Crane Brinton '19 Dies in Cambridge; Popular Professor of History Was 70
He [the political philosopher] cannot dismiss too lightly the reproach of hard-headed politicians, that political theory has nothing whatever to do with political practice. Political theory, he must maintain, tries to explain what the practical politician is doing. It is not abstract, remote, or impractical. . .
It is necessary, then, to test political ideas by their currency with pratical, an deven with ordinary men. One must get at the realities of politics for leaders as for rank and file. --Political Ideas in the Jacobin Clubs
For most people in that age, reason was the way the human mind--all human minds--naturally worked. In their opinion this natural working was indeed, as matters then stood, seriously impeded in the great majority of human beings by ignorance, superstition, preconceptions, errors, by bad laws and bad institutions--in short, by bad environment. But the capacity for reason was there . . . give it a good environment and it will flower as nature meant it to flower. --Age of Reason Reader
One more word. To study the ideas of a given man involves the student in the whole life of his subject. But not all a man's life is pertinent to his ideas. The greatest danger . . . is that what purports to be a history of thought will degenerate into a collection of more or less picturesque biographical incidents . . . --English Political Thought in the Nineteenth Century
Crane Brinton '19, McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History, Emeritus, died September 7 at Stillman Infirmary after a long illness. He was 70.
Brinton had completed 43 years of teaching at Harvard when he became Professor Emeritus last July 1. He was a noted authority on Western intellectual history and the pattern of revolution. As a teacher, he was widely known and well-respected.
After he graduated from Harvard, Brinton won a Rhodes Scholarship and attended Oxford University, from which he graduated with a Ph.D. in History in 1923. Brinton then returned to Harvard to become an instructor and tutor in History. He was appointed Associate Professor in 1932. Ten years later he received a full Professorship.
For many years, including 1967-1968, Brinton's course on the Intellectual History of Europe in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries attracted the largest single class enrollment in the College.
Brinton once described the start of his teaching career at Harvard: "My first chance at teaching was History 14--the French Revolution course," he recalled. "A fellow faculty member gave me the opportunity of lecturing to the Chiffes to earn some extra money. That was in 1926. When I became an assistant professor I was allowed another half course, and so I brought in History 34 in the early thirties. It's been going now off and on for thirty-five years."
The end of that teaching career was a widely noted affair. The December 20, 1967, CRIMSON reported, "Hundreds of students and Faculty members packed Lowell Lecture Hall at 9 a.m. yesterday to do him honor. Their standing ovation at the end of the lecture seemingly overwhelmed and bewildered the kindly Brinton. When his attempts to quiet the applause only increased it, he simply grabbed his hat and coat and fled."
That was the final tribute to the tall, lean man with blue eyes and a fringe of gray hair who was known to many students at Harvard because of his client attitude toward grades.
The Confidential Guide called History 134a "a gut course," Brinton said: "I'm proud of the fact that I rescued several people academically who didn't deserve to go under. My scholar's conscience is clear."
Brinton graded his course mercifully because of his concern about the students, but for the same reason he was a rigorous intellect himself.
In Brinton's seminars and tutorials students learned to expect unremitting pressure for intellectual precision. In both scholarship and literary style, Brinton was demanding. His own work furnished for his students a prime example of diligent historical scholarship presented in a graceful manner.
Dean Ford, who had Brinton as an advisor for his Ph.D. thesis, felt that the man was best in small tutorial groups, and that in these situations Brinton retained an informal yet critical style. As one colleague put it: "Crane Brinton, besides having a lively and wide ranging mind, was one of the kindest and most generous men I have ever known. He viewed the world with a genial skeptcism that permitted him to judge with humane indulgence the foibles of his fellow men."
Professor Brinton was a productive scholar in addition to his teaching chores. In his bibliography of 15 books the best known was The Anatomy of Revolution, which he first wrote in 1938. It brought him a reputation which has endured the test of time.
In February of this year Professor Brinton was invited to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as one of five "experts in revolution." There he gave the Committee a "lesson on revolution" with particular emphasis on Vietnam.
In his book on revolutions he compared four different examples, and made several cautious conclusions. In an Epilogue he added to the book in 1964 he found "a residue of uniformites." One such uniformity, he felt, "needs special emphasis" for a very strong current in American opinion tends to reject it... most Americans believe revolutions are initiated and carried through by underdogs against upperdogs. This in itself is basically true, if platitudinous. But they think of the underdogs as poverty-stricken, deprived of relatively simple material satisfactions, oppressed, enslaved, without education (which their masters have denied them), strong only in their numbers."
Instead, Brinton found, "Though full feeding makes most beats quiet, this is not so of homo sapiens . . . if he has a full or tolerably full belly and a grieviance . . . he will make a revolution." And, he added, "This is the uniformity Americans really must master if we are to adjust ourselves to a world we cannot wholly remake."
Brinton also wrote a widely used textbook, on A History of Civilization.
In 1944, Brinton wrote for the 25th Year Report of his class: "At present there are still a few ragged edges on my Weltanschauung. The more malicious among you will no doubt understand if I say that, whereas in 1919 I though of myself as a liberal with at least an initial capital, I now think of myself as a liberal in inverted commas.
"As a Harvard freshman I was an innocent rationalist and Wilsonian Democrat. Even while I was an undergraduate, and with the generous enthusiasm of my tutor Harold Laski to fortify me, the influence of the late Irving Babbitt began to undermine the foundations of that belief."
In a sense, I have been ever since trying to reconcile the contrary influences of Laski and Babbitt. Towards that reconciliation--which would no doubt be unsatisfactory to both men--I have been greatly helped by my friendship with the late Lawrence Henderson. Briefly, my earlier optimistic rationalism has been tempered by an awarness of the place of prejudices, sentiments, the unconscious, and the subconscious in human life.
"Like most of my generation, I have had to try to swallow Freud, Pavlov, Marx, and Pareto, as well as the more indigestible lumps which are not books, but experience...I think I have kept to the basic belief of my youth in the rightness--do I really wish to put it as righteousness?--of human reason. You may write me down as born in the eighteenth century and yet not too umcomfortable--not at any rate schizophrenic--in the mid-twentieth."
Last spring when the Yearbook decided to write about the older members of the Harvard faculty including Crane Brinton, the article concluded, "To mark the passing of a great man is not to strike a mournful note, but merely to reflect upon the time-table of a career. For every end there is always, somewhere, a new beginning; and it is a funny but accepted truth that the many who start are always overshadowed by the few who finish.