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date: 22 June 2021

Burgess, John Williamfree

(26 August 1844–13 January 1931)

Burgess, John Williamfree

(26 August 1844–13 January 1931)
  • James Farr

Burgess, John William (26 August 1844–13 January 1931), political theorist, historian, and university dean, was born in Cornersville, Giles County, Tennessee, the son of Thomas T. Burgess, a planter, and Mary Judith Edwards. He was a descendant of Thomas Burgess, who landed in Massachusetts in 1630. Raised in Tennessee in a slaveholding, pro-Union southern Whig family, Burgess became interested in politics early in life upon hearing the orations and debates of Henry Clay, Andrew Johnson, and Alexander Stephens. During the Civil War he served as a federal scout and quartermaster, having barely escaped impressment into the Confederate army. Burgess took away from the war a deepened commitment to American nationalism and an avowed devotion to teaching politics as a matter of reason and compromise.

Burgess attended Amherst College, graduating in 1867; there he was influenced by the Hegelian Julius Seelye. Typhoid fever prevented him from realizing his plans for postgraduate study with Francis Lieber at Columbia College in New York City. Instead he studied law in a firm in Springfield, Massachusetts, passing the bar in 1869. That year he married Augusta Thayer Jones; they had no children. Within a year of her death in 1884, Burgess married Ruth Payne Jewett; they had one son.

From 1871 to 1873 Burgess studied law, history, and political science at the Universities of Göttingen, Leibzig, and Berlin under Theodore Mommsen, Heinrich von Treitschke, Wilhelm Roscher, Georg Waitz, Gustav Droysen, and Rudolf von Gneist. As a result of their broadly Hegelian teachings, Burgess became firmly attached to the philosophy of the modern state and an advocate of Germany and German-American alliances. Before completing his doctoral thesis he returned to Amherst to accept a professorship in 1873. Three years later he accepted a professorship in history, political science, and international law at Columbia. In 1880 Burgess succeeded in establishing the School of Political Science at Columbia. Taking as its models the German university with its emphasis on advanced research, and the École Libre des Science Politiques at Paris with its emphasis on the preparation of men for public service, the school provided the first graduate training in political science and related studies in the United States. As the dean, Burgess drew around him several distinguished colleagues and students-turned-colleagues, including Edmund Munroe Smith, Richmond Mayo-Smith, E. R. A. Seligman, John Bates Clark, Franklin Giddings, Herbert L. Osgood, Frank J. Goodnow, William A. Dunning, Daniel De Leon, and Charles A. Beard. Under Burgess the school published the Political Science Quarterly beginning in 1886, organized the Academy of Political Science, and sponsored an influential series of research monographs.

In 1890–1891 Burgess published his most important and ambitious theoretical work, Political Science and Comparative Constitutional Law. This two-volume treatise became a standard in political theory at the turn of the century. With related works by Woodrow Wilson and W. W. Willoughby, it identified political science as the science of the state: “The national popular state alone furnishes the objective reality upon which political science can rest in the construction of a truly scientific political system.” This conception of political science (and the related studies of law and history) was to dominate American higher education until Progressive-era political scientists directed attention to administration, policy, and the realities of governmental practice. Reflecting the Hegelian influences of his teachers, Burgess developed a theory of the modern state as the progressive realization of human reason through history. He based the state on the nation, which he understood as a body of people unified by language, custom, and culture. The defining characteristic of the state was its sovereignty, giving it a higher legal status than church, corporation, or government.

Burgess rejected what he took to be the fictions of “dual sovereignty” in America and of natural rights anywhere. In the United States there was a single sovereign state founded on popular will despite the existence of several levels of government that administered law and policy. So-called “natural rights” were socially defined immunities against the government granted by the state—that is, by the people in their sovereign capacity. In short, the state was to be distinguished from the government and to limit it. Burgess also thought that the nation-state was the highest form of political life and that it had only been realized in Europe and the United States. The European and American state had a duty to “civilize” other nations and races in the ways of individual liberty. Thus one finds in Burgess not only nationalism and liberal individualism, but imperialism and Teutonic racialism, as well as an elitism that sought to continue restrictions on the franchise.

Burgess historicized his theory of the state in the course of writing histories of American institutions, especially The Middle Period, 1817–1858 (1896), The Civil War and the Constitution (1901), and Reconstruction and the Constitution (1902). Besides their nationalism and institutionalism, these works sought in his words “a more complete reconciliation of North and South,” a task more fully realized by William Dunning and the historiographical school of Reconstruction studies that formed around him. Burgess’s commitment to the ideal of a national state that protected individual liberty—as well as his devotion to German-American relations—was made clear in his inaugural address as the first Roosevelt Professor of American History and Institutions at the Friedrich Wilhelms University in Berlin in 1906, in addresses before the Germanistic Society of America in 1908, in pamphlets for the German-American Literary Defense Committee in 1914, and in two book-length studies of the causes of World War I, The European War of 1914 (1915) and America’s Relation to the Great War (1916). Burgess was extremely distressed by the war, particularly by American and British involvement in it against Germany.

Burgess became dean of the entire Graduate Faculties of Political Science, Philosophy, and Pure Science at Columbia in 1909, holding that position until his formal retirement in 1912. He spent his remaining nineteen years in Newport, Rhode Island. Columbia celebrated Burgess as guest of honor in 1930 on the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the School of Political Science just a few months before his death in Brookline, Massachusetts. His Foundations of Political Science (1933) was published posthumously, as was Reminiscences of an American Scholar (1934), an uncompleted autobiography that selectively traced his life until 1907.


The principal collection of Burgess’s lectures, correspondence, and manuscripts resides in the Columbia University libraries, including the Law School Library. Burgess also wrote The American University: When Shall It Be? Where Shall It Be? (1884); The Reconciliation of Government with Liberty (1915); The Administration of President Hayes (1916); The Russian Revolution and the Soviet Constitution (1919); The Transformation of the Constitutional Law of the United States between 1898 and 1920 (1921); Recent Changes in American Constitutional Theory (1923); and The Sanctity of the Law: In What Does It Consist? (1928). A general bibliography of his writings is in A Bibliography of the Faculty of Political Science of Columbia University, 1880–1930 (1931). R. Gordon Hoxie, “John W. Burgess: American Scholar” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia Univ., 1950), contains biographical information. Burgess figures prominently in various studies of Columbia University, especially Hoxie et al., A History of the Faculty of Political Science, Columbia University (1955). A snapshot of his metropolitan intellectual profile may be found in Thomas Bender, New York Intellect (1987). Burgess’s political theory is treated exegetically in Bernard E. Brown, American Conservatives: The Political Thought of Francis Lieber and John W. Burgess (1951). Shorter but perceptive accounts of his contributions to political science and political theory may be found in Dorothy Ross, The Origins of American Social Science (1991), and John G. Gunnell, The Descent of Political Theory: The Genealogy of an American Vocation (1993).