John Spencer Bassett

John Spencer Bassett

Bassett, John Spencer, 1867-1928, American historian, b. Tarboro, N.C. He was professor of history at Trinity College (now Duke Univ.) from 1893 to 1906 and then at Smith from 1906 to 1928. Bassett founded (1902) the South Atlantic Quarterly. Chief among his writings are The Federalist System, 1789-1801 (1906, repr. 1968; Vol. II in the "American Nation" series), The Life of Andrew Jackson (1911, repr. 1967), and The Middle Group of American Historians (1917). He also edited much original material, including The Writings of "Colonel William Byrd …" (1901) and The Correspondence of Andrew Jackson (7 vol., 1926-35).
John Spencer Bassett (1867 – 1928) was a professor at Duke University (then Trinity College) best known today for initiating the Bassett Affair in 1903.

Early life

Bassett was born to a poverty-stricken family in rural North Carolina in 1867. He entered Trinity College (now Duke University) in 1886, as a junior, graduating with an A.B. in history. He then received a Ph.D in history from Johns Hopkins University, under the direction of Herbert Baxter Adams.

The Bassett Affair

Bassett published an article in South Atlantic Quarterly entitled "Stirring Up the Fires of Race Antipathy" in October of 1903. 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. 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."


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

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