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The College of Arts Sciences

Remembering Professor Joel Silbey

By: The Department of History, 
October 24, 2018

Joel Silbey at Cornell, 1966-2002

Described as a “promising young man,” Joel Silbey joined the Cornell faculty in the summer of 1966 and began rapidly climbing the ranks.  He was promoted to Associate Professor in 1967 and then again to Full Professor in 1968.  In 1986, he was appointed the President White Professor of History, a position he held until his retirement in 2002.  He was director of the Cornell in Washington program from 1992 to 1998 and one of the program’s initial faculty.

Over the course of his remarkable 36-year career, Joel became “a nationally-recognized scholar of American political history.”  Incorporating quantitative analysis methods from the social sciences, his work dissected American politics and political parties in the nineteenth century, “a period that saw the greatest experimentation with political systems.” 

A respected and beloved teacher, his courses were always popular with Cornell students, and he was honored with the Clark Distinguished Teaching Award in 1986.  As an advisor, he chaired the graduate committees of 10 doctoral students and served as a minor member for 6 more.

He was the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Science Foundation, and the Social Science Research Council.  He was selected as a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, a Visiting Scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation, and the Harold Vyvyan Harmsworth Visiting Professor of American History at Oxford University.

A prolific historian, Joel authored or edited 16 books.  A sampling of the works he authored includes “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.”

Faculty Quotes from Cornell Chronicle article:

Walt LaFeber – “During his five decades at Cornell, Joel was an award-winning and demanding teacher on both undergraduate and graduate levels, a distinguished scholar whose books pioneered the application of quantifiable data to historical causes, and an irreplaceable friend.”

Itsie Hull – Silbey was “a fine historian and acute analyst of political behavior, with a marvelous, irreverent sense of humor and terrific judgment. I will sorely miss him.”

Mary Beth Norton – “Joel and I team-taught the U.S. survey course together soon after my arrival at Cornell. I appreciated his wisdom, as I adjusted to teaching at an Ivy League institution.  We saw each other less frequently after his retirement, but I still would encounter him in Olin Library, where he continued to work on his excellent scholarship on 19th-century U.S. political history until his health began to fail. I shall miss him.”

to read the full article, please follow this link to the Cornell Chronicle website

A Memorial for Joel Silbey will be held on November 3, 2018 at the Johnson Art Museum at Noon.  Read the details here.


Joel Silbey