This is the grave of John Spencer Bassett.
Born in 1867 in Tarboro, North Carolina, Bassett was a white kid in the Reconstruction era and its aftermath, but he had a very different response to it than you might expect. His father was a Civil War veteran who worked mostly in logistics. He grew up reasonable well off and enrolled at Trinity College, which today is Duke University. Now, no one school has added more to the pure hell that is contemporary America than Duke. Think Richard Nixon, Ron Paul, Richard Spencer, Stephen Miller, Christian Laettner, Grayson Allen, and a lot of other terrible people. I have a good friend in my department who went to Duke and you know how often I like to bring this up when I want to annoy him. It works every time. But that wasn’t necessarily the case back then. Bassett was a history major and did very well. He then went to Johns Hopkins, the new social science university in Baltimore, where he completed a dissertation under the direction of the pioneering historian Herbert Baxter Adams. His dissertation, completed in 1894, was titled “The Constitutional Beginnings of North Carolina, 1663–1729.” He became a leading scholar of the early South.
Bassett went back to Trinity and while teaching history, also undertook to create a real library. Also, he decided to….take on the racial hierarchy now in full effect in the South. To say the least, this was controversial. In 1903, he founded a journal called the South Atlantic Quarterly. Understand that this was the very moment when southern extremists were retelling the history of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction to justify white supremacy. This is when the Dunning School was getting underway. It’s when Thomas Dixon was writing books such as The Clansman that would soon be adapted to the screen as The Birth of a Nation with official approval of the president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. This was the time when people such as W.E.B. DuBois were pushing back against this with actual truths, but they were totally ignored and would be for another half-century, primarily because they were Black.
Well, Bassett was a bit harder to ignore. He was a southern elite himself teaching at one of the best schools in the South. He was white. He was respectable. And he praised Booker T. Washington publicly. In fact, he went so far as to write that “Now Washington is a great and good man, a Christian statesman, and take him all in all the greatest man, save General Lee, born in the South in a hundred years; but he is not a typical negro.” Now, roll your eyes at the Lee bit if you want, I did too. But this was 1903. It was the South. Washington may well have been politically conservative compared to the rest of the Black freedom struggle. But that wasn’t the context for a wealthy white academic saying something like this. The context was the North Carolina elite having just completed a coup against the biracial government in Wilmington and institutionalizing Jim Crow. For someone at a prominent state university to praise Washington and other Black leaders over whites, not just in comparison to each other but over all the other whites, was considered racial betrayal. In the essay, he also spoke favorably of W.E.B. DuBois, but claimed that Washington’s views on Black development made more sense for most of the race.
The response of Josephus Daniels, the future trusted FDR foreign policy advisor and newspaper editor who had spurred the Wilmington coup, was typical. For him, this was a personal attack. It was stating things that could not be stated. It was the Critical Race Theory panic of the day. Here was a person indoctrinating our young people in unacceptable ideas, such as that Black Americans were fully human and not actually lesser than whites. Daniels led a public campaign to get Trinity to fire Bassett. He told parents to withdraw their students from the university (Bill O’Reilly said the same thing to the parents of URI students about me!). It’s unclear whether any did, probably not though. Bassett offered his resignation if the Board of Trustees voted to accept it, but by an 18-7 vote, they did not, standing up for academic freedom.
That move actually led Theodore Roosevelt, who was one of the biggest racists in American history but also understood that Black people were in fact part of American society, to speak out publicly on the case in favor of the principle of academic freedom. For other southern liberals, this was a cause celebre. Former Trinity student Walter Hines Page, who at the time was VP of Bloomsbury Publishing, noted it was “a chance to show the whole world that there is at least one institution in the South and in North Carolina that is free.” Today Art Pope and the North Carolina GOP tries to ensure that will never happen again.
Not surprisingly though, Bassett was not really excited to keep teaching in North Carolina. It might be his home, but the stress had to be overwhelming. So in 1906, he took a job at Smith College in Massachusetts and lived in New England the rest of his life. The job was easier than at Trinity, but also he noted that he really couldn’t research and teach in the South anymore. He continued his work and became the Executive Secretary of the American Historical Association in 1919, building up an endowment to stabilize the largest professional organization of historians, though one that has once again just showed its ass as completely out of touch with the reality of the present. Bassett continuing writing about the South and published a large biography of Andrew Jackson. No idea if it was any good for its time, but the descriptions of it make it sound pretty boring, even for the era. He also edited a seven volume set of Jackson’s correspondence. His Short History of the United States, published in 1913, sold well and made him quite a bit of money. During World War I, he wrote a lot on foreign affairs as well, which he continued to do for the rest of life. His last book was 1928’s The League of Nations: A Chapter in World Politics, but I don’t really know much about it.
Bassett died in 1928 while in Washington, D.C. He was run over by some kind of vehicle, not sure if a car or trolley. He was 60 years old.
John Spencer Bassett is buried in Bridge Street Cemetery, Northampton, Massachusetts.
This is a sponsored post. A reader paid me to see Bassett specifically. I did and here we are. If you want someone to be covered in this series, you can pay for it and I will go, so long as there is something to say about the person. That might be someone you are interested in, it might be a family member. I didn’t really know all much about him and I learned a lot in doing so. Naturally it costs less to send me to see someone in New England than it would to Arkansas or New Mexico or something, but I will do it at cost, with no personal profit to myself. If you would like this series to visit other biographers of Andrew Jackson, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. I’ve already covered Arthur Schlesinger. Burke Davis is in Greensboro, North Carolina and Cyrus Townsend Brady is in Sleepy Hollow, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.