AHA President, 1961


Yale University

From the American Historical Review 79:3 (June 1974)

Samuel Flagg Bemis (October 20, 1891–September 26, 1973), Sterling Professor Emeritus of Diplomatic History and Inter-American Relations at Yale, died in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on September 26, 1973, after a long illness. He was born near Sturbridge, Massachusetts, in 1891, and during his lifetime had seen the American Historical Association grow from a very small group of scholars to its present impressive size. The study of American diplomatic history became his specialty almost by chance. After completing a baccalaureate and master’s degree at Clark University in Worcester, attending Clark because it was a virtually tuition-free institution and happened to be in the city where he lived, he took the recommendation of one of his Clark teachers, N. S. B. Gras, and went to Cambridge where he entered the seminar of Edward Channing. “The great Channing” was well into his multivolume history of the United States and was moving his seminar along as his researches and publication progressed; when Bemis appeared in 1913 the seminar was up to the 1790s. As a doctoral thesis subject young Bemis was given the Jay Treaty with Great Britain of 1794.

It was a fateful choice, in more ways than Bemis then understood. Nearly ten years earlier the president of Princeton University had told a group at the St. Louis Exposition that the best doctoral thesis subjects were taken, and only the high and dry places remained. How wrong Woodrow Wilson was! Virtually the whole of American history lay unoccupied, especially American diplomatic history, as Bemis showed so well in his subsequent career. Bemis even managed, in connection with his researches into Jay’s Treaty (as he came to describe his subject), to take part in American diplomatic history. Going to France in 1916 aboard the French Channel steamer Sussex, he caught sight of a German torpedo headed directly for the ship. He later so testified, and it was partly on the basis of his testimony (the Germans were contending that the Sussex had struck a mine) that President Wilson sent the so-called Sussex ultimatum, threatening to break relations if German submarines continued to sink vessels contrary to the rules of international law. When the Germans challenged the president early in 1917 the nation went to war.

Bemis taught at Colorado College, at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, and then at George Washington University in the nation’s capital, where he came under the influence of J. Franklin Jameson, who helped him advance professionally in many ways. In the latter 1920s Jameson arranged for him to undertake a gigantic project of photostating European archival material pertaining to American history. Bemis went to Yale in 1935 and taught there until retirement in 1960. The following year he served as president of the AHA.

All the while the books were appearing, each based on archival study, each the result of intense personal labor. A Bemis book was the solid result of its author’s work-no research assistants, no foundation grants. Jay’s Treaty appeared in 1923, and three years later Pinckney’s Treaty, which won a Pulitzer Prize. He edited the first ten volumes of The American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy, published in 1927-29. Diplomacy of the American Revolution came out in 1935, and in the same year appeared the epochal bibliographical study, done with Grace G. Griffin, Guide to the Diplomatic History of the United States. The first edition of A Diplomatic History of the United States was. published in 1936, and there were four more editions. The textbook’s single joke, about the fur seal, caused a generation of students to smile if not laugh. The initial edition showed some enthusiasm for American isolation, later removed. The author refused to take out a chapter endnote about the Lusitania despite increasing criticism that nothing had been proved against the British government. Bemis published his Latin American Policy of the United States in 1943 and then, in 1949, the first volume of his Adams biography, John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy, which received a Pulitzer. In 1956 appeared John Quincy Adams and the Union, his last book and fittingly his best, a masterful drawing of the indefatigable J.Q.A. who in some ways resembled the biographer himself.

Bemis through the years gained the reputation of being a hard-bitten Yankee, dour and occasionally sharp, but his students understood that he reserved his formalities for laggards and slackers, whether Yalies or professional pretenders. To his students he was a marvelous storyteller, a constant inspiration, and a warmhearted human being. A small, private celebration was held some years ago in a modest New York restaurant, and when the time came for a response by Bemis, “the teacher,” as he was called (he detested the words “doctor” and “professor”), did not make a speech but simply went around the room and remarked his pleasant memories, individually, of each of those persons present.

He was one of the last of his great generation.—Robert H. Ferrell, Indiana University



Relations between the Vermont separatists and Great Britain, 1789-1791, contributed by S.F. Bemis. New York, 1916.

The United States and the abortive armed neutrality of 1794, by Samuel Flagg Bemis. New York: Macmillan, 1918.

Jay’s treaty, a study in commerce and diplomacy, by Samuel Flagg Bemis. New York: Macmillan, 1923.

The diplomacy of the American revolution, by Samuel Flagg Bemis. New York, London: D. Appleton-Century, 1935.

A diplomatic history of the United States, by Samuel Flagg Bemis. New York: H. Holt and company, c1936; 4th ed. New York: Holt, 1955.

Early diplomatic missions from Beunos Aires to the United States, 1811-1824, by Samuel Flagg Bemis. Worcester, Mass.: The Society, 1940.

The United States as a world power; a diplomatic history, 1900-1950. New York: Holt, 1950.

Guide to the diplomatic history of the United States, 1775-1921, by Samuel Flagg Bemis and Grace Gardner Griffin. Washington: U. S. Govt. Print. off., 1935. New York, P. Smith, 1951.

Pinckney’s treaty; America’s advantage from Europe’s distress, 1783-1800. Rev. ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960.

American foreign policy and the blessings of liberty, and other essays. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962.