Pulitzer Prize-Winning Historian Edward Larson

By Ryan Kambich

In an academic career spanning more than 35 years, few could argue that Edward Larson (ΦBK, Williams College) lacks an eclectic collection of research interests. The author of 11 monographs and well over 100 scholarly articles, Larson has taken up a diverse range of historical subjects throughout his career. His published work spans legal scholarship, erudite reconstructions and analysis of past controversies at the intersection of American religion and science, reflections on America’s founding decades and the leaders who shaped the period, and even three books on the history of scientific efforts in the Galapagos Islands and Antarctica. His recent book, Franklin & Washington: The Founding Partnership, was published by HarperCollins in February and stands as the latest contribution in his impressive body of scholarship on the American founding.

Larson, currently the Hugh & Hazel Darling Chair in Law and a University Professor of History at Pepperdine University, was initiated into the Gamma of Massachusetts chapter of Phi Beta Kappa at Williams College in 1974. To this day, he speaks fondly of his initiation. “As a quite pleasant surprise, the chapter informed me of my selection the first time I was eligible,” Larson said. “Professor Fred Stocking, a brilliant orator and the teacher of my comparative literature course, gave the address – one of the finest I’ve ever heard. So good, in fact, I asked him for a copy.” 

From Williams, Larson went on to earn a J.D. from Harvard Law School and then a Ph.D. in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Through his ensuing scholarly career, he has maintained an amiable relationship with Phi Beta Kappa. When asked to give an induction address at the University of Georgia, Larson returned to his roots with the Society, “I dug out Professor Stocking’s brilliant address and – with due attribution to the master – gave it again. As this suggests, Phi Beta Kappa remained a warm memory.” Later still, when invited back to Williams to give an induction address to the Gamma of Massachusetts chapter, Larson took the opportunity to offer his own remarks. “That time, I wrote my own – not because it was better, but because I thought that this one should be my own work,” Larson said. “Williams was Professor Stocking’s domain, and on that day, I visited his grave on campus.”

Larson also served as a 2018-2019 Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar giving lectures at multiple universities on behalf of the society. The position offered the opportunity to visit with old peers. “I was asked to serve as a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar, which included a visit to Washington D.C., where I reconnected with the society’s current Secretary [Fredrick M. Lawrence], who was my classmate at Williams,” Larson said. “For all of us, and for all in the Society, scholarship and the life of the mind has been our bond.” You can read a transcript of Larson’s Key Conversation with Lawrence here.

Larson’s doctoral work focused on the history of science, with an emphasis on the history of modern biology, genetics, and life sciences. According to Larson, he synthesized this academic specialization with his concurrent legal training to develop a scholarly approach to issues such as eugenics, legal considerations within the domain of public health, forensic medicine, and genetic patent law and regulation. 

Such interests have since led him, somewhat unexpectedly, to a diversity of scholarly pursuits. Larson recalled: “Ron Numbers, a professor in my graduate program, urged me to tackle the legal battles over teaching evolution in U.S. public schools. This led me to religion – or at least the study of American religion. The success of my book on the Scopes Trial [Summer of the Gods] led me to teach a seminar on the historical episodes in science and religion in American history. One of those episodes was the election of 1800, where Jefferson appeared the candidate of science and Adams appeared the candidate of religion.”

“A trade-press editor contacted me about writing another book like the Scopes book. He picked the election of 1800, and with the success of the resulting book [A Magnificent Catastrophe], suddenly I was a founding-era scholar. Of course, my training in law helped with tackling the constitutional parts of that topic,” Larson said.  

Larson’s rich scholarship has garnered widespread acclaim. He won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in History for his book Summer of the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion, which examined the infamous “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925 that saw the decade’s most severe clash over the question of teaching evolution in public schools, and sparked a national debate about both the relationship between science and religion in the public sphere and the role of individual liberty versus majoritarian democracy more broadly. 

The Prize was entirely unexpected according to Larson. “The thought of receiving the Pulitzer Prize never crossed my mind,” he said. “In fact, several months before the award announcement, a well-connected friend with a book in the running for the biography award called me to say he heard mine was in the running too, for the history prize.”

“I immediately contacted my editor who confidently dismissed the idea but said he would check his contacts. After checking his contacts, he confirmed that my book was not a finalist. So much for rumors. Either his contacts were wrong or he never checked with them – I suspect the latter.”  

Larson’s latest historical work, Franklin & Washington: The Founding Partnership grew out of timely reflections about leadership and democracy. “The Trump era rekindled my interest in what good leadership involves and why it is so important in a republic,” Larson said. “We should know now, more than ever, just how fragile and precious our democracy is. The rule of law requires nurturing. Authoritarian governments are the norm, not the exception.” 

“Franklin and Washington knew this and stressed the importance of republican virtue,” he added. “Perhaps my earlier books on Washington [2016’s George Washington, Nationalist and 2014’s The Return of George Washington] suggested this, but they did not focus on it.”

Such reflections on leadership developed out of Larson’s studies at Williams College under historian and political scientist James MacGregor Burns, a fellow Pulitzer Prize winner who wrote voluminously on the subject of leadership. According to Larson, “With Franklin & Washington, I could address this issue [of leadership] much as Burns did with his book on F.D.R. [Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom, for which he was awarded the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for History], when the rule of law was under assault in Europe and the United States.”

On the question of his next project, Larson shows no signs of reigning in his broad scholarly interests. “Over the past two decades, I’ve tended to bounce back and forth between the history of science and the founding era – so I’m guessing it is time to return to some modern topic in evolutionary biology, genetics, and climate change,” he said.

“With the current pandemic, there are plenty to choose from now. As the old saying goes, ‘It is an ill wind indeed that blows no one fair.’” 

Ryan Kambich earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy, politics and the public at Xavier University, where he became a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 2019. Xavier University is home to the Pi of Ohio chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.