Last Lectures

The Man Who Knows Everything

By Randall S. Barton

Students, professors, and alumni all agree: Prof. David Sacks [history 1986–2015] commands his field with a grasp that verges on the superhuman. Over the decades, he earned the reputation at Reed as “the professor who knows everything.”

Prof. Sacks earned his PhD at Harvard, where he studied under the eminent historian Wallace T. MacCaffrey ’42, who was a profound influence. Since receiving his PhD in 1977, he has written more than 25 scholarly articles, published an edition of Thomas More’s Utopia, and authored The Widening Gate: Bristol and the Atlantic Economy, 1450–1700, considered a foundational text in the field of Atlantic history, of which he is a pioneer. “He was one of the first scholars to recognize that English history was always about much more than England,” says Brian Cowan ’92, one of Sacks’ thesis students who is now a professor at McGill University.

Over the years, Sacks taught courses on a dazzling range of topics that crossed geographical, chronological, and thematic boundaries. His courses were among the most intellectually rigorous in an intellectually rigorous college, with notorious reading loads. Several alumni have described him as one of the most challenging professors they have ever encountered. “There was almost no higher praise as a history major at Reed than to elicit a half smile from David by correctly identifying the central idea he was obliquely leading you towards,” says Scott Foreman-Murray ’06. “That smile, perhaps accompanied by a few small nods, was especially well earned if you could meaningfully answer one of his favorite questions, ‘So what?’”

“Never before in my academic life,” recalls Joshua Newton ’06, “had I undergone the kind of intellectual calisthenics that I did in David’s Atlantic World seminar.”

Sacks’ range of knowledge is legendary. “He could tell you that the year Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus was published was the same year that Sabbatai Zevi, the Jewish pseudo-messiah, apostatized to Islam and devastated thousands of Jews throughout the Early Modern world,” says Andrew Berns ’02, now a visiting fellow at Harvard. “He could tell you about Thomas More’s legal career and early education; styles of Latin poetry in the Quattrocento; the price of wool in England and Spain in the sixteenth century; shipping routes between Aragonese possessions in the Mediterranean and northern European ports; excise taxes on mead and malmsey in London; the approximate number of ships the Ottoman fleet lost in the Battle of Lepanto; Rabelais’s method of learning Greek; the economic background to the Dutch Revolt; radical thinkers in Spinoza’s time you never heard of, who may have anticipated some of his political ideas; Milton’s divorce tracts and the economic influences on their composition; classical scholarship in Oxford and Cambridge; Lorenzo Valla’s rhetorical strategies in proving that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery; and so on, ad infinitum.”

Sacks earned many accolades during his career, including a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies, three NEH Fellowships, a Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars fellowship, fellowships to the John Carter Brown and Folger Shakespeare Libraries, and visiting research fellowships to the United Kingdom. In addition to these awards and honors, he sat on the editorial boards of Journal of British Studies and Journal of the History of Ideas, was elected a Life Member of Clare Hall at Cambridge University, has served as a visiting professor at Yale, and is Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.