OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Scott A. Sandage

Portrait of Scott A. Sandage

Scott A. Sandage is a cultural historian who specializes in the nineteenth-century United States and in the changing aspects of American identity. He is the author of Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (2005) and an abridgement of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (2007). His current book project, "Laughing Buffalo: A Tall Tale of Race and Family on the Half-Breed Rez," focuses on mixed-blood families to show how federal Indian policy, court decisions, early anthropologists, folklore, and family traditions have shaped racial identity in the United States. Active as a public historian, he has been a consultant to the Smithsonian Institution, the National Archives, the National Park Service, and the Andy Warhol Museum as well as to the creators of an off-Broadway play, film and radio documentaries, and the 2009 exhibition, "Lincoln in New York: A Bicentennial Celebration." In 1999–2000, he chaired a scholarly panel to recommend inscriptions for the wheelchair sculpture belatedly added to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

12/16 - replacing “The History of Failure and the Failure of History”: How does a culture obsessed with success make sense of failure? Scott A. Sandage contends that failure is the very foundation of the American Dream. Drawing upon examples from the nineteenth century, his work charts the transformation of failure from a business loss to a personality deficit. In this talk, he will discuss the origins and changing meanings of the American habit of labeling ourselves and each other “losers,” his 13-year struggle to complete a book on the subject, and his ultimate acceptance that failure is an inevitable part of everything we do – especially as historians.
My father was born on the Omaha Indian Reservation fifteen years after the U.S. Supreme Court decided that his mother was not an Indian. Neither am I, but like many “part Indian” families with “Indian grandmother complexes” (in Vine DeLoria’s diagnosis), mine traces to an Indian woman and a fur trapper. Their progeny spent four generations on Nebraska's forgotten “Half-Breed Reserve” and on the Omaha Reservation, where the anthropologist and allotment agent Alice Fletcher finally determined that they were not Indians. This lecture tells and takes apart this complicated story, to explore how bureaucratic, legal, political, anthropological, and tribal narratives combine to shape racial identity across generations.
Although Abraham Lincoln called himself "a flat failure" in 1856, scholars of his life and career have generally rejected his self assessment as both inaccurate and unreasonable. Nevertheless, during the twentieth century his litany of pre-presidential setbacks became a classic bit of popular culture, immortalized in motivational posters, newspaper filler items, and continuously reforwarded emails. Unraveling this conflict between memory and history (or historiography), this lecture explores both the changing meanings of failure in modern America and the contest between scholarly and vernacular interpretations of the past.