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Joel Silbey, emeritus professor of history, dies at 84

Joel Silbey, second from left, with Cornell faculty members Elizabeth Sanders, Richard Booth and Ted Lowi in a panel discussion on politics and policy held in Lewis Auditorium the day after the 2008 presidential election.

Historian Joel H. Silbey, the President White Professor of History Emeritus and a member of the Cornell faculty since 1966, died Aug. 7. He was 84.

Silbey was a prolific scholar of American history and political behavior, with a particular focus on the 19th century, and his teaching and scholarly interests included the Jacksonian era, sectional controversy, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and quantitative methods in history.

Isabel Hull, the John Stambaugh Professor of History, said 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.”

He was director of the Cornell in Washington (CIW) program from 1992-98 and one of the program’s initial faculty. His son, David Silbey ’90, is associate director of CIW and adjunct associate professor of history.

“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,” said Walter LaFeber, the Marie Underhill Noll Professor Emeritus of History.

Silbey and LaFeber were recognized for their impact on students with an endowed fund in their names, established in 1997 by David F. Maisel ’68, to enhance the teaching of American history at Cornell. The Walter LaFeber and Joel Silbey Fund in American History allows the Department of History to bring outstanding historians to campus and supports an annual public lecture.

“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,” said Mary Beth Norton, the Mary Donlon Alger Professor of American History. “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.”

Silbey was born Aug. 16, 1933, in Brooklyn, New York, and educated at Brooklyn College, graduating in 1955. He earned his master’s degree in 1956 and Ph.D. in 1963 from the University of Iowa.

Prior to joining Cornell as an associate professor in 1966, Silbey taught as an assistant professor at San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University), the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Maryland.

He became a full Cornell professor in 1968, was named the President White Professor of History in 1986 and emeritus in 2002. His Cornell honors include the Clark Distinguished Teaching Award.

Following his retirement, Silbey led programs for Cornell Adult University and returned to campus often to lecture on politics and participate in faculty panel discussions and other events.

He was the author of 16 books including “The American Political Nation, 1838-1893” (1991), “Martin Van Buren and the Emergence of American Popular Politics” (2002), “Storm Over Texas: The Annexation Controversy and the Road to Civil War” (2005) and “A Respectable Minority: The Democratic Party in the Civil War Era, 1860-1868” (1977). Silbey also edited the 10-volume series “The Congress of the United States, 1789-1989,” “The History of American Electoral Behavior” (1978), “A Companion to the Antebellum Presidents 1837-1861” (2014) and other works.

He was a visiting fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences 1985-86, a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation 1988-89, and the Harold Vyvyan Harmsworth Visiting Professor of American History at Oxford University 2004-05.

Silbey was a member of the American Historical Association, Organization of American Historians, Social Science History Association and Southern Historical Association. He held fellowships at the American Philosophical Society (1969-70), National Science Foundation (1970-74) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (1980-81). He was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in U.S. history in 1988.

Survivors include his wife of 58 years, Rosemary; son, David ’90; daughter, Victoria ’85, J.D. ’90, and three grandchildren. The family is planning a memorial service in Ithaca.

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Jeff Tyson