A Massachusetts native, James MacGregor Burns was born in Melrose on 3 August 1918, grew up in Burlington and took his undergraduate degree at Williams College in Williamstown in the state’s northwestern corner. After graduating in 1939, he served in the Pacific as a combat historian, receiving a Bronze Star and four Battle Stars, and later secured a PhD from Harvard University. Returning to Williams in 1947 as a faculty member, he would remain there, latterly as Woodrow Wilson professor of government, for almost four decades until retirement in 1986.
An exceptionally fluent and prolific writer into his eighties and beyond, Professor Burns made his mark with Government by the People (1952), long a standard student textbook on American politics. This was followed by Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox (1956), the first in a two-volume study completed by the Pulitzer prizewinning Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom in 1970.
It was at this point that Professor Burns, a lifelong liberal Democrat, decided to put theory into practice by running as a candidate for the 1st Congressional District of Massachusetts in 1958. Although this proved unsuccessful, it led to a friendship with the up-and-coming Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy, and later to Professor Burns’ favourable but by no means hagiographic study, John Kennedy: A Political Profile (1960).
Although he would later return to political biography in George Washington (with Susan Dunn, 1984), Professor Burns focused much of his subsequent writing on two slightly different areas. In books such as The Deadlock of Democracy: Four-Party Politics in America (1963) and Packing the Court: The Rise of Judicial Power and the Coming Crisis of the Supreme Court (2009), he offered sharp and often prophetic analyses of the faultlines within the US system of government. In parallel with this, he developed the notion of “transformational leadership” and largely forged a new discipline with works such as Leadership (1978) and Transforming Leadership: A New Pursuit of Happiness (2003). A centre then based at the University of Maryland was renamed the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership in his honour in 1997.
Adam Falk, president of Williams College, described Professor Burns as “one of the best known and most influential faculty members in the college’s history”, who “gave countless students a firm grounding in American political history and played key roles in many developments at the college, including the ending of fraternities”.
Professor Burns died on 15 July and is survived by his partner, Susan Dunn, Preston S. Parish ’41 Third Century professor in the arts and humanities at Williams, and three children.