Clearly one of the hardest-working and most respected men at Trinity, John Spencer 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for proper experience of those who write history, and 3) there is a dearth of system or industry in the collection of historical documents.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, the rise of the Populist third party, and the 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 parents were urged to withdraw their children from the college 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" and as a threat to the accepted "southern way of life"—and 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 Bassett 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.
For Further Research
- John Spencer Bassett Collection, 1802-1998 (view this collection guide)
- John Spencer Bassett Papers, 1770-1978 at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. (view this collection guide)