Coker, Francis W.

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Coker, Francis W.


Born and reared in South Carolina, of an old and prominent Southern family, the political scientist Francis W. Coker (1878–1963) received his advanced education and lived and worked most of his adult life in the North. The statement of two colleagues on the occasion of his death, that he “blended the virtues of both regions,” was not merely an encomium but is essential to an understanding of the man, his work, and his influence. In his personal relations and his professional writings he was simultaneously gentle and penetrating, kindly and candid, tolerant of what he regarded as error but firmly critical of it.

Coker received b.a. degrees from both the University of North Carolina and Harvard University. His advanced education and early teaching assignments covered a wide range, from the classics to biology, from philosophy to physics, all of which contributed to the breadth of understanding and depth of perspective in his later work. Settling finally on the emerging discipline of political science as his field of specialization, he took his doctorate, in 1910, at Columbia University, where he studied under such eminent figures of the times as John Bassett Moore, Franklin H. Giddings, E. R. A. Seligman, and James Harvey Robinson. He worked under William A. Dunning in the preparation of his dissertation, which was published under the title Organismic Theories of the State: Nineteenth Century Interpretations of the State as Organism or as Person (1910). This work, which established Coker’s reputation as a scholar, was both a perceptive summary of the organismic theories and a critique thereof, which concluded that such theories were “invalid and superfluous … [throwing] no light upon the working of political institutions” (p. 204).

After a lengthy period at Ohio State University, Coker was appointed, in 1929, to the newly established Alfred Cowles professorship of government at Yale University. When a separate department of government and international relations was created at Yale in 1937, he was appointed its chairman, a position he held until two years before his retirement, in 1947. He was elected president of the American Political Science Association for 1935.

Coker’s training and interests in political science were broad. Many of his early writings dealt with local government; his essay “Dogmas of Administrative Reform,” in 1922, was a noted and influential dissent to the then prevailing formulas of political-administrative reform of state and local government, which may be briefly characterized as formulas of simplification and centralization. His main identification throughout his career and active retirement, however, was with that part of the political science spectrum identified as political theory. His Recent Political Thought (1934), combining enormous scholarship, lucid exposition, and critical interpretation, was his masterwork and, together with the two books of readings that he edited, Readings in Political Philosophy (1914) and Democracy, Liberty, and Property: Readings in the American Political Tradition (1942), became a “standard” work.

Coker’s significance and influence, exerted through his teaching, personal example, and varied writings, was not so much in the formulation and dissemination of new doctrines or theories as in the firm support and intelligent application of the ideas and ideals of liberalism and democracy. Intellectually a master of all arguments against democracy and in favor of other schemes of government, and thoroughly knowledgeable about man’s limitations and imperfections, nevertheless he took a firm stand upon the position that democracy is the “best” form of government, whether considered from the viewpoint of stability and efficiency or from the viewpoint of material well-being and individual fulfillment. He combined a loyalty to firmly held ideals with an experimental, pragmatic attitude respecting their realization. Rejecting both laissez-faire and any totalitarian approach, he sought a middle way through the complexities of modern life to the goals of humanism.

Coker’s attitudes and influence may be seen reflected and exemplified in the works of two prominent political scientists who studied with him. David Fellman’s works dealing with public law reflect Coker’s lively concern for the protection of individual rights and the enlargement of the area of human liberties; and Robert A. Dahl’s works dealing with such matters as majority rule and economic planning reflect Coker’s concern to adapt governmental institutions to new conditions while simultaneously maximizing historically received democratic goals.

Dwight Waldo


1910 Organismic Theories of the State: Nineteenth Century Interpretations of the State as Organism or as Person. Columbia University Studies in History, Economics, and Public Law, Vol. 38, No. 2. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

(1914) 1938 Coker, Francis W. (editor) Readings in Political Philosophy. Rev. & enl. ed. New York: Macmillan.

1922 Dogmas of Administrative Reform as Exemplified in the Recent Reorganization in Ohio. American Political Science Review 16:399–411.

1934 Recent Political Thought. New York: Appleton.

1942 Coker, Francis W. (editor) Democracy, Liberty, and Property: Readings in the American Political Tradition. New York: Macmillan.