Robert V. Remini, an award-winning scholar of Andrew Jackson and 19th century politics who viewed Washington firsthand in the 21st century when he became the official historian for the U.S. House of Representatives, has died. He was 91.
Remini, who retired from the House in 2010, died March 28 at Evanston Hospital after suffering a stroke, the University of Illinois at Chicago announced in a news release. Remini was a professor emeritus at the school.
Learned, readable and productive, Remini wrote and co-authored more than 20 books, starting in 1959 with “Martin Van Buren and the Making of the Democratic Party.” On Jackson alone, he completed at least 10 books, including an influential trilogy of which the finale won the National Book Award in 1984. Benjamin Walker, star of the Broadway musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” has said he read Remini as part of his research.
Rep. Dennis Hastert, a fellow Illinois resident and then-Speaker, appointed Remini historian of the House in 2005. Three years earlier, Remini had been asked by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington to write a Congressional history, “The House,” for which Remini interviewed legislators and sat in on Congressional proceedings, was published in 2006.
Remini also wrote biographies of President John Quincy Adams, the celebrated orator Daniel Webster and Mormon founder Joseph Smith. He was openly unhappy with the recent divisions in Congress and wrote often about the days when deals among enemies could be reached, including the pre-Civil War history “At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise that Saved the Union,” published in 2010.
Remini himself was willing to take sides. In “A Short History of the United States,” which came out in 2008, he wrote that the Bush administration had been “itching to start a war with Iraq” and faulted the conflict as futile, poorly managed and expensive. Remini also criticized Bush as indifferent to civil liberties and for successfully pushing through tax cuts that favored the rich.
A steady admirer of Jackson, who was among the country’s most idolized and divisive presidents, Remini celebrated him as a self-made man, patriot and populist who opened up American society and government and resisted his fellow Southerners’ desire to secede. Remini noted Jackson’s harsh positions on slavery and the treatment of Indians, but still found that Jackson “profoundly assisted” the country’s “rise to greatness” and “proved for all time the reality and splendor of the American dream.”
Historian Andrew R.L. Cayton would declare that Remini was “as tenacious a champion as any president could ever hope to have.” Remini came of age when scholars followed the “great man” theory of history, history as determined by individuals with power. He was tougher on Jackson than previous biographers, notably Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., but was still criticized on occasion as too close to his subject.
“He has mastered in all their complex detail the many issues and events of Jackson’s private and public life, but in doing so he has come to see the world too much from Jackson’s point of view,” historian John William Ward wrote in The New York Times in 1981 as he reviewed the trilogy’s second volume.
“If ... we want to know more about Andrew Jackson, there is no better place to turn than this book. If, however, we wish to know more about the shaping of our society, which has entered into the shaping of ourselves, then we will have to turn somewhere else.”
A native of New York, Remini was born in 1921. He grew up during the Great Depression, but thanks to his winning a scholarship from the Mothers Club of Long Island, he became the first of his family to attend college. He was an undergraduate at Fordham University, received a master’s and Ph.D from Columbia University and spent much of his academic career in the history department of the University of Illinois in Chicago.
During World War II, he served in the Navy. He had planned to become a lawyer, but found himself reading history during idle times at sea. At Columbia after the war, he studied for his master’s degree under Richard Hofstadter, then a new faculty member, but eventually an influential and popular historian who helped set Remini’s scholarly path.
Remini had wanted to write his thesis on John Purroy Mitchell, a New York City mayor in the early 20th century. But Hofstadter told him that Mitchell’s papers were not available and suggested Remini try Van Buren — a 19th century New Yorker, the country’s eighth president and an architect of the modern party system. Hofstadter’s idea was not spontaneous: Columbia had received a grant to acquire microfilm copies of New York history documents, Van Buren’s papers would be obtained first and the school needed a graduate student to review them.
Throughout his research on Van Buren, Remini was drawn to Jackson, a close ally of Van Buren’s whose life was “demanding” the attention of the young scholar. After his Van Buren book was published, Remini wrote his first Jackson biography, “The Election of Andrew Jackson,” and continued his research through the decades.
By the 1990s, he was sure he knew everything of worth about Jackson only to learn that a document had been discovered in Italy revealing that as a young man Jackson had sworn allegiance to the King of Spain.
“That information came as quite a blow,” Remini wrote. “I was staggered. I couldn’t believe it. But the facts were indisputable.”
Remini married Ruth T. Kuhner in 1948. They had three children.