James MacGregor Burns, still prolific at 90

If James MacGregor Burns ever feels his age, he doesn’t show it. The 90-year old professor emeritus at the College recently finished the manuscript for his latest book, Packing the Court: The Rise of Judicial Power and the Coming Crisis of the Supreme Court, which will hit shelves this June. The author of more than 20 books to date, Burns is widely recognized as the leading academic figure on leadership studies and is the winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

Burns’ love of scholarship began early in his life during his years as an undergraduate at Williams. A graduate of the Class of 1939, Burns served as editor-in-chief of both the Record and an independent student magazine. He was also the president of the Garfield Club, an explicitly non-Greek organization of roughly 175 students. “These were people who either didn’t want to join fraternities, or who wanted to but were not accepted,” Burns said. “Fortunately I was taught by my mother, a Mount Holyoke gal, that I should not join a fraternity and indeed that I might not be admitted to one, so I was very happy to join the Garfield Club.”

After graduating, Burns worked as an intern on Capitol Hill. But he soon found himself drifting back to academia and enrolled in Harvard’s school of government.

Burns attributes his scholarly leanings to his experiences at Williams. “I had absolutely fallen in love with Williams, even though I had reservations about the social arrangement here,” he said. “I was impressed with the faculty and thoroughly enjoyed my years here and wrote an undergraduate thesis in political science. I simply loved the world of teaching and scholarship right from the start.”

Before his distinguished 60-year career in academia began, Burns earned some of his first national honors far from the ivory tower. With the outbreak of World War II, Burns joined the Army and was stationed in the Pacific theater as a combat historian. “Our job [as combat historians] was to talk with American troops before the invasion, observe them up front during the combat and then interview them after the combat in order to write detailed and relatively accurate histories of these operations,” he said. “When called on, you also took part in combat yourself.” Burns himself took part in four operations during the war – Saipan, Guam, the Philippines and Okinawa – winning four combat medals, including the Bronze Star.

Despite military distinction, Burns never became an officer. “I thought I could do military history best as a so-called non-com where I could talk very frankly with sergeants and privates in combat.” Entering the war as a private, Burns left the armed services as a master sergeant.

Returning to civilian life, Burns completed his Ph.D. in government at Harvard and began teaching at Williams in 1947.
The choice to return to his alma mater was an easy one for Burns. Explaining what brought him back to the Purple Valley, Burns, seated in the middle of Paresky lawn, gestured to his surroundings. “Right what you see here. Sitting out here is so much the real Williams,” he said. “I love the Berkshires.” The native of the Boston area added, “And to be completely frank, [I wanted] to get as far away from family as I could and still stay in Massachusetts.”

A student of the American political system, Burns put his studies into practice when he ran for Congress in 1958. Taking a leave from the College, Burns campaigned in a heated Democratic primary. “I defeated a Jo-McCarthy-type opponent in the primary who campaigned mainly by calling me not just communist, but an atheistic communist,” he said. However, Burns ultimately lost to the popular Republican Silvio Conte.

Despite his electoral defeat, Burns gained a powerful political ally during his campaign. “In ’58, Jack [John F.] Kennedy was running for the Senate and he and I campaigned together and formed what was a lasting friendship until he died.” Burns later wrote a biography of Kennedy, which JFK “did not like,” Burns admitted.

Burns traced his lifelong interest in politics back to his time at Williams. “I was active in politics even at Williams. This was the day of FDR,” he said. “A lot of us became active politically because, in those days, Williams wasn’t a co-ed school, and we found the one way to get the Bennington girls interested in coming to Williamstown was [to do] politics.”

A political science major at Williams, Burns considers himself as much a historian as a political scientist. After all, he won the Pulitzer Prize in History and the National Book Award for Roosevelt: Soldier of Freedom, 1940-1945 in 1971.

Honors and awards aside, Burns is most proud of Leadership, a groundbreaking work which has catalyzed much of the theorizing and research now being done on leadership studies.

After decades of scholarship and a number of books on presidential and Congressional leadership, Burns turns his attention to the U.S. Supreme Court in his latest work. A study on the judiciary seemed like the logical next step for the unflagging scholar. “The Supreme Court is in itself a fascinating institution, a remarkable institution,” Burns said. “It’s unlike almost any other judiciary in the world because of its power. Also, the justices are simply fascinating people. Most of them are ex-politicians making a very difficult transition to being ‘non-political’ judges.”

Burns’ book will “particularly concern the power of judiciary review,” he said. “It will be both a history and a tract. I present some fresh views, I think, about the Supreme Court.”

Showing no signs of slowing, Burns next plans to turn his scholarly focus to the Enlightenment. “I’m fascinated by the Enlightenment and have already written the first draft,” Burns said. “I broke away with that to deal with Supreme Court because it’s so timely at the moment.” Burns expects to complete his work on the Enlightenment in the next several years.

“This will be my final book, although my friend, Susan Dunn [professor of humanities], thinks I’ll never stop,” he added.
Given Burns’ seeming inability to let his mind rest, Dunn may be correct. “As soon as I get free time – whenever I don’t necessarily have to write – then I get this writing urge,” Burns said. “I find writing very hard but very rewarding. Whether it’s biography or straight political science or more scholarly work, I simply enjoy the product, even though I don’t enjoy process.”

For now at least, Burns is “looking forward to some time off. But I know I’ll be restless during my time off and I know I’ll want to get back to reading and writing,” he said. “It becomes a very fulfilling business.”

If the past six decades of his life are any indication, that business will continue as usual for Williams’ venerable scholar.