Desiring to teach at the college level, Jim entered the Harvard Graduate program in history in 1960 and received his PhD four years later in 1964—remarkably quick progress since most graduate students in history took at least six years to complete the program. His first college teaching position was at the Indiana University, where between 1964 and 1972 he progressed from assistant professor to full professor. He 1972 he came to Brown University where he spent the remainder of his teaching career, retiring in 2002 as the Ford Foundation Professor of History Emeritus. While at Brown he served for three years as chair of the History Department and for two years as associate provost of the university.
He has been the recipient of many awards, including NEH and Guggenheim fellowships. He is one of the few American historians to hold both the Harmsworth Professorship at Oxford University and the Pitt Professorship at Cambridge University. His list of publications is enormous and extraordinarily wide-ranging. He began with a book on Congressional Conservatism and the New Deal (1967), which won the Frederick Jackson Turner Prize from the Organization of American Historians. That was followed by a biography of Robert A. Taft and a popular textbook on twentieth-century American history. He went on to write first-rate works on America’s Struggle Against Poverty in Twentieth-Century America (1981) and on the social and cultural history of cancer in America in the twentieth century (1987). In 1996 he published his magnum opus, Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974 in the Oxford History of the United States. This book is the most balanced and fair-minded work that deals with one of the most divisive periods in American history. It was awarded the prestigious Bancroft Prize. His next book on Brown versus Board of Education (2001) is a landmark work on that famous Supreme Court decision. This monograph was followed by another large book in the Oxford History series, Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore (2005), that took the story up to 2000. His most recent books are a superb study of the Moynihan Report (2010) and a stirring work on the fateful and transitional year of 1965 (2012). In all of his work Patterson has demonstrated not only an extraordinary clarity in his prose but a degree of impartiality and evenhandedness rarely seen in the history-writing of recent events. It is very fitting that this eminent historian be inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall o Fame