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Merriam, Charles E.

Merriam, Charles E.

Conception of political theory

Involvement in politics

Organization of research

Conception of a science of politics

National planning

Political theory and political behavior




The life of Charles Edward Merriam, Jr. (1874–1953), American political scientist, represents and reflects many of the changes which have taken place not only in the field in which he achieved his reputation but also in American society in the twentieth century. His generation was perhaps the first to experience with enthusiasm the headlong rush of history and of industrial technology, which so depressed Henry Adams, and to return to the relentless faith in social study characteristic of eighteenth-century democratic thought. Merriam was determined to retain for America in the twentieth century the vision that Alexis de Tocqueville had had in the nineteenth: that the political course of Western society was set irrevocably toward ever more democratic government and that the United States could lead the way. To this vision Merriam added his own conviction that the observable weaknesses in modern government are the result of too little rather than too much democracy. His belief that the sources of such weaknesses can be found by an examination of the actual workings of politics, and that the methods of such examination have to be scientific, formed the basis of his approach to politics and of his efforts to reorganize political science. His commitment to democracy and to scientific method gave impetus to his lifelong efforts to bring scientific knowledge to the service of government, and his conception of scientific method facilitated the development of interrelation-ships among the social sciences.

Merriam was born in Hopkinton, Iowa, the second son of the local postmaster, who was also keeper of the general store. His mother, Margaret Campbell Kirkwood Merriam, was a devout Scottish Presbyterian who had been educated in Scotland to be a schoolteacher, although family responsibilities and chronic ill health prevented her from teaching. The Merriam family was deeply involved in Iowa politics; Merriam’s father, however, never had the political career he hoped for. Like his father and his elder brother, Merriam was educated first at Lenox College in Hopkinton. His father planned a legal career for him, preparatory to a life in politics, but a brief period at the law school of Iowa State University convinced him that legal training lacked a proper concern for ethics, and he rebelled. He decided to study political economy and social science at Columbia University, then a rapidly growing center of American social science. At Columbia he was influenced by William A. Dunning, John W. Burgess, and E. R. A. Seligman, among many others. The introduction to the modern historical and comparative method that Merriam received at Columbia took much of the edge off his later pilgrimage to Germany to hear Otto von Gierke and Hugo Preuss.

Conception of political theory

Merriam’s acceptance in 1900 of a position as docent in political science at the University of Chicago began his long career at that university. His doctoral thesis, History of the Theory of Sovereignty Since Rousseau, was published in 1900, but it was the publication, in 1903, of A History of American Political Theories that first established him in his profession. Dedicated to Dunning, the book follows Dunning’s pseudo-biological methods of historical classification and description, grouping writers in orderly, if somewhat stilted, fashion by period and major concern. But it is the first work in which the practicing politicians of the colonial, early federal, and pre-Civil War periods are classified as “theorists.” Merriam was also among the first to call attention to the fact that John Locke had exercised a stronger influence over American political history than had Rousseau. The work may now seem dated and quite static, but much of later discussion of American political thought is based on the analysis it contains. Like its sequel, American Political Ideas (1920), it demonstrates Merriam’s particular interest in broadening the definition of political theory to include not only the more traditionally recognized theorists whose writings were already part of the canon of political thought, but also the practitioners of politics, whose actions and intentions permanently affect the life of the community even though they may have given little attention to the formulation of doctrine. Indeed, for Merriam political theory came to embrace the study of society itself, as is shown in the memorial volume for Dunning, A History of Political Theories, Recent Times (1924), that he and H. E. Barnes edited: the volume includes, in systematic arrangement, essays in philosophy, sociology, psychology, and anthropology, all of which fields Merriam considered directly relevant to political theory.

Involvement in politics

With his background of family involvement in Iowa politics, Merriam could scarcely have avoided a similar interest in Chicago. To be sure, his conception of involvement in the political life of the city hardly coincided with that of President William Rainey Harper of the University of Chicago and of successive university administrators. Harper preferred to exert influence on the community through adult education, while Merriam saw city politics as a suitable area for applying new technical skills to the operations of government. Merriam’s first opportunity for direct involvement in Chicago politics came in 1905, when the City Club of Chicago asked him to do a study of the city’s municipal revenues. The success of the report, particularly among the club’s membership of prominent local businessmen, led to Merriam’s appointment by the mayor in 1907 as secretary of the Chicago Harbor Commission, whose purpose was to study the city’s water transportation facilities (part of an effort to make the new Chicago city plan effective). The work succeeded not only in bringing Merriam to public attention but also in acquainting him with some of the city’s most complex problems of business policy and political obfuscation. The work raised issues of land use, public utilities, private enrichment at public expense, and graft. Chicago’s unusually high consciousness of its physical layout and its growing determination to make use of its remarkable lake frontage gave Merriam a rich education in some of the newly developing problems related to urban planning.

As a result of his investigations, Merriam and his supporters were able to secure his nomination as alderman in the city’s first primary and his elec tion to the City Council in 1909. He promptly introduced an ordinance for a commission on city expenditures, becoming chairman of the commission upon its creation. By 1910, the commission had so successfully exposed fraud in Chicago city purchasing that it achieved a national reputation among reform groups interested in the reorganization of financing in local government. Merriam’s work also came to the attention of Julius Rosenwald, who was already noted for his philanthropies but had hitherto avoided involvement in politics. Rosenwald financed the commission after the City Council angrily stopped its funds. He also backed Merriam’s unsuccessful campaign for mayor in the 1911 election. Although Merriam ran on the Republican ticket, his identification as a progressive and a reformer alienated party regulars, who preferred the risk of Democratic victory to the possibility of party repudiation of their control of local politics.

Although Merriam was active in the formation of the national Progressive party in 1912, his un-willingness to support it after the election, even though he continued to respect and support its aims, was typical of the growing group of “realists” among the reformers. They had come to look upon a party as having a complex social base as well as a political one, and therefore as less amenable than some reformers had hoped to modification by such political methods as the initiative, referendum, recall, and direct primary elections. Merriam had published his Primary Elections in 1908. Unlike so many of the studies of structural reform, the book called attention to the fact that structural reorganization by itself is not enough, that politics ultimately depends upon which groups of citizens are interested, or willing to be made interested, in the outcome of political events.

Merriam’s political activities, couched as they were in the imagery of the scholar–politician made popular by the successful candidacy of Woodrow Wilson, brought him also a national reputation. His desk became an informal clearinghouse of information for groups interested in the new methods of reform in local politics: primaries, budget and accounting systems, commissions of investigation and management, and the like. Re-elected to the Chicago City Council in 1913, he served until 1917, meanwhile continuing his teaching at the university. His career came to exemplify the new pragmatic voice of the academy, dedicated not only to the historical understanding of political structure but also to the discovery of useful methods for improving the conduct of politics.

World War I took Merriam to Italy, where he served briefly as the American high commissioner of public information, an office used by the Wilson administration to circumvent the more traditional diplomatic service. The position gave Merriam a sharp awareness of the problems involved in international exchanges of information, a field scarcely touched upon by Americans. Several of the post-war projects in which he was interested—most notably a series on civic education in various countries and a study of international reporting in American news media—were products of his months in Italy.

Organization of research

His return to Chicago politics after the war was unsuccessful; as an internationalist, he was swimming against the tide. The postwar period marked his ascendancy in the academic profession, an ascendancy which was nonetheless paralleled by an increasing sense of political frustration. His influence within the American Political Science Association was at its peak, and he led the movement for more research in politics and for closer relations with other disciplines, particularly psychology. He became president of the association in 1924. The founding of the Social Science Research Council in the same year was the culmination of his efforts to encourage greater interaction among the various fields.

During this period he also did his most successful graduate teaching, and the students from this period, among them V. O. Key, Jr., and H. D. Lasswell, have been among his most influential. Through his friendship with young Beardsley Ruml, Merriam had an influence on the Rockefeller Foundation, and Ruml’s striking ability to give organizational reality to Merriam’s ideas was the source of much of Merriam’s effectiveness during the period. The Rockefeller Foundation financed a committee on local community research at the University of Chicago; a faculty board headed by Merriam and Leonard White used the funds to finance research projects by students and colleagues, often in fields far removed from local community study. The founding of the Public Administration Clearing House in 1931 fulfilled another dream of Merriam’s: the bringing together of the research and reform organizations directly involved in professional work in public service. It also brought Louis Brownlow to Chicago, thereby establishing a working friendship which proved enormously influential to both men.

Yet the frustration of these years is also clear. Merriam’s concern with the nature of leadership and the psychology of voting behavior was a re sponse in part to his disappointment with the course taken by the Republican party after World War I. The years from 1920 to 1928 saw the tacit repudiation by successive administrations of most of the ideals and programs of the progressives. Only Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover seemed concerned with these ideals, and his election to the presidency raised some hope for a return to them. At the University of Chicago, successive presidents frustrated Merriam’s efforts to finance research; they saw these efforts as a threat to their own more traditional fund-raising needs. Merriam was tempted, in 1923, to accept a chair at Columbia and again, in 1927, to take a post with the Rockefeller Foundation in Paris, but each time he ultimately decided to remain at Chicago.

Conception of a science of politics

New Aspects of Politics was published in 1925. More obviously characteristic of his method of work than many of his other books, New Aspects is a collection of papers written and revised between 1920 and 1924. The papers were, in turn, built on notes of his comments at meetings and conferences of social scientists. This method of gradual accretion, accumulation, and revision was the one most often employed by Merriam but it was usually obscured by the final revision. Other such books are Chicago (1929) and Four American Party Leaders (1926), the latter, again characteristically, paralleling work done by his students. More than any of his other writings, however, New Aspects reveals the hortatory Merriam, suggesting directions for future investigation and pointing out to colleagues and students the possibilities inherent in a science of politics that was one of the new sciences of society.

The essays also indicate his opposition to deterministic theories of history and politics, not only Darwinism and the economic theories of Charles A. Beard but also the behavioristic determinism in the very psychology, sociology, and anthropology whose methods he urged upon his colleagues. It was not the principles and predictions of these sciences which appealed to Merriam but the usefulness of their methods for the enrichment of the science of politics. Yet in spite of his rejection of deterministic views of history, he nonetheless depended upon a kind of “tendential” history that moves in trends and directions which are observable without being prescriptive. His attitude toward history is clearly related to the concepts of process then current in the pragmatic philosophies of John Dewey, George Herbert Mead, and, perhaps most of all, T. V. Smith. While the essays seem to describe new directions of change, these directions are in effect consistent with the traditions of American government and the trends of American politics.

Merriam seems to have seen his own role in very classical terms: to provide a modern basis for the kind of “whole man” theories of politics that had marked the history of political theory. Theories of the state, such as those of Hobbes and Locke and of many of their predecessors, had been based on investigations under way in psychology and physics. By Merriam’s day, psychology and physics, like all of the natural sciences, had changed far more radically since the eighteenth century than had theories of the democratic state. This lag meant that democracy seemed increasingly destined to bear the brunt of the critical disillusion produced by the more recent scientific investigations of the nature of man. Merriam sought to provide a basis for restating a theory of the democratic state which would be consistent both with the traditions of democratic theory and with the revolutions in scientific doctrine, aware all the while that no modern theorist could ever again claim the universal knowledge which had made possible the comprehensive ambitions of classical theory. Such an endeavor now required a social science community, ambitious for the same ends and willing to be tolerant of a multiplicity of approaches.

In Political Power (1934a) he sought to apply to American democracy European ideas about the sociological and psychological factors underlying political organization. European, and particularly German, theories of power analysis were given a specifically American setting and generalized in Merriam’s characteristic fashion. Hitler’s rise to power, like the ambitions of the Kaiser, shocked American scholars: Merriam had a deep respect for the quality of nineteenth-century German scholarship and sought to reconcile its traditional commitments with current events in Germany and in his own country.

National planning

By the 1930s, Merriam was once again in a position to exert political influence. He was a member of President Hoover’s Research Committee on Social Trends, and the report of that committee, published in 1933, introduced Merriam’s influence into the New Deal. The report had recommended the establishment of a high-level governmental agency for planning; and the appointment within the Department of the Interior of a national resources committee in 1933 brought Merriam a direct and influential role in the Roosevelt administration; it was a continuing role, since, in 1939, the committee became the National Resources Planning Board, with Merriam still a member.

In its own day the National Resources Planning Board was better-known to those who criticized it than to those who used the information it produced. Although more than two decades have passed since its demise in 1943, its place in the history of the New Deal has yet to be determined. Over seventy major and minor reports on subjects ranging from land and water resources to labor, industry, education, and science, to mention only the most obvious categories, are largely unknown to (or ignored by) historians, despite the fact that they represent perhaps the best example extant of the transformation of turn-of-the-century progressivism into the professionalized government and social science of the post-New Deal generation. President Roosevelt often used these reports as the basis for proposals to Congress and as a means of testing public response to far-reaching experimental programs. Roosevelt also considered giving the reports wider public circulation to stimulate public interest in government, but the necessity of keeping the board out of politics made any scheme difficult to realize.

Merriam was also a member in 1936 and 1937 of the President’s Committee on Administrative Management, the so-called Brownlow Committee. His work on the report of the committee gave both practical structure and theoretical base to his concepts of national planning and the relation of national planning to executive organization.

The last decade of his life was spent in what might be called active retirement. He continued to influence policy in the department of political science at Chicago, and the loose intellectual community which had come to be known as the Chicago school was maintained. He spent a year, 1948-1949, on President Truman’s Loyalty Review Board, and he undertook various lecture obligations, among them the Walgreen series at the University of Chicago (twice during this period) and a series on public administration at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, in 1947. He intended these lectures to serve as first drafts for several books: an autobiography, a study of government and the economic order, and a work on politics and administration. They remained among the manuscripts left unfinished at his death.

Political theory and political behavior

Merriam’s official retirement from the University of Chicago came in 1940. During the 1930s his writings reflected his gradual return to the problem he had considered fundamental earlier in his career but which had been overshadowed for a time by his interest in the study of political behavior, namely, the relation between political theory and democratic government. While Merriam’s reputation remains bound to his work in political behavior, his fundamental interest throughout his life was theory. To be sure, theory, for him, needed ultimately to be based upon behavior, and behavior had been neglected by nineteenth-century students in the field: the bringing together of theory and behavior gave Merriam’s work the appearance of shifts in focus—from theory to political behavior and back again to theory. His own experience in politics had led him to the observation and analysis of political action, using new methods and concepts imported from fields outside of politics. From the beginning it was his aim to bring new materials to the study of politics and to make it consistent with his ideals of political behavior; and in his later years he sought to fulfill this aim in his theoretical writings, an aim culminating in Systematic Politics (1945).

The title reflects what could be called the paradox of Merriam’s intellectual life: that he viewed politics as systematic and scientific but could find successful elaboration of its organization only in descriptive statements of political experience, his own and others’, rather than in the structure of political theory itself. Though committed to bridging what he felt to be the gap between theory and practice, his best formulations of theory were virtually indistinguishable from practical examples. His book Chicago: A More Intimate View of Urban Politics (1929) is the best example. In Systematic Politics he attempted explicitly to separate theory from practice, thereby extending theory. However, only to those who knew the practical politics in which it had properly been imbedded could the book reveal much; to those who did not, it seemed a bit antiquated. For the post-1945 political scientist, Systematic Politics seems either unsystematic or unpolitical, depending upon whether the critic is committed to the older sense of system which Merriam had sought to revise or to the newer sense of politics which Merriam had sought to create.

To assess the career of Merriam apart from the times in which he lived is apt to involve some rather complex distortions. His writings do not constitute a corpus of the importance ordinarily associated with the great in any field. Yet he deserves the accolade as few of his generation do. Merriam was in many ways a publicist of the persuasion of Walter Lippmann, Herbert Croly, and Walter Weyl, but instead of trying to give specialized knowledge of political science wide circulation, as they did, he sought to transcend the academic disciplines for their common benefit, to keep social scientists mindful not only of one another’s increasingly specialized problems but also of the broad public responsibility which, as citizens, they shared.

Merriam is often called the father of behavioral study in politics, but he did not always relish recognizing his offspring, and his offspring in turn often looked upon him askance. Behavioral study emerged from World War II with a revised canon of method, often wholeheartedly committed to quantification (which Merriam had always viewed with much suspicion) and deeply influenced by the rapid development of new machinery for the collection and analysis of data. The war, too, had dampened reform ardor, as World War I had done. A shocking confrontation with reality had created a generation which, to Merriam, often seemed cynical and mechanistic. He had urged science upon them; but they were using science to question the very principles from which he himself had derived the necessity of scientific method.

His own interest in behavioral study was rooted in the conviction that the arena of politics is the proper source of information and generalization about politics and political reform. All of the newly developed social sciences should be brought to bear on the re-examination of old generalizations about politics, the destruction of demonstrably useless ones, and the construction of new ones whose utility would continue to be tested by experience. But it should always be recognized that the social sciences serve rather than control the process of democratic politics. In the continuing relationship between political science and practical politics, the political scientist will always question the adequacy of the politician’s knowledge, while the politician will question the validity of the “science” offered to him. Merriam dealt with these reservations by subjecting science to politics and by basing politics on his unshakable belief in democracy. Democratic government, whatever the details of its form, was for him the only government ultimately consistent with the nature of man. He avoided the question of whether or not this principle can be determined behaviorally, convinced as he was that observable weaknesses in the operation of democratic governments were the result of the still-existing nondemocratic elements, not of the essential nature of democracy.

The accomplishments of Merriam’s career rest as much on the insights to which he directed the attention of others as on the work which can be directly attributed to him. He used his optimism as a device for encouraging investigation and his entrepreneurial energies as a means of making that investigation possible. Through his efforts others were enabled to explore frontiers which he himself could see only dimly and to penetrate barriers which he himself could not reach. Much of his reputation must ultimately depend on the roads he marked and the maps he drew. More confident of the end than others were apt to be, and far more certain of the rightness of the direction, he pointed the way.

Barry D. Karl

[For the historical context of Merriam’s work, seePolicy Sciences; Political Behavior; Political Science; and the biographies ofBeard; Dewey; Mead. For discussion of the subsequent development of Merriam’s ideas, see the biography ofKey.]


A bibliography of Merriam’s writings through 1941 can be found in White 1942. Studies of aspects of his work can be found in the highly critical Crick 1959 and in Karl 1963. The Merriam papers at the University of Chicago contain a significant amount of unpublished material and constitute an extraordinarily rich source of information on the period during which he lived.


1900 History of the Theory of Sovereignty Since Rousseau. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

1903 A History of American Political Theories. New York: Macmillan.

1906 Report of an Investigation of the Municipal Revenues of Chicago. City Club of Chicago.

(1908) 1928 Merriam, Charles E.; and Overacker, LouisePrimary Elections: A Study of the History and Tendencies of Primary Election Legislation. Rev. ed. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1920 American Political Ideas: Studies in the Development of American Political Thought, 1865-1917. New York: Macmillan.

(1922) 1949 Merriam, Charles E.; and Gosnell, Harold F. The American Party System: An Introduction to the Study of Political Parties in the United States. 4th ed. New York: Macmillan.

1924 Merriam, Charles E.; and Barnes, Harry E. (editors) A History of Political Theories, Recent Times: Essays on Contemporary Developments in Political Theory. New York: Macmillan.

1924 Merriam, Charles E.; and Gosnell, Harold F. Non-voting: Causes and Methods of Control. Univ. of Chicago Press.

(1925) 1931 New Aspects of Politics. 2d ed. Univ. of Chicago Press. 1926 Four American Party Leaders. New York: Macmillan.

1929 Chicago: A More Intimate View of Urban Politics. New York: Macmillan.

193la The Making of Citizens: A Comparative Study of Methods of Civic Training. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1931b The Written Constitution and the Unwritten Attitude. New York: Smith.

1934a Political Power: Its Composition and Incidence. New York: McGraw-Hill.

1934b Civic Education in the United States. Report of the Commission on the Social Studies, American Historical Association, Part 6. New York: Scribner.

1936 The Role of Politics in Social Change. New York Univ. Press.

1939a The New Democracy and the New Despotism. New York: McGraw-Hill.

1939b Prologue to Politics. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1941a On the Agenda of Democracy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

1941b What Is Democracy? Univ. of Chicago Press.

(1945) 1962 Systematic Politics. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1963 Merriam, Charles E.; Parratt, Spencer D.; and Lepawsky, AlbertThe Government of the Metropolitan Region of Chicago. Univ. of Chicago Press.


Crick, Bernard 1959 The American Science of Politics: Its Origins and Conditions. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Karl, Barry D. 1963 Executive Reorganization and Reform in the New Deal: The Genesis of Administrative Management, 1900-1939. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → See especially pages 37-81, “Charles Edward Merriam: Politics, Planning, and the Academy.”

The Limits of Behaviorialism in Political Science: A Symposium. Edited by James C. Charlesworth. 1962 Philadelphia: American Academy of Political and Social Science.

Ranney, Austin (editor) 1962 Essays on the Behavioral Study of Politics. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

White, Leonard D. (editor) 1942 The Future of Government in the United States: Essays in Honor of Charles E. Merriam. Univ. of Chicago Press. → A bibliography of Charles E. Merriam’s writings, complete through 1941, appears on pages 269-274.

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