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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 880

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This is the grave of Charles Merriam.

Born in 1874 in Hopkinton, Iowa, Merriam grew up in the relative elite of small-town Iowa, with his father a successful dry goods store owner and official on local boards, such as the local college. Merriam wasn’t the only one of his siblings to later achieve success, as his brother John became a famous paleontologist. Charles went to his father’s school, the now-defunct Lenox College, graduating in 1893. He taught school for a year, then headed to the University of Iowa for a real education, getting a Bachelor of Laws degree in 1895. After that, it was Columbia for graduate work, finishing his Ph.D. in 1900. Very soon, Merriam was one of the nation’s most important political scientists.

Merriam took a job at the new University of Chicago, its first ever political scientist on staff. He made a huge splash in the new field with his 1903 book A History of American Political Theories, quickly establishing himself as one of the leading Progressive movement intellectuals. Despite having no mathematical training himself, he pushed for the use of quantitative data in the field, for better or for worse given the complete unreadibility of this kind of work today, not to mention how often this stuff just demonstrates things historians have known for years but with DATA!, as if what historians do is not data-driven. This led to his pushing the behavioralist school by the 1930s, which claimed to be objective and DATA!!!! driven. The problem with this of course is the bullshit objectivity point of view, which is automatically bogus because, as we know from science, medicine, technology, engineering and all the other fields that claim objectivity due to their reliance upon DATA!!!!, in fact the viewpoint of the researcher and the questions they even ask are completely dominated by their real-life experience, with all the racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, classism, or whatever else they bring to the table. Not necessarily blaming this on Merriam. It was nearly a century ago after all. Still….Merriam was a strong believer in the idea that political scientists should be the top academic advisors to politicians. Sigh….OK, look. Yes, political scientists can be excellent advisors to politicians. But they do not have skills that inherently make them better at this than historians or economists or any other field. Or worse than those fields. But the idea of political science being SCIENCE!!! is not only risible, but people actually still believe it. Merriam absolutely has some level of responsibility for this absurdity. And thus the inevitable Monkey Cage columns that should be titled “Look at this bold discovery using DATA!!!, finding things that historians have known for 25 years, this is definitely worth space in the Washington Post!”

Well, again, there are many people responsible for this ridiculousness and Merriam is only one of them. He was quite active personally, to his credit, working closely with the City Club of Chicago to reform the notoriously corrupt city. He actually ran for mayor of Chicago as a Republican in 1911, but lost. Harold Ickes managed his campaign! He was a big Bull Moose guy in 1912, was an alderman for the city between 1909 and 1911 and then again between 1913 and 1917, and lost another attempt to become mayor in 1915, this time in the primary, and then again in 1919.

Both William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson tried to tap Merriam for federal service, but he refused both of them. It was only World War I that would get him out of Chicago. He joined the Army Signal Corps as a captain and then was on the Committee on Public Information, the propaganda agency Wilson created. He was named American High Commissioner for Public Information for Italy in early 1918 and was there for the rest of the war, creating propaganda to get Italians to more strongly support the U.S. in the war, while also finding ways to attack socialism. He was so haughty and indifferent to the ambassador that said ambassador protested back to Washington that Merriam was undermining his authority. Merriam was recalled. This was a classic Progressive move, contempt for anyone else based upon your own self-righteousness. He also found himself an Italian woman over there for sex, nearly ending his marriage when his wife found out.

After the war, Merriam returned to Chicago, where he focused his scholarship on propaganda, now being something of an expert. His 1934 work The Making of Citizens, was complimentary of both fascism and communism for using propaganda so effectively, which, uh, I guess is an interesting position to take at that time. He was president of the American Political Science Association in 1925, served on Hoover’s President’s Research Committee on Social Trends beginning in 1929, and continued in Washington during the Roosevelt administration because he was friends with Ickes, who vouched for him despite him remaining a Republican. FDR picked off a lot of Progressives from both parties, including Merriam. Ickes named Merriam to the National Planning Board under him in the Interior Department and he worked on civil service reform issues too. He would play a big role in coming up with the Four Freedoms, which FDR articulated in 1941. Perhaps most importantly, he was a close advisor to FDR in the aftermath of the Supreme Court throwing out the first New Deal programs by helping him to recast the executive branch to make such decisions harder for the Court to make.

In 1940, Merriam retired from the University of Chicago, having served as department chair for the previous 29 years, among other things. He headed the Lucy Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund until it merged with the larger Rockefeller Foundation in 1949. Merriam died in 1953. He was 78 years old.

Charles Merriam is buried on the confiscated lands of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.

If you would like this series to visit other presidents of the American Political Science Association, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. James Wilford Garner, who preceded Merriam, is in Magnolia, Mississippi, and Charles Beard, who replaced him, is in Hartsdale, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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