Allan Nevins

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Allan Nevins (May 20, 1890 - March 5, 1971) was a prolific American historian best known for his prize-winning scholarly history of the Civil War era, political biographies, and encyclopedic business biographies of Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller and others. Ordeal of the Union (1947–71), his eight-volume history of the coming of the Civil War, and the war itself, remains after 50 years the standard scholarly resource, with the fullest coverage of political history and thorough treatment of military and economic affairs.

Nevins wrote 33 books, two of which were awarded Pulitzer Prizes. He was the coauthor of six books and edited seventeen books, including collections of primary sources such as the letters of Grover Cleveland. He was the editor of the "American Political Leaders" series of full-length biographies in the 1930s. He wrote countless editorials for newspapers and was the founder of American Heritage magazine. His work is noted for thorough research in primary sources, highly detailed narrative, a clear writing style, and a willingness to evaluate the personal, political and business qualities of his subjects. He avoided intellectual history and was not the founder of any "school" of historiography, but did promote business history and pioneer the new field of Oral History. He is considered a conservative in terms of his in-depth studies of business history and his shattering of old liberal myths.


Nevins earned an M.A. in English in 1913 from the University of Illinois; he never took a Ph.D. He worked as a journalist in New York City and began writing books on history. Nevins joined the history faculty at Columbia University in 1929, becoming Dewitt Clinton Professor of History in 1931, two years after he joined the faculty there. Among many honors he served as Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University from 1940 to 1941 and again from 1964 to 1965. In 1948 he created the first oral history program to operate on an institutionalized basis in the U.S. which continues as Columbia University's Oral History Research Office.


Nevins wrote more than 50 books, mainly political and business history and biography focused on the 19th century, in addition to his many newspaper, encyclopedia, magazine and academic articles. The subjects of his biographies include Grover Cleveland, Hamilton Fish, Henry Ford, John C. Frémont, Herbert Lehman and John D. Rockefeller. The biographies provide in-depth coverage of United States political, economic and diplomatic history of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In most cases (Fish, Cleveland, Ford) they remain unequaled.

Nevins' greatest work was Ordeal of the Union (1947–71), an 8-volume comprehensive history of the coming of the Civil war, and the war itself. It remains the most detailed political, economic and military narrative of the era.

Nevins' biography of Grover Cleveland won the 1933 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. He also added significantly to the scholarship on President Cleveland by publishing a volume of Cleveland's correspondence from 1850-1908.

His biographer explains the Nevins style:[1]

Nevins used narrative not only to tell a story but to propound moral lessons. It was not his inclination to deal in intellectual concepts or theories, like many academic scholars. He preferred emphasizing practical notions about the importance of national unity, principled leadership, liberal politics, enlightened journalism, the social responsibility of business and industry, and scientific and technical progress that added to the cultural improvement of humanity.

Major books

  • Illinois (1917), a history of the University of Illinois. online edition
  • The Evening post; a century of journalism (1922) online edition
  • The American states during and after the revolution, 1775-1789 (1927) online edition
  • A History of American Life vol. VIII: The Emergence of Modern America 1865-1878 (1927)
  • Frémont, the West's greatest adventurer; being a biography from certain hitherto unpublished sources of General John C. Frémont, together with his wife, Jessie Benton Frémont, and some account of the period of expansion which found a brilliant leader in the Pathfinder (1928) online edition; excerpt and text search
  • Polk; the diary of a president, 1845-1849, covering the Mexican war, the acquisition of Oregon, and the conquest of California and the Southwest, (1929)
  • Henry White; thirty years of American diplomacy (1930)
  • Letters of Grover Cleveland, 1850-1908; (1933)
  • Dictionary of American Biography (1934–36); Nevins wrote 40 articles on Alexander Hamilton, Rutherford B. Hayes, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, etc.
  • Abram S. Hewitt: with same account of Peter Cooper. (1935)
  • Hamilton Fish; the inner history of the Grant administration, (1936) online edition vol 1 online edition vol 2
  • The Gateway to History 1938. online edition
  • The emergence of modern America, 1865-1878 (1941)
  • Ordeal of the Union (1947-1971).
    • 1. Fruits of Manifest Destiny, 1847-1852;
    • 2. A House Dividing, 1852-1857;
    • 3. Douglas, Buchanan, and Party Chaos, 1857-1859;
    • 4. Prologue to Civil War, 1859-1861;
    • 5. The Improvised War, 1861-1862;
    • 6. War Becomes Revolution, 1862-1863; excerpt and text search
    • 7. The Organized War, 1863-1864;
    • 8. The Organized War to Victory, 1864-1865
  • Ford with the collaboration of Frank Ernest Hill, 3 vols. (1954-1963)
  • John D. Rockefeller: The Heroic Age of American Enterprise. 2 vols. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. (1940)
  • Study In Power: John D. Rockefeller, Industrialist and Philanthropist. 2 vols. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. (1953)


  • Fetner, Gerald L. Immersed in Great Affairs: Allan Nevins and the Heroic Age of American History (2004) excerpt and text search


  1. Fetner, Immersed in Great Affairs, p 4