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Leopold, Richard William


Richard William Leopold was born on January 6, 1912, in New York, New York, the son of Harry and Ethel A. (Kimmelstiel) Leopold. Leopold spent the early years of his life in New York City attending the all-male, private Franklin School on Manhattan's upper west side, the lineal successor to the distinguished Sachs School for Boys. At an early age he became a devoted follower of the New York Giants baseball team. Summers for the Leopolds were spent in rented houses in Woodmere, Long Island, and Elizabethtown, New York. For five summers in the early 1920s Leopold attended an all-boys camp at Grindstone Island near Clayton, New York. Following the educational path of his older brother, Harry, Jr., Leopold attended Phillips Exeter Academy, graduating cum laude in 1929 and receiving the Sherman Hoar Prize in American History. He matriculated to Princeton University later that year and took a B.A. degree in history in 1933. Elected to Phi Beta Kappa, Leopold also received highest honors in history. His senior departmental thesis examined the development of social thought in Russia from 1840 to 1890. Leopold received the Princeton Fellowship to study at Harvard University and pursued graduate work there in history. He took his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Harvard in 1934 and 1938 respectively. Leopold received a Social Science Research Council predoctoral field fellowship to support research for his dissertation, a biography of the social reformer Robert Dale Owen.

Leopold welcomed in 1937 an instructor's appointment at Harvard. In the fall of 1938 he began his teaching career with lecture courses and graduate seminars on American diplomatic history. In 1940 Harvard promoted him to assistant professor. With the exception of a leave for military service during World War II, he remained at Harvard until 1948.

Drafted into the U.S. Army in October, 1942, Leopold's service in that branch of the military was of short duration and terminated the following December upon his receipt of a commission in the U.S. Naval Reserve. Serving from ensign to lieutenant, his wartime posting was with the Office of Naval Records and Library in Washington, D.C., where he took on the assignment of organizing official records relating to U.S. naval operations in the Pacific theater.

In 1948 Leopold accepted an offer of an associate professorship in history at Northwestern University. He remained on that faculty for the rest of his career, rising to professor in 1953, serving as acting chairman of the Department of History from 1953 to 1954 and as chairman from 1966 to 1969. During his chairmanship Leopold oversaw a significant expansion of the department. A colleague recalled, “He was efficient, fair, and administered in a gracious, courtly, well-mannered way, but with extremely high standards.” [Northwestern Perspective (Winter 1991), p. 10.]

In 1963 when Ray A. Billington left Northwestern, Leopold succeeded him as the William Smith Mason Professor of American History. Leopold retired from teaching in 1980 and became emeritus professor of history. His early and primary responsibility at Northwestern involved lecturing before hundreds of students in the large History of the United States (History B1/B10) survey course. Leopold's reputation as a demanding and influential teacher was burnished in the challenging three-quarter sequence, The History of American Foreign Policy (History C13). Evolving from a lecture to a discussion format and designed to evoke independent, critical thinking and clear, succinct expression, C13 was a prominent feature of the Northwestern curriculum and attracted many of the University's most able and determined undergraduates. A considerable number of Leopold's former C13 students have attained positions of distinction in a variety of fields. Other courses Leopold taught include Biography and the Study of History (History A02), a seminar for freshmen, and The Armed Forces in American History (History C03) as well as additional undergraduate and graduate seminars. At Northwestern he directed twenty doctoral dissertations.

Apart from his teaching responsibilities, Leopold served on numerous University, College of Liberal Arts, and Department of History committees. Significant among his assignments were terms of service on Northwestern's Council on Undergraduate Life (1954-1959), General Faculty Committee (1958-1960, 1964-1966; chairman 1959-1960), University Discipline Committee (1962-1965), and College of Liberal Arts Budget Committee (1959-1960). Leopold took particular interest in efforts to improve the conditions of undergraduate life. He maintained a strong involvement with the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps program, serving as a faculty liaison with the NROTC unit and as an advisor to many midshipmen in the program. During the Vietnam era, when opponents of the war wished to eliminate the NROTC unit as a form of protest against United States government policies, Leopold lead the effort to maintain the program on campus. He successfully argued that NROTC had benefited the University, the nation, and the students who chose to participate.

Leopold's research interests and major publications centered on American diplomatic history although his first book, based on his doctoral dissertation, was a biography of Robert Dale Owen. Published by Harvard University Press as a volume of the Harvard Historical Studies, Robert Dale Owen: A Biography (1940; reprinted by Octagon Books, New York, 1969) won the American Historical Association's John H. Dunning Prize in 1940. With his colleague Arthur S. Link, Leopold edited a collection of historical documents and essays into Problems in American History (New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1952; Second Edition, 1957). Leopold and Link collaborated with Stanley Coben for the third (1966) and fourth (1972) editions of the book, now expanded to two volumes. His next book was Elihu Root and the Conservative Tradition (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1954), a biography of the Secretary of War and Secretary of State during the administrations of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. With the support of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton Leopold spent much of the academic year 1960-1961 adapting his classroom lectures on American diplomacy into the textbook The Growth of American Foreign Policy, A History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962). As a principal member of the joint American Historical Association – Organization of American Historians ad hoc committee to investigate charges made against the staff of the Franklin D. Roosevelt presidential library by a user of the Library's holdings, he was the primary author of the committee's extensive Final Report of August 24, 1970.

Throughout his career Leopold was very active in professional organizations. As a member of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association he served on its Board of Editors (1952-1955), as Program Chairman (1956), and as a member of the Executive Committee (1958-1961). He was elected to the presidency of the Organization of American Historians for the term 1976-1977. The OAH later recognized his service to the field by its sponsorship of the Richard W, Leopold Prize. First awarded in 1984, the Leopold Prize is given biannually for the best book written by a historian associated with federal, state or municipal government and covering Leopold's own areas of research and interest: foreign policy, military affairs, activities of the federal government or related biography. Leopold worked on the Beer Prize Committee (1951-1953) and the Committee on the Historian and the Federal Government (1956-1965) of the American Historical Association. He was president in 1970 of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations and in 1990 received that organization's Norman and Laura Graebner Award in recognition of his contributions to the field.

Leopold served on the historical advisory committees of a number of departments of the federal government including the United States Navy, the United States Marine Corps, the United States Army, and the United States Atomic Energy Commission. He was a member of the Foreign Relations Advisory Committee for the United States Department of State and a member of the National Archives Advisory Council. Outside of government he contributed to the Woodrow Wilson Foundation as a member of its advisory committee on The Papers of Woodrow Wilson. He was named a fellow of the Society of American Archivists in 1980.

In retirement Leopold took an active part in the governance and social life of his residential communities, the Rookwood Gardens and, later, the Georgian and Mather LifeWays. After concluding his career as a distinguished teacher he received signal honors from the Northwestern University community: a lectureship and a professorship endowed in his name. The Leopold Lecture, established in 1990, annually brings to the Northwestern campus prominent scholars, diplomats, political figures and journalists to address issues of public affairs. In 1998, through the generosity of hundreds of former students, colleagues and friends, Northwestern inaugurated the Leopold Professorship in American History. Leopold's Northwestern colleague Michael Sherry accepted appointment as the first Leopold Professor in September, 2000.

Leopold died November 23, 2006. He was survived by his nephew, John Leopold. Leopold's remains were interred at Chicago's Rosehill Cemetery and Mausoleum on January 20, 2007. Northwestern University held a memorial service in his honor later that same day.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Richard W. Leopold (1912-2006) Papers

Identifier: 11/3/16/21
Abstract The Richard W. Leopold papers are prodigious in both volume and scope. They document not only the long and productive career of an eminent scholar but also reflect many significant issues and developments in the historical profession and at Northwestern University during the twentieth century. The material spans the period of Leopold's life although the vast bulk date between 1938 and 1980, the years of his teaching career. His papers include correspondence and other materials of...
Dates: 1912 - 2007; Other: Majority of material found within 1938 - 1980