Charles Edward Merriam
Captain, United States Army
Born 15 November 1874 at Hopkinton, Delaware County, Iowa.
Died on 6 January 1953
The career of Charles Merriam spanned a transitional period as the states became a nation and the nation became an international power. He was part of the generation that came of age during the Progressive period only to face the crises of both World Wars and the Great Depression. Although he was never blind to the challenge these events posed for the liberal commitment to democracy, Charles Merriam maintained his belief that industrialization and science would enhance rather than destroy the role of citizen participation in public affairs.
During his years as a political science professor at the University of Chicago, Merriam actively participated in the political process that was the focus of his academic research. Merriam believed that at some point theories of political process needed to be linked to practical political activity.
Although University administrators were not uniformly enthusiastic about Merriam's political involvements, he nonetheless plunged into the local electoral fray. His work as alderman and on several commissions for the City of Chicago spanned almost two decades, earning him a solid reputation in both Chicago and national political circles for his efforts to root out corruption. Serving on several investigatory commissions during the first two decades of the twentieth century, Merriam gained favor among progressives by exposing fraudulent use of public funds, although his work sometimes threatened Republican Party regulars. Even after dropping out of direct office-seeking campaigns following his defeat in the mayoral primary in 1919, Merriam continued to serve on local and national committees for much of his life. President Herbert Hoover appointed him to serve on the Research Committee on Social Trends, and he later served on the National Resources Planning Board under Franklin D. Roosevelt. His service under Roosevelt during the Great Depression brought him as close as he ever came to realizing his goals of progressive social intervention and change.
As a political scientist, Merriam was intrigued by the methodology he saw emerging in the fields of philosophy, sociology, psychology, and anthropology. Merriam hoped to steer political theory along a path that incorporated these methods but that resisted their deterministic tendencies. Often called the father of the behavioral movement in political science, he made the department at Chicago the nation's leader in the production of more than a generation of major figures in the field.
Merriam's deep involvement in philanthropic
organizations, his teaching and writing, and his work in creating the Social
Science Research Council and the Public Administration Clearing House exemplified
his belief in the need for new organizations for systematic reform. By
utilizing systematic and objective analytical methods, Merriam was convinced
that the political process could be used to improve the quality of life.
Improvements in science and technology were mass gains, as he often put
it, and needed to benefit all people.
Charles E. Merriam was born in Hopkinton, lowa, the son of a postmaster and merchant. He attended Lenox College and began the study of law at lowa State University. Disillusioned with the legal profession, he studied social science at Columbia College, New York City. After studying in Germany, he returned to teach political science at the University of Chicago, where he remained until his death--a total of 51 years.
A Better Democracy
Merriam was preoccupied with two goals: critically examining and perfecting democracy and bridging the gap in political science between theory and practice. Democracy, he believed, was "not merely a form ... but a means, through which the highest ideals of mankind may be achieved." In countering any attack upon democracy, he joined those who sought the cure for the ills of democracy in more democracy. He countered the argument that democracy was inefficient by holding that it did not have to be efficient, that "freedom and inefficiency are not opposites." Through scientific management, a strengthening of the executive by way of the item veto, centralized budget, and expertise, a democratically directed science could rid man of all his problems--not by creating a Marxian universal proletariat but by eliminating the oppressed proletariat if not indeed the proletariat as a class. The stronger, more efficient executive would be democratically controlled by way of initiative, referendum, and recall.
Largely because of Merriam's efforts to bring political science into touch with the real world, he is sometimes identified as the father of behavioral political science, believing that one could learn about politics only through the observation of "real" government and political behavior. He was, however, suspicious of quantification and was not, in fact, committed to the methods and techniques of what is now generally called behavioral science.
Despite Merriam's prolific and illuminating writings, his scholarship was overshadowed by his public career.
Not without some misgivings on the part of his superiors, Merriam heeded his conviction that political scientists should apply their learning by way of participation in political affairs. In 1905 he made a successful official study of the Chicago tax structure and 2 years later was appointed secretary of that city's Harbor Commission. Since the commission was involved in studying some of the most complex and bothersome problems of Chicago politics, Merriam gained not only invaluable experience but wide political exposure that led to his election to the city council in 1909. He immediately tackled the problem of fraud and graft in the city. The council reacted by cutting off funds for his investigation, but he secured the necessary funds from a private donor and with almost flagrant disregard for his political life completed the investigation. Ironically this action contributed to his lack of success in his campaign for mayor of Chicago (on the Republican ticket). After an abortive effort to breathe life into the Progressive party, he was again elected to the city council (1913-1917).
In World War I Merriam served as the American high commissioner of public information in Italy, after which he made a futile attempt to reenter Chicago politics. The next 25 years were devoted to his professional interests. Merriam became one of the most influential members of the American Political Science Association, was influential in founding the Public Administration Clearing House, helped establish the Social Science Research Council, and interested the Rockefeller Foundation in financing faculty and study research projects.
Through his endeavors and the success of his
students, such as V. O. Key and H. D. Lasswell, Merriam's influence may
well have been greater and more extensive than if his university had made
his lot easier. He served on presidential commissions for Herbert Hoover,
Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman, and he wrote and lectured extensively.