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Thursday, May 19, 2022

Part II: Robert Allison, Boston Historian Q&A

We had such a great time at our interview with historian and Professor of History, Bob Allison. With so much knowledge and Boston history to share, this feature deserved a part 2! Here it is — highlighting his most recent book, interest in the formation of the U.S. Constitution, favorite historical authors, and a call to action for fellow historians.

Bob, let’s start with this: What's your title?

I’m Professor of History at Suffolk University.

And how long have you been there?

30 years.

And what course or courses do you teach there now?

U.S. history. It's a course called American Life and Culture Since the Civil War. Basically, you know, U.S. history from the Civil War to the present. That's what I'm doing this semester, but I teach a range of other courses.

Why don't you tell me a couple of the other courses that you teach?

The American Revolution, History of Boston, The Age of Benjamin Franklin, Creating the American Constitution…

So you write books too, right? And how many books have you written?

Let me see, eight to 10, I think. Written or edited, maybe a dozen.

And your most recent?

I've been working on one book now for it seems like forever. And I'm just trying to remember what was the most recent book.

That's interesting. What’s the current one about?

It's about the USS Constitution’s world cruise. In the 1840s, the ship sailed around the world. So I've been writing a book about that. It visits Brazil and Zanzibar and Vietnam and China and Hawaii. So I'm really writing about what the world was like at this time, and various sailors who encounter this world, so it's been really interesting, because I'm finding out a lot about these places. And a lot of interesting stories about what happens at each place, as well as things about the crew and the ship. It's been fun.

So are there areas of history other than Boston, and South Boston, that particularly interest you?

I think the formation of the US Constitution is really fascinating. The arguments about it and the ideas behind it. I really got interested in history as something to study when, in the mid 1970s, my mother -- again, giving her credit, she was a computer programmer. And she went off to Iran in 1975 or so, the Shah was importing a lot of American technology. She went along. And so I went there in the year between high school and college, actually the summer between high school and college, and then I went back to visit a year or two later. It happened to be the week the revolution really broke out. And, you know, having studied something of the American Revolution and having an interest in it, I thought I knew something about revolutions. And I also thought that I understood how they happened. And, you know, because we have the example of the American Revolution, and then of course the French and Russian, and so on. And this one in Iran was very different. And it was a reaction against the kind of ideas of individualism and so on that are fundamental to the American and French Revolutions. So it really was kind of a puzzle. And I was also interested in the Middle East just generally, but also what happened. And so my own study of the American Revolution and the formation of the Constitution, this became my first book. Because I was thinking about -- I kept coming across references to Africa, to North Africa, to Arabs, and Turks, and so on, much more so than you would see in a newspaper. Well, maybe today you would, but at that time you're not seeing a lot of discussion, so why was that?

And, realizing that the people forming the United States Constitution had kind of an understanding of the way different cultures worked and operated governments, that was one thing -- that was one really fundamental thing. But I think my persistent interest in the Constitution is, having seen other revolutions, we kind of know that the easy part is getting rid of the bad old regime, you know, toppling the Shah, or toppling Saddam Hussein or the Tsar, and the much harder part is creating a system that won't be worse. And the American Revolution is one of the very few times when they haven't replaced the bad old regime with a regime that is either just as bad or worse. So how is that? And what mistakes do they avoid? So that's been a subject of interest.

And now the last book I published was a collection of the arguments about ratifying the Constitution. That I actually did with my graduate advisor, who has since passed away, but I was his research assistant back in, I guess, late ‘80s, early ‘90s, when he was doing a collection of ratification documents. So this is a shorter version of that, it's about 60 or so of the arguments for and against ratifying the Constitution by the people involved in that big debate. He realizes this extraordinary political debate, and people at all levels of society are engaged in it and taking it very seriously. So I suspect that one thing that I really keep coming back to is the whole story of ratifying the Constitution.

And the document itself -- it's easy to sentimentalize and say what a wonderful thing it is. It's also easy, I think, now to trash it. I just really get very worried that instead of having a constitutional convention that would include, say, James Madison, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, it would include Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell. And thinking, boy, who would devise a better system? They recognized human nature and they recognized the propensity to power and how do you control that and how do you create a system that will not crush human aspirations? And I suspect we also keep realizing that it is possible to have a system that will work. These people didn't think they were better than anyone else or that, we’ll create a system for good people. They created a system understanding, as Madison said it, good and wise statesmen will not always be at the helm.

OK, a couple of favorite historians that you read or have read?

Let’s see. David Hackett Fischer, teaches at Brandeis. Let me think. Bernard Bailyn, I mentioned he was my advisor at Harvard. I got my Ph.D. there, in the History of American Civilization…I would say another Bill. Bill – William -- Fowler, who used to teach at Northeastern and is now retired. Lou Masur, who's written a variety of books on different topics, including Bruce Springsteen, and he's written about Benjamin Franklin. And he's written about all kinds of people in between.

How about those popular historians, David McCullough, people like that?

I read them. David McCullough is a great writer. And he does capture a large audience, which is very important. Also, I just should just say in the interest of full disclosure, he and my father were very close friends. And, you know, I'm friendly with one of his sons. But a great writer. I think one thing you notice about the John Adams book is just about every paragraph ends in John Adams’ voice. That is, McCullough is a good enough writer to recognize when he has material that he doesn't need to mess with.

I think it's one of the really interesting things that in the academy, where I happen to be, there is a kind of a shrinking interest in the kind of history that captivates people. And we've seen declining enrollments in history classes and so on, but then out in the real world it’s different. That's one reason my department merged with another department. Out in the real world there are writers like David McCullough, or Joe Ellis, or even, what's his name, Bill O'Reilly, who write books that people buy and people read. And Ken Burns, who makes TV series about historical subjects. So there is, I think, not only an interest but a real need for good history being written. And we in the academy haven't been filling it as historians used to. Historians didn't use to look at writing popular history as a bad thing. They saw that what they're doing is engaging with the public. Another historian, I know, Joe Ellis, has been saying that. He talks about the historians who want to write about common people, but they don't know how to actually write for common people. So we see that in South Boston with a great interest in Evacuation Day and in history in the neighborhood.

Well, Tolstoy in the afterword to War and Peace -- so he’s writing this well over 100 years ago -- says that modern historians are like dead men answering questions no one has asked. And that’s still something we see among historians, as we are fascinated with questions which aren't necessarily the questions that are of interest to citizens or ordinary people, who are just interested in what happened. So periodically I hear people lamenting the fact that people don't understand history. And I say, well, who’s to blame for that? We're the historians, we should be doing a better job. Having said that, we're also not doing a good job teaching it in K through 12. You know, we've really cut the amount of time. Third grade, fifth grade, eighth grade, 10th grade. That's all the American history that you get in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. People of our generation think that kids are getting history every year. Well, think again. And our two sons both went to Boston Latin, both had the same high school history teacher in high school. And the week they were covering the Great Depression, they watched “Paper Moon,” the movie with Ryan O'Neal. And that's what they learned about the Great Depression.

Thank you again, Bob for spending this time with us and sharing your knowledge. We hope this has inspired our readers!

To read the first part of this Q&A, click here: https://bit.ly/3K4Uk1I

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