Historian, professor, and author
Born April 18, 1964, in Glasgow, Scotland; son of Campbell (a physician) and Molly (a physicist) Ferguson; married Sue Douglas (a media executive), 1994; children: three. Education: Earned degree (first-class) in history from Magdalen College, Oxford University, 1985.
Addresses: Office —Harvard University, Center for European Studies, 27 Kirkland St., Cambridge, MA 02138.
Hanseatic scholar in Hamburg and Berlin, West Germany, 1986; junior research fellow, Christ's College, Cambridge University, 1989-90; lecturer and fellow, Peterhouse College, Cambridge, 1990-92; fellow and tutor in modern history, Jesus College, Oxford University, 1992-2000; first book, Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation, 1897-1927 , published in Britain, 1995; professor of political and financial history, Jesus College, Oxford, 2000-02; Herzog Professor in Financial History, New York University, Stern School of Business, 2002-04; professor of international history, Harvard University, 2004—. Also Houblon-Norman fellow, Bank of England, 2000-01; Hoover Institution, Stanford University, senior fellow, 2002. Writer of op-ed articles for the New York Times. His books Empire and Colossus were both the basis of British television series.
British historian Niall Ferguson has produced a number of well-reviewed books examining the economic, political, and social forces that propel historical change, particularly in the modern civilization of the Western world. The Harvard University professor first rose to prominence in Britain for his well-developed assertions that imperialism—the extension of one nation's power over another, often by force—has not been entirely detrimental to the world's citizenry. Subsequent books by Ferguson, such as Colossus: The Price of America's Empire , critique the United States' foreign policy. That 2004 work, he told Victoria James in Geographical , "is a book designed to make people uncomfortable. It says to liberals, 'American hegemony may potentially be a force for good.'"
Born in 1964, Ferguson is a native of Glasgow, Scotland. His father was a physician, and his mother a physicist, but it was his grandfather, a journalist, who encouraged his career as a writer. Ferguson's first book was a tinfoil-covered tome that featured his parodies of ancient Greek myths, which he completed at the age of ten. He was schooled at Glasgow Academy, and went on to Oxford University, where he studied English and history. After earning his degree in 1985, he spent the remainder of the decade researching German economic history in Berlin and Hamburg, while writing articles for British newspapers.
During the 1990s, Ferguson held a series of academic posts at Oxford and Cambridge universities before advancing to a professorship at Jesus College at Oxford in 2000. His first book, Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation, 1897-1927 , was published in Britain in 1995, but it was 1998's The Pity of War that secured his reputation as the rebel among a new generation of British historians. In it, he sought to shatter the ten great myths of World War I, including the long-cherished assertion that Britain was forced to go to war with imperial Germany because of the latter nation's aggressive actions. Ferguson theorized that had Britain stayed out of the conflict, the course of history in Europe would have certainly been much different, and likely would have led to a union of European nations in the 1920s, which would have prevented subsequent world war.
Two more books—a history of the legendary Rothschild banking family, and The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700-2000 , which became a bestseller in Britain in 2001—appeared before Ferguson began dividing his time between England and the United States. As a visiting professor of financial history at New York University, he became increasingly intrigued by the influence of American foreign policy and economic power on world events. Several weeks after the al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, he penned a cover story for the New York Times Magazine in which he imagined what New York City would be like ten years into the future. "You need only visit one of those cities—Jerusalem or Belfast—that have been fractured by terrorism and religious strife to get a glimpse" of what life would be like for New Yorkers in 2011, he asserted. "Imagine a segregated city, with a kind of Muslim ghetto in an outer borough that non-Muslims can enter only—if they dare—with a special endorsement on their ID cards. Imagine security checkpoints at every tunnel and bridge leading into Manhattan, where armed antiterrorist troops check every vehicle for traces of explosives and prohibited toxins."
Ferguson's 2003 book, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World , aroused some controversy in Britain for his argument that British imperialism, which at one point controlled a quarter of the world's land surface and more than 400 million inhabitants thereof, was not wholly negative in its impact. Reviewing it for the National Review , David Harsanyi called it "ambitious, provocative, and entertaining. While acknowledging the sins of British colonialism, this illustrated volume gives an enthusiastic nod to the Empire's high moral character and its role in bringing a sometimes regressive and antagonistic world kicking and screaming into modernity's fold."
In 2004 Ferguson took a permanent post as a professor of history at Harvard University, a defection from Britain's academic ranks that was judged to be as much the result of his star power as it was an admission that American academics of his reputation can command astronomical salaries. His 2004 book, Colossus , was made into a television series in Britain, as had Empire before it. The writer of regular articles for the opinion-editorial pages of the New York Times , Ferguson is continually bemused by Americans' lack of historical perspective about its foreign policy. "The lesson of history is that countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq are tremendously difficult to democratise, " he explained to James in the Geographical interview. "Transforming their institutions in your image will take decades and will cost a lot of money."
In the spring of 2005, Ferguson wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times that warned against a premature pullout of U.S. troops in Iraq, as public opinion for such a move began to gather support. He reminded readers of the British military experience in the Middle East during the earlier part of the twentieth century, which failed to quell regional tensions despite a well-equipped and relatively ruthless military machine for the time. Britain's abrupt departure from the area, Ferguson noted, only exacerbated the problems among competing religious and ethnic groups. "No one should wish for an over-hasty American withdrawal from Iraq, " he wrote. "It would be the prelude to a bloodbath of ethnic cleansing and sectarian violence, with inevitable spillovers into and interventions from neighboring countries."
Ferguson is married to former journalist Sue Douglas, with whom he has three children. Though he once wavered in his career between journalism and academia, he believes he made the correct decision. "My parents weren't disappointed by my choice, " he reflected in an interview with the Guardian 's John Crace, "though my father would have preferred me to play rugby for Scotland. Come to think of it, I'd have preferred to play rugby for Scotland."
Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation, 1897-1927 , Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, UK), 1995; Basic Books (New York City), 2001.
(Editor) Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals , Picador (London), 1997; Basic Books, 1999.
The Pity of War , Allen Lane (London), 1998.
The World's Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild , Weidenfeld … Nicolson (London), 1998; published in the United States as The House of Rothschild , Viking (New York City), 1998.
The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700-2000 , Penguin Press, 2001; Allen Lane, 2001.
Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World , Allen Lane, 2003; published in the United States as Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power , Basic Books, 2003.
Colossus: The Price of America's Empire , Penguin Books (New York City), 2004.
Geographical April 2005, p. 51.
Guardian (London, England), February 13, 2001; March 1, 2001; January 9, 2003, p. 16.
Independent Sunday (London, England), September 1, 2002, p. 3.
National Review , May 5, 2003.
New York Times , May 24, 2005, p. A21.
New York Times Magazine , December 2, 2001, p. 76.
Sunday Times (London, England), March 18, 2001, p. 5.
— Carol Brennan