Eminent historian Isaac Kramnick dies at 81

ITHACA, N.Y. – Isaac Kramnick, the Richard J. Schwartz Professor of Government Emeritus, a renowned scholar of English and American political thought and history, and a longtime champion of undergraduate education, died Dec. 21 in New York City. Kramnick was 81. Cornell President Martha E. Pollack said Kramnick was “a beloved Cornellian; a teacher and leader who, in his time at Cornell, touched the lives of generations of students, faculty and staff.”

“Professor Kramnick leaves behind a distinguished legacy of insightful scholarship, passionate teaching and forward-thinking leadership,” Pollack said. “His memory will live on for those who knew him and felt firsthand his warmth, his intelligence and his generous spirit. The university has lost a great Cornellian.”

Kramnick, who first came to Cornell to teach in 1972, was associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences from 1986-89; led the Department of Government from 1996-2001; and served as the university’s first vice provost for undergraduate education from 2001-05, during which time the New Student Reading Project was born.

He was one of the founding members of the Faculty Fellows and Faculty-in-Residence programs that prioritized faculty-student interactions at Cornell. He played the leading role in the development of the West Campus House System and its living-learning environment. He also served as co-chair of Cornell’s Charter Day steering committee, which organized the celebration of the sesquicentennial of Cornell’s charter in 2015, and it was Kramnick who conceived of the Sesquicentennial Commemorative Grove on Libe Slope, dedicated in 2014 as a permanent physical legacy of the university’s yearlong 150th anniversary celebrations. Kramnick also served as a mentor to countless other faculty members, as a faculty-elected trustee, a university historian and an influential teacher of Cornell students for decades. His colleagues and friends described him as a passionate scholar devoted to students and recalled his warmth, humor, rigor and humility.

“Isaac was the model of the ideal professor,” said Glenn Altschuler, Ph.D. ’76, dean of the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions and the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies, who co-authored “Cornell: A History, 1940–2015” with Kramnick and also was Kramnick’s best friend. Kramnick was “a highly acclaimed historian of British and American political thought; beloved teacher; the best university citizen Cornell has ever had; a thoughtful critic of the institution he loved; and a marvelous human being – he was the best of his generation and of any generation.”

Kramnick was “first and foremost, a very good friend, a wonderful colleague and a quintessential Cornellian,” said President Emeritus Hunter R. Rawlings III. “He was my idea of what a professor should be: His teaching came first, his scholarship second, and he loved his university. Students poured into his classes because he lectured with moral purpose as well as intellectual acumen. The faculty admired his commitment to the College of Arts and Sciences and to the life of inquiry and discourse he always led, and deans, provosts and presidents valued his constant service and loyalty to Cornell.

“I will miss Isaac’s sense of humor as well as his many other qualities,” Rawlings said. “He made the room light up and left us feeling better than when we walked in.”
“Isaac was a dear mentor and a beloved friend,” said Jason Frank, the Robert J. Katz Chair of Government. “I have always considered him to be the very heart of our department. For me, Isaac was its center, its life and its moral core. He was an inspiration to generations of Cornell students, and a shining example of brilliance, dedication and decency to his colleagues. He was deeply loved, and he will be deeply missed.”

From rural beginnings

Kramnick was born March 6, 1938. A foster child, he was raised by an Orthodox Jewish farming family in rural Millis, Massachusetts, and graduated from a public school with just 19 students in his class. As a first-generation and scholarship student at Harvard in the mid-1950s, he was mentored by political theorists Judith Shklar and Stanley Hoffmann, young assistant professors at the time, to whom Kramnick once said he owed “who I am, and who I became.”

He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard (1959), studied at Cambridge University (1959-60) and earned his Ph.D. at Harvard (1965); he then taught at Harvard, Brandeis and Yale before coming to Cornell.

Kramnick wrote a number of influential books on the history of British and American political thought from the 18th century to the present day. His “Bolingbroke and His Circle: The Politics of Nostalgia in the Age of Walpole” won the Conference of British Studies Prize for best book on British politics. He also edited or co-edited widely adopted anthologies on the Enlightenment and American political thought, including “American Political Thought: A Norton Anthology” (co-edited with government professor Ted Lowi), as well as editions of Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” and “The Federalist Papers,” and wrote acclaimed biographies of political theorists Edmund Burke and Harold Laski. He co-authored “The 100 Most Notable Cornellians” (2003) with Altschuler and R. Laurence Moore, now the Howard A. Newman Professor of American Studies and History Emeritus.

Kramnick was a fellow of Britain’s Royal Historical Society and served in 1989 as president of the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies. In 1998 he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. At Cornell, he was a recipient of the Clark Distinguished Teaching Award and was named a Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow.

At a 2014 lecture with Altschuler about their book, “Cornell: A History,” Kramnick spoke about the perennial need for university faculty members to be effective mentors and dedicated to their students.

“Let me say it proudly: We, the Cornell faculty, young assistant professors and older traveling academic superstars, still change student lives,” he said.
“Cornell has lost a giant,” said Ross Brann, the Milton R. Konvitz Professor of Judeo-Islamic Studies in the Department of Near Eastern Studies. “Isaac was the living embodiment of a brilliant, celebrated scholar, public intellectual, and master teacher and mentor of undergraduates as well as graduate students at Cornell. His impact on Cornell was exceptional.”

Sidney Tarrow, the Emeritus Maxwell Upson Professor of Government and an adjunct professor at Cornell Law School, said he remembers being impressed as Kramnick ably kept his field relevant to new generations of students over the years. He took changes “in stride,” Tarrow said, “never wavering from his historically informed work on figures like Bolingbroke, Burke and Paine, to which he added his wonderful work on religion and politics. Without a scintilla of arrogance, he could move effortlessly from the heights of British political philosophy to children’s literature in the 18th century, to the Federalist Papers.

“Isaac was not only a consummate scholar, he was a teacher’s teacher,” Tarrow said. “Once a year I would ask him to give a talk in my class on European politics and society and on children’s literature in the industrial revolution. To my personal chagrin – but with pride that I could call him my friend – I would just as regularly read student evaluations naming ‘Professor Kramnick’ as ‘the best thing’ about my class.”

Kramnick retired in 2015 after 43 years at Cornell but remained active, teaching for Cornell’s Adult University, speaking and writing; he authored or co-authored several op-eds in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and elsewhere exploring political trends, atheism and religion in the United States, and even what the hit musical “Hamilton” left out about Alexander Hamilton’s story.

With Moore, he co-authored “Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic” (2018), exploring atheism in American public life. The book was a companion volume of sorts to “The Godless Constitution: A Moral Defense of the Secular State,” which they wrote together in 1996. Kramnick is survived by Miriam Brody, his beloved wife of 57 years, his children, Rebecca, Jonathan and Leah, and his grandchildren, Madeline, Anna, Sam and Milo.

In lieu of gifts, the family has requested that donations be made to Cornell University, to be used to defray expenses of first-generation college students.

Plans for a memorial service will be announced at a later date. For additional information, see this Cornell Chronicle story. Cornell University has dedicated television and audio studios available for media interviews supporting full HD, ISDN and web-based platforms.

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