Bemis, Samuel Flagg
From GW Encyclopedia
Samuel Flagg Bemis (1891-1973), the renowned expert on American foreign policy and diplomatic history, first achieved fame for his work at George Washington University. He joined the university's department of history in 1924 and became its chairman the next year. Bemis played a pivotal role in shaping the identity of university during its early years. He helped President Marvin to reorganize and streamline the various academic departments in order to make the school more efficient.
On top of his administrative duties, Bemis wrote profoundly and prolifically as a historian. He quickly established himself as the best diplomatic historian in the country. He had published his first book in 1916. He spent the next two years conducting research in England and France. Before coming to George Washington, he published two more books, including his famous work, Jay's Treaty: A Study in Commerce and Diplomacy.
While serving as chairman of the GW history department, Bemis wrote Pinckney's Treaty: A Study of America's Advantage from Europe's Distress. Published in 1926, "Pinckney's Treaty" immediately took academia by storm and received plentiful praise. The Pulitzer Prize committee chose Bemis's book as the best work of history for 1926.
Taken from 1927 Hatchet article:
Professor Samuel Flagg Bemis, head of the History Department of George Washington University, has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the best book of the year in American History. The title of Doctor Bemis' prize book is: “Pinckney’s Treaty: A Study in America’s Advantages from Europe’s Distress, 1783-1800.”
The winning of this prize means national and international recognition for Professor Bemis’ work, which already is widely known in this country. The prize carries a $2000 award. Professor Bemis learned for the first time of the great honor which has been conferred upon him when he came to his office at the University last Friday morning just before 11 o’clock, and found a letter on his desk advising him of the fact.
He however, could not divulge the news until formal announcement was made by the Pulitzer people in New York. Professor Bemis states: “It is needless to say that I am overwhelmed both by the honor and by the magnitude of the prize. The book in question would have been impossible without the cooperation and encouragement of many friends and institutions, both in Europe, particularly Spain and in America. Portions of the book were delivered at the Johns Hopkins University last year as the Albert Shaw Lectures in the diplomatic history of the United States.
“I am particularly grateful to the libraries of Washington, notably the Library of Congress, made into the best workshop in the world for historical scholars and infused with a never failing spirit of courtesy and helpfulness by the influence of Librarian Dr. Herbert Putnam. I received the same helpfulness at the admirable library of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace at No. 2 Jackson Place.
“I also feel grateful for the encouragement and friendliness toward my researches of Dr. J. Franklin Jameson the Director of the Department of Historical Research of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, a man beloved by all historical scholars in America who know him; and to my former teacher and present friend, Dr. Edward Channing, winner of last year’s Pulitzer Prize.”
Professor Bemis is continuing his researches in the diplomatic history of the United States, and is incidentally editing, and in small part writing, a ten volume series, published by A. A Knopf, of New York City, called “The American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy,” the first two volumes of which are recently off the press.
Professor Bemis was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, and was educated in the public schools of that city and of Fiskdale, town of Sturbridge, Massachusetts. He attended South High School, Worcester. He graduated from Clark College, 1912, with degree of M.A. in 1913, after which he pursued graduate work in History and International Law at Harvard University where he received the degree of Ph.D in 1916.
He has taught in Colorado College, Colorado Springs, and Whitman College, Walla Walla, Washington; was research associate in the Division of Historical Research of Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1923-1924, and has been professor of History in George Washington University since 1924; head of the Department of History since 1925.
Professor Bemis is author of numerous articles on History and Public Affairs in American periodicals and newspapers. In 1923 he published a book entitled “Jay’s Treaty: A Study in Commerce and Diplomacy,” which had won the $3,000 Knights of Columbus Historical Prize for the best book on American History by a college professor. In this contest manuscripts were submitted under terms of strict anonymity, and it might be remarked that Dr. Bemis is a Unitarian.
The present book is a companion volume to the Jay’s Treaty, and like that is a study of the foreign relations of President Washington’s Administrations, particularly of Washington’s diplomacy in regards to Europe and European alliances. It set forth our diplomacy with Spain in regards to the disputed navigation of the Mississippi River and the contested southwestern boundary and connects these questions with the larger European international issues that followed the French Revolution in Europe.
The $2,000 prize money, which may not seem like much now, was a considerable sum at that time--Bemis's annual salary for that year was less than $5,000. The Pulitzer Prize greatly enhanced Bemis's reputation as a historian. As a result, his skills and knowledge suddenly were in demand from other prestigious institutions. The history department granted him a leave of absence from 1927-1929 so that he could lead the European Mission of the Library of Congress.
Upon his return from Europe, Bemis resumed the chairmanship of the history department at George Washington. In 1934, he left GW to accept a position as Sterling Professor of Diplomatic History and Inter-American Relations at Yale University. Everyone at George Washington felt proud of Bemis and wished that he could have stayed. President Marvin wrote a heartfelt farewell. "My dear Professor Bemis: At the Annual meeting of the Board of Trustees your resignation as Professor of History was presented and accepted with regret. The Board would have me say to you that they wish you every success in your new position at Yale, and I may add that if at any time the University or I personally can be of service to you, you have but to command us."
Bemis taught at Yale for 25 years and published six more books, including a 1950 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of John Adams. He retired in 1960 and capped his long career with a term as president of the American Historical Association. He was the first, great historian of American diplomacy, and his legacy still resonates at George Washington University. Today, the GW history department is the best in the country for the study American diplomatic history and the Cold War.
Photographic Credit: RG0004/Personnel files
Author or Source: RG0044/University Relations public relations files; MS0371/Kayser oral history; Hatchet, May 4, 1927
Document Location: University Archives
Date Added to Encyclopedia: January 8, 2007
Prepared by: Lyle Slovick; Evan Laney
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