Woodrow Wilson Professor of Government Emeritus Dr. James MacGregor Burns ’39 passed away July 15 in his Williamstown home. He is survived by his partner and co-author Susan Dunn and his three children. A decorated scholar and author and historian, Burns leaves a remarkable legacy in the field of political science and in the College community.
Burns is best known for his contributions to the study of leadership in American government. Calling on history, philosophy, political science and psychology, Burns helped to pioneer a new field of scholarship that focused on how specific individuals, their personalities and their decisions while in power can affect government and society.
He spent much of his career studying presidents and analyzing their leadership styles. He served asa confidant to John F. Kennedy prior to his presidency. As a trusted friend and advisor, Burns grew close to Kennedy and compiled observations of his leadership style in his 1960 book John Kennedy: A Political Profile.
Throughout his career, Burns received recognition and numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in History and Biography, which he won in 1970 for his study on Franklin D. Roosevelt, Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom . In addition, Burns was named president of the American Science Association in 1975, “an unusual accomplishment for a professor from a liberal arts college,” according to Sam Crane, chair of the political science department. “If you look at the list of APSA presidents, there have been none from liberal arts colleges since Prof. Burns’s term,” Crane said. “Prof. Burns was an extraordinary intellect of national renown. His scholarly accomplishments are truly outstanding.”
In addition to his focus on the field of leadership, Burns was an avid writer and acclaimed author, publishing more than two dozen books over the course of his career. Burns’s writings spanned a variety of political and historical topics, varying from A Lion and a Fox, a biographical analysis of FDR, to Government by the People. Fire and Light: How the Enlightenment Transformed Our World, his most recent work, was published by Thomas Dunne Books just last year.
Burns’s passion for political science surfaced at an early age. He was born in 1918 in Melrose, Mass., and raised in Burlington, Mass. by his mother following his parents’ divorce. She encouraged him to develop his own political views and opinions, distinct from others and yet imbued with empathy.
In 1939, Burns graduated from the College with a B.A. in political science. Immediately after he graduated, inspired by his interest in politics, he moved to Washington D.C. to work as a congressional aide. During World War II, Burns served as a combat historian in the Pacific theater, documenting the army’s activity and writing official battle reports. His efforts were recognized when he was awarded the Bronze Star, the fourth highest individual military honor one can receive.
At the end of WWII, Burns returned to school and earned his Ph.D at Harvard University. He then began his teaching career, returning to the College as the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Government in 1947.
As a professor, Burns inspired his students with his own passion for his field. “He gave countless students a firm grounding in American political history,” President Falk said. “It’s fair to say that a great many people first heard of Williams through his work.”
Burns will be remembered fondly by those who knew him at the College, both for his influence on the school and for his talent and accomplishments in the political science field.
“Few Williams faculty, if any, have ever left a stronger legacy—at the college and in the world more broadly,” Falk said.