In Memoriam

John A. Phillips (1949-98)

Michael S. Smith, May 1998

John A. Phillips, professor of modern British history at the University of California at Riverside, died in an automobile accident on January 14, 1998. He was 48.

Phillips's love for all things British was instilled in him during his years as a student of history. He received his BA from the University of Georgia in 1971 and went on to earn his PhD at the University of Iowa in 1976, specializing in English electoral behavior in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He was skeptical about his prospects for becoming a full-time university teacher and had planned to enter the civil service when he received an offer from the University of California at Riverside to teach history, beginning a 22-year tenure as professor in the University of California system.

At UC Riverside, Phillips taught a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses, including UC-wide videoconference teleseminars in British history. Phillips was one of the most beloved professors on campus. Few in UC Riverside's history have received as much praise and acclaim as Phillips (his teaching evaluations were among the best in his department), and many of his world civilization students would follow him through the rest of his undergraduate courses. It was an honor, though it might not have been much of a surprise, that Phillips received UC Riverside's Distinguished Teaching Award in 1991.

Phillips's service to the university was equally remarkable. He was assistant dean in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences from 1980 to 1981 and chair of the history department from 1992 to 1995. At the time of his death, he was chair of the Law and Society Program and associate director of the Center for Bibliographical Studies. He also served proudly as a member of the UC Riverside Committee on Academic Personnel and felt honored that the university faculty trusted his professional judgment.

Phillips's honors and achievements outside the UC Riverside campus were impressive as well. He was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and served as his local chapter's secretary and treasurer from 1984 to 1998. From 1994 to 1996 he was treasurer of the Pacific Coast Conference on British Studies. He was also a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a member of the editorial board of the British historical journal Parliamentary History.

Phillips's scholarly interests and achievements brought him acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, and he developed over the years an international following. He was one of the foremost historians on English electoral behavior, and in his particular field--quantitative analysis of English elections--he became a master of his craft and had few rivals. He published more than 20 articles and countless reviews in numerous journals. He published two books, Electoral Behavior in Unreformed England: Plumpers, Splitters, and Straights (Princeton, 1982) and The Great Reform Bill in the Boroughs: English Electoral Behavior, 1818--1841 (Oxford, 1992), was the editor of a third, Computing Parliamentary History (Edin burgh, 1994), and, at the time of his death, was in the middle of a fourth, a study of the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835.

Phillips approached the past and his profession with a healthy, spirited, and clear-headed attitude. To him, it was never important whether a historical argument was right or wrong; far more important were the types of questions a historical argument brought to the historical debate. Although he was a late 20th-century historian who relied on modern, computerized techniques of statistical analysis, there was much of the Whig historical tradition in him. He made his scholarship seem effortless, and he possessed the ability to tell a story with wonderful narrative aplomb. As a historian and as a professor, Phillips held sincere, passionate convictions about the past, held incredibly high standards of scholarly excellence, and reveled in the spirited exchange of ideas.

Indeed, Phillips had a well-earned reputation for intellectual integrity and professionalism. He was often on campus between 50 and 60 hours a week, left his door wide open as a sign that all were welcome, and acted upon the favors and requests of his students with absolute willingness and total commitment. Phillips often worked with students who were not his own and committed himself to reading doctoral dissertations, papers, and book manuscripts from students and colleagues in North America and Britain. Toward his graduate students, Phillips was both a mentor and a friend. He was willing to discuss his graduate students' work at any time, returned essays and manuscripts quickly, and had a wonderful penchant for passing on books, articles, reviews, and clippings on subjects in which his students were interested. His intellectual, emotional, and scholarly support was boundless. Most of all, he was uncannily witty. His brief autobiography in the UC Riverside history department's catalog for graduate study begins with this declaration: "John Phillips specializes in modern British history because it is obviously the most important of all. As Calvin Trillin once remarked, while the French were giving the world the art of deep-fat frying, the British were contributing parliamentary democracy."

If he reveled in studying and teaching the past, Phillips also reveled in living in the present. He was a devoted and loving husband and father, a passionate coin collector, an even more passionate poker player, and, as he put it, "a reasonably good shot." He also enjoyed collecting antiques and pewter and traveling to many parts of the globe (especially the United Kingdom or, if not, at least one of its colonies), and, perhaps most of all, spending time in London. He is survived by his wife, Virginia, and his daughter, Jennifer.

—Michael S. Smith
University of California at Riverside