Skip to main content

Lowell, A. Lawrence

Lowell, A. Lawrence



Abbott Lawrence Lowell (1856–1943), political scientist and president of Harvard University, was born into one of the great families of Boston society. The Lowells had been established in Massachusetts since 1639 and had contributed to American life a distinguished line of ministers, merchants, industrialists, philanthropists, jurists, and poets. Much of their philanthropy supported education, especially Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Lowell Institute. When he graduated from Harvard College in 1877, A. Lawrence Lowell was the sixth in an unbroken series of generations of alumni.

After receiving an LL.B. from the Harvard Law School in 1880, Lowell opened a law office in Boston. When his practice proved unsuccessful, he began to write in his spare time, soon turning fro legal topics to political science. A series of magazine articles, collected as Essays on Government (1889), received sufficient recognition to encourage him to begin work on a major study in comparative government, the two-volume Governments and Parties in Continental Europe (1896). From 1897 to 1900 he was a part-time lecturer at Harvard, and in 1900 he received a permanent appointment as professor of the science of govern ment. His book The Government of England (1908) won praise on both sides of the Atlantic. Lowell was active in university affairs, and this led to his selection as president of Harvard in 1909, a post he held until 1933.

His basic approach to political science is stated on the opening page of Essays on Government: “The real mechanism of a government can be understood only by examining it in action.” Studies were needed, therefore, to provide detailed descriptions of the actual operation of contemporary political structures. He observed, furthermore, that political parties, more than formal institutions, determine political practice.

Lowell’s two major books were based on these themes. The one on continental Europe (1896) carefully described the formal political institutions of France, Italy, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Switzerland and the way that the specific party system dominated the institutions of each country. The book on England (1908) provided a detailed review of the political life of that country, based on extensive interviews with political leaders as well as printed source material. These and less ambitious works discussing the management of legislation by parties and the impact of public opinion on party operations aroused contemporary enthusiasm. In the English Historical Review it was said that Lowell “has done for England what Mr. Bryce has done for the American Commonwealth” (Raleigh 1908, p. 809). Although succeeding generations may not rate Lowell’s insights this highly, they will still find useful his precise portraits of how governments operated at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In his 24 years as president of Harvard, Lowell was particularly eager to enhance the stature of the undergraduate college. He modified the undergraduate curriculum by curtailing freedom in the choice of courses and by introducing the tutorial system to encourage individual work. He altered the structure of the college by the inauguration, in 1930, of the “house system,” which split the under-graduate body into smaller residential and social units, on the model of the English universities. And despite his great identification with New England, he supported changes in admission rules and scholarship eligibility that opened Harvard to public school graduates from the entire country and trans-formed the college into a national institution.

Although Lowell aroused considerable liberal hostility when he supported the convictions of Sacco and Vanzetti, he was keenly sensitive to any encroachments on academic freedom. He strongly defended faculty members under attack by the public and by alumni for unpopular opinions—Hugo Münsterberg for pro-German attitudes during World War I, Zechariah ChafFee for liberal views during the “Red Scare” of the 1920s, and Harold Laski for his support of the police in the Boston police strike of 1919.

Milton Berman

[Other relevant material may be found in Parties, Political;and in the biographies of Bryceand Michels.]


1889 Essays on Government. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

1896 Governments and Parties in Continental Europe. 2 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

1902 The Influence of Party Upon Legislation in England and America. American Historical Association, Annual Report [1901] no. 1:319–542.

(1908) 1912 The Government of England. 2 vols., new ed. New York: Macmillan.

(1913) 1926 Public Opinion and Popular Government. New ed. New York: Longmans.

1923 Public Opinion in War and Peace. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

1934 At War With Academic Traditions in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

1938 What a University President Has Learned. New York: Macmillan.


Greenslet, Ferris 1946 The Lowells and Their Seven Worlds. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Morison, Samuel E. (editor) 1930 The Development of Harvard University Since the Inauguration of President Eliot: 1869–1929. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Morison, Samuel E. 1936 The Lowell Administration. Pages 439–481 in Samuel E. Morison, Three Centuries of Harvard: 1636–1936. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Raleigh, T. 1908 [A Book Review of] The Government of England, by A. Lawrence Lowell. English Historical Review 23:809–810.

Yeomans, Henry A. 1948 Abbott Lawrence Lowell: 1856–1943. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lowell, A. Lawrence." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 14 Jan. 2019 <>.

"Lowell, A. Lawrence." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (January 14, 2019).

"Lowell, A. Lawrence." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved January 14, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.