History of the Department of Politics

Although Politics did not become a separate department until 1924, the teaching of this subject at Princeton goes back to the early days of the College. When James Madison 1771 chose Princeton rather than his home state’s College of William & Mary, it was in part because John Witherspoon extended his course in moral philosophy to include the general principles of public law and politics.

The first course labeled political science was introduced in 1871 and was taught by Lyman Atwater. William Sloane took over Atwater’s work in 1883 and offered upper-­class courses in the philosophy of history and political science. The next year Alexander Johnson gave courses in jurisprudence, political economy, and public and international law. English common law was taught as a graduate-­level course.
When Woodrow Wilson 1879 joined the faculty in 1890 to fill the vacancy caused by Johnson’s death, the curriculum in political studies was extensive. By 1896, the study of philosophy included history and political science under Sloane, jurisprudence under Wilson, and political economy under Winthrop More Daniels, who had come to assist Wilson in 1892.

In 1898, history and political science became simply history, and political economy became political economy and sociology. In 1904, when Wilson, as president, reorganized the curriculum into 11 departments, History, Politics, and Economics were reassembled as a single department. At Wilson’s insistence, the term “politics” replaced political science, as it remains today.

When Wilson’s “preceptor guys” began to arrive in 1905, notable additions in politics were Edward Corwin, Charles McIlwain, and William Starr Myers, all of whom had been trained as historians. In 1913, when the centrifugal forces of specialization again asserted themselves, History and Politics, and Economics and Social Institutions, became two separate departments. Politics broke off in 1924, with Corwin, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, as chair. Corwin stands among the giants of American constitutional scholars and, from 1925 until the end of World War II, graduate study in politics at Princeton primarily meant work with Corwin. During this period, graduate students were few but highly accomplished.

At the undergraduate level, Corwin’s course Constitutional Interpretation (“Con Interp”) featured source material and required students to write opinions in cases currently pending in the Supreme Court. It enjoyed a reputation of being the toughest course in the University; in succeeding generations, and to this day, it has consistently been voted most valuable by seniors.

Princeton’s response to Wilson’s call in his sesquicentennial address to be “in the nation’s service” took a practical turn in 1930 with the establishment of the school of Public and International Affairs, initially headed by politics professor Harold Dodds *14 (later president of the University), and the Princeton Survey in State and Local Government under the direction of John Sly. In 1932 a team of 21 Princeton faculty members, including seven from politics, worked under the direction of Dodds to compile a comprehensive survey of the government of New Jersey with a view to recommending economies without impairing essential services.

Also in 1932 Harwood Childs came to Princeton to teach and research public opinion, then an uncharted academic field. Childs founded and edited the Public Opinion Quarterly, which in a relatively short time became one of the most prestigious journals in the field of politics. Childs and his colleague, international law specialist John Whitton, authored propaganda that was distributed abroad by short wave programs during World War II.

George Graham joined the department as part of a drive in the 1930s to expand the curriculum to include public affairs, domestic and international. A specialist in public administration, Graham was in Washington throughout World War II with the US Bureau of the Budget. To this day, the Politics department’s connection with the school of Public and International Affairs has meant that many faculty members are engaged in public service. Faculty such as Aaron Friedberg and Anne-­Marie Slaughter ’80 have taken public service leaves to fill high-­ranking positions in presidential administrations.

After 1950, politics at Princeton moved increasingly toward a scientific approach that included quantitative analysis, comparative study of foreign systems, and international relations. Even “Con Interp,” under the direction of Walter Murphy and later Robert George, broke new ground by taking a quantitative and comparative approach. In the mid1990s the department took a major step toward more methodological breadth when it appointed three of the country’s most prominent scholars in the quantitative areas of the field: Larry Bartels, Thomas Romer, and Howard Rosenthal.

From the 1960s through the present, the intellectual diversity of the department has broadened. Offerings have encompassed the whole range of politics: domestic and international, normative and positivist, as well as theoretical and empirical. In the first decade of the 2000s, the department made major strides, providing better support for junior faculty to increase the rate at which they were promoted to tenure, and in one year alone, 2004, making 10 new appointments to the faculty.

Today the department is one of the largest and most intellectually diverse political science programs in the world, and one of Princeton’s largest departments with nearly 60 faculty, 150 undergraduate concentrators, and 140 graduate students.

The department currently has six main subfields for graduate study: American politics, comparative politics, international relations, political theory, formal and quantitative methods, and public law. At the undergraduate level, popular courses now include not only the classic Constitutional Interpretation, but also Introduction to Quantitative Social Science, the international relations course Grand Strategy, and Political Theory.

The department’s intellectual breadth is matched by the strength and depth of its faculty. Since 1966, 41 members of the department have been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Consistent with this faculty strength, the graduate program is one of the top-­ranked in the country, and every year graduates go on to top positions at leading universities in the United States and around the world.

Before Princeton became coeducational at the undergraduate level in 1969, the Politics department enrolled women in its graduate program. Politics was also among the first departments to admit Black students for graduate study. In 2020 the department’s tenured ranks included 11 women, representing more than 28 percent of its total tenured faculty. The department also had four Black faculty members, two of them tenured.

The department’s early chairs served lengthy terms but beginning in the 1970s the position of chair has rotated and been held by faculty from the range of its subfields. Its most recent chairs, for example, include Helen Milner from international relations, Nolan McCarty from American politics, and Alan Patten from political theory.

From the beginning of its history, Princeton has appreciated the educational requirements of a free society. Reflected in the offerings of its Politics department is recognition that citizens need to understand not only the organization, operation, and functions of government, but also the intersections between government and industry, commerce, finance, law, and international relations. Students should learn about people as well as things, and moral philosophy is as basic now to the study of politics as it was in Witherspoon’s time.

Through the diversity of its instructors and program, as well as its ecumenical approach, the Politics department continues to conduct ground-­breaking research with both practical and theoretical applications, and to prepare students for lives of service to their communities, their nations, and humanity.

From Robert K. Durkee's The New Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (2022).