James MacGregor Burns rightly can be called the Dean of Roosevelt Biographers. His first volume on Franklin Roosevelt, Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox (1956), was barely edged out of the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for biography by John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage. Its companion volume, Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom (1970), won the 1971 Pulitzer for history and the National Book Award. The two volumes together serve as the first complete political biography of Franklin Roosevelt.
His study of Franklin Roosevelt led Burns to explore more fully the nature of leadership, and his 1978 book Leadership is still considered the seminal work in the field of leadership studies. His theory of transactional and transformational leadership has been the basis for more than 400 doctoral dissertations. He received his B.A. from Williams College, his PhD in political science from Harvard, and attended the London School of Economics. He is currently the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Government Emeritus at Williams College
Burns first registered as a researcher at the Roosevelt Library on August 7, 1952, and he was issued card #392. As one of the Library’s early researchers, he had the privilege of working in the same research room with other highly respected scholars of the Roosevelt era, including Frank Freidel, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and William Leuchtenburg. This group fulfilled one of FDR’s visions for his library—that it serve as a place for scholars to come, study, and interpret the Roosevelt era.
James MacGregor Burns has influenced generations of historians and political scientists, among them historians Michael Beschloss and Susan Dunn. Burns, Beschloss and Dunn appeared on stage together at the Roosevelt Library’s 8th annual Roosevelt Reading Festival on June 18, 2011.
Being an intensely modest man, Burns had never read publicly from his own work. But in his appearance at the Reading Festival, Burns read excerpts from his seminal work, Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox, for the first time. After each excerpt, Burns, Beschloss and Dunn then engaged in a lively historical discussion, which had a lovingly personal feel to it. The affection that these three outstanding historians—the teacher and his students—had for each other was obvious. It was a truly special occasion for all those present.
Now 92, James MacGregor Burns has stated that his appearance at the Roosevelt Reading Festival was his last public appearance. The Roosevelt Library is honored that Burns began his exemplary career here in 1952 as researcher #392 and that he chose the 2011 Roosevelt Reading Festival for his valedictory appearance nearly 60 years later.
To watch the Burns, Beschloss and Dunn panel from the 2011 Roosevelt Reading Festival, visit the C-SPAN video library online.