A Quarter Century (and counting) of the Frank L. Klement Lectures at Marquette

By James Marten

I find it a little hard to believe that Monday’s talk by Kathleen M. Brown of the University of Pennsylvania on “Undoing Slavery: Abolitionist Body Politics and the Argument Over Humanity” was the twenty-sixth Frank L. Klement Lecture!  The series was conceived long ago by a former colleague, Lance Grahn, and myself, as a Phi Alpha Theta project—Frank had been president of Phi Alpha Theta, the international honor society for history.  Encouraged by our then department chair, Tom Hachey, we started to think bigger.  A year-long fund-raising effort by the College of Arts and Sciences alumni group raised enough money—from hundreds of different donors, mostly Frank’s former students—to fully endow the series.

The man we honored was born on the banks of the Embarrass River in northeastern Wisconsin. After spending some time as a country school teacher, he enrolled in the frank_klement04History PhD program at the University of Wisconsin. Frank often told of the first day he walked into the seminar run by William B. Hesseltine (a famous curmudgeon), when, Frank claimed, three young men who would eventually become leading historians of the Civil War era turned to look at him: T. Harry Williams, Richard Current, and Kenneth Stampp (who was my dissertation director’s dissertation director at Berkeley). Although he always felt like a bit of an underdog, he completed his degree in 1946 and taught at Lake Forest College and at Eau Claire State Teachers College before joining the history department at Marquette University two years later. By the time he had retired twenty-seven years later with the rank of Professor Emeritus, Frank served as department chair from 1956-1958 and received the Award for Teaching Excellence in 1965. Frank’s scholarship focused on the Civil War era, particularly on northern dissenters. He authored over fifty articles and chapters in books and dozens of book reviews, but his best-known works are The Copperheads in the Middle West (1960), The Limits of Dissent: Clement L. Vallandigham and the Civil War (1970), and Dark Lanterns: Secret Political Societies, Conspiracies, and Treason Trials in the Civil War (1984).  Frank died at the age of eighty-six in 1994.

The first Klement Lecturer, Mark Neely, spoke a few months after he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties, which was, appropriately enough, on dissent in the North during the Civil War.  The second lecturer was one of Frank’s old grad school friends, Richard Current; his rather iconoclastic lecture on “Abraham Lincoln and Multiculturalism” (he argued that Lincoln would not have been a fan) was by far the best-selling Klement Lecture from the days when MU Press published a booklet by each lecturer.

The first sixteen lectures were on the Civil War era, broadly defined; over the last decade we’ve brought in scholars of many other fields in US history, from the New Deal to the Old West, and from foreign policy to race relations. It’s a spectacular lineup; at least seventeen held or would go on to hold endowed chairs.  Two were Pulitzer Prize winners, while another two were finalists for the Pulitzer.  Nine have won the $50,000 Lincoln Prize from Gettysburg College (five more were finalists).  And their books have won scores of other prizes from professional organizations.

I would not call the following lectures my “favorites,” but I do think they stand out because they took on big, bold topics, or because they were particularly attractive to undergraduates, or simply because they were interesting:

Steven Hahn’s assertion that the Civil War and the subsequent campaigns against Native Americans were part of the American “Imperial Project” (“The Dimensions of Freedom: Slave Emancipation, Indian Peoples, and the Projects of the New American State,” 2012);

Fitz Brundage’s startling lecture on the ways in which American officials have engaged in torture—in the context of American soldiers being accused of torture in Iraq (“The American Tradition of Torture,” 2011);

Lesley J. Gordon’s and Bill Blair’s  (“‘I Never was a Coward’: Questions of Bravery in a Civil War Regiment,” 2005, and “Why Didn’t the North Hang Some Rebels? The Postwar Debate over Punishment for Treason,” 2004, respectively).

Along the way, Ed Ayers talked about one of the first major online archives on the Civil War (the Valley of the Shadow Project ), while Gray Brechin spoke on a new archive of New Deal sites that still exist (the Living New Deal: Still Working for America); Catherine Clinton and Nina Silber delivered lectures on women during the Civil War. Joe Glatthaar explored Robert E. Lee, Joan Waugh Ulysses S. Grant, Frank Costigliola the Milwaukee native and diplomat 41UoMsfnVzL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_[1]George Kennan, and Stephen Berry Edward Allan Poe. A complete list of a quarter century of Klement Lecturers—many of which have been recorded and can be watched or listened to—can be found here. The first fifteen lectures were published by Kent State University Press as More Than a Contest Between Armies: Essays on the Civil war Era, ed. by A. Kristen Foster and James Marten (Kent: Kent State University Press, 2007).

Although it makes me feel very old to know how many Klement Lectures we’ve had, I think I speak for the entire history department when I say that we’re proud that we’ve been able to bring to our faculty, students, and the larger community such an outstanding array of scholars on so many different topics.

James Marten is chair of the history department. Find out more about Frank Klement in a slideshow prepared for a memorial dinner commemorating his death. http://www.marquette.edu/history/klement.shtml.

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