Charles Edward Merriam (1874-1953) was an American political scientist, critic and defender of democracy, practical politician, adviser to presidents, and a prolific writer on all phases of government and politics.
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 for…. 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.
Further Reading on Charles Edward Merriam
Reissues of three works by Merriam are particularly useful for their introductions and notes by students and analysis of his work: Political Power, with an introduction by Harold D. Lasswell (1964); The Making of Citizens, with an introduction and notes by George Z. F. Bereday (1966); and New Aspects of Politics, with a foreword by Barry D. Karl (1970). See also Leonard D. White, ed., The Future of Government in the United States: Essays in Honor of Charles E. Merriam (1942).
Additional Biography Sources
Karl, Barry Dean, Charles E. Merriam and the study of politics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.
Simon, Herbert Alexander, Charles E. Merriam and the "Chicago School" of political science: the Edmund James lecture delivered on October 10, 1985, Urbana, Ill.: Dept. of Political Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1987.