Benjamin Franklin Shambaugh (1871–1940) Historian, political scientist, educator, author and first Superintendent of the State Historical Society of Iowa.
The more I learn about our Iowa heritage, the more I come to appreciate Benjamin Franklin Shambaugh.
Benjamin F. Shambaugh was an Iowa farm boy. Born on January 29th, 1871, Shambaugh grew up on a farm outside Elvira, Iowa (near Clinton) in eastern Iowa. He was the youngest of seven children born into a prosperous but frugal farm family who valued education, giving generously to the small Clinton Country school where all the Shambaugh children attended.
Benjamin was highly motivated to continue his education, so he attended the Iowa City Academy for two years (1896-1888) to prepare for college and then entered the State University of Iowa (SUI). Earning his Bachelor’s degree in 1892, he continued his studies at Iowa with graduate work in history. It was during this time, that Shambaugh began mining the earliest collections of the State Historical Society of Iowa, which was housed near the SUI campus in a small leased building on Washington Street.
Who would have known at the time that within a few years, Shambaugh would not only be teaching history and political science at Iowa, but he would also be overseeing the Society, taking it from a small one-room office to what it has become today, a broad and wide historical organization that leads the way for many who believe that if one can better understand our past, we will live a much-improved future.
Since many credit Benjamin Shambaugh for being the foundational center of this organization, this might be a good place to insert a bit of the “history” behind the State Historical Society of Iowa. Allow me to do so by quoting from Shambaugh’s 1907 article, A Brief History of the State Historical Society of Iowa 1857-1907...
In 1895, while earning his Ph.D in political science at the University of Pennsylvania, SUI offered Shambuagh 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 in Iowa City was always a social center for Shambaugh’s students and colleagues.
The Shambaughs were prominent campus figures, famed for their hospitality. After Shambaugh died in 1940, and Bertha in 1953, the Shambaughs bequeathed their home to the University, and it has been used to house the International Center, the Honors Center and, currently, the International Writing Program.
Eventually, 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 university and the State Historical Society. As a member of the Board of Curators, he voluntarily assumed the duties of editor and set scholarly standards for the society’s publications.
In 1907, the organization 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 Historical Society from the other.
As 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 Historical Society 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, stimulated 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 SUI students.
Shambaugh’s legacy as the Society’s chief administrative officer has never been matched, and it might have been even greater had not the Great Depression undermined his momentum.
His 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 co-founded 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).
Benjamin Franklin Shambaugh 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. Here at Our Iowa Heritage, his writings have served as a cornerstone to all we have published.
Thank you, Professor Benjamin Franklin Shambuagh . . . we remember you well!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.