Koch, Adrienne

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KOCH, Adrienne

Born 10 September 1912, New York, New York; died 21 August 1971, New York, New York

Daughter of John D. and Helen Koch; married Lawrence R.Kegan, 1947

Adrienne Koch began her career in philosophy, but became in time one of America's leading historians. She took as her particular province the era of American Enlightenment, defined as the period from 1765 to 1815, concentrating on political philosophy. Her first work was her doctoral dissertation, The Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson (1943), for which she won the Woodbridge prize at Columbia University. In it she explores the major influences on Jefferson's thought and tries to establish his originality and significance as a philosopher.

Koch's next two works were The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson (1944) and The Selected Writings of John Adams and John Quincy Adams (1946). Although she is basically more sympathetic to Jefferson's position, both works reveal her keen appreciation of these shapers of early American political thought, to her the heart of American Enlightenment.

In Jefferson and Madison: The Great Collaboration (1950, reissued 1987), Koch explores their personal friendship, intellectual changes, and political cooperation over a 50-year span. Drawing heavily on unpublished primary sources, she underscores the impact of Madison's strongly, logical mind on Jefferson. The collaboration, she concludes, was of mutual weight, and they shared equally in formulating early American democratic philosophy.

In 1959, Koch published Philosophy for a Time of Crisis, a work reflecting her deep concern over the postwar threat to Western civilization and its crisis in values. In response to "the felt universal need… for an answer to nihilism," she drew on the writings of 15 modern thinkers, among them Einstein, Buber, and Sartre, men concerned with "the root values of man and society."

Koch edited The American Enlightenment (1965), in which she focuses on the work of five major philosopher-statesmen: Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Hamilton. Brilliant individually, they shone with increased splendor as a constellation, she concludes. She stresses the importance of their intertwining roles as theorists and activists, meeting "the historical imperative of their time… the advancement of human freedom."

The Whig-Clio lectures Koch gave at Princeton were published as Madison's "Advice to My Country" (1966). In this short, cogent analysis, she sums up a lifetime of thought on Madison, tracing the threads of three major concerns: liberty, justice, and union. With thoughtful intensity she traces the evolution of his thought and the relevance of his stance to contemporary society.

Her last work was Jefferson (1971), edited for the series Great Lives Observed. She draws on autobiographical material, observations of contemporaries, and the views of historians to provide perspective on his life. At the time of her death, Koch was engaged in a study of the Grimké family and its place in American life.

As a historian of ideas, Koch brought to bear on her work a disciplined mind and finely sharpened powers of critical analysis and judgement. Though sympathetic to the liberal democratic philosophy, she explored cogently and persuasively the diverse strands woven into the American political tradition. She sought to convey with objectivity and fair-mindedness the differences in "angles of vision" of the philosopher-statesmen. In her writing Koch displayed clarity and wit and an elegance of style reflective of the Enlightenment. She saw the American Enlightenment as "a glorious time of thought and human constructive activity" and wrote of it, as she said, "con amore." With acuteness of vision and lucidity of expression, she sought to lay open the values and achievements of that age and their continuing relevance to the darker contemporary age.

Other Works:

Power, Morals, and the Founding Fathers: Essays in the Interpretation of the American Enlightenment (1961, reissued 1984). Adams and Jefferson: Posterity Must Judge (1963).


Jefferson, T., The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson (reissue, 1998).

Other references:

AHR (Feb. 1972). Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (Jan. 1944). Journal of American History (June 1965). Maryland Historian (Spring 1972). NR (4 Sept. 1950). SR (20 Feb. 1960). Virginia Quarterly Review (Summer 1966).


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