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Merrill Jensen

University of Wisconsin-Madison Faculty Document 389
7 April 1980



Professor Merrill Jensen, a leading historian of the American Revolutionary era, died in Madison on January 30, 1980, after a valiant seven-month battle with cancer.

Jensen was born in the small farming community of Elkhorn, Iowa on July 16, 1905, in what was then called modest circumstances. In later years he often referred to the drudgery and hard work of farm life. He graduated from high school with a teaching certificate and taught for several years in a one-room school near Woonsocket, South Dakota, where he met his future wife, Genevieve, on whose support and help he counted to the end. With meager resources he entered the University of Washington, Seattle, where he earned his B.A. in 1929, and returned to South Dakota to marry. He went back to Seattle with his wife and received his M.A. there in 1931. He was sent to the University of Wisconsin by his mentor, Professor Edward McMahon, who partially subsidized Jensen's work for his doctorate, which he earned here in 1934, while he and his wife also worked longhours in the State Historical Society.

From 1935 to 1944 Jensen taught at the University of Washington, rising through the ranks from instructor to associate professor, and forming a deep personal attach­ment to the Puget Sound area. He served as editor of the Pacific Northwest Quarterly (whose title he had changed from the Washington Historical Quarterly) from 1935 to 1942, while publishing elsewhere a series of major articles and a book based on his dissertation, The Articles of Confederation (1940), which later went through two more editions. It profoundly altered our understanding of our nation's first con­stitution and immediately earned Jensen a major reputation. In 1944 he served briefly in the Army Air Force as a historian, an experience that confirmed his irreverence toward the military. He returned to the University of Wisconsin in 1944 to spend the rest of his life as a member of this faculty.

His second book, The New Nation, A History of the United States During the Con­federation, 1781-1789 (1950), changed historical thinking about that period and placed him in the front ranks of American historians. His range of interests was further shown in his creative editing of Regionalism in America (1951) and of the authoritative volume, American Colonial Documents to 1776 (1954) in the standard English Historical Documents series. The long list of recognitions and honors he accrued must begin with his appointment as Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University in 1949-50. In 1955 he directed a seminar at the University of Tokyo, Japan, and became thereafter one of the guiding spirits in the development of American Studies in Japan. His students there, many now enjoying distinguished careers, referred to him affectionately as “Grandpa.” In the fall of 1960 he directed a seminar on American Colonial History at the University of Ghent, Belgium, and in the spring of 1961 gave a series of seminars at Kyoto University, Japan.

His departmental colleagues seized the occasion of his absence to name him their new chairman, a task to which he gave much of his energy from 1961 to 1964. Those were years of rapid growth in enrollments and faculty for the department as well as the university, requiring much creative administration and planning, which Jensen carried through vigorously. But he laid down his duties and concerns with much relief in June, 1964, driving west for his annual summer holiday in Puget Sound. Teaching and scholarship, rather than administration, always held first claim. When the executive committee of Kyoto University's American Studies Sumner Seminar invited Jensen to return to Japan in the late 1960's as a “Dean” of their 20th anniversary seminar, he asserted that “I have never been a dean and I am not sure that I want to blot my record by serving as one, even if for only three weeks.”

Jensen resumed his effective roles as undergraduate teacher, a demanding graduate director, and an original scholar in the mid-1960's, attracting ever larger numbers of promising graduate students. He published, in those years, the short, but authoritative, The Making of the American Constitution (1964), the magisterial The Founding of a Nation: A History of the American Revolution, 1763-1776 (1968), and the edited Tracts of the American Revolution (1967). Meanwhile, he was serving on the Board of Directors of the American Studies Association and of the Institute of Early American History and Culture. By then he also had been designated Vilas Research Professor and had been appointed by the National Historical Publications Commission as editor of the Documentary History of the First Federal Elections. In 1969 he was elected President of the Organization of American Historians, appointed to the Advisory Committee on the publication of the Papers of George Washington, and to similar boards for the Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, of the Letters of Delegates to the Continental Congress, and to Papers of the American Loyalists. He was elected in 1969 as member of both the American Antiquarian Society and the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, and was appointed by the Library of Congress to its Advisory Board on the Bicentennial of the American Revolution. In December, 1969, he was also appointed Editor of the projected multi-volume Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which brought to this campus a great collection of research materials and a team of young scholar-editors (most of them Jensen students) whose work he spent more and more of his time directing during the next decade.

Honors continued to devolve upon him, which he bore with grace and good humor. He delivered the Anson G. Phelps Lectures at New York University in November, 1973, published as The American Revolution within America (1974). On one of the more memorable occasions he appeared before a joint session of Congress, in 1974, as the principal speaker in celebrations of the Bicentennial, spicing his presentation with his usual tough-minded realism and sharp deflating of pretense. His formal retirement from this faculty, in 1976, was marked by a gathering on this campus of his and other students of the Revolutionary era in a way that must have pleased him most. There were plenty of scholarly papers presented and subjected to rigorous criticism with much good fellowship. His former students also honored him with a festschrift. By then Jensen could clearly no longer claim even in jest that his main accomplishment in life had been surviving his daughter's adolescence.

Professor Jensen was also serving in the mid-1970's on the Wisconsin Bicenten­nial Commission. He continued working at his editing tasks with no appreciable abatement of effort for three years. The son of a Danish carpenter, he confessed to being a frustrated architect who enjoyed planning, working with wood, and lis­tening to a discriminating collection of classical music. When illness struck, he exhibited the qualities that marked much of his life and work--an unflinching insistence on finding and facing facts, an impatient but remorseless search for truth, a deep capacity for cherishing friends and for bearing afflictions with exemplary stoicism.

Theodore Hamerow                                
Fred Harvey Harrington
David S. Lovejoy
Robert C. Nesbit
Michael B. Petrovich
Norman K. Risjord
Morton Rothstein, Chairman
Domenico Sella

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