Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Remembrance of Stanley Kutler, from William Wiecek

William M. Wiecek
[This is the second in a series of remembrances for Stanley I. Kutler by his students.  William M. Wiecek is the Congdon Professor of Public Law, Emeritus, Syracuse University College of Law.  Professor Wiecek received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1968.  His dissertation was “The Guarantee Clause of the United States Constitution: A Sleeping Giant.”]

Stanley Kutler's death is a melancholy milestone of sorts in the study of American constitutional history.  He was one of the last of the great mentors in the field.  Decades ago, Maeva Marcus began to worry about the impending loss of mentors who produced the faculty who today teach constitutional history in history departments and law schools.  (It is no consolation that a similar disappearance seems to be taking place in the public law subfield of political science.)  She responded by laboring indefatigably to create and sustain the Institute for Constitutional History, now housed jointly by the New-York Historical Society and the George Washington University Law School.  It remains to be seen whether this valiant effort can provide a substitute for the role played by great teachers like Kutler, Harold M. Hyman, Paul L. Murphy, and James G. Randall in mentoring the constitutional history teachers now reaching senior status and beginning to retire or pass from the scene.  Constitutional history courses have nearly disappeared from history department catalogues as intellectual currents in the field have swung in other directions.  Making matters worse, many of those teachers (myself included) moved over to law schools, enriching the intellectual life of their new homes but depriving undergraduates of the opportunity to explore the development of the Constitution.

These reflections are prompted by memories of Stan's first seminar in American constitutional history at the University of Wisconsin from 1965 to 1967.  Gordon Bakken, Michal Belknap, and I were Stan's original students.  Stan was at that time writing Judicial Power and Reconstruction Politics (1968), and he invited us to share in that work.  The exchange of ideas in that seminar was particularly exciting because we knew that our seminar efforts were helping shape and enrich a book about to be published. After that our careers and research interests went in different directions.  Mike has become a leading scholar of legal aspects of the Cold War and McCarthyism, while Gordon went on to be the nation's foremost historian of the public and private law of the western states.  Stan first moved backwards in time to produce Privilege and Creative Destruction: The Charles River Bridge Case (1978) before finding his life's work in ferreting out the misdeeds of the Nixon White House (The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon [1990]; Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes [1997]).   

In the seminar as well as in his undergraduate classes, Stan was a dynamo of energy.  He was excited by doing history and cherished the opportunity that it provided him and us to think anew about the past. As a graduate teacher and mentor, that was his greatest gift to us.  Because of his dogged pursuit of the Nixon tapes, people who did not know him well assumed that he was just another anti-Nixon zealot.  The truth was more complicated and more interesting.  It was a point of pride to discover himself on Nixon's notorious "hit list."  But like all of us who study Nixon, he found the man fascinating, amusing, exasperating, even sympathetic to some degree.  Stan was above all a historian, determined to pursue the truth for its own sake, especially in new kinds of primary sources like the White House tapes. He was zealous, but his zeal was for the integrity of the past and its truthful exposition. 

The graceful tributes to Stan that have appeared in the weeks since his death chronicle his achievements and extol his stubborn struggles with those who would suppress historical truth by cutting off access to evidence and sources.  It is there, I think, that we find his most enduring legacy.  Stan would be pleased.

[Remembrances continue here.]