In Memoriam: Merton L. Dillon

Merton L. Dillon, professor at Ohio State University, passed away on May 3, 2013. A member of the OAH since 1950, Dillon retired from teaching in 1991. The following remembrance of Professor Dillon was written by Hugh Davis, Professor Emeritus of History, Southern Connecticut State University.

Merton Lynn Dillon (1924-2013)

Merton Dillon, professor emeritus of history at Ohio State University and an OAH member since 1950, died on May 4, 2013, from polymyositis. During his career, he taught a broad array of courses on American history, especially antislavery, slavery, the American South, and the Civil War and Reconstruction. He also guided numerous Master's theses and doctoral dissertations in these subject areas. Merton was a model teacher-scholar who impressed upon his students the necessity of engaging in thorough research In primary and secondary sources. He insisted that his students ask hard questions of the evidence and encouraged them to write succinctly and clearly. Merton was a supportive and attentive mentor to his former students and other historians. Students were drawn to Dillon by his sterling scholarship, his carefully crafted lectures, and his exemplary values. While deeply committed to the principles of justice and equality, he never sought to impose his views on his students. He was a modest man of great integrity who lived and taught by example.

Merton was born on April 4, 1924, in Addison, Michigan. He graduated from Michigan State Normal College in 1945, and then earned his MA in 1948 and his PhD in 1951 from the University of Michigan, where he studied under Dwight Dumond. He subsequently taught at the New Mexico Military Institute (1951-1956), Texas Tech College (1956-1965), and Northern Illinois University (1965-1967), before moving to Ohio State University (1967-1991).

In his dissertation on "The Antislavery Movement in Illinois, 1809-1844," and related articles and two books, Merton reoriented antislavery scholarship away from Garrisonian abolitionism in the Northeast after 1830 and toward antislavery efforts in the West and South prior to the 1830s. His first two books—Elijah P. Lovejoy, Abolitionist Editor (1961) and Benjamin Lundy and the Struggle for Negro Freedom (1966)—reinforced that shift in orientation in antislavery historical studies.

In 1959, Dillon wrote a seminal article, "The Failure of American Abolitionists," which reflected his conviction that abolitionists "failed" because slavery was destroyed by war rather than moral arguments and political pressure. Yet he also came to acknowledge that slaves and their northern black and white allies were instrumental in pushing slavery toward extinction. Dillon most fully developed his analysis of antislavery dissent in The Abolitionists: The Growth of a Dissenting Minority (1974), which remained a leading general study in the field for many years. His belief that slave resistance deeply influenced antislavery ideology and progressively weakened the institution of slavery formed the core argument in his Slavery Attacked: Southern Slaves and Their Allies (1990). Throughout this and other studies, he contended that individual actions and choices played a significant role in shaping history. This theme inspired the essays in a festschrift to Dillon, The Moment of Decision: Biographical Essays on American Character and Regional Identity (1994), edited by Randall M. Miller and John R. McKivigan.

Dillon also remained interested in the sources of southern thought. In his biography of an influential southern historian—Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, Historian of the Old South (1985)—he re-examined the racist underpinnings of southern historical thought. Upon his retirement in 1991, Dillon bought a farm near his family in Michigan, where he continued to read history and mentor his former students and colleagues. He is survived by a sister and a brother.

—Hugh Davis, Professor Emeritus of History, Southern Connecticut State University.

Posted: January 13, 2014
Tagged: In Memoriam