With a new syllabus in development, a new book set for release, and a deep well of practical knowledge, Professor Edward H. Miller emphasizes excellence, engagement, and experiential learning.
If one were to follow the thread of Professor Edward H. “Ted” Miller’s interest in history all the way back to the beginning, they might find themselves near the southernmost point in the U.S., standing on No Name Bridge in Big Pine Key, staring across Bogie Channel. It was there, Miller says, that in 1960 his grandparents heard the sound of gunfire in the night and wondered, later learning that secret trainings for the Bay of Pigs invasion had been carried out a few miles from their home.
“It was fascinating to me,” says Miller, who vacationed there with his family as a child. “Here in Florida, all these people in retirement, and history’s happening literally in their backyard!”
Miller’s father, Franklin H. Miller, who graduated from Northeastern with a degree in electrical engineering in 1967, passed along that morsel of family lore to the young Miller—along with a love for excavating the ways the past informs the present. Such historical tidbits, Miller says, are what fueled the passion that would eventually lead him to become a professional historian.
“My father was a history buff,” Miller says. “He’d take me on trips to Gettysburg, trips to the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, a trip to Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. I’d get to bring a friend and we’d have these wonderful experiences. I got hooked.”
Miller went on to major in history at Providence College. He later earned his doctorate at Boston College in 2013. His dissertation, “Mavericks of the Metroplex: Dallas Republicans, the Southern Strategy, and the American Right,” became his first book, Nut Country: Right Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy, published in 2015 by the University of Chicago Press. A new book, forthcoming this month from the University of Chicago Press, is titled A Conspiratorial Life: Robert Welch, the John Birch Society, and the Revolution of American Conservatism.
“I wanted to write a biography for the educated general reader,” Miller says of that publication. “And Robert Welch was a crucial figure in the history of American conservatism. If you take a look at what was going on in the 1970s at the John Birch Society, they were very much involved in creating the Reagan Revolution. They were involved in the abortion debates and the tax reform debates and the anti-ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) debates that would promote the Reagan Revolution.”
What Miller couldn’t have guessed when he started writing A Conspiratorial Life in 2014 was that his biography of an American conspiracist would be so timely.
“As we got closer to the date of publication, it just kept getting more relevant,” Miller says. “In many ways I wish it wasn’t so relevant. It was kind of a hard book to write, because while I was writing it we were seeing a lot of these same themes—the reluctance to embrace democracy, the conspiracy theories—start to play out.”
Among other things, Miller says, Welch was a fantasist—and perhaps a fabulist—of the highest order.
“Robert Welch provided a completely different perspective from anything that you would read in a history book,” Miller says. “He didn’t believe there was a Sputnik. He thought the Vietnam war was a phony war run by the Kremlin. He had a belief system that was just contradictory to the reality.”
‘Canards’ of election fraud
As Miller points out in a recent Washington Post column, Welch also aired claims of election fraud. In 1952, he announced that the Republican primary had been stolen from Robert Taft by Dwight D. Eisenhower, a false claim that Miller argues laid the groundwork for similar claims about the 2020 election.
“As we mark the anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection,” Miller writes in the column, “it is critical that we recognize that the canards of election fraud have antecedents worth studying.”
Studying historical precedents to get at contemporary truths is also something Miller encourages in his students.
“I think it’s important for academics, especially today, to highlight that what causes history are individual people and individual events acting in time,” Miller says, “not some grand conspiracy controlling everything. And that can be done gently, so that students can see the truth. There are all these conspiracies on the internet now, so in some ways it’s like Sisyphus pushing his rock up a hill, but it’s an important role for education in a society that values truth.”
Now an associate teaching professor and course coordinator at NU Global, Miller joined the College of Professional Studies in 2011. He was drawn to Northeastern’s blend of rigorous scholarship and experiential learning, he says, and he finds satisfaction in both the pursuit of his research and the diverse experiences and backgrounds of his students.
“My definition of happiness is what the ancient Greeks say: the best use of your powers along lines of excellence,” Miller says. “Northeastern embodies that excellence and encourages me to go further with my research. At the same time, I learn so much every semester from our global students. I learn about their cultures, their traditions. It’s fascinating. And when I learn a little bit then I’ll delve a bit more and I’ll perhaps introduce it into the class and dovetail it with the history class, with the American history.”
Mugwumps and suburban warriors
To his writing and teaching, Miller brings not only the perspective of a historian but also that of a former political insider. After earning his bachelor’s degree and before beginning his graduate studies, he worked for eight years as a policy analyst and then research director at the Massachusetts House of Representatives. In those roles, he delved into data and history, working to draft legislation and to brief lawmakers on issues that included health care, social security, and public retirement policy.
It was in the course of that work, Miller says, that his interest in a career in academia first took root. As he researched a bill designed to change civil service laws in Massachusetts, he became fascinated with the legislative history.
“So I took a course at Boston College to explore the origins of the civil service system and why it was established,” he says. “And I came across the mugwumps of the 1880s. They were considered reformers of the time, but they were generally conservatives. I really enjoyed that course.” He enjoyed it so much, in fact, that he wrote an article on the topic that was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Later, when he returned to Boston College to get his PhD, Miller resumed his study of 19th-century conservatism and then encountered Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right.
“That was the book where I said, wow, ok, I’m more interested in the 20th century American conservatism and determining the origins of it” Miller says. “I was a child of the Reagan years, so I was just fascinated by that time. And so I started studying the right in the 20th century.”
Engaging with experts
During his years in politics, Miller also built relationships, many of which now inform his classes. Drawing on a wide professional network, he frequently invites politicians and former colleagues to meet with his students. Students love the experiential aspect of the visits and fieldtrips around Boston, he says, and speakers are consistently impressed with the conversations that ensue.
“This semester, I’m teaching a class on leadership in the NUImmerse program,” Miller says. “I’m working on a new syllabus, and we have a plethora of state, local, and even federal officials who are going to come talk. Students will be fully engaged and asking questions of these leaders.”
It is these kinds of interactions, with students and colleagues, that Miller says he treasures most about the community at Northeastern.
“My dad has always said, ‘you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room, but continue to surround yourself with people smarter than you and you’ll be in a good place,’” Miller says. “And that’s what I try to do at Northeastern. There are so many smart people here. I love the endless supply of interesting conversations. It’s a fantastic place. And my dad walked the halls here. I really consider it my home.”