Educator, political scientist. Lieber was born in Berlin in the Kingdom of Prussia on March 18, 1798. His father, Friedrich Wilhelm Lieber, was an iron dealer. As a young man, Lieber was arrested for his involvement in nationalist movements and spent four months in prison. Authorities prohibited him from entering Prussian universities, but he nevertheless earned a doctor of philosophy degree from Jena in 1820. He went to Halle University in 1824 and then traveled to London in 1826. In 1827 he arrived in America, becoming director of a Boston gymnasium. His writing flourished, and he became a newspaper correspondent and edited the Encyclopaedia Americana (13 volumes, 1829–1833). The encyclopedia brought Lieber widespread renown and the opportunity to meet nationally prominent scholars and leaders, including President Andrew Jackson. On September 21, 1829, he married Matilda Oppenheimer; they had four children.
His reputation firmly established, Lieber became interested in a permanent academic position. With the reorganization of South Carolina College in 1835, Lieber was elected professor of history and political economy. He came to South Carolina primarily to provide for his family but also seeking to use the position as a springboard to a more desirable post at Harvard. Throughout his twenty-year tenure at South Carolina College, he longed to return north and solicited the assistance of friends and acquaintances to rescue him from his southern “exile.” Although he privately considered slavery to be “a nasty, dirty, selfish institution,” Lieber deferred to his surroundings and maintained a discreet silence in public and even acquired a few slaves of his own. However, his nationalist leanings did garner considerable public animosity, and his arguments in favor of strong national government found few adherents among the ardently states’ rights student body. Nevertheless, he was acclaimed as an excellent teacher, and his national reputation as a scholar brought considerable prestige to the college.
From 1849 to 1851 Lieber served as acting president of South Carolina College during the illness of President William C. Preston. Lieber hoped for a permanent appointment as president, but theology professor James H. Thornwell was appointed instead in 1851. Following Thornwell’s retirement in 1854, Lieber again actively sought the position in a controversial contest that garnered considerable public attention. Lieber lost the presidency this time to mathematics professor Charles F. McCay, a newcomer to the college who had the support of Thornwell and his followers. Deeply disappointed, Lieber blamed his defeat on “Bitter Calvinism,” his Unionist views, and suspicion that he was an abolitionist. He resigned from the faculty in December 1855 and left South Carolina the following year. One of Lieber’s colleagues called him “a star of the first magnitude . . . one of the brightest and most illustrious on the rolls of the faculty.”
In 1857 Lieber went to New York City and accepted a position as chair of political science at Columbia College (now Columbia University). He continued to advise statesmen, writing a monograph that was used in training for field armies during the Civil War. He transferred to Columbia’s law school in 1867, teaching constitutional history and public law and specializing in international law. Three year later he was selected as an umpire of the U.S. and Mexican Claims Commission, established to settle claims arising from the Mexican War. Lieber died in New York City on October 2, 1872.
Freidel, Frank B. Francis Lieber: Nineteenth Century Liberal. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1947.
Harley, Lewis R. Francis Lieber: His Life and Political Philosophy. New York: AMS, 1970.
Hollis, Daniel Walker. University of South Carolina. 2 vols. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1951–1956.