The South Atlantic Quarterly 101.2 (2002) 245-247
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The Bassett Affair and SAQ's Centenary Anniversary
This issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly is bound to cause trouble, I think—maybe even trouble of a sort SAQ has not seen for some ninety-nine years. But running the risk of trouble is a venerable SAQ tradition. And since memories of the trouble into which SAQ was born have now grown dim, kept alive only as an occasionally recounted local legend at Duke University, the editors thought it might be useful to begin this issue by telling briefly the story of the "Bassett Affair."
The founding editor of the South Atlantic Quarterly was a young history professor at Trinity College (the predecessor of Duke University) named John Spencer Bassett. A graduate of Trinity himself who had gone off to the new graduate school at Johns Hopkins to become one of the first Southerners to receive a doctorate, Bassett focused his scholarly work on using archival materials to cast light on the history of race relations in the South—at a time when that history was being buried under the emotional, demagogic, and often violent reaction to Reconstruction that led to the exclusion of blacks from the polls and to the infamous Jim Crow laws that [End Page 245] survived from the 1890s into the 1960s. Bassett founded SAQ in 1901, in order to provoke controversy and critical thinking about literary and political matters in a time and place where both Southern pride and Southern prejudice dominated the media of the day—most notably the rabid and rabble-rousing Raleigh News and Observer, the leading paper in the state, edited by the racist Democrat Josephus Daniels.
By the time SAQ had put out its first eight issues, the reaction had built to a fury, the final provocation coming with Bassett's editorial in the October 1903 issue, "Stirring Up the Fires of Race Antipathy." As William B. Hamilton puts it, in the best brief summary I have found of the Bassett Affair, "This piece does not lend itself to digest"; it ranges across a broad field of questions and opinions related to "the Negro problem."1 Looking back from a twenty-first-century viewpoint, we would all find certain elements in it that now seem racist and obtuse, other elements that seem remarkably prophetic, and very few elements that seem likely to have raised a furious response; but in fact the article did create a virulent statewide movement led by Josephus Daniels to have John Spencer Bassett fired from Trinity College. The decision by the trustees of Trinity College to retain Bassett on the faculty, while rejecting his views in no uncertain terms—with a dramatic ringing of the college bells at three A.M. after a meeting that lasted long into the night, and the reading of a statement to the waiting students affirming the importance of tolerance and "academic liberty"—is considered by historians a landmark in the battle for academic freedom.
Now that academic freedom is a time-honored principle of our intellectual life, will anyone call for the firing of Frank Lentricchia and Stanley Hauerwas from the Duke faculty after the publication of this issue? I certainly hope not. But if it happens, I also won't be completely surprised. Their views, and those of the writers they have collected in this issue, are bound to offend a great many people in 2002, just as John Spencer Bassett offended people in 1903 with his views on racial equality. But perhaps this issue will also help to change or clarify some people's minds. It is my personal hope that, come the twenty-second century, the views expressed here on such matters as the virtues of pacifism, the vices of false patriotism, and the dangers of American exceptionalism will seem to most readers as commonplace and natural as a once outrageous call for racial equality seems today.
1. Hamilton, "Fifty Years of Liberalism and Learning," in Fifty Years of the South...