J. Franklin Jameson (1859-1937) was a history professor at Brown University from 1888 to 1901, a vice president of the Rhode Island Historical Society, first secretary of the American Historical Association and long-time editor of its journal, The American Historical Review, Director of Historical Research at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., and the founder of the National Archives.
Born in Somerville, Massachusetts in 1859, Jameson attended Roxbury Latin School and spent his undergraduate college days at Amherst, graduating in 1879. After a year teaching school in Worcester, he studied for his PhD in history from the Johns Hopkins University taking his degree in 1882. His was the first doctorate in history awarded by Johns Hopkins, and he remained there as an instructor until 1888 before moving to Brown. One of his closest colleagues during this formative era was Woodrow Wilson.
Although unable to afford the desirable foreign graduate work in history then popular, he was one of a handful of American academics who adopted the new German-inspired seminar style of study, expounded by Leopold von Ranke, that touted a scientific and critical scrutiny of original texts as the most accurate approach to writing history. It was the seminar’s dependence on original documents that propelled him into a life-long pursuit of perfecting documentary publications and the improvement of archival collections. He spent most of his professional life in Washington, D.C. promoting the establishment of a national archives and is largely credited for its ultimate success.
While in Rhode Island, Jameson led an unsuccessful effort to rescue a large cache of the papers of Major General Nathanael Greene which came up at public auction in New York. Although the Rhode Island General Assembly in the 1890s balked at spending $10,000 to rescue Greene’s letters, successive General Assemblies eventually spent nearly a million dollars to publish Greene letters in thirteen volumes in the 1980s and 1990s. At Brown, Jameson instituted the seminar method in history which produced important published essays in Rhode Island history still used by scholars in this field of study.
Following his Rhode Island years, Jameson became professor of history and department chairman at the University of Chicago serving in those capacities from 1901-1905. Leaving Chicago, he went to the nation’s capital to direct the history bureau at the Carnegie Institution, a post he held until 1928. Then, nearing age 70, Jameson was appointed Chief of the Division of Manuscripts of the Library of Congress, a position he occupied for nine more years until his death in 1937.