History of the Department of Politics

The First Half-Century

Although politics did not come into being as a separate department until 1924, the teaching of this subject at Princeton goes back to the early days of the College of New Jersey. We are told that one of the reasons the "Father of the Constitution,'' James Madison, chose Princeton rather than the College of William and Mary was the fact that Witherspoon, the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence, "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 taught by Lyman H. Atwater. William M. Sloane, taking over Atwater's work in 1883, offered upperclass courses in the philosophy of history and political science, and graduate work in history. The next year Alexander Johnson gave courses in jurisprudence, political economy, and public and international law. English common law was available as a graduate course.

When Woodrow Wilson joined the faculty in 1890 to fill the vacancy caused by Professor Johnson's death, the curriculum in political studies was extensive. By 1896, the overall Department 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 Daniels titled his field "political economy and sociology.'' In 1903-1904, as part of a general reorganization of the curriculum into eleven departments, History, Politics, and Economics were "reassembled'' as a single department. On President Wilson's insistence, the name "Politics'' replaced Political Science, and so it has since remained.

Beginning in 1905, the influx of President Wilson's "preceptor guys'' began. Notable additions in Politics were Edward S. Corwin, Charles H. McIlwain, and William Starr Myers, all trained 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 Edward S. Corwin, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence since 1918, as chairman. Having neither taste nor aptitude for administration, Corwin delegated departmental detail to his former student and colleague, William Seal Carpenter, who succeeded him as chairman in 1936.

Corwin stands among the giants of American constitutional commentators -- with Kent, Story, and Cooley. More than any other scholar of our time, he justified and illustrated his own incisive observation: "If judges make law, so do commentators." He was one of the few American scholars honored at the Harvard Tercentenary in 1936.

From 1925 until the end of World War II, graduate study in politics at Princeton meant primarily work with Corwin. During this period graduate students, though small in number, were high in quality: Raymond Leslie Buell, Robert J. Harris, Donald Morrison, John Masland, Clinton Rossiter, and Alpheus Thomas Mason. Best known as a judicial biographer and student of American political thought, Mason succeeded Corwin as McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence in 1947. At the undergraduate level, Corwin's course "Con Interp,'' featuring source material and requiring written opinions in cases currently pending in the High Court, enjoyed the reputation of being the toughest one in the University. Then, as now, seniors also voted it "the most valuable.''

Until the 1930s the political orientation of the department was predominantly Republican, none more ardent than Professor William Starr Myers. Although a fervent admirer of Woodrow Wilson as a teacher, he voted the straight Republican ticket. Author of a history of the Republican party, his hero was Herbert Hoover. Myers's undergraduate lectures, highlighting personal contacts with political bigwigs, were the subject of a favorite faculty song:

"Here's to Myers, William Starr,
Thinks he sees very far.
All the Presidents he knows by sight,
Imagines they're saying, 'Myers, you're right.'''

Myers, a southern gentleman of rare charm, took typical undergraduate jest in stride and went right on taking students into his confidence concerning his close ties with "great men'' in American politics.

The department's most conspicuous non-conformist was Walter Lincoln Whittlesey. In more recent years H. H. Wilson played, at a higher level, a role not unlike that of Whittlesey. For undergraduates he has created an intellectual ferment, prodding them to think seriously about economic, social, and political inequities. More recently, another dissenter, international law professor Richard Falk, has served as a catalyst, provoking colleagues, students, and the country to question the tragedy of Vietnam, long before it was popular to do so.

"Princeton in the nation's service'' under the auspices of the Politics Department took a practical turn in 1930 with the establishment of the School of Public and International Affairs, headed by Harold W. Dodds (later president of the University), and the Princeton Survey in State and Local Government under the direction of John F. Sly. In 1932, Harwood L. 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. With his colleague, international law specialist John B. Whitton, Childs co-authored propaganda abroad by short wave programs during World War II.

During the war members of the department were especially conspicuous in the nation's service. Harold Sprout, who had come to Princeton in 1931, published The Rise of American Naval Power (1943). A pioneering work in a burgeoning field, this book, coauthored by Margaret Sprout, quickly established this husband and wife research and writing team as leading authorities. Sprout served as a Washington consultant for various U.S. departments including State, War, and Navy. From 1943 to 1945, he was a member of the staff of OWI, helping to develop propaganda material toward enemy powers.

George A. Graham joined the department as part of the drive that began 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 U.S. Bureau of the Budget. After the war, he was on call as staff director of the Hoover Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch and consultant in 1951 to the Senate Subcommittee on Ethics in Government.

Meanwhile, members of the department were active in New Jersey state politics and administration. In 1932, a team of twenty-one members of the Princeton faculty (seven drawn from Politics), under the direction of Professor Harold W. Dodds, made a comprehensive survey of the government of New Jersey with a view to recommending economies without impairing essential services. Also serving New Jersey were John F. Sly, chairman of the New Jersey Commission on State Tax Policy, and William S. Carpenter, president of the New Jersey Civil Service Commission. Sly made his mark as a consultant in state and local government throughout the country. His successor, Duane Lockard, a productive scholar no less pragmatic than Sly, brought to his work a liberating humanism.

In 1969, when faculty-student relations reached a crisis stage, it seemed fitting that President Robert Goheen should have asked Professor Stanley Kelley, Jr., to chair a special student-faculty committee to study the administrative structure of the University and recommend alternatives on matters of concern to both faculty and students. For better or for worse, the guiding hand in reorganizing the University as it operates today was that of Kelley, an expert on political parties and campaign techniques.

After 1950, Politics at Princeton moved increasingly toward the scientific approach, toward behaviorism and quantitative analysis, toward comparative study of foreign systems and international relations. Without breaking completely with the Wilson-Corwin-Mason historical tradition, even "Con Interp,'' under the direction of Walter F. Murphy, fifth McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, succumbed to the quantitative and comparative approach. Murphy's Elements of Judicial Strategy broke fresh ground, not only at Princeton but in the study of constitutional interpretation generally.

By the 1960s personnel and offerings encompassed the whole range of politics, domestic and foreign. Professors Robert Tucker and Stephen Cohen specialize in Soviet affairs, Henry Bienen on sub-Sahara Africa, Manfred Halpern on the Middle East, Edward Taft on the American political system. Robert Gilpin explores the impact of science on international relations. Herman Somers, concentrating on welfare systems, helped draft the medicare program. Political theory, once a neglected area, is now represented by Sheldon Wolin, Dennis Thompson, and Paul Sigmund. At long last the presidency is accorded its due under the leadership of a relative newcomer, Fred Greenstein. Researching a wide range of domestic problems and issues, including ecology, Gerald Garvey brings to each one bold and imaginative dimensions.

Long before co-education at the undergraduate level became an irresistible demand, the Politics Department, following the lead of Oriental Languages, had broken the sex barrier by enrolling women in the Graduate School. Politics was also among the first to admit blacks for graduate study.

In due course, the democratic principle also triumphed in the administration of departmental affairs. The department learned from experience what might have been gleaned from books -- "Power tends to corrupt.'' The first two chairmen, Corwin and Carpenter, carried on 22 years. Finally the affairs of the department, concentrated in the hands of the chairman, became so tyranically administered as to drive Mason, Graham, and Sprout to assert the right of revolution, forcing Carpenter's resignation. The coup d'etat was followed by adoption of a constitution that provided, among other things, for a rotating chairmanship: George A. Graham, 1946-1949; Harold Sprout, 1949-1952; George Graham, 1952-1955; John F. Sly, 1955-1959; William M. Beaney, 1959-1961; Marver H. Bernstein, 1961-1963; Stanley F. Kelley, Jr., 1963-1966; Walter M. Murphy, 1966-1969; Duane F. Lockard, 1969-1972; Dennis W. Thompson, Acting Chairman, 1972-1973; Henry Bienen, 1973-1976.

From the beginning of its history, Princeton has appreciated the educational requirements of a free society. For their day, to some extent in ours, Witherspoon and Madison supplied the model. Reflected in the offerings, under the rubric politics, is recognition of the citizen's need to understand not only the organization, operation, and functions of government but also the problems of industry, commerce, finance, and international relations. The student should learn about people as well as things. "Moral philosophy'' is as basic now as in the time of John Witherspoon and James Madison. By the diversity of its instructors and program, as well as its ecumenical approach, the Politics Department continues to maintain Woodrow Wilson's ideal of Princeton in the nation's service.

Alpheus Thomas Mason

From Alexander Leitch's A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).