Remembering Herbert Storing

In Democracy and the Constitution: Landmarks of Contemporary Political Thought (Washington, DC: AEI Press, 2006).

Almost thirty years have passed since Robert Goldwin called from Washington and said that Herbert Storing had died. I must have uttered a cry, because my wife, who was across the room, rose up startled; I then broke into tears. How else does one hear the news of the death—a sudden and unexpected death—of a child, for example, or, in this case, a dear friend?

Storing and I first met in 1950 as beginning graduate students in the political science department at the University of Chicago. He came from Colgate University, where his father was a professor and, for a while, had been acting president, and I from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, byway (for one year) of the London School of Economics and Political Science, where I learned little, other than to love London. We lived indifferent units of graduate student housing (converted Quonset huts) on the Midway across from the main campus. Because our wives, by chance, were away on the same night each week, one at work, the other at school, Storing and I would eat our evening meal together, one week at his place,the next at mine, but always discussing what we had learned that day or week. We studied constitutional law with Professor Herman Pritchett and political philosophy with Professor Leo Strauss, so there was much to discuss. These weekly suppers were, I believe, the real beginning of our friendship.

The Storings owned a property on Hatch Lake, a few miles from Colgate in Hamilton, New York. There were several houses on it. Nothing fancy about them, but they were capable of accommodating visiting friends, particularly, on several occasions, those of us from Chicago and our families. (They also had a bad-tempered cat named—for some reason—Walter.) Down by the dock, there was a very small structure—built, I suppose, to store life jackets and other boating paraphernalia—which Storing used as a summer office, exclusively for the reading of PhD dissertations. It seemed to me that he must have served on at least half of the department’s dissertation committees, a disproportionate number as chairman. At any rate, I have a memory of manuscripts piled on his desk awaiting his attention. Unlike some professors I have known, Storing read them all with great care. His students will attest to this.

In July 1976, he organized a Bicentennial symposium at Colgate where we Chicago friends each gave a paper on some aspect of the Declaration of Independence. (Goldwin has a photograph of us sitting in a line on the platform.) That meeting was especially memorable because of the symposium, and also because of the Israeli raid and rescue at Entebbe, news of which reached us early in the morning of July 4. It was also the last time we were all together: Storing, Goldwin, Martin Diamond, Robert Horwitz, Robert Scigliano, and I, all professors, except Goldwin, who at the time was in the White House as special assistant to the president; and all, except Storing, who was younger than the rest of us, World War II veterans. (His Army service began in 1946. As he told it, he was a sort of itinerant bugler, blowing “taps” at veterans’ burials, or reburials.) His death the following year (September 9, 1977) put an end to these summer gatherings and, of course, to much else of greater consequence: his teaching and scholarship.

Storing was one member of our Chicago group whose scholarship made a difference and, for that reason, will be remembered. This is especially true of his seven-volume study, The Complete Anti-Federalist, which was described by the New York Times reviewer as “a work of magnificent scholarship” and its publication a “civic event of enduring importance.”

Except for a couple of years in London as a Fulbright Scholar, and an occasional visiting professorship, almost all his academic time was spent at the University of Chicago, first as graduate student, then, from 1956 to 1977, as assistant, associate, and professor of political science. He had no interest in going elsewhere; that changed when the University of Virginia contacted him respecting a position as professor and head of a new program on the American presidency. I learned about this when the chairman of the Virginia department asked me to assess his qualifications. This is the substance of what I wrote:

Dear ____:

I know of no one who is better qualified to occupy the position you describe than Herbert Storing; in fact, I cannot imagine any-one who would be better qualified for it. Having begun in this immoderate fashion, I owe it to you to admit that Storing and I are close friends, and have been ever since 1950 when we first met as beginning graduate students at the University of Chicago, and that, therefore, I may not be an impartial judge. On the other hand, I would have to insist that the closeness of our relationship allows me to speak with unusual authority; I know him, I know his work, I know his students, I know his capacities—and, knowing all this, I know him to be the model of a university professor.

You know, or will quickly come to know, that the position you describe and seek to fill is exactly suited to his interests. The American constitutional system is his field; he has taught it and almost every aspect of it, and he has written about its Founding, and now proposes, in fact, to turn his attention to the institution of the presidency. It is also exactly suited to his talents. You want a scholar; Storing is one of the very few true scholars I know: he is thorough, comprehensive, unbiased, uncompromising in his search for all the evidence that research can uncover. You also want a profound man; Storing is the most profound man I have encountered in the field of American studies: He is a serious thinker, not an intellectual,he understands the deepest questions and problems involved in our politics, and he elucidates them with a clarity that is unsurpassed. You also want a teacher; Storing is an incomparable teacher. That, quite simply, is the unanimous judgment of all the students I have sent to him over the years. He tries to teach, and, therefore, never propagandizes; he listens to students, but never panders to them—he is too dignified,too much the man ever to do that or ever even to wish for popularity—and he has less of what we recognize as vanity than anyone I know. And he has an amazing capacity to gain the respect of an audience and even, when what he is discussing is contentious, to disarm the potentially most hostile of critics. I recall an astonishing performance at Cornell about ten years ago when a student group, which had been attracted to him through his essays on Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, invited him to address a university audience on the subject of black power. There was a huge turnout, including, as one could have expected, many who denied on principle that any white man had a right to discuss the topic.Well, he made it an educational event by teaching everyone who was educable, gaining the respect of almost everyone, and angering no one. In the circumstances of that time and place it was a remarkable achievement, but altogether characteristic of him. In his quiet and careful way, he demonstrated that he knew more and had thought more deeply about the racial problem in the United States than anyone present, including,of course, all those who professed it either academically or politically.

One more word, this on his scholarship: The Chicago Press is publishing his seven-volume edition of the Anti-Federalist Papers, one of the seven being his essay on the ratification debates. I read—in fact, studied—this two years ago,and I can confidently say that with its publication he will be recognized as a preeminent authority on the Founding period.You should not expect a volume a year from him on the presidency—that is not his way—but you can expect work that will gain him the same sort of recognition in this area.

I close by repeating what I said at the beginning: I know of no one who is better qualified for the position than Storing. He’s the best.

He was appointed, of course, and moved with his family to Charlottesville, but died (on the handball court) before he had begun to teach. He was forty-nine years old.

American Enterprise Institute