Remembering the Late J.R. Pole


Joyce Appleby is Professor Emerita at UCLA, co-editor of the History News Service, and a member of HNN's advisory board. This obituary originally appeared on H-Net.

Jack Pole, whose career as a British historian of the United States spanned more than fifty years, died in Oxford on January 30th.  He was 87 years old.  From his magisterial Political Representation in England and the Origins of the America Republic, published in 1966, to his ambitious Contract and Consent: Representation and the Jury in Anglo-American Legal History which appeared a few weeks before his death, Pole explored with perseverance and perceptiveness the English roots in the growth of American law and politics.*

Among his many books, The Pursuit of Equality in American History, which came out in 1983, with a new edition in 1933, was the outlier.  Where Political Representation, Paths to the American Past, The Gift of Government: Politial Responsibility from the English Restoration to American Independence, The Decision for American Independence, and Equality, Status, and Power in Thomas Jefferson's Virginia, and the new Contract and Consent focus on the nation's founding era, The Pursuit of Equality in American History spans the entire sweep of American history.  It traces the fortunes of equality from its conceptual appearance in the revolution through the 19th and 20th century quests for equality extended to religious belief, racial discrimination, the ascent of women's political activity through efforts to insist upon equalizing measures in education and income.  Bringing his sophistication as a historian together with his intimate understanding of the law, Jack produced an American classic.

Scholars for generations to come are going to whisper thanks to Jack for his annotated edition of The Federalist Papers which came out in 2005.  The plethora of allusions which Hamilton, Madison, and Jay---never loath to display their erudition---make in their essays have been tracked down and explained, whether they refer to an Augustan poet, a pamphleteer in contemporary Pennsylvania, or the League of Cambrai formed against Venice in 1508.

Jack grew up the Hempstead area of London. Back when "Downtown" was a big hit, he allowed as how he had met Petula Clark [and many entertainers] through his father who headed the London publicity for United Artists.  Much to his great pride, his mother, Phoebe, had been a suffragette, a fact he would share along with a short explanation of the difference between suffragettes and suffragists.

At seventeen when England entered World War II, Jack served first as an anti-aircraft officer at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands.  He then became part of the Gideon Force that fought alongside irregular Ethiopian forces against the Italians whose occupation of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia threatened British supply lines through the Suez Canal.

Following the war, Jack read history at Oxford and then went to Princeton for doctoral studies.  At this time he became a close friend of Richard Hofstadter.  Returning to Great Britain, he became a lecturer at University College London, followed by a position as Reader in American history and government at Cambridge.  In 1979 Oxford University named him to the Rhodes chair of American history, a post he held for a decade.  Jack's erudition astounded.  He could---and would---quote lengthy passages from any of Shakespeare's major plays or describe in great detail the nature of tort proceedings in 17th century Scotland.  His mind was a store of knowledge, but also of wit and wisdom.

Jack's career was by no means confined to academic concerns.  He was a pretty good painter.  This near-passion enhanced the way he took in the scenes around him.  The finer points of technique would vex Jack like making boats in a seascape look like they were in the water instead of riding on top.  During his last decade or so, Parkinson's disease began to take its toll on his mobility. He discovered that stippling the paint instead of making brush strokes would accommodate his changed condition, and so he continued to paint.

Cricket probably consumed more of his adult attention than scholarship.  Introduced to it as a school boy, Jack organized his own team after returning to England to begin teaching.  The Trojan Wanderers, as the name suggests, was a somewhat nomadic group with a changing line-up.  For one game, Jack pressed into service a visiting scholar from India who wracked up an astonishing score of 60 in a very few minutes.  It was after the game that Jack learned that he had misunderstood the visitor.  He thought that he had said that he had played a bit of cricket in India, instead of a bit for India.

Friendships were important to Jack.  He devoted to them the same attention he brought to his scholarship.  More than loyal, he wanted to see his friends prosper and did everything in his power to see that happen.  Countless young scholars benefited from his interest and generosity.

It was hard to spend much time with Jack and not build up a bank of anecdotes about him, for he had a natural sociability laced with a readiness to laugh and a capacity to see what was funny in very ordinary situations.  I remember well once being on my back porch where I had a defective telephone.  The number, 6, wouldn't register.  Jack was sitting there lazily in the sun when he realized that he was supposed to call a friend in Italy.  He brought out his address book and could hardly contain himself when he saw that the 15-digit number he had to call had no 6s.  He would be able to telephone Italy without moving.  I think I am going to get a new telephone book.  I don't like the idea of seeing his number now that I can never call again.

Jack's two daughters, Ilsa and Lucy, his son, Nicholas, and a close friend and fellow scholar, Janet Wilson, kept a 24-hour vigil during his fortnight stay at the hospital.

* Because I am old friend writing in sorrow and affection, I am going to refer to my friend as Jack.

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