Richard S. Dunn

By Nicholas Canny

Richard Slator Dunn who died on January 24, 2022, aged 93 had been scholarly active almost to the end. He fell ill to COVID but died peacefully in the house of his daughter Rebecca in North Carolina where his second daughter Ceci had also attended upon him during the final three weeks of his life.

Richard Dunn was born in Minneapolis on August 9, 1928, the son of William Dunn, and his English wife Elizabeth Slator Dunn. Following schooling in Minnesota, Richard proceeded to Harvard where, in 1950, he graduated summa cum laude. Next came his PhD studies at Princeton where his mentor, Wesley Frank Craven, convinced him that he would still be meeting his ambition to expand knowledge on English Renaissance society if he were to concentrate on English settlements in North America.  His dissertation of 1955, later expanded into his 1962 book, Puritans and Yankees: the Winthrop Dynasty of New England, 1630-1717, met this prescription by explaining how the values of three generations of Winthrops, the first from Suffolk in England, were shaped no less by the opportunities and challenges that New England presented than by intellectual and political currents in England.  


Rebecca, Richard, and Ceci Dunn at the “Women Make History Wikistorm” hosted by the Omohundro Institute on November 3, 2018. The event was followed by the 2018 Vast Early America Lecture, “Saints and Sisters Reconsidered: Situating Catholic Women’s History in Early America” with Ann Little (Colorado State University). The lecture was given in honor of Mary Maples Dunn.

Richard secured his first career post in History in 1957 at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was promoted rapidly until he retired from the department in 1996 as the Nichols Professor of American History, Emeritus. Of his 39 years in the Penn history department, Richard served seven as departmental chair. In this role, he encouraged his colleagues to enhance the diversity and quality of the history staff.  After his term as chair, he designed the Philadelphia Center for Early American Studies with support from the Mellon Foundation. This proved such a success that by 1998, with the aid of further grants and major gifts from the Barra Foundation, it had expanded its remit to become the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. Richard directed the succeeding Centers until 2000, after which he continued to participate in its activities, initially from Philadelphia where, from 2002-8, he with his wife Mary Maples Dunn had become joint executive directors of the American Philosophical Society, and later from Cambridge Mass., where they had retired.

The distinguished careers of Richard Dunn and Mary Maples Dunn, who Richard described as the ‘mainstay’ of his life, followed different paths for the duration of their marriage from 1960 until Mary died in 2017. However, each supported the undertakings of the other and they combined their energies on several occasions to serve particular purposes long before that dual appointment at the APS. The joint venture in which they took greatest pride was in raising their two daughters, Rebecca and Ceci.

Richard achieved international distinction principally as a publishing scholar and a mentor of early-stage researchers. When I attended his graduate seminar during two successive years, 1967-9, he obviously considered the scholarship being published on England’s history for the seventeenth-century to be more sophisticated than what was being written on the history of England’s American colonies for the same period, and that many of the questions and methods being addressed and employed by historians of England presented rich possibilities for those concerned with Colonial America.  He therefore encouraged his seminar students to give more attention to publications by figures such as Charles Wilson, Peter Laslett, Tony Wrigley, Jack Plumb, Lawrence Stone and Gerald Aylmer than to books on Puritans and Cavaliers. The influence of such English authors (and also of French demographic historians) on Dunn’s own work, was evident both in the European history textbook that he published in 1970 entitled The Age of Religious Wars, 1559-1689, and in his research for a projected book on the Glorious Revolution as a transatlantic phenomenon

Richard never brought that book to completion.  However a paper, entitled ‘ The Glorious Revolution and America’, that he published in 1998, indicates how such a book would have broken new ground, first by giving attention to developments in Britain’s colonies in the West Indies as well as in those on mainland America, and second by arguing that the settlement terms negotiated between the London government and elites in all its American colonies, contributed to the relative stability that Britain’s transatlantic empire enjoyed from the 1690s to the 1760s. Such a book would likely have earned Richard enduring fame as a historian of Britain’s Empire. This eluded him principally because at the outset of his research he unearthed a census of the population of Barbados commissioned in 1680 by the island’s governor. Richard was so impressed by a document which was akin to the sources being used by the social historians of England that he could not resist engaging on its analysis. This became the foundation stone for his 1972 book Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713, which he had written instead of the projected Glorious Revolution and the Americas. Sugar and Slaves, which won immediate acclaim, was conventional in that it gave most attention to those who made Britain’s Empire a financial success. However it proved innovative by shedding light both on the tawdry, albeit precarious, lives of the English planters who shaped that empire, and on the callous manner in which they acquired and exploited the African slave work force that enabled their enrichment and social advancement.

This book changed the way in which early American history was studied. Its first impact was geographic in that it demonstrated that what happened in the West Indies was integral to the American colonial experience, and it made a social impact by illustrating how the enslavement of Africans proved economically beneficial to all colonies, and not only those with slave populations. Another impact of the book was that it transformed Richard’s development as a historian, as he devoted himself now to demonstrating how the exploitation of African slaves and their descendants became a central dimension to American life and was not confined to the West Indies. Consequently, Richard came to consider himself a mainstream historian of America, and not just of Anglo-America in the pre-revolutionary decades.

This dual transformation was already apparent in a paper he published in 1977 comparing the lives of slaves during the early decades of the nineteenth century on two plantations, one in Virginia and one in Jamaica. This comparison, which received widespread acclaim, occasioned Richard some misgivings when it was cited to sustain the contention that slavery in the United States was a relatively benign institution.  Therefore one purpose behind his comprehensive study, A Tale of Two Plantations; Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia, published in 2014, was to discredit such fallacious argumentation by illustrating the reprehensible manner in which slaves were treated over a long time span in each of the two plantation sites. Also through a meticulous reconstruction of the family trees of several identified slaves and their freed descendants, it demonstrated that the lives of those who lived into the emancipation era (1834 in Jamaica, 1865 in Virginia), usually proved less challenging for those who had been liberated in Jamaica than in Virginia.  

This intellectual pilgrimage brought Richard Dunn into present time and to issues that did not concern him as a scholar during his early career. However the acclaim accorded to this later work did nothing to diminish his interest in, and respect for, his initial preoccupations. Thus the first major undertaking of the Philadelphia Center was a calendar of the Papers of William Penn. What emerged were five volumes published between 1981 and 1987 under the joint direction and editorship of Mary Maples Dunn and Richard Dunn. Neither did Richard ever let the Winthrop dynasty slip his mind, and, with assistance and encouragement from the palaeographer Laetitia Yeandle, he worked intermittently on The Journal of John Winthrop, 1630-49 until 1996 when he with Laetitia Yeandle, published a definitive edition.

Richard’s other major achievement was as mentor to more than 30 PhD students at Penn as well as to the many scholars from other universities who participated in the activities both of the Philadelphia Center and the McNeil Center. He considered that work at both these Centers was complementing that at the Omohundro Institute and its predecessor (the Institute for Early American History & Culture), which had first targeted early American history and culture for special attention. My own evidence of his respect for the Institute at Williamsburg was that he encouraged me to submit a paper from my PhD dissertation for publication in the William and Mary Quarterly. In so doing he was having me follow his own example since his first two papers (1954, and1956) had been published in the Quarterly, and he was to publish further important papers there in 1963, 1969, 1977 and 1984. Richard also chose to publish Sugar and Slaves in the Institute’s book series, and he gave of his time as a Council member at Williamsburg 1967-9 and 1992-5.

Richard’s death means his family have lost a deeply respected father and grandfather, his former students have lost a role model, and the wider community has lost an exemplary scholar, and an outstanding academic leader dedicated to truth, justice, tolerance and enhanced educational opportunity.

Nicholas Canny, Established Professor of History, Emeritus, at the National University of Ireland, Galway and former President of the Royal Irish Academy