Robert Sean Wilentz
February 20, 1951
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Alma mater||Columbia University |
University of Oxford
|Occupation||Historian, academic, professor, writer|
|Awards||Bancroft Prize (2006), Pulitzer Prize finalist (2006), Albert J. Beveridge Award (1984)|
Robert Sean Wilentz (//; born February 20, 1951) is the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor of the American Revolutionary Era at Princeton University, where he has taught since 1979. His primary research interests include U.S. social and political history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He has written numerous award-winning books and articles including, most notably, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, which was awarded the Bancroft Prize and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Robert Sean Wilentz was born on February 20, 1951 in New York City, where his father, Eli Wilentz, and uncle Theodore "Ted" Wilentz, owned a well-known Greenwich Village bookstore, the Eighth Street Bookshop. He identifies as having Jewish and Irish ancestry.
Wilentz earned one B.A. at Columbia University in 1972, before earning another at Oxford University (Balliol College) in 1974 on a Kellett Fellowship. In 1975 he earned an M.A. at Yale University and in 1980 he received his Ph.D. also from Yale, under the supervision of David Brion Davis.
Wilentz' historical scholarship has focused on the importance of class and race in the early national period, especially in New York City. Wilentz has also co-authored books on nineteenth-century religion and working-class life. His highly detailed The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (W.W. Norton, 2005) won the Bancroft Prize. His goal was to revive the reputation of Andrew Jackson and Jacksonian democracy, which was under attack from the left because of Jackson's support for slavery and pursuit of escaped slaves, and especially his harshness toward Indians, including his forced removals of Indian populations from land confiscated by European-ancestry populations. Wilentz returned to the pro-Jackson themes of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who in 1946 had hailed the pro-labor policies of Northern, urban Jacksonians. He has more recently turned his scholarship to modern U.S. history, notably in The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974–2008, published in May 2008.
Columbia professor Eric Foner, a long-time friend, says Wilentz "has written some of the very best examples of the avant-garde of the 70s and the avant-garde more recently. Back then we were trying to recover a lost past or neglected past. More recently historians have been trying to integrate that vision into a larger vision of American history as a whole."
As a contributing editor at The New Republic, Wilentz has published essays about music, the arts, history, and politics. He received a Grammy nomination, and a 2005 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for the liner notes Wilentz contributed to the album The Bootleg Series Vol. 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964, Concert at Philharmonic Hall.
In 2010, Wilentz published Bob Dylan In America, which placed Dylan in the context of American 20th century history and culture. The book contained essays on Dylan's relationship to Aaron Copland, Allen Ginsberg and the Beat generation, and the recording of Blonde on Blonde.
Wilentz has prominently engaged in current political debate. He is reportedly a long-time family friend of the Clintons. He has appeared in public venues as a staunch defender of Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton: he appeared before the House Judiciary Committee on December 8, 1998 to argue against the Clinton impeachment. He told the House members that if they voted for impeachment but were not convinced Clinton's offenses were impeachable, "...history will track you down and condemn you for your cravenness." His testimony cheered Democratic partisans but was criticized by The New York Times, which lamented his "gratuitously patronizing presentation" in an editorial.
In 2006, he wrote an article denouncing the George W. Bush presidency that was titled "The Worst President in History?" which appeared in Rolling Stone magazine. The article received a response from National Review, attacking Wilentz's analysis as "blinkered" and calling him "the modern Arthur Schlesinger Jr."
Wilentz followed up during the 2008 general election with another article in Rolling Stone describing how the failures of the Bush administration had caused a "political meltdown" of the Republican Party, with potentially enormous long-term effects. In the wake of the October, 2013 federal government shutdown, he authored another article in Rolling Stone on what he called a "crisis" within the Republican Party, claiming the party was gradually descending into extremism.
In 2008 Wilentz was an outspoken supporter of Senator Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee for the presidency. He wrote an essay in the New Republic analyzing Senator Barack Obama's campaign, charging Obama with creating "manipulative illusion[s]" and "distortions," and having "purposefully polluted the [primary electoral] contest" with "the most outrageous deployment of racial politics since the Willie Horton ad campaign in 1988." During the Democratic National Convention, Wilentz charged in Newsweek that "liberal intellectuals have largely abdicated their responsibility to provide unblinking and rigorous analysis" of Obama. "Hardly any prominent liberal thinkers" have questioned his "rationalizations" about his relationship to his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., or "his patently evasive accounts" of his "ties" to the "unrepentant terrorist William Ayers." For Wilentz, Obama is untested, cloudy, problematic, and liberal intellectuals have given him a free ride. Wilentz was criticized by bloggers and others for his criticism of Obama.
In January 2014, Wilentz took issue with those involved in the 2013 NSA leaks, in particular Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and Julian Assange. In Wilentz' view, "the value of some of their revelations does not mean that they deserve the prestige and influence that has been accorded to them. The leakers and their supporters would never hand the state modern surveillance powers, even if they came wrapped in all sorts of rules and regulations that would constrain their abuse. They are right to worry, but wrong — even paranoid — to distrust democratic governments in this way. Surveillance and secrecy will never be attractive features of a democratic government, but they are not inimical to it, either. This the leakers will never understand."