In Memoriam: Jan Ellen Lewis
Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf
Jan Ellen Lewis, the 36th President of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, died in New York City on August 28, 2018, from complications after a bone marrow transplant. At the time, she was the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers‒Newark University, where she had also been a longtime member of the History Department. Jan was a scholar of Thomas Jefferson, of gender, of emotion, and of political economy in the Early American Republic. She was a wife, mother, and, to her extreme delight—a grandmother. Jan was also our friend, and a friend to so many members of SHEAR and the historical profession at large, who can all tell stories about her brilliance, kindness, humor, and eagerness to champion others, students and colleagues alike. She was, quite simply, a stellar human being.
A Midwesterner by birth, Jan was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on July 10, 1949. Her family had moved to White Plains, New York, by the time she was a teenager. After high school, Jan started at Smith College, but transferred to Bryn Mawr, graduating magna cum laudein 1971. She returned to the Midwest, attending the University of Michigan, where she earned an MA in American Culture in 1972, an MA in American History in 1974, and a PhD in American history in 1977. She came to Rutgers right out of Michigan, and remained there for 41 years, teaching both undergraduate and graduate classes in Newark and doctoral courses in New Brunswick, as well as supervising graduate students.
Jan entered a history profession that was, to put it mildly, male-dominated. She was the lone woman at Rutgers‒Newark until Norma Basch joined the department in 1979. Jan was a pioneer: the first woman in her Department, the first woman to receive tenure there, and the first woman to be a Dean of the Faculty. She did not, however, want to be the sole woman in the room, and she worked hard to create opportunities for women and other underrepresented groups at Rutgers. Indeed, she brought me (Annette) to the Department in 2006. She often talked about how, in those early days, she, Norma, and her beloved Clement Price worked hard to open up the department to women and people of color—an effort that Jan continued until her last days at the school. She showed the same commitment to diversity and inclusion when she got involved with SHEAR. She served on multiple committees, and was the Program Chair for the Annual Meeting at Penn State in 1997 and the co-Program chair with Jeanne Boydston at the meeting held at the American Antiquarian Society in 2007. In her capacity as program chair in both years, and as President in 2015, Jan challenged SHEAR members to think broadly about the types and composition of panels, with an eye toward bringing different voices and perspectives into the organization. She introduced me (Annette), a law professor at the time, to early American historians at the Penn State annual meeting by setting up a panel on my first book. She helped launch me, as she did her own students, into the field of history.
Jan’s SHEAR presidency, culminating with the annual conference in New Haven, was a triumph. Her presidential plenary included a filmed interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda, the writer and star of the wildly popular Broadway musical Hamilton. The conference itself set records in terms of attendance and diversity—a larger number of people of color than usual participated on panels. Jan gave a brilliant presidential address, “What Happened to the Three-Fifth’s Clause: The Relationship Between Women and Slaves in Constitutional Thought, 1787‒1866”, which can be found in the Spring 2017 issue of the Journal of the Early Republic. Jan loved SHEAR conferences. She looked forward to hearing about the work of young historians on panels, and she took her duties as a commenter seriously, reading and talking about the papers well beforehand. She gave young scholars trenchant comments, and delivered criticism in just the right way. SHEAR was not all about work. Jan looked forward to the camaraderie of her fellow historians—particularly to grabbing dinner at whichever restaurant Clarence Walker pronounced the hottest one in whatever conference city we found ourselves. She also enjoyed hanging out with “the Amigos,” a boisterous and affectionate group of scholars who met at Washington University in St. Louis in early 1991 where, under the leadership of the esteemed “Jefe,” David T. Konig, they were commissioned to contribute a volume on the History of Freedom (and its limits) in the Early American Republic. Jan and her fellow founding members Alan Taylor, Paul Gilje, and me (Peter)—later joined by Annette—convened regularly at SHEAR meetings and forged lasting friendships with one another.
Jan was an amazingly perceptive historian, best known for her work on Thomas Jefferson and his family. She became interested in the topic from reading Fawn Brodie’s Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. Jefferson’s granddaughters intrigued her particularly, and she wrote her dissertation about the female members of the Jefferson‒Randolph family. It became her first book, The Pursuit of Happiness: Family and Values in Jefferson’s Virginia. Jan had a wonderful way with words. She wrote beautifully, demonstrating an extraordinary capacity to listen to her sources and engage with her readers. She was a masterful book reviewer, eloquent and witty—sometimes to devastating effect—but always with a generous and fair sense of the broader implications for our ongoing scholarly conversation. The essay was her most congenial form, and we pressed her, even as she grew more wedded to her role as an administrator, to return to writing them. As she elaborated the implications of an argument or the nuances of a human relationship, Jan expressed the full range of her sympathies and her spirit. Her work resonated beyond the narrow confines of the discipline, evoking shocks of recognition, touching on profound truths. Her essay, “The White Jeffersons,” in the volume that I (Peter) edited with her, Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture (1999), showed Jan’s talents off to perfection. She simply reveled in the sheer joy of prose, whether working alone or collaborating on an essay with me (Peter), editing other writers, or sustaining conversations through social media. This last part—social media—exposed the only discernible fault line in the joint friendship of Jan, Peter, and Annette. Until the weeks of her final illness, Jan and Annette emailed one another multiple times throughout each day—threads that often numbered well into dozens of contacts. Peter, a reliable, but much less compulsive communicator, could only shake his head in amazement at the extent of his two friends’ electronic base-touching. Whether in near constant contact or not, the loss of Jan’s voice, her perspective, her opinions—of her—is devastating.
I (Peter) recall sitting on our back deck in Charlottesville (Jan was allergic to our many cats), drinking coffee, and trading thoughts, words, and laughter about the latest contributions to Jefferson studies for a review essay for the American Historical Review. We had just descended from Jefferson’s mountaintop home, where we had been interviewed about our man for an early morning television news show. What we said then is beyond recall, but the time we spent talking and writing will always stay with me. With Jan, life and scholarship were inextricably entangled and reciprocally enriching. We are ever grateful that we had Thomas Jefferson in common. Working on Jefferson brought the three of us together in so many ways. Jan served on the Advisory Board of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson and the Advisory Board of the International Center for Jefferson Studies (ICJS)— the latter group holds conferences around the world. Because of timing and, in recent years, health issues, Jan was unable to travel with us to our overseas venues. But she, and we, counted it as our great good fortune that she and her husband Barry Bienstock were able to come along with us on a three-city conference in Ireland in May of 2017. Riding on a bus with Jan—a number of us jockeyed each day to sit next to her—blessed with unusually clear skies, talking, laughing and gossiping as we rolled through the beautiful Irish countryside, was one of the highlights of our friendship. We are so grateful to have been given those days with her. We are so grateful for all the days we had with Jan.
Jan is survived by her husband Barry Bienstock, her son James Grimmelmann, her daughter-in-law Aislinn Black, her sister Beth Rowley, her brothers-in-law Donald Rowley and Martin Bienstock, and her grandchildren Beatrice and Ida Black. The family has set up the Jan Ellen Lewis Scholarship to help “students of need attend Rutgers‒Newark.” Checks should be made out to the Rutgers University Foundation. Please put “Jan Ellen Lewis Scholarship” in the memo line. They should be sent to:
Dean of Advancement
School of Arts and Sciences
360 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd
Newark, NJ 07102
Credit Card donations can be made by calling Ms. Margulies at 973-353-1624.
13 September 2018
About the Author
Annette Gordon-Reed is Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard University and is the current President of the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic.
Peter S. Onuf is Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor, Emeritus at the University of Virginia and was President of the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic in 1997.