Remembering Joel Silbey

By: Claire A Perez,  Department of History
November 28, 2018

Joel H. Silbey, the President White Professor of History, Emeritus, a member of the Cornell history faculty, died on August 7, 2018.

 A memorial service was held on November 3, 2018, on the sixth floor of the Johnson Art Museum.  The program was hosted by Joel’s son, David Silbey, associate director of the Cornell in Washington D.C. Program and a senior lecturer at Cornell.  The speakers included Walter LaFeber, Andrew H. and James S. Tisch Distinguished University Professor, Emeritus, and Isabel Hull, John Stambaugh Professor of History and the former chair of the history department at Cornell University, as well as Victoria, Joel’s daughter, and friend and former student Evan Stewart, '74, now a distinguished lawyer in New York City. 

The venue was standing-room only, with esteemed historians, friends, and members of the Cornell community present. Martha and David Maisel were recognized at the event by LaFeber for their twenty-two-year support of the annual lecture series honoring both Joel Silbey and LaFeber.

The event presented a snapshot of Joel Silbey’s life, one well-lived and visualized by pictures of him and his family, friends, and colleagues, displayed on tables and window sills.

Each speaker brought Joel’s voice and lessons into the room.  Stewart painted a portrait of a man who debated Arthur Schlesinger Jr. with strength and resolve in a Cornell Moot Court room while Stewart, then a student, “sat riveted, afraid a fight might break out at any moment.” 

Both Stewart and LaFeber cited contemporary scholarship rooted in Joel Silbey’s work.  A prolific historian, Silbey wrote or edited 16 books, including “The American Political Nation, 1838-1893”; “Martin Van Buren and the Emergence of American Popular Politics”; “Storm Over Texas: The Annexation Controversy and the Road to Civil War” and “A Respectable Minority: The Democratic Party in the Civil War Era, 1860-1868.”

LaFeber noted Silbey’s dedication to teaching and his students. “Along with Ted Lowi in Government, Joel taught the original seven students in their new Cornell-in-Washington Program, taking the weekly commute to teach in Washington while also teaching a regular set of courses and seminars in Ithaca, and during the 1990s Joel was the Cornell supervisor of this highly successful program,” said LaFeber.

Hull began her memorial with the word "gratitude."  She called Silbey her “inadvertent mentor” for what he taught her at her very first department meeting.  It was an inauspicious beginning, she said, because she and Silbey became entangled in a misunderstanding.  Several days later, she found a succinct outline of Silbey’s interpretation of what had happened, neatly typed on crisp, white Cornell stationery.  It ended with the words, “In the interest of plain speaking and clear understanding.” Having no previous experience with the rules of collegial behavior, Hull followed Silbey’s example.  Her rebuttal echoed his clear but measured tone, right down to the same stationery and ending phrase.  And that was the end of it; Silbey did not pursue the matter, and they ended up becoming fast friends and mutual admirers. Silbey’s lesson, said Hull, was that “conflict and disagreement could be and ought to be civil.  Joel taught me how to behave as a political actor and faculty member…and I am exceedingly grateful.”

Victoria Silbey shared her father’s pure joy in spending time with his grandchildren, and David Silbey recounted stories from the “historian who told stories,” in order to “hear his voice again,” he said.

David Silbey traced his father’s life with vignettes through the decades that began in his first true home, Brooklyn, New York. (He considered Ithaca his second true home.)  David Silbey offered perspective on the early times from which the beloved professor emerged – his parents, the impact of sports on his father as a backdrop to life, and the impact of his advisor’s decision to tell Joel Silbey, graduate of Brooklyn College, to “go West, young man.”  Silbey had hoped to go to Columbia for his Ph.D., but his advisor refused to write him a letter of recommendation because he thought that, to understand the United States, Silbey had to get farther west than 8th Avenue. This refusal led to Silbey attending the University of Iowa where he met his future wife, Rosemary Johnson.

David Silbey also described his father’s life in Ithaca and his love of Olin Library. “He loved to wander in the stacks and considered libraries a sacred space where he did his work,” he said.

“A sad but also happy day,” David Silbey concluded after honoring the strength of his mother and Joel’s wife during the last months of Professor Silbey’s life.  Those gathered would miss his father, but the happy days in Ithaca, Silbey’s second home--among his colleagues, students, and the stacks--were to be celebrated, his father’s was a life well-lived that will echo into the future.