David M. Potter: The Student's and Historian's Historian

American Historian David M. Potter was born on December 6th 1910 in Augusta, Georgia and graduated from Emory University in 1932. Potter received his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1940 after working under both Ralph H. Gabriel and Ulrich B. Phillips. Potter taught at the University of Mississippi for two years, Rice Institute for four years, Yale University for nineteen years and Stanford University for ten years. David Potter’s main interest in American history was mainly the political influences in determining historical events. However, he had a huge curiosity in history and historical interpretation, as colleague and dear friend Donald E. Fehrenbacher can attest to in his introduction to David Potter’s book, Freedom and Its Limitations in American Life, over the incident of Potter’s promise to publisher Harper and Row to write a book about the coming of the civil war. Fehrenbacher would become a dear friend of Potter’s after his death on February 18th 1971 when he would edit and complete four of Potter’s books. These four books would only add to the collection of hundreds of essays, five books, and approximately one hundred and forty book reviews.[1] Potter’s publications would range in the historical “field from colonial to current history and from sociology to political science.”[2]
Potter was no small historian, he has had published both essays and book reviews in over fourteen different publications ranging from such historical publications as the Journal of Southern History, the American Historical Review, and the Journal of American History to such large publications as the New York Times Book Review and New York Herald Tribune Book Review. Potter, “at the time of his death in February, 1971, …was the Coe Professor of American History at Stanford University. He was at that time also the President of the Organization of American Historians, and the President -elect of the American Historical Association. [Also,] among his many special appointments were the Harmsworth Professorship at Oxford University, the Walgreen Lectureship at the University of Chicago, and the Commonwealth Fund Lectureship at London University.”[3] However, despite holding such prestige among his peers, Potter would not forget to ensure the historical profession would continue as he took the time to write two books on historical practices titled Eight Issues in American History and Select Problems in Historical Interpretation. Indeed, David Potter was a historian that both students and fellow historians could admire and learn from.
David M. Potter is an excellent example of a historian to study and learn from for both professional historians and history students. Perhaps one of the best examples of Potter’s quirks that historians can learn from can be extracted from his dealings with publisher Harper and Row. Harper and Row wanted him to write a book about the causes of the American Civil War. As his friend and fellow historian Don E. Fehrenbacher writes in the introduction to Potter’s book, Freedom and Its Limitations in American Life, Potter had left Yale and


moved to Stanford in order to try and catch up with his scholarly commitments. The obligation that weighed most heavily on him was a contract signed in 1954 to write the volume on the coming of the Civil War for Harper’s New American Nation Series. He had arrived at Stanford with the book already long overdue and still well short of completion. Habitually a man of his word, he suffered considerable embarrassment from having several times promised and failed to deliver the manuscript on a specified date. ‘I feel the humiliation about it which makes it hard for me to write to you now,’ he told one of the editors of the series in November 1961. ‘After what has passed, I do not see how I can give you any date you could feel any confidence in.’ Nevertheless, before closing the letter, he ventured to name the end of the following April as his new ‘target date.’ The penalty for this imprudence was having to draft another contrite letter when spring came. ‘My position,’ he wrote, ‘is quite like that of a defaulting debtor who has no assets of which his creditors can foreclose…Like all debtors, I have had more than one creditor, and have been trying more or less desperately to pay the smaller creditors because I thought they could be taken care of more easily.’ Accordingly, he had published six ‘essay-length pieces’ during the preceding two years, and four more were awaiting publication. With all of that work cleared away, Harper now constituted his ‘first creditor,’ and in September 1962 he sent off another message of humiliation,’ reporting that despite good progress he was ‘still in the trenches.’ At this point, as he prepared to begin his second year teaching at Stanford,… The Harper book would still be unfinished when Potter died in 1971.[4]


A professional historian and student can learn from Potter’s delay in producing the book from the mere fact that Potter had heavy demands as a popular historian to lecture and write essays for a number of publications and institutions. This is proven considering that during the 1960s alone he “was a member of the editorial boards of the Pacific Historical Review and the Journal of Southern History; the executive councils of the American Studies Association, the American Historical Association, and the Southern Historical Association; the governing board of the Social Science Research Council; and national committees of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the National Academy of Sciences and the College Entrance Board.”[5] Also, Potter had one main flaw, like all humans, he was curious. Historian Don E. Fehrenbacher noticed this when he wrote that Potter would have “…spirited engagement in what he sometimes called ‘forays,’ exploring subjects such as modern advertising, women in American history, and the implicit assumptions of practicing historians.”[6] Perhaps this is why it is hard to categorize David Potter as being a single field historian.
Another issue of Potter’s Harper and Row incident could come from the fact that Potter was well known to have a passion for excellence in writing and research. Potter, as Fehrenbacher notes, “required that each chapter reflect a total mastery of the often enormous literature and at the same time glow with new meaning extracted from familiar material.”[7] Also, Potter is well known as “a skilful practitioner of the rare art of combining clarity with subtlety and depth with range.”[8] Being famous for clarity and depth requires an extensive amount of editing and rewriting on the part of the historian, thus, forcing Potter to take even more time before sending a work off for publication. Potter’s art of combining clarity with subtlety and depth with range allows both a professional historian and a history student to read Potter’s works in order to both study the art of historical writing and extract some well evidenced historical arguments.
David Potter’s teaching lectures were well regarded by both his students and universities. Potter, according to the obituary in the Journal of American History, was well known for annually drawing “hundreds of students into his courses on constitutional history, the South, the Civil War and the American character.”[9] Potter drew large numbers of interested students because he presented his lectures in a “clearly organized, authoritative, broad in scope, penetrating in analysis, and admirably fair in the treatment of points”[10] style. He also encouraged his students to share in the complexities of studying the past by investigating various opinions. Potter encouraged this by responding to questions posed by his students with excitement and interest. Potter’s colleagues at Stanford University gave recognition to his teaching style by awarding him the University’s Dikelspiel Award for distinguished teaching in 1968. Potter’s teaching methods are easily found in his books on historical writing and research as well as on his books studying the American Civil War and the American Character.
Potter’s thoroughness of research and an attempt to entice his students and colleagues can drawn from two books that were published based on two of his lecture series. The first, in 1950, Potter was requested to deliver the Walgreen Lecture Series at the University of Chicago. Potter obliged choosing to lecture “on the influence of economic abundance on American life and the effects it had on the national character.”[11] Four years later the University of Chicago Press edited and published David Potter’s lectures into a book, People of Plenty: Economic Abundance and the American Character.
Many historians considered Potter’s Walgreen lecture series to be an historical break through. Potter was one of the first historians to use research from the fields of Social Sciences in order to explain a historical concept. As historians Don E. Fehrenbacher, Howard R. Lamar and Otis A. Pease remark, Potter used the “insights of social psychology and cultural anthropology to interpret the whole of American history, [and, thus,] he raised the study of national character to a new level of excellence in the United States.”[12] Potter used these two emerging social sciences in order to explain how the American social character had evolved through history.
Potter set about using these sciences by formulating two tasks so that he could prove that the economic abundance of resources had affected the American social character. The first basic task was to establish and prove a valid concept of an American national character. The second task was to use his new theory of an American national character in order to closely examine the impact of the economic abundance on his theory and American life in general. Potter completed his first task by discovering that the social scientists, which he drew his research from, found that culture moulded the American national character. He also found that history determined the pace and the eventual direction of how culture evolved within a country.
Potter then proceeded to lay out an explanation on how the economic abundance of the United States was a powerful force in shaping history and, thus, shaping the culture and character of America. Potter pointed to the two main ideas, American democracy and advertising, as proof that that the country’s economic abundance had shaped the history and culture of the United States. Potter believed that the economic abundance allowed the founding father’s to create a governmental system that would ensure equal opportunity for all white men to prosper equally. Potter pointed out that it was only the white men that prospered throughout American history because blacks were shunned socially through slavery before the Civil War and morally following the Civil War. Potter proceeded to point out the effects of the creation and evolution of advertising on American history and culture. He believed that the advertising industry “created a national life-style…in which the experiences of childhood and adolescence all reflected a base of material well being.”[13] In other words, Potter believed that the economic abundance found within America had caused a materialistic national lifestyle in which children grew up dreaming about the next possible invention and not being satisfied with what they had already had. Potter then went on and traced the evolution of the American history and how the materialistic lifestyle entered into American history.
Potter’s extensive research on this subject required him to search for sources both inside and outside the field of history in order to explain the concept of how American historical character evolved over time. Also, Potter had to ensure within this lecture series that his characteristics of being clearly organized, authoritative, broad in scope, penetrating in analysis, and admirably fair in the treatment of points were preserved. Potter achieved his characteristics within this lecture series by defining his concepts, providing a range of examples, and explaining in a chronological fashion how his examples have evolved over time. This lecture series provides fellow historians and students with examples of how to research and utilize ideas from other fields of study and still provide an historical analysis.
In 1963, David Potter was invited to contribute to the Commonwealth Fund of Lectures series at University College in London, England. Potter delivered a series of lectures on the limitations of freedom within American Life. His colleague at Stanford University, Don E. Fehrenbacher, edited, completed and published Potter’s research from the lecture series. Fehrenbacher published the lecture series under the title Freedom and its Limitations in American Life. Fehrenbacher would complete this work, as David Brion Davis points out in his review of Potter’s work, while being in the middle of his own personal research on the Dred Scott decision.[14]
Potter’s main focus of this lecture series is to question how American’s can maintain their right to freedom and still live within a set of rules. Potter explained his main question by dividing his evidence into three different lectures at the Commonwealth Fund lecture series. His first lecture, titled “Freedom from Coercion,” he considers the ideas of freedom and equality and how these two ideas can at times come into conflict with one another. Potter points out that equality and freedom are preserved via the checks and balances found within the American political system. Potter points out that the structure found in the American political system prevents a majority from imposing its views if a significant minority disagrees. However, in his second lecture, titled “Freedom and Conformity,” Potter develops his theory of American freedom by pointing out that sometimes minorities must be ready to conform to the will of the majority. Potter believes the conformance of the minority in certain cases to the will of the majority is required in order that the American democratic process can be protected and preserved. The political system, Potter believes, forces majorities and minorities to come together in order to ensure the equality and freedoms of all American is preserved.
In his final lecture, titled “Noncoercive Control”, Potter uses television as an example of the manipulative forces that are placed on Americans in both the spheres of the conscious and subconscious.[15] Potter concludes his lecture and book by claiming that the freedom that the Founding Fathers had created has become too limited for present needs. He also claims that freedom within American history needs to be rewritten. Potter bases his claims on the rewriting of American history because he points out that traditionally the history of freedom is based on the restraints placed on coercive power. Potter believes that the new history of freedom should be based on how coercive power has interfered with the freedom and the rights associated with it.
Potter’s intentions with this lecture were to awaken the American society that they should not take their freedom for granted. Potter does this by pointing to several key areas where power is protected and where power is unprotected and sometimes subversive. He does this again by using examples within institutions that are common to people (i.e. government and television) in order to maintain his clarity and broadness that he is known for. Potter also maintained his notoriety for having a well researched argument by providing historical content from such as historians as Riesman and Tocqueville. Throughout both lectures series that Potter was requested to attend, he maintained his notoriety as both a lecturer and as a writer. Potter’s lectures are an advantage to professional historians as they can learn from a well regarded lecturer on how to deliver a lecture that can deal with current issues and yet remain historical in content.
An advantage for the history students can be found in his two books on historical thought and writing. In his first book on the issue, published in 1949, he teamed up with fellow historian Thomas G. Manning to explore some of the most common problems in historical writing. Potter and Manning wrote, what they considered to be a textbook, on historical problems from different areas of history in order to provide a student of history with examples from various fields. The authors selected the topics of social history, political history, economic history, constitutional history, intellectual history, problems of historical method, and schools of historical interpretation. Potter and Manning believed that the areas of historical research that they chose would provide “a medium of illustrating important forces in history or important questions with which the historian has to deal.”[16] Throughout the book the authors focused on the areas of the “nature of history, the recurrence of forces, the diversity of factors in a given situation, the subtle interplay and fusion of these factors…without [having] too much specialization.”[17] The authors decided the best format for such a textbook would be to present the historical problems by providing a list of questions, a short commentary on the context of which a primary historical document was issued, what to look for in a historical document and extracts from the primary documents themselves. The chosen format for the text provides the student with a chance to notice what a professional historian would notice in a primary document and what that same historian might exclude in his or her research.
Potter’s second book on the subject of historical thought was published in 1966. Potter teamed up with fellow historian, Curtis R. Grant, in order to edit a book titled Eight Issues in American History. In the book Potter and Grant follow “the so-called problems approach of the study of history.”[18] Potter and Grant selected a wide range of American historical topics such as political figures, the American Constitution, Jacksonian Democracy, the sectional crises caused by the Lincoln-Douglas Presidential debates, the urbanization of America, and the changing relations between the United States and the Communist world. In order to convey their ideas on the selected topics to the history student, the authors provide a survey of primary materials and excerpts from major historian’s works. Potter and Grant argue that this is the best approach to take because, they believe, “that the…student ought to encounter both source materials and historiographical interpretation, thus afford him an opportunity to grapple with a variety of approaches to historical study.”[19] The main format of this publication is to follow each selected reading with probing questions in order to allow a history student to notice evidence, author’s opinion, and difference in opinions between authors on certain subjects. Their aim, the authors claim, is to give the reader “an independent and critical judgement which will become more critical and more independent the more it is exercised.”[20] Therefore, Potter and Grant aim in this book to give the reader a better understanding on how to use certain techniques in order to guard against some of histories problems in various areas of historical research.
Potter’s aims with these two books is to try and stimulate interest in a student historian by pointing out what can be gleaned from various sources and used to provide a well evidenced argument. These two books on historical methodology reflect the way Potter aims to write a book or essay. These two books accomplish this by allowing a novice historian insight on how to gather a variety of evidence from various sources, how to be critical about the evidence and eventually how to use this evidence to answer probing historical questions. David Potter’s books and lectures draw on similar techniques found in his books on historical thought and writing.


David Potter’s favourite writing style was the historical essay. This is most noticeable considering that he wrote and completed thousands of essays in his lifetime and left several books unfinished at his death. One of Potter’s more famous essays, “The Historians Use of Nationalism and Vice Versa,” was published in the American Historical Review in 1962. Continuing on in his tradition of pointing out the faults of previous historians, in this essay he claims that there are faults in the way historians use the term ‘nationalism.’ Potter claims that the because historians have used a faulty concept of nationalism that “it has affected the treatment of history.”[21]


Potter points to two concepts in order to prove his thesis. His first point is to point out that historians use their concept of ‘nationalism’ in two distinct ways. The first way the historian uses the concept is to use nationalism in order to explain the cohesiveness of a group. The other way the historian uses the concept is to use nationalism in terms of a group’s right to exercise autonomous powers in certain situations. Potter classifies these certain situations as being the right to defend the nation through the use of violence, coercion, political control, and judicial control.


However, Potter points out that the historian’s belief that the nation has a right to defend itself through these methods and to classify nations as groups is faulty. Potter claims that “in a world where states claim to be nations and all the nations try to be states, it is difficult for [the historian] to remember that they are two different things.”[22]


Potter loved to write essays because he required time to properly research and edit his works in order that these works would live up to his reputation as an historians. Potter loved to write essays because he knew that he could research, write and publish an essay and then move onto a new topic. This reasong supports the behind the problems that Potter was having with the Harper and Row book that he was requested to produce. Also, this claim would support the reasoning why Don E. Fehrenbacher was required to edit and complete four of Potter’s books following Potter’s death in 1971.


Perhaps the best example of this can be seen in Potter’s most successful book The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, which was not published until five years after Potter’s death. Some historians claim that Potter’s book, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, was the unfinished work meant for publisher Harper and Row. Don E. Fehrenbacher would eventually complete and edit the work. The book, as critic Robert W. Johannssen notes, would become known as “a large book in size and quality, not only stands as a monument to the scholarship of one of the nation’s great historians, but it is also a model of narrative history.”[23] This book would also be Potter’s last and his most influential book on the interpretation of American political history.


Potter’s 1977 Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, shows Potter’s main interest in how politics changes history. Potter’s main focus is the on the political rather than the social causes of the Civil War. He does this by investigating “the paradoxical relationship between American nationalism and a growing disruptive sectionalism”[24]caused by slavery and the demise of the Whig party. Potter notices that, as Johannsen puts it, “because of the slavery issue [the] North and South became isolated from each other, stereotypes were often substituted for realities, ordinary political disagreements were converted into questions of principle, abstractions became points of honor, and political action was transformed ‘from a process of accommodation to a mode of combat.’”[25] In other words, what Potter is saying was that he issue of slavery was the leading cause to the political disagreements and isolation between the peoples of the North and South. Potter argues this can be seen in the Presidential election of 1860 in which Potter argues there were really two Presidential elections, one for the North and one for the South. Thus, Potter finishes arguing, “The much vaunted ‘Southern Nationalism was born of resentment and not of a sense of separate cultural identity.”[26]


Some critics say this book ignores the social aspects of this time period in causing some of the turmoil that would cause the Civil War. However, as historians know, the Civil War was caused by both social problems and political problems, thus a complete investigation of both may have left out because of Potter’s ways of researching and his untimely death in 1971. This fact can be attributed to the fact that Fehrenbacher also had to complete the last couple of chapters and edit the work before being able to have it published.


Historian David M. Potter provides both history students and professional historians with an idol to which both can aspire. Potter is perhaps one of the America’s best historians in both research techniques and in writing. Potter ensured that he had read as much as he possibly could before digesting the issues he was writing about. Also, he did not let the arguments of other historians to sway his ideas as he is quite often noted for arguing with famous Historian Tocquveille in his lecture series on American Freedom and its Limitations on American Life. Potter could be considered to be a ‘god like’ historian as he held several highly respected positions in the historical field at several world-renowned universities and publications. However, Potter should be commended for not forgetting ‘the little guy’ by publishing two key books on historical research and writing intended for history students. David M. Potter should be remembered for not just his research and writing skills, but also for being a person who seems to have never turned down an opportunity to research, lecture or write to the up and coming students who will be the historians of tomorrow.
Barney, William L. “Potter’s The Impending Crisis: A Capstone and a Challenge.” Rev. of The Impending Crises, 1848-1861. , by David M. Potter. Reviews in American History. 1976. Vol. 4 : 551-557.
Baxter, Maurice G. Rev. of The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, by David M. Potter. Journal of American History. Dec. 1976. Vol. 63: 719-720.
Bremner, Robert H. Rev. of Freedom and Its Limitations in American Life, by David M. Potter. Journal of Southern History. Nov. 1977. Vol. 43: 601-602.
Collins, Robert M. “David Potter’s People of Plenty and the Recycling of Consensus History.” Reviews in American History. 1988. Vol. 16 No. 2: 321-335.
Davis, David Brion. Rev. of Freedom and Its Limitations in American Life, by David M. Potter. Journal of American History. March 1978. Vol. 64: 1076-1077.
Engerman, Stanley L. Rev. of Freedom and Its Limitations in American Life, by David M. Potter. Journal of Interdisciplinary History. Autumn 1977. Vol. 8: 382-385.
Fehrenbacher, Don E. Howard R. Lamar, and Otis A. Pease. “David M. Potter: A Memorial Resolution.” Journal of American History. 1971. Vol. 58 No. 2: 307-310.
Fehrenbacher, Don. E. ed. History and American Society: Essays of David M. Potter. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.
Hamilton, Holman. Rev. of The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, by David M. Potter. American Historical Review. 1977. Vol. 82: 182-183.
Higham, John. Rev. of Freedom and Its Limitations in American Life, by David M. Potter. American Historical Review. 1977. Vol. 82: 1315-1316.
Johannsen, Robert W. Rev. of The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, by David M. Potter. Journal of Southern History. Feb. 1977. Vol. 43: 103-105.
Potter, David M. and Curtis R. Grant, eds. Eight Issues in American History. Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1966.
Potter, David M. Freedom and Its Limitations in American Life. Ed. Don E. Fehrenbacher. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1976.
Potter, David M. People of Plenty: Economic abundance and the American character. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1954.
Potter, David M. and Thomas G. Manning. Select Problems in Historical Interpretation. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1949.
Potter, David M. “The Historian’s Use of Nationalism and Vice Versa.” American Historical Review. 1962. Vol. 67 No. 4: 924-950.
Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861. Ed. Don E. Fehrenbacher. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1976.
Schneider, James C. Rev. of The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, by David M. Potter. Wisconsin Magazine of History. Winter 1976-1977. Vol. 60: 163-164.

[1]For an extensive bibliography of David M. Potter’s books, essays and book reviews, see the listings compiled by George Harmon Knoles in: David M. Potter. Freedom and Its Limitations in American Life. Ed. Don E. Fehrenbacher. (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1976).


[2]David Brion Davis. Rev. of Freedom and Its Limitations in American Life, by David M. Potter. Journal of American History. March 1978. Vol. 64: 1076.

[3]Don. E. Fehrenbacher. ed. History and American Society: Essays of David M. Potter. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973): dust jacket.

[4]David M. Potter. Freedom and Its Limitations in American Life. Ed. Don E. Fehrenbacher. (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1976): vii-viii.

[5]Don E. Fehrenbacher, Howard R. Lamar and Otis A. Pease. “David M. Potter: A Memorial Resolution.” Journal of American History. 1971. Vol. 58 No. 2: 310.

[6]David M. Potter. Freedom and Its Limitations in American Life., ix-x.


[7]Ibid. ix.


[8]William L. Barney. “Potter’s The Impending Crisis: A Capstone and a Challenge.” Rev. of The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, by David M. Potter. Reviews in American History. March 1978. Vol. 64: 551.

[9] Fehrenbacher, Lamar and Pease, 309.


[10]Ibid., 309.

[11]Robert M. Collins. “David Potter’s People of Plenty and the Recycling of Consensus History.” Reviews in American History. 1988. Vol. 16 No. 2: 322.


[12]Fehrenbacher, Lamar and Pease, 308.

[13]Collins, 324.

[14]Davis, 1076.

[15] Robert H. Bremner. Rev. of Freedom and Its Limitations in American Life, by David M. Potter. Journal of Southern History. Nov. 1977. Vol. 43: 601.

[16]David M. Potter and Thomas G. Manning. Select Problems in Historical Interpretation. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1949): iii.


[17]Ibid. iii.


[18]David M. Potter and Curtis R. Grant. Eds. Eight Issues in American History. (Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1966): 1.

[19]Potter and Grant, 2.


[20]Ibid. 2.

[21]David M. Potter. “The Historians Use of Nationalism and Vice Versa.” American Historical Review. 1962. Vol. 67. No. 4: 924.

[22]Potter, “The Historians Use of Nationalism and Vice Versa.” American Historical Review., 928.

[23]Robert W. Johannsen. Rev. of The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, by David M. Potter. Journal of Southern History. Feb. 1977. Vol 43: 103.


[24]Ibid., 104.


[25]Ibid., 104.


[26]Johannsen, 104.