James M. McPherson, the esteemed and popular Civil War historian, has been selected to give this year's Jefferson Lecture, the National Endowment for the Humanities announced yesterday. A prolific writer, McPherson, 63, has taught at Princeton University for nearly four decades. His works--in particular "Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era"--are widely credited with helping restoke interest in that crucial period of American history.
"James M. McPherson has helped millions of Americans better understand the meaning and legacy of the American Civil War," said NEH Chairman William Ferris. "By establishing the highest standards for scholarship and public education about the Civil War and by providing leadership in the movement to protect the nation's battlefields, he has made an exceptional contribution to historical awareness in America."
The Jefferson Lecture is the federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities. Previous speakers have included Barbara Tuchman, C. Vann Woodward, Saul Bellow, John Hope Franklin, Robert Penn Warren, Toni Morrison, Vincent Scully and Erik Erikson. The lecture carries a $10,000 honorarium.
McPherson has selected the topic of " 'For a Vast Future Also': Lincoln and the Millennium" and will deliver the talk March 27 at 7:30 p.m. at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The lecture is free and open to the public.
The title, McPherson said yesterday, was inspired by an address to Congress that Lincoln made on July 4, 1861. "In the course of his message, Lincoln was explaining his understanding of the Northern aims, the survival of the United States and the republican form of government. And he said, 'This question is not altogether for today but for a vast future also,' " McPherson said.
His work on the Civil War--12 books and 100 articles--fills its own bookshelf and has inspired other research. "Battle Cry" (1988) won the Pulitzer Prize, and the 1997 "For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War" won the Lincoln Prize. McPherson served as a senior scholar for "The Civil War," the successful 1990 documentary by filmmaker Ken Burns.
Interest in the Civil War has waned at times but has never gone away, the historian said yesterday. The late 1980s saw an increase, he said, "prompted partly by the bounceback from the disillusionment caused by the Vietnam War, and the question of why should we be interested in any war. As we became more interested in the plight of the Vietnam War veterans, there was also a decline of contempt for the history of other wars and military history."
McPherson was born in Valley City, N.D., and earned his bachelor's degree from Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minn., and his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University. In addition to his teaching and scholarship, he is an active preservationist. In the early 1990s he was president of Protect Historic America, which successfully opposed the plan to build a commercial theme park near the Manassas battlefield.