Robert V. Remini, biographer of Andrew Jackson and historian of the U.S. House of Representatives, dies at 91

Robert V. Remini, an award-winning historian who was considered a preeminent biographer of President Andrew Jackson and who also served as official historian of the U.S. House of Representatives, died March 28 at a hospital in Evanston, Ill. He was 91.

His death was announced by the University of Illinois at Chicago, with which Dr. Remini had been associated for nearly five decades. He had complications from a stroke, said his son-in-law Dennis Costello.

Equal parts scholar and storyteller, Dr. Remini was regarded as one of the finest political biographers of his era. His subjects included presidents John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren, House speaker Henry Clay, senator and statesman Daniel Webster and Mormon leader Joseph Smith. Dr. Remini also wrote a sprawling history of the House of Representatives, where he served as historian from 2005 to 2010.

He was most associated with Jackson, the unbridled president who extended settlement into the frontier and was known for his broad populist appeal and bloody relocation of American Indians.

In addition to his numerous other publications on the seventh president, Dr. Remini penned a three-volume biography, the result of more than 15 years of labor. The final installment, “Andrew Jackson: The Course of American Democracy, 1833-1845,” received the 1984 National Book Award in nonfiction.

Historian for the House of Representatives, Robert V. Remini, poses for a photograph at the Sheraton Hotel in New Orleans Monday, May 2, 2005. He died on March 28. (Bill Haber/Associated Press)

“There was an electrifying dynamism about Jackson that I found irresistible,” Dr. Remini once told the Chicago Tribune. He served as president from 1829 to 1837 and was, in Dr. Remini’s words, “the embodiment of the new American.

“This new man was no longer British,” he continued. “He no longer wore the queue and silk pants. He wore trousers, and he had stopped speaking with a British accent.”

Critics who admired Dr. Remini’s work praised his scholarly exactitude and smooth narrative style. Reviewing the first installment in the three-volume biography — “Andrew Jackson: The Course of American Empire, 1767-1821” (1977) — a Washington Post book critic wrote that the volume “deserves to become a classic because of the exceptional precision of the description and the perceptive historical analysis.”

Those who found fault with Dr. Remini argued that he identified too closely with his subject.

“Seeing the world through Old Hickory’s eyes, we appreciate him as a complex human being,” history professor Andrew R.L. Cayton wrote in a New York Times book review of “Andrew Jackson and his Indian Wars” (2001). The problem . . . is that we see the world only through Jackson’s eyes.”

Dr. Remini wrote that he did not wish “to excuse or exonerate” the president for his treatment of the Indians — an era he called “one of the unhappiest chapters in American history.” He did endeavor to set the president in his historical and cultural context, including the rampant racism of the time.

“Everyone has warts. Lincoln has warts,” he told the Tribune. “But in the end you have to ask, ‘Does a man believe in some good things?’ He believed in this Union. He believed in this country. And he was morally surefooted in believing that government shouldn’t be for only a small segment of society, but for all of us. And by God, that’s what I want in my president.”

Dr. Remini was appointed House historian by then-Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, a Republican also from Illinois and a former teacher. Dr. Remini was credited with bringing an air of nonpartisanship to the long-vacant post.

The first House historian, Ray Smock, had been appointed in the 1980s and was dismissed by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia after Republicans took over in 1994. The next House historian, Christina Jeffrey, was promptly fired after a controversy erupted over comments she had made about teaching the history of the Holocaust and the Ku Klux Klan.

Dr. Remini came to the office shortly before the publication of his 600-page tome “The House” (2006), a book commissioned by the chamber. He was credited with producing a book that was nonpartisan, readable and stocked with memorable characters. One such rogue was George Cassiday, bootlegger to Congress in the era of Prohibition.

Cassiday “said he knew someone who could consume in one gulp a whole glass of hard liquor,” Dr. Remini told the Capitol Hill publication Roll Call. “He doesn’t say who it is. I have my guesses.”

Robert Vincent Remini was born July 17, 1921, in New York City, where he graduated from Fordham University in 1943 with the hope of becoming a lawyer. Had it not been for World War II, he probably would have gone forward with that plan.

During Navy service, he took refuge from his anti-submarine warfare duties by delving into books.

“I remember we docked at Boston and I went to the library and took out all nine volumes of Henry Adams’ history of the U.S. under Jefferson and Madison,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “I loved it. Right then I realized that by God, it was history I loved, not law.”

He received a master’s degree in 1947 and a doctorate in 1951, both from Columbia University and both in history. He joined the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1965 and continued to write until shortly before his death.

His last works included “A Short History of the United States” (2008), weighing in at about 400 pages, and “At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise That Saved the Union” (2010).

His wife of 63 years, the former Ruth Kuhner, died in 2012. Survivors include three children, Elizabeth Nielson of Eugene, Ore., Joan Costello of Cincinnati and Robert W. Remini of Wilmette, Ill.; and three grandchildren.

In an interview with Roll Call, Dr. Remini spoke of his fascination with the colorful speeches of 19th-century political leaders such as Clay, Webster and John C. Calhoun.

“I always thought it would be wonderful in the afterlife,” he said, “if you could listen to them debate.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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