James MacGregor Burns, historian and FDR biographer, dies at age 95
PITTSFIELD -- James MacGregor Burns, the renowned political scientist, historian and author of more than 20 books including biographies on Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, died Tuesday morning at his home in Williamstown. He was 95.
Burns died peacefully in his sleep, according to his son, Stewart Burns of North Adams.
A 1939 Williams College graduate, Burns is the college’s Woodrow Wilson Professor of Government Emeritus. He taught political science at Williams from 1947 until his retirement in 1986.
Stewart Burns said his father "lived a full life" and was active both physically and mentally until November 2011, when he suffered a series of falls. He skied and played tennis into his 90s, Stewart Burns said. His last book, "Fire and Light: How the Enlightenment Transformed The World," was published in the fall of 2013. He wrote or co-wrote a half dozen books after the age of 80.
"When we made a film about him, we asked him how he would grade his life and he gave it an A-plus," Stewart Burns said. "Although he had disappointments and a few ups and downs, he felt he lived a very full and fortunate life until the last year and a half when everything changed."
In a letter posted on the college’s website, Williams College President Adam Falk referred to Burns as "one of the best known and most influential faculty members in the college’s [221-year] history."
"It’s fair to say that a great many people first heard of Williams through his work," Falk wrote. "Few Williams faculty, if any, have ever left a stronger legacy -- at the college and in the world more broadly."
Born in Melrose on Aug. 3, 1918, Burns grew up in Burlington and attended Lexington High School before he enrolled at Williams. Stewart Burns said his father went to Williams because it was the farthest he could get from home while still attending college in Massachusetts.
"It was a beautiful area, and far enough away from home," Stewart Burns said. "There were also people there who were great public intellectuals. He had heard about these people."
Stewart Burns said his father became interested in government when he "fell in love" with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs of the 1930s that expanded the federal government’s role in public affairs.
James Burns wrote two books on Roosevelt. The second volume, "Soldier of Freedom," a study of FDR’s stewardship of the country through World War II, won both the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1971 and the National Book Award.
Lynn Bassanesse, the director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum in Hyde Park, N.Y., said the historical site has lost a "wonderful friend."
"James MacGregor Burns was the pre-eminent historian of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and a dear friend to the Roosevelt library," Bassanese said. "His work will continue his wonderful legacy, but he will definitely be missed."
Burns was a frequent visitor to the Roosevelt Library and Museum.
"He was a dear man, as nice as he could be," Bassanesse said. "He always took the time for anyone who approached him to talk with them."
Burns wrote the first biography of Kennedy, "Kennedy: A Political Profile," in 1960. Kennedy campaigned for Burns when he ran for Congress in 1958.
Burns specialized in political science at Williams, where he was editor of the school newspaper, the Williams Record, and headed the Garfield Club, where non-fraternity students ate and lived.
After working in a congressional office, Burns began his doctoral work at Harvard in 1940. He married his first wife, Janet Thompson, in May 1942 following her graduation from Radcliffe College. The couple raised four children, David, Stewart, Deborah and Mecca Antonia Burns. During World War II, Burns served as a combat historian in the Pacific. He left the U.S. Army in late 1945, and received his doctorate from Harvard two years later.
As a member of the Williams faculty, Burns twice chaired the college’s political science department. He was a pioneer in the interdisciplinary field of leadership studies, which was launched by the publication of his book "Leadership" in 1978, and co-founded the International Leadership Association. Burns co-authored many editions of the widely used political science textbook, "Government by the People."
The longtime Williams College professor helped coin two adjectives now common in politics: "transformational" leaders, or those with a vision to change the world, and "transactional" leaders, those with the cunning to get things done.
The words were used constantly during the 2008 presidential race, with the "transactional" Hillary Rodham Clinton battling the "transformational" Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination.
An informal adviser to many presidents, Burns was a liberal Democrat.
When he ran for Congress he was defeated by Pittsfield Republican Silvio O. Conte. It was the first victory for Conte who held the seat for 16 terms until his death in 1991.
In the Democratic primary, Burns defeated fellow Democrat William Stapleton of Holyoke, who had tried to smear Burns by calling him a "communist" and an "atheist," Stewart Burns said.
"My father had done such good groundwork that apparently he realized the only way he could beat him was through McCarthyism," Stewart Burns said.
"Even though it was 1958 and people thought McCarthyism was stronger earlier in the decade it was still strong later in the decade," Stewart Burns said. "Any reference to it could be very damaging."
Burns traveled to the Soviet Union in 1957 where he was arrested in Leningrad after photographing a group of street urchins. He was detained briefly in a political prison before being released.
"He went [to the Soviet Union] partly to show his foreign policy credentials," Stewart Burns said, "and that came back to haunt him."
Burns leaves his longtime companion and collaborator, Susan Dunn; his three surviving children, Stewart Burns, Deborah Burns and Mecca Antonia Burns; and his close friend and former wife, Janet Thompson Keep; four grandchildren; several in-laws; his friend and colleague, Kurt Tauber; many nieces and nephews and grand nieces and nephews; countless students and colleagues that he mentored over the years; and the numerous caregivers who cared for him during his final year.
A family burial service will take place shortly. It will be followed by a public memorial service in Thompson Chapel at Williams College in September.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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