Earlier this week, in the course of contacting historians about a new project, I learned that Donald B. Cole passed away last year. Unlike the death of Robert Remini, which garnered significant attention in the profession and the mainstream media, Don’s death passed largely unnoticed by the profession.
That is unfortunate, because Don’s scholarship was on par, and in some ways superior, to Remini’s. Remini’s narrative flair garnered him attention, but his desire to tell the story sometimes led him to gloss over the problems with his sources or to present an overly optimistic interpretation of Jackson. Don’s work was well-written, straightforward, and demonstrated fidelity to the sources. His biography of Martin Van Buren is far superior to Remini’s and Joel Silbey’s, and his study of Jackson’s presidency remains, two decades later, the standard account.
Personally, I can say that Don was always kind to me. He and Dan Feller were more gracious than they should have been at my first SHEAR conference (Buffalo in 2000), when the professional naiveté and self-confidence (read arrogance) of a graduate student were flexing their muscles. Don and I corresponded about projects over the years, specifically my Andrew Jackson, Southerner and his Vindicating Andrew Jackson: The 1828 Election and the Rise of the Two-Party System. He introduced me to Jon Meacham, wrote letters of support for grant opportunities, and offered his honest assessment of my work. Even when he disagreed, he did so generously, acknowledging that our interpretations were likely just different readings of the same evidence.