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Brant, Irving Newtonfree

(17 January 1885–18 September 1976)
  • Ann T. Keene

Brant, Irving Newton (17 January 1885–18 September 1976), biographer, journalist, and historian, was born in Walker, Iowa, the son of David Brant, the editor of the local newspaper, and Ruth Hurd Brant. Irving Brant decided on a career in journalism. He was educated in local schools and at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, from which he earned a BA in 1909.

Following his graduation, Brant launched a long career as a journalist affiliated with midwestern newspapers, first joining the staff of the local paper, the Iowa City Republican, as a reporter. After several years he was named managing editor. In 1913 Brant married Hazeldean Toof; the couple had two daughters.

In 1914 Brant moved to Clinton, Iowa, to become editor of the Clinton Herald. A year later he was named associate editor of the Des Moines Register and Tribune, and he remained in that post for three years. In 1918 he moved to St. Louis, where he began a five-year association with the St. Louis Star, serving initially as an editorial writer and then as editorial page editor.

In 1923 Brant temporarily abandoned journalism to pursue a freelance writing career. Over the next seven years he tried his hand at poetry, short stories, plays, and children's novels; he met with little success in these genres, though some of his plays were produced in regional theaters. But he also wrote increasingly important nonfiction.

Brant wrote about conservation of natural resources for Forest and Stream and other publications. His identification with a new wave of interest in the field led to his participation in early 1930 as one of the founders of the Emergency Conservation Committee, a national organization headquartered in New York, at the invitation of the liberal activist and former suffragette Rosalie Edge. Serving as the committee's treasurer, a post he held for more than thirty years, Brant wrote a number of important monographs for the committee, including a 1938 report that led to the enlargement of Olympic National Park in Washington State. Through his crusade for conservation and preservation of the nation's natural resources, Brant became a close friend of Harold Ickes, secretary of the interior throughout the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and an influential behind-the-scenes adviser to both Ickes and Roosevelt. Brant was a frequent visitor to the White House during the late 1930s and early 1940s, and he is credited with securing the appointment of his longtime friend and fellow Iowan Wiley Rutledge to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1943. During Rutledge's six years on the Court, Brant is known to have been one of his major advisers on civil libertarian issues.

Brant's friendship with Rutledge grew out of Brant's interest in the American Constitution. As a liberal, Brant believed that post-World War I political tensions, heightened by the Palmer raids and other government actions taken to curb pro-Bolshevik revolutionary propaganda, threatened the full exercise of civil liberties in the United States, and he became increasingly interested in the origins and evolution of American constitutional government.

By 1930 the economic realities of the Great Depression forced Brant to return to newspaper work. That year he rejoined his previous employer, which had merged with another local paper to become the St. Louis Star-Times, as editorial page editor. In his hours away from the office, Brant continued his work with the Emergency Conservation Committee and also wrote articles on public affairs for the New Republic and other publications.

In addition Brant turned his attention to book-length nonfiction. His first effort, published in 1933, was Dollars and Sense, a commentary on the Great Depression for the general reader. The work received favorable reviews, and its success encouraged Brant to write a book on U.S. constitutional history. In 1936 he enjoyed another success with the publication of Storm over the Constitution. Its major argument, that the writers of the document intended that the executive branch of the national government have greater power than the U.S. Supreme Court, won special attention from the Roosevelt administration, which was espousing a similar point of view.

Brant's research for his second book had drawn him particularly to James Madison, fourth president of the United States. Through his wide reading and extensive research in early American history, Brant had come to the conclusion that Madison was the forgotten man in the founding of the nation, eclipsed in personality though not in accomplishment by Thomas Jefferson. Brant believed Madison was the true father of the country because of his role in creating the U.S. Constitution and its first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights. In 1937 Brant undertook the first modern biography of Madison while continuing as editorial page editor of the Star-Times. In 1938 he was named a contributing editor of the newspaper, and he held that position for three years, while he wrote the first volume of the Madison biography.

In 1941 Brant became an editorial writer for the Chicago Sun, and that year he published The Virginia Revolutionist, the first volume of a projected six-volume life of Madison. Based almost entirely on primary sources, The Virginia Revolutionist received praise from both literary critics and academicians for its portrayal of Madison as an engaging, accessible figure but also for making both Madison's milieu and his philosophy accessible to the modern reader. Most important, Brant asserted Madison's preeminence in the political history of the nation, a point of view that extended through five additional volumes written over the next twenty years: The Nationalist, 1780-1787 (1948), Father of the Constitution, 1787-1800 (1950), Secretary of State, 1800-1809 (1953), The President, 1809-1812 (1956), and Commander in Chief, 1812-1836 (1961). Volume six was published when Brant was seventy-six years old.

Critical appraisals of the work in toto were largely positive, though some critics took Brant to task for including too much minutiae, especially in the concluding volume. Others, while not denying the significance of Brant's accomplishment, maintained that his exhaustive documentation succeeded largely in confirming Madison's stature as a president of the second rank. Despite these critical reservations, Brant's monumental study of Madison is regarded as a major American biography, and it remains the standard work on the fourth U.S. president.

In the wake of Brant's preeminence as a historian, he became a much sought-after speaker. In the final decade of his life he delivered public lectures on Madison and constitutional history at the University of Virginia, the University of Missouri, and other institutions. In 1963 a second edition of his 1936 book Storm over the Constitution included a new introduction by the author. Brand also wrote several more books, including the historical novel Friendly Cove (1963) and The Bill of Rights: Its Origin and Meaning (1965) and James Madison and American Nationalism (1968). In 1970, at the age of eighty-five, Brant published a one-volume condensation of his six-volume Madison biography as The Fourth President: A Life of James Madison. Brant's last book published during his lifetime, Impeachment: Trials and Errors, a study of impeachment in American history, appeared in 1972. His personal account Adventures in Conservation with Franklin D. Roosevelt was published posthumously in 1989. Brant died of pneumonia in Eugene, Oregon.

Bibliography

The Special Collections Department, University of Iowa Libraries, has limited personal information about Brant and a small collection of his papers, including the manuscript, typescript, and galley proofs of the Bill of Rights and correspondence related to its publication. The manuscripts for all six volumes of Brant's Madison biography are at Princeton University. The bulk of his personal papers are at the Library of Congress. Brant's role in the conservation movement has been covered in several books, most notably in T. H. Watkins, Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold Ickes (1990); and Stephen Fox, John Muir and His Legacy: The American Conservation Movement (1981). For an account of Brant's relationship with Wiley Rutledge, see especially John M. Ferren, Salt of the Earth, Conscience of the Court: The Story of Justice Wiley B. Rutledge (2004). For representative evaluations of the Madison biography, see especially reviews by George Dangerfield in the New York Times Book Review, 29 Oct. 1961, p. 6; and Gerald W. Johnson in the New York Herald Tribune Books, 29 Oct. 1961, p. 4. An obituary is in the New York Times, 20 Sept. 1976.