Massachusetts Professor of Humanities, Emerita
Partisan purges. “Bare-knuckled political treachery.” The viral spread of radical political ideas.
These themes might have been ripped from today’s headlines. They might just as easily have been drawn from antiquity. And that’s kind of your point.
In bestselling and prize-winning works on Washington, Madison and Jefferson—not to mention three Roosevelts—you’ve shown how pivotal moments in history have been shaped by timelessly human qualities: the lust for power and love of freedom. Dueling instincts toward cunning and cooperation. And, in your latest book, the readiness to set aside differences to serve a higher cause.
Because, at the end of the day, you’re an optimist. You once wrote that “education leads us out of our unformed, primitive selves.” That transformation is hard work. Your students recall their papers coming back “edited to pieces.” But they also credit you for teaching them to “think deeply and critically about our country’s history and the responsibilities held by those who govern.”
You’ve leavened that hard work with your famous mid-class cookie breaks and with discussions of French literature over wine and cheese in your living room. “It was the college experience you only saw in films,” one alumna recalled. “To be welcomed into the sanctuary of this renowned author and professor was deeply intimidating, but she met us with warmth and respect.”
On your own, and with your late husband and frequent collaborator, James MacGregor Burns, you’ve taught thousands of students—and millions of readers—that history is a powerful lens on the present. We may not always like what we see, but you’ve shown us, again and again, that the act of looking makes us better.
I hereby declare you the Massachusetts Professor of Humanities, Emerita, entitled to all the rights, honors and privileges appertaining thereto.
June 4, 2023