July 15, 2004
Richard F. Teichgraeber III
This article began in response to a question I agreed to address at a conference commemorating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the American Political Science Association: What light did the event shed on the idea that politics are, or can be, the subject of science? As it happened, the conference took place in the same setting where the APSA was launched, Tilton Memorial Library (now Tilton Hall) at Tulane University, during the course of a near-forgotten joint session of the American Historical Association and the American Economic Association held on Dec. 29-31, 1903.
As I began to look for an answer--mostly in contemporary newspaper and journal accounts of what was done and said in New Orleans--it quickly became apparent what my response would have to be: "Not much."
The primary aim of the figures who spearheaded the founding of the APSA--some 50 members of the AHA and AEA who gathered at Tulane late in the afternoon of Dec. 30, 1903--was to promote the more systematic collection and exchange on legislation at the municipal, state, and national levels. The new association they established, however, did not introduce any new ideas about the study of politics.
When told I had reached something of a dead end, the conference organizer was kind enough to let me address what I persuaded him was a more salient question: Why had the APSA's two parent organizations chosen to meet in New Orleans in the first place?
Not much digging was needed to see that they had come to proclaim the national reach of their relatively new organizations. (The AHA was founded in 1884, the AEA in 1886.) Equally clear--and ultimately more troubling--was that they had come at the behest of the city's cultural and economic elite to celebrate sectional reconciliation and promote the interests of the New South.
Or, to put it more bluntly, the "Twin Conventions" (as one New Orleans newspaper label-ed them) were a Jim Crow reunion, where AHA and AEA conferees who chose to travel to New Orleans from other regions of the country not only had their first sighting of the South's newly segregated social order, but also had advocates of white supremacy among their visible and vocal hosts. How could this have happened? How could hundreds of well-educated and reform-minded men and women who helped to build the foundations of modern American academic culture have gathered freely and without protest in New Orleans at a time when racial segregation and disenfranchisement had just become the new rule of life in the city and throughout the South?
The short answer to this last question--which of course carries a special charge today--is that these issues were probably of no concern to any member of the AHA and AEA 100 years ago. Admirable in so many other ways, America's first generation of academic intellectuals was almost uniformly racist, and simply had no quarrel with the new Jim Crow South. In late December 1903, several hundred men and women from across the country traveled by train to New Orleans to participate in the annual conventions of the American Historical Association and the American Economic Association. During their early years, the AHA and the AEA routinely convened in joint sessions.
But this was the first time they had met anywhere in the South. Attendance was widely representative of all sections and states, with participants descending on New Orleans on Dec. 28 in specially chartered trains from New York and Chicago. The Twin Conventions have been remembered only as the occasion for the founding of the American Political Science Association late on the afternoon of Dec. 30 in what is now Tulane's Tilton Hall. But those who participated in various other proceedings felt they had partaken in an occasion of much broader cultural significance.
To begin with, the list of those who attended the Twin Conventions read like a "who's-who" of American academic social science at the turn of the century. It included some of the era's most influential economists and historians, as well as holders of the nation's first two university chairs in sociology.
Presidents of the University of Arizona, University of California, University of Texas and Texas A&M participated, as did numerous businessmen, civil servants, and lawyers. Newspapers reported that some 50 "lady delegates" were also on hand. While a much smaller community of Southern academics was represented at the Twin Conventions, their contemporary prominence added to the historical significance of the occasion.
Certainly, the most important of these was Tulane's ambitious and talented young president, Edwin A. Alderman. In serving as official host of the Twin Conventions, Alderman not only stood at the center of activity, but appeared to have secured a prominent place for both himself and his university in the nation's emerging academic culture.
The luminaries who traveled to New Orleans to participate in the Twin Conventions also arrived at a propitious time for the city's economic and cultural elite. In 1903, with a population of almost 300,000, New Orleans was the only major urban center in the still overwhelmingly rural South. It was also home to what promised to be the South's leading university and medical school. Finding a suitable theme proved little problem.
The city had staged its own celebration of the Louisiana Purchase centennial earlier in the year. It was ready to celebrate it again, although this time the celebration took place as a national event that also celebrated the South's recovery from the Civil War and the disruptive decades that followed. The spirit of a New South was consolidating around its commitment to national reconciliation, industrial development and education, with New Orleans and Tulane University as two of its focal points. So while the subjects of morning and afternoon sessions of the first day bore on aspects of the Louisiana Purchase, the subjects of AEA sessions on the first day consisted entirely of the South's agricultural and industrial problems.
Finally, the "Twin Conventions" also provided America's first generation of professional social scientists with new evidence of its increasingly significant national identity. By 1903, sober respect for presidents and faculty of American universities was very much in fashion across the country. But the Twin Conven-tions provided the first opportunity for newspapers in the South's largest city to speak at length, and the result was what today might be called a "media event" that celebrated a meeting of academic intellectuals and their allies, at the same time as it served the interests of the New South.
Indeed, for four days New Orleans' white-owned newspapers--the Daily Picayune, States and Times-Democrat--proclaimed the South's infatuation with academic intellectuals, embellishing their front pages with photographs of leading participants, relaying detailed summaries of each day's events and--in the case of the Daily Picayune--even reprinting presentations verbatim.
At the time, the detailed daily reports must have seemed a remarkable triumph for the local organizers, for they both signaled that particular individuals and institutions in New Orleans were poised to make their own contributions to the national university movement, and declared that respect for structures of modern higher learning was well-established across the South.
If history is what we choose to remember, how did we ever come to lose sight of the Twin Conventions? It was the first national gathering of professional academics ever to take place in the South. It was an event showing that cultural leadership across the nation increasingly resided in the universities rather than in churches and governments. Perhaps most remarkably of all, it was also an event reminding us that at the outset of the 20th century the mere appearance in public of the nation's new class of academic intellectuals carried irresistible appeal.
The Twin Conventions, on a first close look, seem a welcome exception to the rule that most academic conferences are forgettable. But what did they accomplish? Hindsight invites us to view the contemporary praise for the Twin Conventions as so much wishful thinking. To begin with, they proved to be the high point of Edwin Alderman's years at Tulane. Departing to become president of the University of Virginia in 1904, he would not stay long enough to make a sustained effort at realizing his ambition to make Tulane the South's leading university. The success the university movement enjoyed in the South hardly compared to what it experienced in other regions.
All that said, however, the Twin Conventions re-main, in at least three respects, an important episode for anyone interested in understanding how accommodation with racism served to promote national growth and consolidation of academic culture.
To begin with, the conventions proved to be a precedent for academic Jim Crow events to come. They also can be viewed as the first reunion event in which academic intellectuals took center stage, and where the appearance of the "brainiest men in America" carried something of the same appeal as nationwide gatherings that featured aging former Confederate and Union soldiers.
More significantly, the presence of so many of the nation's leading academics in New Orleans also served as an occasion for Southerners to verify if their visitors accepted that the terms of sectional healing were understood largely as the South had chosen to define them. A considerable variety of evidence shows that they did, although three brief examples will suffice here.
The first was Edwin Alderman's welcoming address, in which Tulane's president laid out the South's terms of sectional healing for all to hear, explaining clearly and forcefully that the spirit of the New South was defined not simply by its new commitment to national reconciliation, "industrialism" and education, but also by its willingness to "die" with "an amazing oneness of mind for the doctrine of racial integrity or the separateness of the two races."
The second and perhaps more significant example consists of statements by visiting conferees to New Orleans reporters who inquired about their own views of the "Negro problem." What the reporters discovered was reassuring. E.R.A. Seligman observed in an interview with the Times-Democrat that the conference was a occasion for leaders of Northern opinion to learn to "sympathize with the best men of the South in their efforts to solve the Negro problem."
And then there was the "Colonial Reception," which was held at exactly the same time as the APSA was being founded, in the late afternoon of Dec. 30, in the Garden District Mansion of Mrs. T.G. Richardson, then vice president of the Louisiana Historical Society. Here the "lady delegates" of the AHA mingled with "lady members" of the LHS while being served refreshments by African-American women costumed as old "mammies" in blue calico dresses with turbans and bandannas, or as young "quadroon girls" dressed, as the Times-Democrat described them, "in fantastic garb which was worn by them in the olden days in New Orleans."
Finally, to take a full measure of the immediate historical significance of the Twin Conventions, we need to consider it against a broader backdrop of events that had happened earlier in the year 1903.
While the nation's "Negro problem" certainly was not one of the subjects AHA and AEA conferees gathered to examine in New Orleans, they had nonetheless convened at the end of a year historians now see as marking a turning point in the history of American race relations. James M. McPherson, for example, has argued persuasively that, for Northern liberal reformers of both races, an unprecedented array of horrors--beginning with an organized reign of terror in Mississippi, Texas and Georgia in which white tenant farmers drove land-owning blacks off their farms and took their land, and culminating in summer race riots that grew out of lynchings in Delaware and Indiana--made 1903 a watershed year.
It was a year in which there was a shift from accommodation to protest that would lead to the founding of the NAACP. A good case can also be made, however, that a different series of events in 1903 also marked a turning point in how the "Negro problem" would be treated in American academic culture for several decades to come, not the least of which concerned an event that occurred during months before the conventions. The event itself--the near dismissal of John Spencer Bassett from the faculty of Trinity College (now Duke University)--is relatively well-known.
But its connection to the proceedings in New Orleans at the end of that year has been overlooked. In October of 1903, after a summer of extraordinary racial violence had come to a close, progressive young historian John Spencer Bassett published an anonymous nine-page article entitled "Stirring Up the Fires of Racial Antipathy" in the South Atlantic Quarterly, a journal he had established the previous year in an effort to promote "the liberty to think" in Southern states.
At a time when several Northern observers had already warned that the entire nation now seemed to face the prospect of race war, Bassett bravely echoed their views and urged his Southern readers to heed their warning: "There is today more hatred of whites for blacks and of blacks for whites than ever before.
Each race seems to be caught in a torrent of passion, which, I fear, is leading the country to an end which I dare not name." Bassett went on to say that, even in the face of the nation's growing "race antipathy," he expected American blacks "will win equality at some time."
But he also stressed that he had no solution for "the Negro problem," and did not believe it could be solved by "writing anonymous articles or making speeches." The best that could be done to stoke the fires of "race antipathy," he concluded, was for "brave and wise men" to step forward and "infuse the spirit of conciliation" into the "white leaders of white men." Although only 35 years old in 1903, Bassett already had made an impressive mark in his field, both as an innovative and popular undergraduate teacher and as a publishing scholar.
At Trinity, he had founded the Papers of the Trinity College Historical Society (one of a bare handful of regular scholarly publications in the South at the time), established a museum designed to promote undergraduate research, and launched an honor society based on academic distinction. During the late 1890s, he also published pioneering books on slavery and the antislavery movement in North Carolina. In a lecture series at Johns Hopkins, he was perhaps the only Southern white historian to raise the possibility that Reconstruction had not been a colossal mistake. In 1902, he had been a member of the program committee for the AHA's annual convention.
Bassett plainly was no intellectual lightweight, nor one to shy away from controversial topics. But he was altogether unprepared for the storm his South Atlantic Quarterly article would trigger. On Nov. 1, 1903, Jospehus Daniels, a leading propagandist of white supremacy in North Carolina politics, and editor of the highly influential Raleigh News and Observer, reprinted Bassett's article in its entirety, and identified him as its author. In his editorial, Daniels also seized on what proved to be Bassett's most controversial passages--his description of Booker T. Washington as "the greatest man, save General Lee, born in the South in a hundred years," and his assertion that blacks "will win equality at some time"--as evidence that Bassett was unfit to teach or write about race "from the standpoint of a Southern man" and should resign his position immediately.
With only a few exceptions, newspapers in North Carolina and other Southern states followed Daniels' lead. North Carolina's Democratic leaders, some of whom were members of the Trinity College Board of Trustees, also joined the state's newspaper editors in demanding Bassett's resignation. When criticism grew to include hate mail and calls for parents to withdraw their children and for ministers not to recommend prospective students to apply to Trinity, Bassett privately tendered his resignation to Trinity's President John C. Kilgo, who in turn had little choice but to convene the college's board to decide Bassett's fate. In 1903, there was no such thing as tenure at Trinity or any other American college or university.
Only a year before, Andrew Sledd, a young classics professor at Emory University who spoke out for the rights of black Americans, had been forced to resign his position. No one could predict what the Trinity board would decide in its closed session in Durham, N.C., on Dec. 1. In advance of the meeting, one board member ominously proclaimed it would be the "last fight for white supremacy."
But Trinity's president had prepared a brilliant strategy for rescuing Bassett. Kilgo began by turning the tables on Daniels, reading some of his editorials of a year before in which he had defended Andrew Sledd's right to speak freely, asserting that "a college professor ought to have the liberty to think, speak, and write as he chooses without fear of prosecution."
Kilgo then let Bassett's critics on the board have their say before he played his second hand. Recoun-ting Bassett's statements from his private inter-view, Kilgo explained that Bassett's South Atlantic Quarterly article had been misrepresented in the newspapers, and that any careful reader of the article would see that Bassett had posed no challenge to belief in white supremacy.
Eleven trustees would speak over the course of a long and tiring meeting. When the final vote was taken at 3 a.m. on Dec. 2, 18 chose to retain Bassett, seven to accept his resignation.
Kilgo's rescue of Bassett was a remarkably skillful piece of work, and is today rightly remembered as one of the proudest moments in the history of Duke University. But it should not be remembered as a clear-cut triumph for the principle of academic freedom. A close examination of the immediate aftermath of the board's decision invites a more complicated and less cheerful verdict, and, as it happens, a final look at the Twin Conventions.
At the time of the Trinity board's decision, Bassett had made plans to travel to New Orleans to join his friend William E. Dodd on the AHA panel on the "Study and Teaching of History in the South, Past, Present, and Future."
The ordeal of the previous weeks, however, had taken its toll. Exhausted by the storm that had swirled around him, Bassett canceled his appearance at the last moment, pleading an attack of rheumatism. It also seems clear that he had lost his appetite for further controversy. Had Bassett not canceled his trip to the Twin Conventions, or had his case somehow found its way onto its formal agenda, it is possible that the controversy might have been rekindled, and proceedings in New Orleans perhaps would not have faded from memory as soon as they did. It is hard to believe that Bassett was not the subject of informal conversation among members of the AHA and AEA.
It seems safe to say, however, that given the geographical setting of the Twin Conventions, no one in attendance gave serious thought to pro-posing a toast to Bassett's rescue. A case can be made, however, that Bassett ultimately managed to appear in New Orleans, if only as the thinly veiled object of comments by Edwin Alderman near the end of his welcoming address. As he drew to the conclusion of his explanation of why white Southerners were ready to die for "the doctrine of racial integrity," Alderman awkwardly acknowledged that his address was perhaps not the proper occasion for a full discussion of the South's new "doctrine of separateness."
But then Alderman continued: "Discussion of it has become a national disease, and should be quarantined against, for it is getting hysterical and dangerous. My prescription is 'silence and slow time. ...' " The veiled reference to Bassett would have been unmistakable for many in Alderman's audience at the time, as Alderman slammed the window of opportunity for drawing nationwide attention to the controversy that had engulfed his former student. What can, or must, historians conclude about events recounted in this article?
The fact of academic racism evades simple summary, and I suspect historians will never reach a consensus on exactly what share of the burden of American racism the university must bear. Virtually all white Americans, for one reason or another, were openly racist at the start of the 20th century, and their racism undoubtedly would have flourished wihout academic support. But one also has to look very hard to find a bare handful of academic intellectuals who directly challenged conventional wisdom on "the Negro problem," and what one finds can only be described as passing statements that had little or no public impact.
Asked to summarize how "the Negro problem" was viewed by most academic intellectuals during the first half of the 20th century, one clear answer might be: as much by indifference, as by any deeply held views about the perceived moral and intellectual inferiority of blacks. Asked his opinion about "the Negro problem" as he prepared to return to Wisconsin from the Twin Conventions, Richard T. Ely replied: "I have nothing to say." But over time, "having nothing to say" would have devastating results.
In the South, it would be powerfully reinforced by commitments the Trinity board reaffirmed when it retained Bassett: commitments to a conscious policy of exclusion and to silence about the cost and consequences of exclusion. Elsewhere in the country, indifference led to a system of higher education in which whites and blacks had almost no contact, and where progressive white academics abandoned belief in scientific racism long before they cast a cold eye on the workings of the Jim Crow South.
A segregated society, for at least the first half of the 20th century, was defined in part by what the AEA and AHA put on public display in New Orleans in 1903: not simply the institutions of a segregated academic culture, but institutions where the costs and consequences of segregation were not open to systematic discussion or dispute.
Richard Teichgraeber is professor of history at Tulane and director of the Murphy Institute. He can be reached at email@example.com. Thanks to Frederick Bradley, A&S '68, L '73, for skillful editorial assistance.
The Conference for the Study of Political Thought Annual International Conference on "Sciences of Politics" was held Jan. 9-11, 2004, and organized by Martyn Thompson, associate professor of political science.
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 firstname.lastname@example.org