The Qualifying Exam: A View from the Past

Thomas H. Appleton Jr., April 2011

Over the course of any academic year, several hundred students will be anxiously preparing to sit for their qualifying exams in history. Though this dreaded rite of academic passage has been shared by thousands of their predecessors, students rarely have more than anecdotal comments—often embellished—upon which to rely as they face their day of reckoning. The following recollection, penned several hours after its author survived his oral exams in 1952, provides an unusually detailed account of one student’s experience more than half a century ago.

Holman Hamilton had already published two award-winning volumes on Zachary Taylor by the time he entered graduate school at age 41. The native of Fort Wayne, Indiana, selected the University of Kentucky for graduate study because of its strength in southern and frontier history. Hamilton desired to study, in particular, with Thomas D. Clark who became his adviser and mentor.1 The doctoral committee the department assembled included five of the most distinguished scholars of their day. Indeed, two committee members would later be elected president of the Southern Historical Association (an honor Hamilton himself received in 1979).

Hamilton, who had graduated from Williams College in 1932 but had never received a master’s degree, sat for his qualifying oral exams on April 27, 1952, after one year of coursework. That evening he wrote his parents to share the good news that he had passed.2

“As matters turned out, the Qualifying Exams were by no means as frightening in actuality as they had been in anticipation. Tom Clark led off by asking me to discuss the role of the Crown in connection with the Colonies. I described the history of the Massachusetts Bay Company, devoting less attention to other New England developments. Then I went south to Virginia, and then back to New York and New Netherland for background. He then asked me to treat the frontier aspects of colonial life, which I did for some 10 minutes. He followed that up by telling me to summarize the role of the frontier in the American Revolution, and this took 6 or 8 minutes more. Clement Eaton3, the other American History man on my committee, quizzed me on George Washington—asking me to compare various Washington biographies—which I did from W. E. Woodward and Rupert Hughes down to Douglas Southall Freeman. The Political Science professor, Amry Vandenbosch (who is an ardent Calvinist and also an earnest Democrat), proceeded to take me on my longest and strangest ride during the exam.4 I had mentioned the word ‘theocracy’ in connection with the Puritans. He asked what the word meant (which I had no trouble in telling), and then inquired why the Puritan colony was any more a ‘theocracy’ than many of the other colonies and numerous countries as well. I brought Catholic Spain into the picture at this juncture, and described it as being as much a theocracy as Puritan Massachusetts. He wanted me to journey elsewhere, and mentioned Virginia in particular. I replied that I supposed a case could be made for calling Virginia a theocracy, in the sense that the chief men believed in God and in the prominent role of the Church of England there. But the intensity, the preoccupation, the omnipresence of God’s will and God’s using rulers as His instruments were absent from the setting—in Virginians’ minds. I dwelt at some length on this, building up what I hope was a fair case, and finally seeming to satisfy the gentleman.

Later questions were, for the most part, easier. Eaton, for example, asked for the names of leading Southern moderates at the time of the Compromise of 1850. Vandenbosch wanted me to deal with campaign funds, on which subject I was lucky in knowing his own views—which happen to be about the same as mine. Dr. McCloy, the European History man, stumped me by asking me for the causes of the original French occupation of Indo-China—but I was able to handle the three Morocco crises of 1905, 1908 and 1911 with some facility.5 I also knew what French colonial development in Africa had started in the reign of Charles X. Various members of the committee popped queries anent the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05, which I had studied pretty thoroughly. I took a flier on the identity of the Sonderbund, and hit it O.K. I also knew that Switzerland had modeled her government on that of the United States. There were many other questions and discussions which I don’t remember at this moment. The whole affray lasted almost precisely 2 hours. Of course, Carl Cone—the English History man—was my dearest friend when he said ‘I pass’ when Tom [Clark] turned to him.6

Well, it certainly is pleasant to have the whole business of classes, orals, and the written exams behind me! Having jumped over the Qualifying-Exams hurdle, my family is hoping to do many of the things we had to pass up for many months.”

In 1954, Holman Hamilton completed his dissertation, later published as Prologue to Conflict: The Crisis and Compromise of 1850 (1964), and joined the faculty at the University of Kentucky. Following his retirement in 1975, he continued to live in Lexington, where he died on June 7, 1980.7

Thomas Appleton Jr. is professor of history at Eastern Kentucky University. He was a graduate student and research assistant of Holman Hamilton.

Notes

1 Thomas D. Clark (1903–2005) taught at the University of Kentucky from 1931 to 1968.  During a long and prolific career he wrote or edited more than 30 books on Kentucky, the frontier, and the American South.  A founding member of the Southern Historical Association, he served as its president in 1947. Ten years later he became president of the Organization of American Historians. John E. Kleber, ed., Thomas D. Clark of Kentucky: An Uncommon Life in the Commonwealth (Lexington, Ky., 2003).

2. The original letter is in the possession of Thomas H. Appleton Jr., Lexington, Ky.

3. W. Clement Eaton (1898–1980), a specialist in the Old South, was elected president of the Southern Historical Association in 1961. Among his publications was The Growth of Southern Civilization, 1790–1860 (1961).   Thomas D. Clark, “Clement Eaton,” Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 80 (1982): 140–50.

4. Amry Vandenbosch (1894–1990) was the founding director of the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His publications include South Africa and the World: The Foreign Policy of Apartheid (1970). Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, October 23, 1990.

5. Shelby T. McCloy (1898–1973) published such seminal works as The Negro in France (1961).

6. Carl B. Cone (1916–1995) was the author of the two-volume Burke and the Nature of Politics (1957, 1964).  Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, February 3, 1995.

7. An appreciation of Holman Hamilton appears in Vincent P. DeSantis, “Holman Hamilton,” Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 80 (1982):134–39.