Wilson Center Experts
David E Kyvig
I took a circuitous route to becoming a 20th century U.S. constitutional historian. Stirred initially by an interest in the consequences of social and political reform, I came to appreciate constitutional upheavals as prisms through which to observe complex historical developments. From my early work on national prohibition through a comprehensive study of the amendment process to recent study of the unintended consequences of constitutional amendment, I have found the study of constitutional change a worthwhile means of viewing the United States past and present.My career as a historian of modern America began during an undergraduate internship with Michigan Senator Philip Hart throughout the prolonged filibuster over the 1964 Civil Rights Act and a senior thesis project that took me to the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library. As a doctoral student at Northwestern University, I focused on the collapse of the U.S. effort to prohibit alcoholic beverages. Because of Prohibition's peculiarities, I found myself almost inadvertently drawn into the study of American constitutional amending, in what eventually became Repealing National Prohibition.I spent the year after finishing my dissertation employed as an archivist in the Office of Presidential Libraries of the National Archives in Washington. My very first assignment involved working with Richard Nixon's pre-presidential papers, later to become a subject of controversy during his impeachment inquiry. My year at the National Archives provided valuable professional experience and also enhanced my research skills. In 1971 I moved to the University of Akron to teach and develop a regional archives. I returned to Washington in July 1973 to observe the Senate Watergate hearings, by chance on the day that Nixon's taping system was revealed.Acutely aware from my prohibition work that the role of formal constitutional amendment in twentieth century American history had not received appropriate attention, I used an American Council of Learned Societies fellowship for 1980-81 to begin research that eventually stretched from the English Civil War to the 1990s and examined the social, economic, and political foundations upon which rested both successful and failed amendment efforts. Explicit and Authentic Acts: Amending the U.S. Constitution, 1776-1995 received the 1997 Bancroft Prize and other awards. Subsequently I edited an essay collection, Unintended Consequences of Constitutional Amendment, which briefly noted the constraining effect on presidents of the term limiting Twenty-Second Amendment.Since moving to Northern Illinois University in 1999, my teaching has focused on American history since 1960, as well as U.S. constitutional history. In spring 2003, I offered an undergraduate honors course on "Impeachment in America" in which students tried the cases of Richard Nixon and William Clinton. I was struck by the contrast in attitudes between my own generation, coming of age in the 1960s with no experience of impeachment, and the vastly different perspectives of a generation maturing in the early twenty-first century. My students gave me much to contemplate regarding shifting views of impeachment, not to mention the value of better understanding impeachment's history.
B.A. (1966) Kalamazoo College; Ph.D. (1971) Northwestern University
U.S. Government,U.S. History
- Professor of History, 1999-present, Presidential Research Professor, 2000-04, and Distinguished Research Professor, 2004-present, Northern Illinois University
- Assistant Professor of History and Director of American History Research Center, 1971-79; Associate Professor of History and Consulting Archivist, American History Research Center, 1979-85; Professor of History, 1985-99, University of Akron
- University of Tromsø, Norway, Fulbright Professor of American Civilization, 1987-88
- Visiting Assistant Professor of History, Kalamazoo College, Kalamazoo, Michigan, Summer 1972
- Archivist, Office of Presidential Libraries, National Archives and Records Service, Washington, D.C., 1970-71
United States history since 1920; constitutional amendment; social, cultural, and political causes and consequences of constitutional development
The constitutional device of impeachment, previously little used, has been repeatedly employed since 1960. From "Impeach Earl Warren" billboards through campaigns to remove Supreme Court Justices Abe Fortas and William O. Douglas to congressional investigations of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, four 1980s judicial proceedings, and the trial of Bill Clinton, impeachment has become a recurring feature of an increasingly strident and impatient political culture. A careful and well-contextualized historical investigation of impeachment, using archival sources, oral history interviews, and the public record, will illuminate relatively unexamined interconnections and matters of fundamental public importance in evolving U.S. political/constitutional culture.
- Explicit and Authentic Acts: Amending the U.S. Constitution, 1776-1995 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996). Recipient of the 1997 Bancroft Prize, Henry Adams Prize, and Ohio Academy of History Publication Award. A History Book Club selection
- Repealing National Prohibition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979; Second edition, Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2000)
- Unintended Consequences of Constitutional Amendment, editor (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000)