Ed Smith and the End of American History

Edward C. Smith passed away peacefully on March 11. He was 80. Smith was the first tenured black professor at American University, where he taught history for 45 years and founded the school’s Civil War Institute. For decades, Smith lectured on art history and led tours for the Smithsonian Institution, the National Geographic Society, the National Park Service, and the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. He was also active in politics but not in the typical partisan fashion. He served in both the Johnson and Carter administrations and also wrote speeches for several Republicans, including U.S. Senator James Buckley (R-N.Y.).

But these impressive achievements (all the more astounding for a man without a college degree) are not Smith’s principal legacy. Many of his students—myself included—can attest that his great gift was a passionate reverence for American history in all of its complexity, along with a love of country and his native Washington, D.C. That reverence was rooted in a deep appreciation of his discipline as a window into the human condition and an essential font of wisdom. 

For Ed, a cardinal sin of our era was the politicization of history, or “the reading into the past the prejudices of the present,” as he put it so eloquently. He agreed with the great Catholic writer and historian Hilaire Belloc, who believed that the role of the historian is to bring the past alive through a vivid rendering of events, as well as a close appreciation of and sympathy with the cultural, intellectual, and moral context of the time being studied. 


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