John Spencer Bassett

Professor of Legal and Constitutional History, 1904-1906


John Bassett was the Professor of Legal and Constitutional History for two years and a history professor in the general college for twelve.  He is best remembered for an incident that occurred the year before Trinity’s School of Law opened in 1904.  Known as the Bassett Affair, the incident is considered an early example of academic freedom.  In October 1903, the South Atlantic Quarterly, a periodical published by the College and edited by Bassett, included his article "Stirring Up the Fires of Race Antipathy.”  The article contained a statement that Booker T. Washington was “all in all the greatest man, save General Lee, born in the South in a hundred years.”  The fact that a statement of such high praise was made about an African-American caused an outcry in the press and calls for the trustees to demand Bassett’s resignation.  In December 1903, however, the board voted to retain him.  Walter Hines Page, a former Trinity student and vice president of Doubleday publishing, wrote that the affair 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."

Bassett was born in 1867 in Tarboro, N.C.  He completed his A.B. at Trinity in 1888, and a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins in 1894.  Bassett joined the Trinity College faculty as a professor of history the same year.  In 1906 he accepted an offer to teach at Smith College, drawn there by a lighter teaching load and access to better research resources.  Bassett also noted that he could not both “write history and direct public sentiment."  He died in 1928.

Sources:

Earl W. Porter, Trinity and Duke 1892-1924: Foundations of Duke University (1964)

Trinity College (Durham, N.C.), Annual Catalogue of Trinity College [serial]

Image courtesy of Duke University Archives, Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library