Born in Winsted, Connecticut, his family soon moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, where he grew up. Brinton attended the public schools there before entering Harvard University in 1915. His excellent academic performance enabled him to win a Rhodes Scholarship to attend Oxford University. Receiving a Doctor of Philosophy (D.Phil.) degree there in 1923, Brinton began teaching at Harvard University that same year, becoming full professor in 1942 and remaining at Harvard until his death. He served as president of the American Historical Association, the professional association of historians, as well as the Society for French Historical Studies.
For many years he taught a popular course at Harvard known informally to his students as “Breakfast with Brinton.”
Brinton was known for his witty, convivial, and urbane writing and commentary, and was fluent in French. During WWII he was for a time Chief of Research and Analysis in London in the Office of Strategic Services. He was also Fire Marshal for St. Paul‘s Cathedral in London, which withstood the Blitz with minor damages. After the war, he was commended by the United States Army for “Conspicuous Contribution to the Liberation of France” and was Chairman of the Society of Fellows at Harvard in the late 1940s. Among other figures, Fellows during that period included McGeorge Bundy and Ray Cline, who were quite influential in national security and intelligence.
In 1968, Crane Brinton testified at the Fulbright Senate hearings on the Vietnam war as to the nature of the Vietnamese opposition. He died in September 1968.
Brinton wrote a review of Carroll Quigley‘s book Tragedy and Hope. Among those his scholarship inspired were Samuel P. Huntington, who cited Brinton many times in his book Political Order in Changing Societies, and Robert Struble, Jr., in his Treatise on Twelve Lights.
His books include:
- The Jacobins: An Essay in the New History (1930), a detailed account of the political radicals of the French Revolution
- A Decade of Revolution (1934), a study of the French Revolution
- The Lives of Talleyrand (1936), a biography of Talleyrand with a uniquely favorable perspective
- The Anatomy of Revolution (1938, revised 1965)
- Ideas and Men: the Story of Western Thought (1950, 1963), an account of western thought from ancient Greece to the present
- A History of Western Morals (1959), an account of ethical questions
- The Shaping of the Modern Mind (1963), an abridged version of his Ideas and Men
- The Americans and the French (1968), an attempt to explain the often difficult relations between two long–time allies.
Crane Brinton’s ‘Last Lecture’
The following was gotten from the papers of Crane Brinton at the Harvard Archives by Beezone.
Note: The talk that Crane Brinton gave does not quite match Dan Sheehan’s account. In any case, it does put ‘the meaning of life’ front and center in ‘the greatest of all ideas.