A guest post by J. David Hoeveler. His new book, John Bascom and the Origins of the Wisconsin Idea, has just been published by the University of Wisconsin Press.
The majestic building that sits atop the University of Wisconsin in Madison bears the name Bascom Hall. Thousands of people pass by the building every day, and some may wonder who “Bascom” was. “The guiding spirit of my time,” was what what famed Wisconsin senator Robert La Follette called John Bascom. La Follette felt that Bascom was the real inspiration for what we now call the Wisconsin Idea.
John Bascom served the University of Wisconsin as its president from 1874 to 1887. He came from upstate New York, born in Genoa in 1827, and graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts. He then attended two theological seminaries. Bascom taught at his alma mater for two decades before coming to Madison. He was a prolific scholar and wrote books and essays on theology, philosophy, sociology, and economics. But he did more than that as UW president. He committed himself to social reforms and, in fact, became as outspoken on these matters as any major figure in American higher education at the time.
Bascom’s political philosophy grew out of his liberal Christianity and his understanding of evolution. The latter concept gave Bascom his notion of society as a complex organism, all of whose parts must work in integration with the whole and in cooperation with each other. So believing, Bascom set a higher priority for the collective good, the public interest.
Three causes especially gained Bascom’s commitment. First, he advocated for temperance and even voted for the Prohibition party. That cause may suggest to some a moralistic, puritanical strain in Bascom, but it had its progressive side. Some labor leaders and almost all women’s rights leaders of the day supported the campaign against alcohol.
Second, Bascom spoke out strongly for co-education and women’s rights. At the time, respected medical literature often warned against the toll of mental labor on the female body. Bascom ridiculed such notions. He spoke not only for co-education but insisted that the UW abandon the separate curriculums that then existed for men and women students. Bascom defended some policies that leading feminists themselves did not always support. He advocated for woman’s suffrage. He would allow divorce. He even criticized the styles of dress imposed on women—the corsets and bustles popular in the Gilded Age. They conspired, he said, against females’ full and active participation in American public life.
And third, Bascom championed the rights of labor. Here especially he feared the deprivation of a class of people, the workers, and their alienation from the large social organism. Bascom defended the right of labor to organize unions and he justified the right to strike. He also denounced the excessive power of money in America. Who else, among American university leaders of this era, would dare condemn by name the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers? Bascom, though, strongly opposed socialism. He admired business enterprise, and he thrilled to the marvels of technological creativity so visible in the United States. These activities, too, he believed, create the expanded social interconnections that grow and advance human society.
Robert La Follette graduated from the UW in 1879. So did his classmate and friend Charles Van Hise. La Follette became Wisconsin governor in 1901, and Van Hise was inaugurated UW president in 1904. The first graduates of the UW to hold these positions, both La Follette and Van Hise had been students of Bascom. And both drew inspiration from Bascom’s urgent advocacy for the good uses of the state and the ideal of public service. Together, they put the Wisconsin Idea into place.
Fola La Follette, daughter of Robert and Belle Case La Follette, later wrote: “Two students of the class of 1879, Bob La Follette and Charles Van Hise, profoundly influenced in youth by a great teacher, were now, as mature men, collaborating to sustain former President Bascom’s ideal of the relation of a state university to the State.”
So, as discussion about the Wisconsin Idea again rises among us, we might gain in historical perspective and in contemporary understanding if we remember John Bascom, the intellectual source of this “idea.” John Bascom: philosopher, humanist, and a man of religious faith.