The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Shambaugh, Benjamin Franklin
(January 29, 1871–April 7, 1940)

–historian, political scientist, educator, and first Superintendent of the State Historical Society of Iowa—was the youngest of seven surviving children born to Eva Ann (Ressler) Shambaugh and John Shambaugh. Prosperous but frugal farmer near Elvira, Clinton County, Iowa, the Shambaughs valued education and gave generously to the country school their children attended, but only the two youngest, George and Benjamin, received family support for a college education. After attending the Iowa City Academy for two years to prepare for college, Shambaugh entered the State University of Iowa (UI) in 1888. He earned his bachelor's degree in 1892, then continued at the UI with graduate studies in history. During that time, he began mining the collections of the State Historical Society of Iowa (SHSI). From Iowa, he embarked on doctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania, earning a Ph.D. in political science in 1895. Shortly before he graduated from Penn, the UI offered him a position teaching history and political science. He accepted, then went to Germany to pursue postdoctoral studies before taking his post in January 1896. In 1897 he married Bertha M. Horack, his college sweetheart. The couple had no children, but their home was always a social center for Shambaugh's students and colleagues.

    The university hired Shambaugh to be the founding chair of a new Department of Political Science. In addition to taking up that charge, he began forging a productive partnership between the UI and SHSI, which at that time legally fell under the university's jurisdiction. As a member of the SHSI's Board of Curators, he voluntarily assumed the duties of editor and set scholarly standards for the society's publications. When UI embarked on constructing a new liberal arts building (Schaeffer Hall), Shambaugh negotiated space for SHSI across the hall from the Political Science Department. Then, in 1907, SHSI established the Office of Superintendent and Editor and unanimously elected Shambaugh to the position. From 1907 to 1940 he managed the Department of Political Science from one side of the hall and SHSI from the other.

    As SHSI Superintendent, Shambaugh turned a typical antiquarian society into one of the leading state historical organizations in the country. In 1903, before he had a formal title of leadership, he launched the Iowa Journal of History and Politics, a scholarly journal that became a vehicle for publishing policy studies and substantive digests of state legislation. He also began programs of editing and publishing important state government documents (Public Archives Series, 1897-1906) and biographies of important people in Iowa's history (Biographical Series, 1907-1939). In 1910, after failing in an attempt to create a legislative research bureau in the state capital, he took a bold step that strengthened the tie between SHSI and the Department of Political Science: he established a research group, informally known as the School of Iowa Research Historians, to investigate a wide variety of topical issues in state and local history for the purpose of helping state lawmakers and civic leaders solve contemporary political, social, and economic problems. In 1910 he coined the term "applied history" to describe this mission. A long string of monographs flowed from his vision of applied history: the Economic History Series (1910-1928), the Applied History Series (1912-1930), the Iowa Social History Series (1914-1915), the Iowa Chronicles of the World War Series (1920-1923), the Iowa Monograph Series (1929-1934), and several monographs that were published outside formal series designations.

    Shambaugh's other major initiative was the Commonwealth Conference. Conceived as "a school for leaders in citizen training and citizenship committee work," each conference was actually a civic forum that addressed a specific issue of governance. Invited speakers, often nationally known figures, stimu lated discussion and debate with an audience drawn from state and local political officeholders, judges and attorneys, public school administrators and teachers, college and university faculty, representatives from major statewide organizations, and UI students.

    Shambaugh's legacy as SHSI's chief administrative officer has never been matched, and it might have been even greater had not the Great Depression undermined his momentum. Budget cutbacks in the 1930s impeded his ability to continue the Commonwealth Conference and other applied history initiatives. Federal dollars available through various New Deal programs opened up new opportunities but also unharnessed the energies of his staff. As a result, Shambaugh began to refocus on teaching.

    By 1930 the Political Science Department had grown to a faculty of eight, some of whom published research monographs under SHSI auspices. Many of the department's graduate students and alumni constituted the ad hoc School of Iowa Research Historians, and a few of them secured full-time research staff positions at SHSI or faculty positions in the Political Science Department. Several theses and dissertations were published in the volumes of the Applied History Series. Shambaugh promoted the study of state and local problems among his faculty and students, an emphasis reflected in the curriculum, which balanced political theory with courses in state and local government.

    But around 1930 he began to withdraw from the powerhouse partnership that had been the focus of his career for three decades. He turned his attention to developing the Campus Course, an educational experiment that proved to be successful beyond measure. Through a combination of wide-ranging lectures, facilitated small-group discussion sessions, and one-on-one conversations with his students, Shambaugh coached them to synthesize the knowledge and experience each had gained at the UI before stepping out into the wider world. His charisma as a teacher lived on in legend among students after he died during the spring semester in 1940.

    Shambaugh's contributions to the professional organizations of history and political science were no less impressive. He was a founding member of the American Political Science Association, served as its president in 1930, and cofounded its scholarly journal, the American Political Science Review. He also was a founding member of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association (now Organization of American Historians), edited its Proceedings (1909-1914), and served as its president (1909-1910). He was a dynamic administrator and teacher, and although he never established an equal reputation as a scholar, he authored three books–the best known of which is The Old Stone Capitol Remembers (1939)–edited nine more, and wrote scores of articles. Shambaugh Auditorium in the UI Main Library is named in his honor, as is SHSI's Benjamin F. Shambaugh Award, established in 1987 to recognize each year the book judged as the most significant published on Iowa history.
Sources The State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City, holds Shambaugh's voluminous correspondence, 1896–1940, along with several related collections of State Historical Society material, including an unpublished biography of Shambaugh by Jacob A. Swisher written in the 1940s. The Shambaugh Family Papers are located in Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. Benjamin Franklin Shambaugh as Iowa Remembers Him: A Memoriam (1941) is a loving tribute edited by John Ely Briggs, one of Shambaugh's former graduate students. Rebecca Conard examines Shambaugh's concept of "applied history" in Benjamin Shambaugh and the Intellectual Foundations of Public History (2001), a work that incorporates pertinent passages from Swisher's unpublished biography.
Contributor: Rebecca Conard