Trinity College's most renowned professor is fondly remembered on campus but hardly in a fashion that recognizes the totality of his accomplishments. When John Spencer Bassett is mentioned it is almost always in reference to the Bassett Affair in 1903, the cornerstone of the university's policy of academic freedom, which was, indeed, a significant event in the evolution of academic freedom in the history of higher education. But while of great significance, dwelling on that incident does little to reveal the personality and accomplishments of the man who would be a strong candidate in a debate on the most influential faculty member in the history of the institution.
Born in rural eastern North Carolina in 1867 amid the poverty of a defeated South, Bassett had intermittent schooling until his devoutly Methodist parents sent him to their church's college, Trinity, then in Randolph County. Entering as a junior in 1886 he experienced the arrival of a new president, John F. Crowell, for his senior year. Crowell came from the North unencumbered by southern tradition and prejudices and full of zeal for educational reform. Infused with the excitement of research in original sources and with a broadened perspective learned in the new courses of sociology and economics, introduced by Crowell, Bassett graduated with a degree in history. He began teaching in the public schools of Durham but he soon headed north to Johns Hopkins University to earn a Ph. D. degree in the famous seminar of Herbert Baxter Adams. After Trinity relocated to Durham Bassett returned but this time with the best education then available in his field and as professor of history at his alma mater. Of Adams, Bassett later wrote, "You have been to me more than an instructor. You have given me sparks of yourself, and you have made me hope that I might be a useful man in some not unimportant way."
At Trinity, Bassett was a very popular teacher who had the willingness to work hard and the discipline to balance his teaching with his primary love of research and writing. Yet his devotion to his students was legendary. When tragedy such in one family a student's aunt implored Bassett to comfort the young man because her nephew had spoken of his great admiration for his professor. Another student made an intriguing comment about Bassett, writing, "He is the one faculty member who believes that Jesus Christ died for freshmen too."
Bassett did not hesitate to take on responsibilities outside the classroom. He revitalized the Trinity College Historical Society which had been founded by his predecessor, Stephen B. Weeks, to foster the study of southern history. Bassett opened an historical museum, turning the entire college community into collectors in the process. Believing that everyone could collect, if not write, his ulterior motive was to acquire a body of materials for historical research. Students, administrators, and alumni combed their attics donating Confederate money, Indian relics, travel souvenirs, and political memorabilia as well as volumes of books, pamphlets, religious and secular newspapers, maps, and manuscripts. After a few years Bassett proudly reported to Adams that over 2,000 documents had been collected for use in primary research. Soon "manager of the library" was added to his varied duties.
In 1906 an analysis of society meetings revealed that historical presentations had been made by 53 students, 38 faculty and 6 visiting scholars. Following the Hopkins example of a series of published research, Bassett began an annual publication of historical papers of the Trinity society in 1897. At first a cheaply reproduced set of reprints of student articles from the campus magazine, The Archive, the series became more sophisticated and widely distributed when the administration enthusiastically endorsed it. Some noteworthy early articles were on the Ku Klux Klan, the North Carolina Manumission Society, and the North Carolina Governor during Reconstruction, William W. Holden. Bassett proudly wrote Adams, "So far as I know, this is but one of three [academic] historical publications in the South. It is the only one in North Carolina."
The society also sponsored an annual patriotic town-gown civic rally intentionally set on February 22, the birth of George Washington, and not on a date commemorating a Confederate hero. Of the historical society a respected historian later wrote, "There is reason to believe no local historical association ever succeeded better than the Society at Trinity College in effecting its program." In yet another corollary to his passion for learning, Bassett launched a secret student honor society based on academic distinction and service. Named 9019, presumably because nineteen qualifying members had averages of above ninety, the society was a precursor to Phi Beta Kappa which was chartered in 1919.
Surprisingly these extracurricular endeavors were carried on despite a teaching load of fifteen and sometimes eighteen hours a semester. Growing slowly in its early years in Durham, Trinity did not have the means to support more than a single faculty member per discipline. Having to teach history courses far afield of his primary interests, Bassett once privately lamented over the continuance of a "troublesome" French class. Intermittently he introduced new courses such as a senior seminar in Contemporary History which emphasized class reports with special attention to Southern development. Another course, the History of North Carolina, offered students a chance "to learn methods of original research and to gain an impetus to historical writing and the collection of historical materials."
Extremely popular on campus and confident in his ability which was earning accolades in the region and nation, Bassett, nevertheless, had periodic misgivings about life at Trinity and in his native South. He believed his salary to be inadequate for growing family responsibilities and the teaching load constantly interfered with time for research and writing. He also became exasperated at the slow pace of change in the region. Seeking a wider audience than a single college campus, he successfully launched a journal of thought and action, The South Atlantic Quarterly, in 1902. An editorial in that journal and the resulting clamor for his dismissal from the college faculty by Democratic political leaders in the state, rudely altered the comfortable position he had attained at Trinity. In 1896, he had written Adams, "There are a lot of fools in N. C. and it takes some time to lick them into shape. . . . Trinity is about the only place in the state that is trying to do it [but]. . . as long as the fool- killing is to go on I want to be here to see the fun." Unfortunately John Spencer Bassett became among the hunted.
Clearly one of the hardest working and most respected men at Trinity, Bassett quickly earned regional and national renown as well. Yet his lasting significance is perhaps more as a promoter of historical scholarship than author. His interests were so varied he did not leave a lasting interpretative theme upon a single subject of American history nor did he have the opportunity to train a group of graduate students in a particular methodology. His forte was in inspiring individuals to question orthodoxy and seek "truth." His vehicle was the "new history" based on original research in primary sources. He was a significant promoter of collecting historical materials as well as an accomplished practitioner in using a variety of sources in interpreting the past. Like many southern intellectuals of his era, he found it difficult to balance an impulse for reform with his scholarly training. He began with the South as his primary laboratory but he moved on to more national themes as his scholarship matured and he moved to New England to live.
At the beginning of the 1897-98 academic year Bassett examined the status of history in the South and revealed a bit of his philosophy in an address to the Trinity College Historical Society. In outline he discussed three summary statements: 1) there is a loose idea of what shall be good history, 2) there is little demand for proper experience of those who write history, and 3) there is a dearth of system or industry in the collection of historical documents. Good history, to Bassett, was not the all too common ancestor worship, simple preservation of anecdotes, or self-serving memoir. It was instead a faithful, systematic, comprehensive record of our heritage. In short, it was serious, hard work. He insisted that the practice of history should be left to trained professionals who must weigh evidence, have a scientific spirit for facts, have knowledge of other places and times, and above all have a facility in coming to historical judgments. Hitting close to home, he believed that "in the South, the Confederate-Brigadier-General kind of an historian" was "a snake which ought to be hit whenever possible." Finally, pride and loyalty were not sufficient qualifications to write history. Original materials were vital to record and interpret the past.
Bassett practiced this philosophy by using a variety of resources like diaries, court reports, laws and codes, newspapers, and published colonial records to write numerous articles, monographs, textbooks, and edited works. His subjects ranged from colonial and ante-bellum North Carolina history to the League of Nations. His contribution to the American Nation Series, The Federalist System, 1789-1801, was highly praised as was his two volume Life of Andrew Jackson and six edited volumes of the Correspondence of Andrew Jackson. An account of the Southern plantation overseer objectively revealed an aspect of the plantation system that had been overlooked in favor of attention to planters and slaves. In addition he encouraged others to publish by editing the Trinity College Historical Papers and founding The South Atlantic Quarterly, "a journal devoted to the literary, historical, and social development of the South."
Ironically, it is as a promoter of reform in a shift of emphasis from his professed ideal of scholarly objectivity for which John Spencer Bassett is best remembered. His primary purpose in founding The South Atlantic Quarterly at Trinity College in 1902 was to promote the "liberty to think." Patterned after the Sewanee Review, Bassett sought "sober and instructive articles" to appeal to an "audience of serious minded Southerners." He often wrote editorials on selected themes in certain issues. Given the times, a discussion of race was inevitable. Bassett did not shy away from the controversial topic. One of his articles, "Two Negro Leaders," was pathfinding. In it he contrasted the lives of Booker T. Washington and William E. B. DuBois, thus becoming one of the first scholars to appreciate the significance of the two schools of thought that emanated from their differing philosophies. In his thoughtful analysis Bassett said that there should be vocational education for the many, which was Washington's view, and that there should be cultural education for the few which was the view of DuBois, and that there should be a sympathetic attitude on the part of white people toward Negro advancement in both directions. His views and thoughtful articles by others in the journal were read and praised by southern liberals and northern scholars, but by and large ignored by most Southerners, especially conservative leaders.
To gain attention, Bassett later admitted to doing a very unprofessional thing. With galley proofs of an editorial in hand, he inserted a sentence praising the life of Booker T. Washington and ranking him second in comparison to Robert E. Lee of Southerners born in a hundred years. Such a sentiment invited controversy at a time when race baiting was commonplace due to the revival of bitter partisan politics with the division of the Democratic Party and the rise of the Populist third party and revival of the Republican Party. State Democratic leaders in nearby Raleigh who were also represented on the Trinity College Board of Trustees demanded that Professor Bassett be fired. When the attack spread to the college and parents were urged to withdraw their children from school and churchmen were encouraged not to recommend the college to prospective students, Bassett offered his resignation. Lines clearly were drawn between a partisan Democratic press that blatantly referred to the historian as "Professor bASSett" who threatened the accepted "southern way of life" and between proponents of the then developing concept of academic freedom. On December 2, 1903, at about 3:00 a. m., the Trinity Board of Trustees voted 18 to 7 not to accept the resignation of Bassett. Jubilant students who had been listening to the debate through sky lights and heating registers built bonfires and celebrated until dawn. It was later revealed that President Kilgo and the college faculty were prepared to resign if the trustees had voted to dismiss Bassett. A year later President Theodore Roosevelt spoke in Durham extolling Trinity's courageous stand for academic freedom.
Trinity basked in favorable publicity following what has come to be called the "Bassett Affair" and despite predictions to the contrary enrollment continued to increase. Rumors circulated almost immediately that Basset would leave and he built an impressive new house, still standing at 410 N. Buchanan Boulevard, in part to prove otherwise. Nevertheless, when teaching offers materialized from Smith College and Yale University, he accepted the offer from Smith and moved to Northampton, Massachusetts in 1906. Bassett never commented publicly on his move but he alluded to several reasons in private correspondence. There was no question that he welcomed a reduced teaching load with increased time for research and writing. He also looked forward to living in New England. He confided to his Trinity colleague, William K. Boyd, that the South was too used to antiquarianism and arousement instead of history and scholarly thinking , a state, he believed, any cultured community ought to have long passed. He also tired of the tension he felt between his role as a scholar and the pull to be a reformer in a region he cared very much about. He concluded that he could not write history and direct public sentiment at the same time. His decided first choice was to write history. Bassett corresponded with numerous friends in the South throughout his life and he worked diligently to get southern topics included in meetings of professional associations. Living until 1928, he never lost his love for his native region, although he never regretted his move north either.
[This article is based in part on "John Spencer Bassett as a Historian of the South" by Wendell H. Stephenson, North Carolina Historical Review, July, 1948, and "The Negro in the Thinking and Writing of John Spencer Bassett" by Wendell H. Stephenson, North Carolina Historical Review, October, 1948. Bassett's Papers have been donated to and opened for research at the Library of Congress in Washington D. C.]
© 1995 William E. King.
University Archivist, 1972-2002
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