von Holst, Hermann E(duard) 1841-1904
von HOLST, Hermann E(duard) 1841-1904
PERSONAL: Born June 19, 1841, in Livonia, Russia; died January 20, 1904; son of Valentine (a Lutheran minister) and Marie (Lenz) von Holst; married Annie Isabelle Hatt. Education: University of Heidelberg, Ph.D., 1865.
CAREER: Writer. University of Strasbourg, Strasbourg, professor, 1872-73; University of Freiburg, Freiburg, professor, 1873-92; University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, head of history department, beginning 1892.
Verfassung und Demokratie der Verenigten Staaten von Amerika, 5 volumes, J. Buddeus (Düsseldorf, Germany), 1873-91, translated as The Constitutional and Political History of the United States, 8 volumes, Callaghan (Chicago, IL), 1876-92.
John C. Calhoun, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1882.
John Brown, edited by Frank Preston Stearns, Cupples & Herd (Boston, MA), 1883.
Das Staatsrecht der Vereinigten Staaten, J. C. B. Mohr (Freiburg, Switzerland), 1885, translated by Alfred Bishop Mason as The Constitutional Law of the United States of America, Callaghan (Chicago, IL), 1887.
Von Holst's papers are housed at the University of Chicago.
SIDELIGHTS: Hermann E. von Holst was a noted writer and historian who emphasized American history. According to Clyde N. Wilson of the Dictionary of Literary Biography, he was the first fully trained, professional, academic historian to devote major attention to the national history of the United States.
Von Holst, a descendent of a family of German immigrants in Russia, felt a bond to his German homeland and chose to complete his education there. He studied modern history at the Heidelberg University and received his doctorate there. He returned home to teach French history at the University of St. Petersburg. He encountered political trouble, however, when he criticized the Russian government during the tumultuous period following the attempted assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1866. Faced with possible exile to Siberia, von Holst left Russia in 1867 and settled in New York. Despite his credentials, he could not find an academic position. He had to take manual labor jobs, but eventually succeeded as a tutor and newspaper reporter.
In 1872 von Holst finally obtained an academic position at the University of Strasbourg when Germany got control of the institution at the end of the Franco-Prussian War. The similarities between Germany's unification progress and the post-bellum situation in the United States following the Civil War soon captured von Holst's attention and he took interest in American history. From 1873 to 1891 the multi-volume Verfassung und Demokratie der Verenigten Staaten von Amerika was published. Its English translation, The Constitutional and Political History of the United States, appeared between 1876 and 1892. In this work, von Holst emphasizes American history during the 1850s, and slavery and states' rights. Although his research was extensive, he was criticized for his lack of understanding of the subject matter. Wilson suggested, "Given his ignorance of American colonial and early national history, he could not possibly understand in historical perspective either of his two main objects of study, slavery and state rights." Despite the criticisms, the books proved a big success and enabled von Holst to obtain a prominent position at the University of Freiburg.
Another of von Holst's notable projects was his biography on John C. Calhoun. Unlike other biographies of that time, von Holst's John C. Calhoun deals mainly with Calhoun's public career and provides scant insight into his personal life. Von Holst's next project was another biography, that of nineteenth-century revolutionary John Brown. Riding the success of John C. Calhoun and John Brown, von Holst embarked on two popular lecture tours in the United States.
With a burgeoning reputation as a prominent American historian with frequent invitations to lecture and write on various topics, including history, von Holst left the University of Freiburg in 1892 and moved to the United States. He was the head of the history department at the University of Chicago from its founding in 1892 to 1900. He returned to Europe shortly before his death.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 47: American Historians, 1866-1912, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986.
Kraus, Michael, The Writing of American History, University of Oklahoma Press (Norman, OK), 1963.
von Holst, Hermann E., John C. Calhoun, introduction by Clyde N. Wilson, Chelsea House (New York, NY), 1980.
Wilson, Charles R., The Marcus W. Jernegan Essays in American Historiography, edited by William T. Hutchinson, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1937.
Mississippi Valley Historical Review, March, 1937.