James G. Randall (1881 – 1953) was a leading American historian, specializing on Abraham Lincoln and the era of the American Civil War. He taught at the University of Illinois, (1920-1950), where David Herbert Donald was one of his students and continued his traditions. Born in Indiana, he took a B.A. degree from Butler College (1903), and a Ph.D. in history at the University of Chicago (1912). Randall was known for his systematic, scientific methodology based on thorough study of primary sources, his mastery of constitutional issues, and his neutrality regarding North and South. His multi-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln remains a major resource for scholars. He was president of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association 1939-1940. His wife Ruth P. Randall wrote Mary Lincoln: Biography of a Marriage (1953). His The Civil War and Reconstruction (1937) was for many years the most important history of the era.
Randall, a devout Methodist who was horrified by the carnage of World War I, believed the Civil War was a terrible mistake, caused by the failure of the political system to find a compromise. It was a "needless war," an interpretation that won widespread assent before World War II. Along with Avery Craven Randall, watching the rise of Fascism in Europe, concluded the American Civil War did not emerge out of the conflicting material interests of economic classes (as Charles Beard said). Instead Randall believed it was brought about by fanatics, like the abolitionists in the North and the fire-eaters in the South, who, with very little material at stake, raced each other into war.
Randall argued in Civil War and Reconstruction that the war "could have been avoided, supposing of course that something more of statesmanship, moderation, and understanding, and something less of professional patrioteering, slogan-making, face-saving, political clamoring, and propaganda, had existed on both sides." But such had not been the case. In Randall's view, extremists in both sections emerged as villains, the abolitionist radicals worst of all. "Reforming zeal, in those individual leaders in whom it became most vociferous and vocal, was often unrelieved by wisdom, toleration, tact, and the sense of human values.... It was a major cause of the conflict itself." That is, minority elements inflamed sectional passions to a point where compromise, which might have been brought about by sensible and responsible men , became impossible.
- 1956 Bancroft Prize
- James G. Randall. Lincoln the President (4 vol., 1945–55; reprint 2000); Mr. Lincoln excerpts ed. by Richard N. Current (1957)
- Randall, James G. Lincoln the Liberal Statesman (1947).
- Randall, James G. The Civil War and Reconstruction (1937) classic textbook (revised by David Donald, 1961).
- Randall, James G. Constitutional Problems under Lincoln (1926)
- Thomas J. Pressly, Americans Interpret Their Civil War (1954; 1962)
- Young, James Harvey. "Randall's Lincoln: an Academic Scholar's Biography." Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 1998 19(2): 1-13. ISSN 0898-4212 Fulltext online at History Cooperative
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