John Spencer Bassett

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
John Spencer Bassett
Bassett in 1891
BornSeptember 10, 1867
DiedJanuary 28, 1928(1928-01-28) (aged 60)
Alma materDuke University
Johns Hopkins University
OccupationProfessor, historian
EmployerSmith College
Spouse(s)Jessie Lewellin
ChildrenRichard H. Bassett
Margaret Byrd Bassett
Parent(s)Richard Baxter Bassett
Mary Jane Wilson

John Spencer Bassett (September 10, 1867 – January 27, 1928) was an American historian. He was a professor at Duke University (then Trinity College) best known today for the Bassett Affair in 1903 when he publicly criticized racism among Southern elites, and called Booker T. Washington, "all in all the greatest man, save General Lee, born in the South in 100 years." In the face of widespread outrage, the college trustees refused to accept Bassett's resignation by a vote of 18 to 7. After Duke, he became a professor of history at Smith College in Massachusetts.[1] and was the Executive Director of the American Historical Association for many years.

Early life and education[edit]

Bassett was born September 10, 1867 in Tarboro, North Carolina.[2] John Spencer Bassett was the second of seven children of Richard Baxter Bassett (son of Richard and Caroline Spencer Bassett) who was born September 20, 1832 in Williamsburg, Virginia and died March 25, 1902 in Goldsboro, North Carolina; and Mary Jane Wilson (daughter of John Wilson and Susannah Dunn of Maine) born November 7, 1845 in Edgecombe County, North Carolina, and died September 1, 1903 in Durham, North Carolina. Both of his parents are buried in Willow Dale Cemetery in Goldsboro, Wayne County, North Carolina.

He entered Trinity College (now Duke University) in 1886, as a junior, graduating with an A.B. in history. In 1894 he earned a Ph.D in history from Johns Hopkins University, under the direction of Herbert Baxter Adams. As one of the first PhD's trained at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, he was introduced new models of scholarship to college education.


The Bassett Affair[edit]

President Roosevelt praised the university.

In 1902 Bassett launched the South Atlantic Quarterly, a journal whose purpose was to promote the "literary, historical, and social development of the South."[3] It was from this journal that Bassett began to challenge more aggressively the southern press and prevailing sentiments about southern history and issues revolving around race. In October 1903 he published an article in the South Atlantic Quarterly titled "Stirring Up the Fires of Racial Antipathy" triggering a controversy that nearly cost the young professor his job. In the article, he spoke about improving race relations and gave praise to numerous African Americans. Near the end of the article, he wrote "...Booker T. Washington [is] the greatest man, save General Lee, born in the South in a hundred years..."

This led to an outpouring of anger from powerful Democratic Party leaders as well as the media and public; the most vociferous of which was the Raleigh News and Observer and its editor, Josephus Daniels. Many demanded that Bassett be fired and encouraged parents to take their children out of the university. Due to immense public pressure, Bassett offered his resignation if the Board of Trustees requested that he do so; the Board of Trustees then held a meeting to decide the fate of Bassett. In the end, they voted 18-7 not to accept the resignation citing academic freedom. In their decision, they wrote, "We are particularly unwilling to lend ourselves to any tendency to destroy or limit academic liberty, a tendency which has, within recent years, manifested itself in some conspicuous instances, and which has created a feeling of uneasiness for the welfare of American colleges [...] We cannot lend countenance to the degrading notion that professors in American colleges have not an equal liberty of thought and speech with all other Americans." In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt commended Trinity and Bassett's courageous stand for academic freedom while speaking to the university. He told the school, "You stand for Academic Freedom, for the right of private judgment, for a duty more incumbent upon the scholar than upon any other man, to tell the truth as he sees it, to claim for himself and to give to others the largest liberty in seeking after the truth."

Post-affair career[edit]

In 1906, he became a professor at Smith College in Massachusetts.[4][5] After 1919, he was the long-time secretary (Executive Director) of the American Historical Association, and helped to stabilize its finances through an endowment, he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1921.[6]

He wrote numerous books on North Carolina, a major biography of Andrew Jackson, several textbooks, and produced carefully edited editions of important primary sources, most notably his seven volume Correspondence of Andrew Jackson (1926-1935).

Personal life[edit]

In Forsyth, North Carolina on August 10, 1892, John Spencer Bassett married Jessie Lewellin, she was born January 31, 1866 in Clarksville, Mecklenburg County, Virginia; died April 3, 1950 in Northampton, Massachusetts. John Spencer Bassett and Jessie Lewellin Bassett are buried in the Bridge Street Cemetery, Northampton, Massachusetts, they had two children:

Bassett died 27 January 1928 in Washington, DC.


  • A freshman residence hall on Duke's East Campus is named for Bassett.


  1. ^ Doherty p 28-29
  2. ^ "John Spencer Bassett, 1867-1928". Documenting the American South. University Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Retrieved May 20, 2011.
  3. ^
  4. ^ "Action, Objectivity and the Bassett Affair". Duke Libraries: University Archives. Retrieved May 20, 2011.
  5. ^ Doherty p 28-29
  6. ^ "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved May 20, 2011.

Further reading[edit]

  • Doherty, Herbert J. "John Spencer Bassett" in Clyde N. Wilson, ed. Twentieth-century American Historians (Gale Research Company, 1983) pp 19–32
  • Stephenson, Wendell H. "John Spencer Bassett as a Historian of the South," North Carolina Historical Review (1948) 25:289-317

External links[edit]