Last Tuesday, May 13, the Columbia University Seminar on Early American History and Culture and the Department of History hosted an evening in honor of Professor Herb Sloan of Barnard College. Herb, who is retiring this spring after 28 years as a member of Barnard’s history faculty, was the guest of honor at an evening commemorating both his contributions to the field of early American history, as well as a roundtable discussion on “Jeffersonian America.”
Barbara Oberg (Princeton), Peter Onuf (University of Virginia), and Andrew Shankman (Rutgers) led the “Jeffersonian America” panel, with Zara Anishanslin (CUNY) and Brian Murphy (CUNY) moderating the conversation.
Shankman reflected on Herb’s book Principle and Interest: Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Debt (1995) and his characterization of Jeffersonianism as an ideology that stands outside the traditional republicanism/liberalism dichotomy. Herb’s work, he argued, offered a rich analysis for the ways in which historians explore questions of modernity at the close of the eighteenth century.
Onuf, joking that Herb has a “sympathy and engagement with Jefferson that overcomes his federalist bias,” reflected on Herb’s essay in Jeffersonian Legacies entitled “The Earth Belongs in Usufruct to the Living” (1993), as well as Herb’s earlier career as a lawyer-turned-historian. Onuf celebrated Herb for his ability to look at the problems of the eighteenth century with new perspectives, particularly his skillful use of Jefferson’s life and letters to provide inventive ways of looking at the past. Herb’s scholarship demonstrated that for Jefferson’s generation, liberalism and republicanism co-existed and, in the words of Jefferson himself, one generation could not bind the next.
Finally, Barbara Oberg spoke about Herb’s essay “Presidents as Historians” in John Adams and the Founding of the Republic (2001), and Herb’s skillful analysis of Jefferson and Adams as autobiographers. Herb’s essay illuminated the ways in which the two men attempted to explain the legacies of the American Revolution to future generations. Oberg also reflected on Herb’s work on debt and how his analysis of Jefferson’s own money problems provided a deeper understanding of how debt operated in early-national America.
The event concluded with reflections from some of Herb’s colleagues, former students, and friends, including David Jaffee (Bard Graduate Center), Jennifer Anderson (Stony Brook), Evan Haefeli (Columbia), Tami Friedman (Brock), Ned Landsman (Stony Brook), and Ashli White (U. Miami). Memories ranged from those about his book-filled office, his importance as an undergraduate mentor, his relationship as a colleague, his membership in the early American seminar, and his role as a graduate advisor.
It was clear throughout the evening, from the many well-wishes, reminiscences, and toasts given in Herb’s honor, that his contributions to the field of early American history and his role as a teacher and mentor were unparalleled and deeply felt. Evan Haefeli may have said it best when he remarked that Herb Sloan is “the embodiment of what a university and a professor should be.”