Excerpt: Franz Boas: Shaping Anthropology and Fostering Social Justice

Rosemary Lévy Zumwalt is emerita vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college and professor emerita of anthropology at Agnes Scott College. She is the author of numerous books, including Franz Boas: The Emergence of the Anthropologis(Nebraska, 2019) and American Folklore Scholarship: A Dialogue of Dissent, and is coauthor of Franz Boas and W. E. B. Du Bois at Atlanta University, 1906. Her newest book, Franz Boas: Shaping Anthropology and Fostering Social Justice (Nebraska, 2022), was published this month.

Franz Boas is a magisterial biography of Franz Boas and his influence in shaping not only anthropology but also the sciences, humanities, social science, visual and performing arts, and America’s public sphere during a period of great global upheaval and democratic and social struggle. The following excerpt touches on how Boas’s emergence as a prominent public intellectual, particularly his opposition to U.S. entry into World War I, reveals his struggle against the forces of nativism, racial hatred, ethnic chauvinism, scientific racism, and uncritical nationalism.


5. Conflict, War, and Censure

Boas’s Public Opposition to the War

Boas had opposed the war in every possible way, both in his widespread correspondence and with letters to the editor in various newspapers. On December 27, 1916, he wrote, “Why I Shall Vote for Hughes,” the Republican candidate for president, which was published in the New York Daily Mail. He explained that four years previously he had voted for Wilson, and that he supported the Democratic party whenever “acceptable candidates” were on the ticket. To his friend Oskar Bolza, he wrote about the defeat of Hughes and about the insincerity of Wilson. Of Hughes he wrote, “I voted for him very reluctantly.” Boas commented on what he saw as the worst of Wilson: “His attacks by innuendo upon German Americans, and his absolute failure when challenged, to say whom he meant and to substantiate his complaints.”

Boas circulated a petition that declared: “We, the undersigned, citizens of the United States, but born and brought up as members of the European nations now at war, express our earnest conviction that the best interests of mankind demand the most intimate and friendly cooperation between the men of affairs, the artists, and the scientists of the whole world.” The response to the petition was minimal. He wrote R. C. Maclaurin, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that he was distressed because he had received only one signed petition, opining that perhaps this was because he was born in Germany. Boas asked Maclaurin to submit the petition to some of his friends who were American citizens “and who were born in England, France, Russia, Italy, or one of the other Allied countries.” Maclaurin agreed to do so. Boas concluded that he had underestimated “the strength of national intolerance even among our American citizens of foreign birth.” Kroeber had warned Boas about the potential backlash for speaking out against the war: “You would only be swimming against an impossible torrent, with no good to yourself or anyone else.”

Secretary of Columbia University Frank Fackenthal attempted to recruit faculty to the war effort. Boas had responded: “In reply to your letter asking of what service the members of the Department of Anthropology can be in the present crisis, I wish to say that most of us feel that our most important duty is to work for peace. So far as I am concerned, this takes all my spare time.” Fackenthal assembled a gathering of the Columbia University community on February 6, 1917 “to consider what action should be taken in view of the serious crisis the nation is now facing.” President Butler opened and closed the assembly; professor of sociology Franklin Hamilton Giddings, Dean of Columbia College Frederick Paul Keppel, and Professor Erskine delivered remarks. Erskine had queried, “Facing the possibility of war, what is there for us as scholars to do?,” answering, “We can provide as long as possible a shelter for the rational ideas that cling to men even in a state of war.” Thanking him for his remarks, Boas noted that he agreed heartily with Erskine, “that before defending something we ought to preserve what is to be defended.” Erskine responded, “The country may be caught in this maelstrom of war, but . . . we must stand for the civilization that war always imperils. Columbia has a great opportunity to show its intelligence.”

On February 9, 1917, the New York Times published Boas’s letter to the editor, “Professor Boas Dissents, Blames the President for the Break with Germany,” in which he declared, “One man and only one, has brought us to the brink of war, and as one of the people I demand the right to be heard, and say with all the emphasis of which I am capable that we are wrong; that the interest of humanity demands that we work for peace, not for war; that the President has not exhausted the peaceful means that would restrict the evils of the war to the belligerents.” Boas received many congratulatory and also many negative responses to this letter to the editor. Ross Harrison, zoologist at Yale University, wrote, “My warmest thanks and congratulations for your splendid courage. I have read your clear and forceful letter in the New York Times, and wish to express to you my unqualified concurrence.” A member of the administration took exception: “I have several times expressed my opinion as to the impropriety of the practice pursued by many of our professors in publishing letters having no relation to the University or to their official position under the name of the University as Professor Boas has done in this instance. It cannot be doubted that this wholly unwarranted use of the name of the University has at times created a false and injurious impression and I think that the time has come when the practice must be stopped.”

Butler also received letters from members of the public. An attorney wrote, “I read with amazement in this morning’s New York Times a letter of Franz Boas sustaining and justifying murder and assassination on the high seas by the German Imperial Government. I am informed that this man Boas holds some professional chair in Columbia University. Is it possible that your University where Christian principles are maintained and taught can continue the services of this apologist of assassination and crime?” Butler replied both in opposition to Boas’s views and in defense of his right to freedom of expression: “Naturally I regret their publication as from Columbia, whose record for patriotism and for the highest public spirit has been unclouded for over a century and a half. Nevertheless, if any one holds these views he has every opportunity to express them and thereby himself becomes personally responsible for them.”

On March 7, 1917, Boas read a statement, “Preserving Our Ideals,” to all his classes in protest of the university’s loyalty oath. The notes for his Barnard classes began, “On the whole, I do not try to apply the conclusions of our discussions to specific problems of the day, assuming that when you think attentively about these matters, their application will seem obvious to you. At present, however, when in the University and outside of the University we are called upon constantly to restrict the freedom of our thought in conformity with the current opinions of the day, I think I ought to state frankly and as clearly as I can my position in regard to this demand.” He stated, “That we want to have freedom from interference is obvious, but there are very few people even at the present time who understand that true freedom means that we ourselves should be able to rise above the fetters that the past imposes upon us.” Boas emphasized, “Patriotism must be subordinated to humanism.”

The next day Boas sent a letter addressed to “Dear Sir”: “The repeated calls to serve the country in the present crisis which have come to all of us from every side have strengthened my conviction that our first and most urgent duty is to try to think calmly, and not to aggravate a serious condition by giving way to the excitement of the moment.” Boas continued, “The call has come particularly to the members of the Faculty of Columbia University for emergency service, and a statement to my students and to the public of my opinions is the best service that I believe I can render at the present moment.” He attached a copy of the statement he had “made in the course of my lectures on anthropology.”

Boas also read the statement to his Anthropology 101–102 class at Columbia. A student wrote a letter of protest to President Butler that “our premier University” harbored “anti-patriotic sentiments.” The letter began: “Dr. Franz Boas, Professor of Anthropology, read a prepared statement, which he stated was his answer to the University’s effort to mobilize its personnel.” The student provided a ten-point summary, of which the following related to Boas’s opposition to the war: “One’s duty to ‘humanity’ is superior to one’s duty to one’s nation; . . . the excitation of patriotism by the waving of flags, singing of songs, and by other patriotic acts is wrong; . . . it is wrong to fight any nation; . . . it is wrong to assume that this nation is superior to other nations in any respect; . . . once given the condition of war, ‘military necessity’ always justified itself; . . . boys and girls should not be taught about patriotism nor about war.” The student recounted that he “waited patiently until the end of the statement, when without waiting for the regular lecture, which presumably was to follow, I left the room. It was hard to sit there that long, and to have to listen to statements which brought the blood to one’s cheek, and which made one indignant when one recalled the struggles of all those who have labored to make America a place for the highest civilization.”

AMNH archaeologist Nels Nelson wrote Kroeber that “Boas cannot keep out of the papers and of course the patriots slug him for 2–3 weeks afterwards,” adding, “Some members of his classes walked out recently.” Of the political situation, Nelson told him, “in fact things have gone so far that Columbia has appointed a committee to investigate what seditious doctrines are being taught, but this may not be aimed at B[oas]. I don’t know just how things are in your Bay Cities, but here sentiment is crystallizing rapidly and lines are being drawn pretty sharply.” At the Thursday anthropology lunch at the Endicott Hotel, Nelson said the same crowd gathered: “Goldenweiser is supremely happy of course since the ‘Revolution,’ but we have to keep clear of the war topic.”

In July 1917 Boas had written Ernst, “As far as I am concerned, one thing is clearer than ever, that I must make it my task to speak and teach against the artificial fanning of patriotism.” In the foreword to Race and Democratic Society, Ernst reflected, “He once remarked that his conscious efforts to spread his ideas in wider circles, beyond those of the scientific world, began in 1914, during the first world war. He did not remain cloistered in his study; when issues arose he spoke out fearlessly from his deep knowledge and conviction.” In one instance Marie had told her husband, “If you deliver that lecture you will be thrown out of Columbia.”

Boas jumped into the fray with heart and soul, declaring his opposition to the implementation of the loyalty oath in a letter to Edwin A. R. Seligman, Columbia professor of economics and chair of the committee of nine that represented the faculty: “I feel very much humiliated by the Resolution passed by the Trustees last Monday and reported in the Tuesday papers. It seems to my mind entirely incompatible with the dignity and duties of an academic teacher to be subject to a supervision like that provided by the Resolution. You are entirely free to use this statement wherever you may desire.” Boas wrote his cousin Wisbrun in Rotterdam:

Besides the general political troubles, we have our own troubles in the University. Our Trustees had the impudence to pass a Resolution the beginning of this month by which they appointed a committee that was to investigate the whole Faculty in regard to their political opinions. I am glad to say that this has created a complete revolution in the University, and that in all probability the action of the Trustees will have to be rescinded. It throws, however, a beautiful side-light on what we call freedom. So far as I am concerned the action of the Trustees has induced me simply to state before my classes in a very formal and definite way my political views.

This, Boas remarked, was “very objectionable” to the trustees. He said he was trying to get his political statement published, “but so far without success.” Boas, who had been offered a position in Munich, remarked, “I confess frankly that if all the events that have transpired since the 1st of February had happened two months ago . . . , my answer to the offer of a professorship abroad would have been different; but that cannot be helped now.”

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