Master of the House

Remini, 87, Keeps History Alive

Posted May 19, 2009 at 4:34pm

Robert Remini is considered the leading Jacksonian scholar alive, having written at least 10 books on the great president and military leader.

With that level of expertise, you might expect infatuation, even obsession with the larger-than-life leader. But Remini, the historian of the House of Representatives, truly fancies former Speaker Henry Clay.

“He was arguably the greatest Speaker in the history of the House of Representatives,— he said in an interview. “They really should have a big portrait of him in the chamber. I keep mentioning it to various people, but it doesn’t do me any good.—

Despite that loyalty to Clay, Remini, 87, has spent the bulk of his scholarly career on Andrew Jackson. Getting to Jackson, however, was a “long, roundabout— journey.

After serving in World War II, when he envisioned himself becoming a lawyer, Remini became a student of 20th-century history at Columbia University, where he studied under the great Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Hofstadter. But to earn a grant to study presidential papers at the Library of Congress, Remini had to make the switch to the 19th century. First up: Martin Van Buren. Remini remembered that when he looked into studying Van Buren, “Who looms up?— but Jackson, under whom Van Buren served as secretary of State. Old Hickory — the notorious Hero of New Orleans — fought a dozen duels and slaughtered Indians.

After Remini published a short biography and works on Jackson’s election and war on banks, the demand for more Jackson seemed to be there. Publishers largely drove Remini’s Jackson prolificacy, including a three-volume series published from 1977 to 1984, and culminating with last year’s Jackson entry in the “Great Generals— series that includes a stirring introduction by retired Gen. Wesley Clark. Remini also has written on some of Jackson’s opponents of the day, including Daniel Webster, John Quincy Adams and Clay.

In-House Historian

Most of Remini’s career has been “dealing with personalities.— Not until the Library asked him to write “The House: The History of the House of Representatives— did he cover an institution — an institution in which the subject of his life’s work made only a fleeting, one-year appearance as the first Representative from Tennessee in 1796, but on which Jackson would leave an indelible mark.

As he writes its history, the House’s evolution is what most intrigues Remini: “how it has evolved into an even greater democracy than it was from the beginning.— Perhaps the biggest actor in this evolution was at the time the least expected: the military hero whom so many educated white men considered “another Napoleon,— Andrew Jackson. “Turned out, this man really believed in a democratic society,— Remini said. “The first things he says as president is, The people rule.’—

In the early republic, Members were men of means, and there were religious and property qualifications for election. But in the Jacksonian era, “you started to get people who represented the usual, working class,— including Jackson himself, who left school as a young teen to join the fight for American independence.

Now, in the people’s house, those restrictions are “wiped away.— It has become “more democratic. That can never happen enough to democracy.— Indeed, Remini’s favorite moment in the history of the House is the passage of James Madison’s Bill of Rights.

Joys of Compromise

Despite public opinion, Remini sees that evolution continuing in today’s House, which faces the massive challenge of the economic crisis. “They’re showing great ability, I think, to work with the president to get the things done that need to be done. … There are a lot of very intelligent, hard-working Members of the House who really have the public interest at heart.—

Remini touted as the keys to good government compromise — “If you have winners and losers you have a constant battle— — and adaptation — “We learn from our mistakes.—

He urged the American people to have patience with their leaders and to keep a historical perspective: “When [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] was president, they were writing bills that nobody had seen. They were hand-written. And they were passing them as quickly as they could to try to find the solution.—

How It Works

In addition to documenting the history of the House, Remini plays an ambassador of sorts for the U.S. government. His office fields questions on the House from all over the country — but particularly from Members: “Who occupied my office before I came?’ … We get that all the time.—

Despite the numerous queries, Remini is saddened by the shrinking levels of civic understanding: “It’s amazing to me how many people don’t know how their government really works.—

In his role as educator, every summer he hosts high school teachers of history and government and instructs them on the history and operations of the House. They can in turn teach their students “in a very personal and meaningful way.—

Soon Remini will have hosted teachers from every district in the country. And “maybe over time, the American people will know,— he said.

Remini is a professor emeritus of history and research professor emeritus of humanities at the University of Illinois at Chicago and travels often between D.C. and the Windy City.

But with so much left to be done and another tome on Clay and the Compromise of 1850 forthcoming, it doesn’t look like he’ll be quitting anytime soon: “I keep learning!—