James T. Patterson (born January 1, 1935, in Connecticut) is an American historian, who was the Ford Foundation Professor of History at Brown University for 30 years. He was educated at Harvard University. His research interests include political history, legal history, and social history, as well as the history of medicine, race relations, and education. In 1981-1982, he was the Harold Vyvyan Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University.
Patterson attended the Hotchkiss School before enrolling at Williams College, where he earned a B.A. in 1957. He then served for 6 months in the U.S. Army before taking a job at the Hartford Courant, where, he says, "I was responsible for writing 25 inches of news every day, and I learned to write quickly, using strong verbs, because I knew that the audience was made up of American adults at the breakfast table. This developed my style of writing, which seeks to be strongly narrative."
In fall of 1960, Patterson entered Harvard University, earning an M.A. in 1961 and a Ph.D. in history in 1964. He started his teaching career at Indiana University, moving to Brown University in 1972 until his retirement in 2002.
His first three books (1967-1972) were "straightforward political history. I had always been very interested in politics before moving to academia." For this work Patterson received the Frederick Jackson Turner Award from the Organization of American Historians (1966), two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He was also the recipient of an Indiana University Teaching Award and the Ohioana Award, a book prize for his 1972 volume on Taft.
In the 1970s, Patterson noticed a trend away from the academic writing of political history and toward an emphasis on societal issues such as race, class, and gender. In keeping with this trend, in 1987 he published The Dread Disease: Cancer and Modern American Culture, chronicling the societal reaction to the disease from the 1880s to the 1980s, and exploring the social tensions and the persistence of fear caused by its specter, and how it reveals divisions in American life.
In 1997, Patterson published Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974, volume 10 of the Oxford History of the United States, covering political, cultural, and economic events of the postwar period through the resignation of U.S. President Richard Nixon. It was praised by historians and readers alike for its balanced commentary and readability. In his next four books, Patterson tackled the civil rights case of Brown v. Board of Education, the period from the Watergate era to the Bush v. Gore election of 2000, the Moynihan Report, and the seminal year 1965.
"The historian helps people understand the 'pastness of the past.' We do this with thorough research from original sources. I don't believe that history can be instrumental as a guideline as to how you should act. But it will help you understand the immense variety and oddity of human nature."