In 1877, John Watson, a Queen's philosophy professor, gave a series of courses in "political economy". These courses proved popular enough that in 1889, Adam Shortt, another professor of philosophy, convinced the university to create a Department of Political and Economic Science and to appoint him as the first full-time professor of politics and economics. He held the Sir John A. Macdonald Chair of Political and Economic Science from 1899 until 1908, when he was appointed the first chair of the Canadian Civil Service Commission, a body created to reform the federal public service.
Over the years, Shortt's successors included O.D. Skelton, who moved from Queen's to the federal government in Ottawa, where in the 1920s and 1930s he laid the foundation for the contemporary foreign service; J.A. Corry, who served as Queen's Principal between 1961 and 1968; and R.L. Watts, who served as Queen's Principal between 1974 and 1984.
Beginning in 1960, reflecting broader trends towards disciplinary specialization across the university system, the department began a process of division and divestiture. In 1960, a separate Department of Geography was established, and in 1963, the School of Business, which had been part of Political and Economic Science since the creation of a Commerce program in 1919, became its own faculty. In 1964, the economists left to form a separate department, and in 1969, it was the turn of the sociologists (though the faculty member who gave the first sociology course at Queen's, John Meisel, remained in Political Studies). Finally, in 1970, a School of Public Administration - forerunner of today's School of Policy Studies - was created.
It was after the departure of the economists in 1964 that the Department of Political Studies at Queen's cemented its reputation as one of the leading political science departments in Canada for both undergraduate and graduate work. Although the first graduate degree was granted in 1926, it was not until the 1960s that the graduate program expanded along with the expansion of Canada's post-secondary education system. In the decades that followed, numerous PhDs from Political Studies at Queen's have been appointed to university professorships in Canada and in other countries, and the undergraduate program has grown to include an average annual enrollment rate of 800 students in nearly 70 courses across four degree plans.