Race and the Making of American Political Science

By Jessica Blatt | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
“The White Man’s Mission”: John W. Burgess
and the Columbia School of Political Science

Much of the credit for establishing the study of politics as a distinct learned discipline in the United States goes to John W. Burgess. A constitutional scholar, teacher of future presidents,1 and prominent commentator on domestic and foreign affairs, Burgess “more than anyone else … established the disciplinary, professional, and intellectual foundations” of political science in the United States.2 He articulated the paradigmatic theory of the emerging discipline, taught its first cohort of American-trained PhDs, helped to found its first U.S.-based scholarly journal and association, and fought successfully to establish specialized, nonprofessional graduate education of the kind that characterizes doctoral programs in the liberal arts and sciences today.3

Burgess was also an especially committed and vehement racist, even by the standards of late nineteenth-century America. With his colleague (and one-time student) William A. Dunning, Burgess “played a powerful and disreputable part” in cementing the image of Reconstruction as a “hideous tyranny” of “negro domination,” which was later popularized by Thomas Dixon’s Reconstruction novels and D. W. Griffith’s film, The Birth of a Nation.4 Burgess described the black-led Reconstruction legislatures of South Carolina and Louisiana as “the most soul-sickening spectacle that Americans had ever been called upon to behold,” and the legislators themselves as “ignorant barbarians.”5 He held firmly that “American Indians, Africans, and Asiatics” ought never to “form any active, directive part of the political population” in the United States and was skeptical about the wisdom of extending the suffrage to many non-Aryan whites.6 He thought

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