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John William Ward (professor)

John William Ward (1922–1985), was a professor of English and history at Princeton University from 1952 to 1964 and a Professor of History and American Studies at Amherst College from 1964 to 1971. In 1971, Ward became the fourteenth President of Amherst College, a position he held until 1979. As President, Ward sparked controversy by protesting the war in Vietnam through nonviolent civil disobedience at Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee, Massachusetts. He was married to Barbara Carnes Ward had three sons named David, Christopher and Andrew.

John William Ward
14th President of Amherst College
In office
Preceded byCalvin Hastings Plimpton
Succeeded byJulian Gibbs
Personal details
Alma materHarvard College
University of Minnesota[1]

Best known as a central figure of the Myth and Symbol School of American studies scholarship, Ward was one of the few university presidents during the Vietnam era to participate in direct activism against the escalation of conflict in Southeast Asia, and was the only university president to be arrested for doing so. His decision to protest the war was informed by his basic view of history and the role of American mythologies in American life, including and most importantly the mythology of absolute freedom and equality implied by Jeffersonian democracy. For Ward, history was made when individuals put their ideals into action, and for this reason Ward spent much of his career exploring contradictions in ideology, especially emphasizing the contradiction between the individual's freedom to act in socially responsible manner and the increasing bureaucratization of life that limited the possibility of such action. His most well known book, Andrew Jackson: Symbol for An Age treats Andrew Jackson as a symbol embodying 19th century ideology. Other figures who Ward treated as symbolic of contradictions in America's myths about itself include John F. Kennedy, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Lindbergh, and the Anarchist activist Alexander Berkman.

Like many academics in the humanities during the Cold War, Ward refrained from direct opposition to American foreign policy for most of his career, although his work, much of which is included in his career retrospective Red, White, and Blue: Men, Books, and Ideas in American Culture, implies a dialectical approach to understanding culture that would influence the New Left and other expressly radical critics. As with many writers in the myth and symbol school, such as Leo Marx, who have been misunderstood by recent cultural critics writing in what has become known as the "cold war consensus" view of American academic history, Ward was attempting through the course of his career to forward a complex criticism of American culture rather than a mere celebration of American hegemony. For Ward, such criticism led inevitably to direct activism. The failure of the New Left to credit their own academic theories to the sometimes radical critiques underlying the myth and symbol criticism in which they were initiated as students has been referred to by recent writers as "New Left amnesia."

After resigning as Amherst College President in 1979, Ward worked for two years as Chairman of the Commission Concerning State and County Buildings in Massachusetts. Called the Ward Commission, it investigated corruption in public housing projects and other government projects. He then became President of the American Council of Learned Societies, a position he held until his death.

In 1985, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Minnesota. That same year, he took his own life.

His son, Christopher O. Ward, was appointed Executive Director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in 2008.[2]


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  2. ^ Cardwell, Diane (2008-07-07). "Port Authority, Often Tangled, Gets an Infusion of Philosophy". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-03-07.


  • James Patrick Brown, "The Disobedience of John William Ward: Myth, Symbol, and Political Praxis in the Vietnam Era." American Studies 7.4 (2006): 5–22.
  • Andrew Hunt, “How New Was the New Left?,” in The New Left Revisited, ed. John McMillian and Paul Buhle (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003), 142.
  • Ward, John William (1970-11-05). "Violence, Anarchy, and Alexander Berkman". The New York Review of Books. Rea S. Hederman. Archived from the original on 2012-09-07. Retrieved 2011-03-02. Prison Memoirs is one of those great works which somehow get lost and wait for time to find again
Academic offices
Preceded by
Calvin Plimpton
President of Amherst College
Succeeded by
Julian Gibbs