leaders (1998), a comparative study that ranged the globe from ancient China to early modern Europe and North America, demonstrated that the British colonies and early United States were uniquely hospitable to the leadership of self-made men—a pattern especially pronounced in frontier regions. It seems uniquely fitting that Jack’s last published work should have subjected his grandfather’ s famous thesis to a rigorous quantitative test.

Inherited or Achieved?, published when Jack was 82, testified to the enduring originality and industry of an exceptional historian. As those who were fortunate to know him can testify, however, he was much more than a distinguished scholar and teacher. A passionate birder and dedicated fisherman, a raconteur of rare skill and wit, and a pianist who commanded by heart vast numbers of American popular songs, Jack Main was most of all a generous mentor to his younger colleagues, a wise counsel to his friends, a devoted father and husband, and the gentlest of men. Fondly remembered, he is greatly missed.

Fred and Virginia Anderson
University of Colorado at Boulder