Columbians Ahead of Their Time
"We value [history] not by its brilliance, but by its productiveness."

John William Burgess (1844-1931)
Faculty, 1876-1912

John W. Burgess, an academic of sharp, perseverant opinions, is one of the fathers of American political science. His interest in the field began with his undergraduate work in history at Amherst College, and expanded when he studied with Hegelian-minded scholars at the Universities of Göttingen, Leibzig, and Berlin. There, Burgess developed his lifelong interests in German-American relations and graduate study in political science.

He shared these interests with American students while teaching at Amherst and, from 1876 onward, at Columbia University Law School. Burgess also shared his ideas in a series of highly influential works including Political Science and Comparative Constitutional Law (1890); The Civil War and the Constitution, 1859-1865 (1901); The Reconciliation of Government with Liberty (1915); and Recent Changes in American Constitutional Theory (1924). Through these works, Burgess argued for a scientifically derived model of history in which civilizations progress toward humanist goals. "In all the convulsions of political history, described as advance and reaction," he wrote, "the scientific student of history is able to discover that the zigzags of progress are ever bearing in the general direction which the combined impulses toward nationalism and humanism compel." Burgess's ideas both impressed and annoyed reviewers; G. Middleton wrote in a contemporary review, "Professor Burgess brings a rich erudition and it must be confessed some prejudices." More recent evaluations of Burgess are sweeter: Albert Somit and Joseph Tanenhaus, in The Development of American Political Science, enthuse: "on reexamination, Burgess ranks not only as the 'father' of American political science, but among the truly great figures in history. His aspirations for a scientific politics, grasp of scientific method, insistence upon broad interdisciplinary training, and concern with systematic theory set a standard rarely surpassed from his day to the present."

But Burgess is not solely—or even primarily—revered for his scholarship. As Michael Kraus and Davis Joyce point out in The Writing of American History, "John W. Burgess is more likely to be remembered for his work in founding and building up the school of Political Science at Columbia University and his many years of teaching service than for his contributions to American history." In his first four years at the University, Burgess worked with Nicholas Murray Butler to create Columbia's political science department, meant to train students for public service. The program, which was approved in 1880, combined coursework from constitutional history, law and legal history, diplomacy, public administration, political economy, and statistics. It was the first such department in the U.S., and its formation was chiefly responsible for Columbia's transition from a college to a university. Burgess was also chiefly responsible for keeping women out of Columbia during his tenure. By barring them from the school, however, Burgess may be partly responsible for the strength of women's studies at Barnard and Teachers Colleges. As Rosalind Rosenberg explains: "If Burgess had accepted the admission of women to Columbia College...he would not have lived to see Columbia become the foremost training ground of female academics in the country."

Read more about Burgess in the Columbia Encyclopedia.

Co-founder of political science at Columbia

Burgess's department, ranked first in the nation

Write Columbia's History

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Columbians Ahead of Their Time

Columbians have changed the world and how we see it.

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