William Lee Miller, Historian of Ethics in Politics, Dies

May 30, 2012 — William Lee Miller, a writer and teacher about ethics and American politics whose latest book, "Two Americans: Truman, Eisenhower, and a Dangerous World," was published April 10 by Alfred A. Knopf, died Sunday in Manhattan. He was 86.

"His great wish," his wife Linda said, "was that he die holding a pencil in his hand – which he almost did.

Miller was born in Bloomington, Ind., and spent his youth in Laramie, Wyo.; Hutchison, Kan.; and Lincoln, Neb., graduating from the University of Nebraska in 1948. He was a graduate student and later a professor at the Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Conn., earning his bachelor's of divinity, summa cum laude, in 1950 and his Ph.D. in religious social ethics in 1958.

Miller always preferred to write for a well-informed general audience. While still a graduate student, he began contributing articles to the Reporter, a biweekly political magazine and the leading voice of liberalism of its day. Known for the intelligence, scholarship and wit of his writing, Miller worked there as a staff writer from 1955 to 1958, later collecting his articles into "Piety Along the Potomac: Notes on Politics and Morals in the '50s" (1964).

He continued to write regularly for the Reporter and, in the intervening decades, has contributed work to many other magazines and journals, including the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, the Yale Review, the New Republic and Commonweal.

Throughout his life, Miller was engaged with politics, both practically and as a scholar and writer. As an undergraduate, he was active in the student Christian movement, with its emphasis on social justice, and was deeply affected by the thinking of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whose book "Moral Man and Immoral Society" he first encountered on his father's bookshelf as a young man. As he began to read, he said he "felt … more or less, like some watcher of the skies, when a new planet swims into his ken." Niebuhr's sense of the duality of human nature, which led him to reject both cynicism and naïve idealism, strongly influenced Miller's life and work.

Miller was active in politics as chief speechwriter during Adlai Stevenson's second presidential campaign, in 1956; as the ghostwriter of a book signed by Hubert H. Humphrey; and as a writer of presidential messages in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare for President Lyndon B. Johnson.

In 1963, while a professor of divinity at Yale, he ran for alderman in New Haven, and he retired undefeated after three terms and many battles over school desegregation, scattered housing and urban redevelopment. His book "The Fifteenth Ward and The Great Society: An Encounter with a Modern City" (1966) is the story of his experiences as a member of the municipal council.

Miller taught in the religion department of Smith College from 1953 to 1955 before returning to Yale. In 1969, he moved to Indiana University, in a joint appointment to the departments of Political Science and Religious Studies. In 1972, he was named founding director of the university's Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions. During these years, he wrote a book about Jimmy Carter and a collection of essays on American political values.

Miller was lured to the University of Virginia in 1982, where he taught for the next 17 years. He chaired the Department of Rhetoric and Communication Studies and directed the Program in Political and Social Thought. While at U.Va., he wrote a series of books about historical figures and events, always with a view to interpreting their moral significance.

He retired as Commonwealth Professor and the Thomas C. Sorensen Professor of Political and Social Thought in 1999, but continued his affiliation with the university as Scholar in Ethics and Institutions at the White Burkett Miller Center.

In addition to "Two Americans," most of Miller's books have been published by Alfred A. Knopf, beginning in 1986 with "The First Liberty: America's Foundation in Religious Freedom," followed by "Arguing about Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress" (1995), "Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography" (2002) and "President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman" (2008).

"Arguing about Slavery" was awarded the D.B. Hardeman Prize for the best book published in 1995 on the subject of the U.S. Congress. In 1992, the University Press of Virginia published Miller's "Business of May Next: James Madison and the Founding."

Miller is survived by his wife, Linda Moore Miller; two daughters, Rebecca Louise Uchida and Cynthia Miller Coffel; two sons, David McCain Miller and Andrew H. Miller; six grandchildren; and two stepdaughters.

A memorial service is planned for the fall in Charlottesville.