Before he became famous as Mr. Limbaugh’s bête noire, Dr. Nash was widely regarded as a leading figure in so-called New Left history, which rejected the discipline’s traditional focus on elites as the movers of history in favor of everyday people.
His book “Red, White and Black: The Peoples of Early America” (1974), for example, looked at the colonial era through the eyes of Native Americans, working-class whites, and free and enslaved Black people.
Though he spent the rest of his life in Los Angeles, Dr. Nash remained fond of Philadelphia and often used his native city to illustrate his man-on-the-street approach. In “The Urban Crucible: The Northern Seaports and the Origins of the American Revolution” (1979), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, he looked at how shifting political ideas among sailors, dockworkers and other working-class people in Philadelphia — as well as in Boston and New York — played a crucial role in the movement for independence.
“He changed the focus of what people did from the standard study of ideology and ideas to actions on the ground by everyday people,” Mary Beth Norton, a historian at Cornell University, said in an interview.
Dr. Nash saw a continuation between his approach to history and his engagement with contemporary education and grass-roots politics. After the Watts riots in 1965, he joined an organization that supported Black entrepreneurs. He worked to desegregate Pacific Palisades, the wealthy area of Los Angeles where he lived. And after the university’s Board of Regents fired the Black activist Angela Davis from her job as a sociology professor, Dr. Nash led a faculty committee in an attempt to get her rehired.
Though his critics often tarred him as anti-American — or worse — Dr. Nash insisted that he was optimistic about the country.
“If you were a hard-left historian of the United States, you would not have written what he did. He was always optimistic about the United States,” said Carla Pestana, who studied with Dr. Nash as a graduate student and is now chairwoman of the U.C.L.A. history department. “He thought the real story was about ordinary people striving to make the country better.”