Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/February 1896/Sketch of Andrew Dickson White
By Prof. GEORGE L. BURR.
ALMOST in the exact geographical center of the State of New York there suns itself in the upper valley of a tributary of the Susquehanna a tidy village on which the impoverished fancy of an official map-maker has set the ancient name of Homer. Ancient, indeed, for its region is the village itself. The settlers from Massachusetts and from Connecticut who pushed westward along the valleys of the Mohawk and the Susquehanna, reaching these uplands in the last decade of the eighteenth century, settled here more thickly than elsewhere, and for half a century—till its neighbor settlement of Cortland, once its suburb but soon its rival, crowded it from the pre-eminence—it was, not only in the number of its citizens, but in their thrift, their piety, and their public spirit, the recognized metropolis of the district.
It was here, in the midst of all that is conservative in American life, that on the 7th of November, 1832, was born a man destined in much to be a leader of the fresher thought—Andrew Dickson White. His grandfather, Asa White, a migrant from southern Massachusetts in 3798, was long the well-to-do miller of the little community, but in 1815 a conflagration brought him in a day to poverty; and his eldest son Horace, the father of Andrew, was forced, though but a lad of thirteen, to turn from the education of the schools to that of business. So well he learned its lessons that before the age of thirty he had not only won a reputation for unusual mercantile sagacity and enterprise, but had already amassed a moderate fortune when in 1831 he married Clara Dickson, only daughter of a village magnate. Her father, the Hon. Andrew Dickson, like the Whites of Massachusetts birth, had come a young man to Homer and was, in the year of his grandson's advent, the representative of his county in the Legislature of the State.
The fortunes of Horace White still prospered, and in 1839 he took advantage of the new banking law of the State to establish himself as one of the earliest bankers at Syracuse, the rising metropolis of central New York, then a town of some five thousand people. There his energy found a worthier field; identified with all the interests of his city, he rapidly amassed wealth, and all the advantages his own youth had missed he could well afford his son.
The earliest tastes of the boy were, however, not bookish; all his love was for machinery and for the wonders of out of doors; and, though he early picked up the power to read, it was not until after the removal to Syracuse that he was first put into school. Of his education he has himself told the story:
"After much time lost in various poor schools, I was sent to the preparatory department of the Syracuse Academy, and there, by good luck, found Joseph A. Allen, the best teacher of English branches I have ever known. . . . He seemed to divine the character and enter into the purpose of every boy." There young White perfected himself in spelling, in arithmetic, in geometry, the only mathematical study he ever loved, in grammar, of which he thinks there was too much; there he gained the rudiments of natural science and even of music, becoming "proficient enough to play the organ occasionally in church." There, too, literature was first opened to him. "Great attention was given to reading aloud from a book made up of selections from the best authors, and to recitals from these. Thus I stored up not only some of the best things in the older English writers, but inspiring poems of Whittier, Longfellow, and other moderns," and the treasures thus gained were never lost. "As to the moral side, Mr. Allen influenced many of us strongly by liberalizing and broadening our horizon. He was a disciple at that time of Channing, and an abolitionist; but he. . . never made the slightest attempt ta proselyte any of his students. Yet the very atmosphere of the school made sectarian bigotry and narrowness impossible."
But the boy was destined for college, and was now sent to a classical school, where Stoddard, the story writer, was among his fellow-pupils, and where, though the methods in classical teaching were imperfect, "the want in grammatical drill was more than made up by the love of manliness and the dislike of meanness which was in those days our very atmosphere."
Outside the school his imagination had been stimulated by desultory reading and by pictures of travel, and he had stumbled upon the novels of Scott, to which above all was due the birth of his interest in historical studies. The public meetings of the time, especially those of the antislavery party, took also a deep hold upon his mind.
He had dreamed of entering one of the great New England universities; but the zealous young churchman into whose hands he was put for his final training persuaded his father to send him instead to the young and struggling Episcopal college at the neighboring town of Geneva. There he matriculated in the fall of 1849. With all his loyalty to his father's church and to his father's wish, the college could not content him. Dependent on the wealthy patrons whose sons it sought to educate, its discipline was lax and its means too feeble for the work it undertook. "Only about half a dozen of our number studied at all; the rest, by translations, promptings, and evasions of various sorts, escaped without labor."
A year of this was all that he could stand, and when, at the opening of another, his protest was still unheeded, he took French leave of his reluctant alma mater and went into hiding at the home of an old instructor until his father at last gave consent to his transfer to Yale College. There he was admitted in January, 1851, to what has since become "the famous class of '53." But, even among such classmates as Billings and Davies and Gibson and Lewis and MacVeagh and Robinson and Shiras and Smalley and Stedman, he soon won for himself a high place—not so much by his work in the classroom, though that was good, as by the breadth of his information and of his sympathies, and by his facility with pen and voice. He became an editor of the college magazine. The Lit, and before his graduation won the first Clark, the Yale Literary, and the De Forest prizes, the last for an essay on The History of Modern Diplomacy. Nor were physical and social claims neglected. He belonged to the earliest Yale crew, and he became a member of Psi Upsilon and of the mystic Skull and Bones, as well as of the more literary Linonia. His roommate and bosom friend was his classmate Davies, to-day Bishop of Michigan. Of his college work, perhaps that which left the deepest impression upon him was his study of Guizot's Civilization in Europe, under Dr. Woolsey.
In December, 1853, he went abroad for further study, having as fellow-traveler his college mate (now the well-known President of Johns Hopkins, and at this moment his colleague on the Venezuelan Commission). After a few weeks in England and several months in France, spent in studying French, reading the French historians (Thierry, Mignet, Thiers, Chateaubriand), listening to lecturers like Laboulaye at the Sorbonne and the College of France, chatting with the old soldiers of the Revolution at the Invalides, making historical pilgrimages throughout the northern and central provinces, everywhere reveling in architecture and music and haunting the old book shops, he was invited by the American minister to Russia, ex-Governor Seymour, of Connecticut, to join that legation as an attaché.
Accordingly, in October of 1854 he made his way, via Brussels, Cologne, and Berlin, to St. Petersburg. It was the stirring time of the Crimean War, and the young diplomat found his attachéship no sinecure. His knowledge of French made him valuable as an interpreter; he became the companion of the minister in his interviews at court and at the foreign office, and took a most interested part in the ceremonial attending the death of the Czar Nicholas and the accession of Alexander II. Yet he found much time for study. Huge scrap-books were filled with clippings on the progress of the war; the book-stalls afforded rich store for his rapidly growing collection on Russia and Poland; and the archives of the legation even gave him material for research in American history. He there, under the inspiration of Mr. Seymour, became interested in the character and policy of Jefferson, and drew up the nucleus of the study later published in the Atlantic Monthly on Jefferson and Slavery.
But he tired of the restraints of official life, and in June, 1855, resumed the career of a student, first wandering in Germany and Switzerland, then matriculating at the University of Berlin. There he heard Boeckh, Lepsius, Friedrich von Raumer, Karl Ritter, and tried in vain to follow the lectures of Ranke. With the Easter vacation he was off for Austria and Italy, and lingered till late spring beyond the Alps, in the company of his fellow-student and close friend Frieze, the Latinist. Crossing then the Alps, and lingering but a little among the Roman ruins of southern France, he turned his footsteps homeward, reaching America in time to share the commencement festivities of his alma mater and to receive at her hands his Mastership of Arts.
It was then, with his future profession all undecided, that he chanced to stray within sound of the voice of President Francis Wayland, who was delivering at Yale one of the addresses of the commencement season; and the orator's plea for the new and growing West as the field for the young scholar sank deep into his mind. The next year he spent in graduate study at Yale, and before its end, declining all other offers, he had accepted the chair of History and English Literature at the University of Michigan.
He was but five and twenty, and looked a boy, but the vigor of his thought and the finish of his style soon dispelled all doubt as to his maturity. "He came to Ann Arbor," says one who then listened to him, "fresh from European studies, and he entered upon his labor with that peculiar enthusiasm which is instantly caught by students, and is perhaps the most successful element of all good teaching. His instruction in history was a genuine revelation to those who had been accustomed to perfunctory text-book work and the hearing of dry and colorless lectures. The exceptional excellence of his instruction consisted largely of the spirit which he infused into his students. He had in a remarkable degree the rare gift of seizing upon the most important principles and causes and presenting them in such a manner as to illuminate the whole course of events with which they were connected. He not only instructed, but, what was even more important, he inspired. While he remained in his chair perhaps no study in the university was pursued with so much enthusiasm by the mass of students as was that of history."
In the general development of the university he was like his old friend Frieze, whom, to his joy, he found a fellow-member of the Michigan faculty, a loyal supporter and adviser of President Tappan. And there was work to do outside the institution. The university, in order to keep its hold on the State, from which it drew its support, loved to send out its faculty as lecturers into the towns and villages of Michigan, and into this task, too, the young Professor of History went with zest and success.
On the eve of his going to Michigan he had married, at Syracuse, Mary Outwater, a neighbor's daughter, whom he had known and admired since her childhood. He was fond of entertaining his colleagues and students; and Mrs. White united in her character a sweetness and a dignity which made her the most charming of hostesses. Their home soon became at Ann Arbor, as afterward at Cornell, the very heart of the university's social life. There, in his growing library, amid the influences of art and music so dear to him. Prof. White ministered a hospitality which could have meant hardly less to the culture of those who shared it than did the work of his classroom.
The death of his father, in 1860, brought upon him the cares of fortune; his health, never strong, flagged under the accumulated burden. In 1862 he found it wise to ask a leave of absence, and sailed with his family, now numbering a daughter and a son besides his wife, for Europe. The civil war then raging in America had stirred him deeply, and his had been no slight share in sending to the field the young manhood of the North. Now, arrived in Europe, a new task confronted him. In answer to the pro-Southern correspondents of the London press, who were misleading the English public as to the resources and the character of the North, and bade fair to win for the Confederacy the recognition, if not the intervention, of Great Britain, he dashed off his A Word from the Northwest, perhaps the most telling defense of the Unionist cause; and this he followed up with effective letters in the journals of England and the Continent. Returning in 1863 to the financial cares which demanded his presence in Syracuse, he found in domestic politics a fresh field for his powers as a writer and orator, and in the autumn of that year was sent by his native county of Onondaga to the Senate of New York.
Of this body, in which he sat till 1867, he was, though its youngest member, from the first a man of influence. Against the peace sympathies of Governor Seymour he was an eloquent and effective advocate of the aggressive prosecution of the war. Though a director of the New York Central Railroad and a resident of the city most dependent on the Erie Canal, he did loyal service as an opponent of the dictation both of railway and of canal ring. His intelligent interest in civic affairs earned him a place on the legislative Committee on Municipal Reform, where he was especially concerned in the organization on its present basis of the Health Department of New York city. But it was as chairman of the educational committee, or Committee on Literature, as it was called, that there opened to him the largest opportunities. He was able to carry through a great extension of the normal school system for the training of teachers. What was more, the beneficence of the national Government seemed to put within reach what had long been the dearest dream of his public life.
Even while a boy at the Geneva College, as he paced rebelliously the shore of Seneca Lake, he had begun to frame in his thought the great university, worthy of the greatest State of the Union, by which New York should some day make needless all petty sectarian institutions. When Gerrit Smith had later talked of endowing a university in central New York, he had offered the half of his own fortune for such an object. The dream ripened during his years at Michigan. "It is now just about ten years ago," said George William Curtis in 1868, "since I was in the city of Ann Arbor, the seat of the University of Michigan. . . . and I sat at night talking with my friend, a New York scholar. Professor of History in that institution. . . . There, in the warmth and confidence of his friendship, he unfolded to me his idea of the great work that should "be done in the great State of New York. Surely, he said, in the greatest State there should be the greatest of universities; in central New York there should arise a university which, by the amplitude of its endowment and by the whole scope of its intended sphere, by the character of the studies in the whole scope of the curriculum, should satisfy the wants of the hour. More than that, said he, it should begin at the beginning. It should take hold of the chief interest of this country, which is agriculture; then it should rise—step by step, grade by grade—until it fulfilled the highest ideal of what a university could be. . . . Until the hour was late this young scholar dreamed aloud to me these dreams."
Now, in the year 1862 an act had passed Congress for the endowment of the higher education throughout the country, from the great landed domain of the nation. Every State was to receive for each of its representatives in Congress thirty thousand acres of the public land with which each should endow "at least one college," where, "without excluding other scientific and classical studies," such branches as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts should forever be taught. To New York, as the most populous State, came thus nearly a million of acres. This superb fund, provisionally bestowed by the State on a small existing institution, seemed likely in 1864 to fall back into its hands through a failure to comply with the conditions of the gift. Mr. White strenuously opposed all suggestions for the division of the fund, urging as the only worthy policy for the higher education the concentration of resources. It was in the struggle over this question that he was brought into close relations with his colleague from Tompkins County, Ezra Cornell—a stern, shrewd old man, of Quaker birth and breeding, who had migrated in his youth, a roving mechanic, into western New York, where, after making one fortune in milling and losing it in farming, he had built up a vaster one through his connection with the spread of the electric telegraph, and now, in his declining years, was casting about for a worthy public use for his wealth. The two men were strangely unlike, and as to the division of the land grant they had been sharply opposed; but each had learned to prize the other, and it was to his young fellow-Senator that the old Quaker now turned for advice. The result was the offer, by Ezra Cornell to the State of New York, of five hundred thousand dollars for the further endowment of a great university, if the State would transfer to it the public lands and would locate it in his own town of Ithaca.
It is needless here to recount further the tangled story of the establishment of Cornell University, or to describe the happy policy by which the nation's gift, frittered away for a song by most of the States, became in time for the New York university the source of millions. Large as was Mr. White's share in securing for it the charter and the land grant, what was peculiarly his own was the educational shaping of the new institution. He was its spiritual founder not less than Mr. Cornell its material—a fact too much obscured, perhaps, by the name which he, against Mr. Cornell's protest, gave to the university. It was he who wrote all but the financial clauses of its charter; he who drew its plan of organization; he who took all steps looking to the selection of its equipment and the choice of its faculty. It is not strange that when, in 1866, a head was to be found for it, Mr. Cornell insisted that Mr, White must accept its presidency.
It was to turn his back on political ambitions to which he had earned a right. It was to sever his connections with Michigan, where, in the hope that he might yet return, the chair of History was still his. Just now, too, there had come from Yale an invitation to take up his home in the "City of Elms" as director of its School of Fine Arts; and this, if he must leave his political career, was the life most tempting to a man of his tastes and means, and was especially attractive to his family. But his choice was soon made, and was made once for all. Entering at once upon his executive duties, he remained President of Cornell for nearly twenty years, until ill health compelled his retirement in 1885.
The features in which the new university, as planned by him, differed most notably from others of its sort were: (1) Its democracy of organization, uniting the humanities, the sciences, and the technical arts in a single faculty and in common classrooms under precisely like conditions, and this so effectively that their parity at Cornell has never been questioned; (2) its freedom from all sectarian control—"at no time shall a majority of [its trustees] be of one religious sect, or of no religious sect," and "persons of every religious denomination, or of no religious denomination, shall be equally eligible to all offices and appointments"; (3) its parallel courses and its large individual freedom of choice among studies—in this, too, it was a pioneer in American education; (4) its vital connection with the public schools of its State through the establishment of free scholarships, to be awarded by competition in each Assembly district; (5) its large recognition of the worth of the modern languages and literatures, both as practical and as disciplinary studies; (6) its system of nonresident professorships, by which it sought to bring both its students and its faculty in touch with eminent scholars whose permanent services it could not hope to win; (7) its assumption that its students are not children, but grown and earnest men, and its attitude toward them as such.
Much that was planned at the outset could not, for lack of means, be then or for long afterward carried out. In fact, throughout nearly the whole administration of Mr. White the institution was "land poor"—its vast estates an expense instead of an income.
Throughout his presidency Mr. White filled also the professorship of History, and with the same inspiring influence upon historical studies as at the University of Michigan. Though his other duties compelled his restriction to a single course throughout the year, no element of the university's work left a deeper mark upon the whole student body.
And his benefactions took often a more tangible form. From his own means he built and furnished upon the university's grounds the home which he gave to be used, when he should be through with it, by his successors in the presidency. Of his lesser gifts it would be idle to attempt enumeration. No department but felt again and again the help of his ready pocket. The library especially was continually his debtor, and after his retirement he bestowed upon it in 1887 his own noble historical collection, perhaps the richest private library in America. His gifts must aggregate a couple of hundred thousand dollars. In proportion to his income he has perhaps been the university's most liberal donor.
But during these years of his presidency he was not wholly divorced from outside activities. His fertile mind and restless temperament could not brook such slavery. He was always in touch with the republic of letters and with the larger interests of State and nation. His open letters and occasional addresses amount to volumes. In 1870 he was appointed by President Grant a member of the commission created by Congress for the investigation of the condition and resources of Santo Domingo, and into his hands fell the scientific direction of the expedition. Though its youngest member, he proved the conservative element of the commission, and it was in deference to his protests that no recommendation as to annexation was made by it. In the fall of 1871 he presided at the State convention of his party at Syracuse. The next year saw him a delegate at large to the national convention at Philadelphia which renominated President Grant, and a little later the head of New York's delegation in the electoral college. In 1876 he was again a delegate at large to the Republican National Convention, but was hindered from attendance by other official duties in connection with the Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia, where he had been made chairman of the Jury of Public Instruction. Soon after this ill health drove him abroad, and before his return in 1878 he served the United States as its Honorary Commissioner to the Paris Exposition, and was there given a place upon the Jury of Appeals. In the spring of 1879, by appointment of President Hayes, he became American minister to the German Empire, and in that post he remained till 1881.
After his resignation, in 1885, of the presidency of Cornell, he again crossed the Atlantic, and tarried in Europe till the spring of 1887. Returning, with renewed vigor, he had not yet entered on any serious work when the heaviest blow of his life, the unforeseen and almost instantaneous death of Mrs. White, threw all his plans into confusion. His married life had been singularly happy, and Mrs. White his almost constant companion. On the expedition to Santo Domingo he had been forced to leave her behind, and after the false rumor of the loss of the commissioners at sea, and the publication of their obituaries in the metropolitan journals, he had come back in safety to find her hair turned to snowy white. Now it was his turn to suffer, and the friends who saw him breaking beneath his grief persuaded him again to go abroad. There he lingered till the late summer of 1889; then, returning, he again took up his home in Ithaca,—where though he had declined the honorary presidency and the deanship of the School of History, which had in turn been tendered him by the university—he was still bound to Cornell by his duties as a trustee. And now, in 1892, there came to preside in his home a second wife. Miss Helen Magill, a daughter of President Magill, of Swarthmore—herself well known as scholar and as educator. In 1892 he was made, by President Harrison, minister of the United States at St. Petersburg, and, retained in that post by Mr. Cleveland, spent at the Russian capital the next two years. It was a pleasing visit, after forty years, to the scene of his earliest diplomatic experiences. His return to this country in 1895, and his appointment in January, 1896, to a place upon the important Commission of Inquiry into the Venezuelan boundary are fresh in the memory of all American readers.
In this busy life, so filled with the cares of the teacher, the politician, the man of affairs, there has been little leisure for the research that goes to the making of books; and few of the literary plans with which he began his career have been realized. His biography of Jefferson was never written. Of his long-dreamed of history of the French Revolution, for which he collected a material unequaled on this side of the Atlantic, only his admirable little monograph on Paper Money Inflation in France, and his stimulating Bibliography of the Revolution, in the book of Judge Morris, are the visible results. Of his inspiring academic lectures on the general history of modern Europe, but two or three have seen the light as magazine articles; though their topical outlines, printed for his students and by them scattered abroad, have suggested more than one book to younger scholars—as, for example, the excellent study of Mr. Lewis Rosenthal on America and France. The Manual of Historical Literature which Mr. White had proposed as a joint task to his pupil and successor. Prof. Charles Kendall Adams, had finally to be worked out alone by the latter. It is, indeed, as an inspirer of books that his activity has been greatest. Yet he has remained himself a wide reader and a tireless student; and not alone the addresses and magazine articles in which he has brought to bear so tellingly upon a host of present-day problems the fruits of a ripe historical scholarship, but at least one book of serious proportions will attest the quality of his work.
This book, so many of whose chapters are familiar to the readers of the Popular Science Monthly, is his Warfare of Science, or, to give it its full title, his History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. It was in the troublous early days of Cornell, when the nonsectarian character of the university was bringing it from its rivals on every side the charge of godlessness, and when Mr. Cornell and Mr. White himself were rewarded for their labors by such epithets as infidel and atheist and by the suspicion of good Christian people everywhere, that it first occurred to him to find comfort and assurance in the study of this stage in the history of all the great intellectual movements through which civilization has been won. From its earliest form, as a mere lecture in 1875, it has grown through twenty years to the two stately volumes now about to be published. In the gathering of its materials, scattered over almost the whole territory of human knowledge, Mr. White has known how to use the aid from time to time of sundry helpers; but even in this preliminary labor his own immediate share has far outweighed all others, and in the digestion and interpretation of his materials no other hand was ever given a part. Clear as is his statement of its thesis, few books have suffered such misjudgment from careless or unkindly critics. What interested him was never the opinions, normal or abnormal, of forgotten theologians; but their interferences, in the mistaken interest of religion, with that freedom of thought and research out of which alone science can grow. Nor was he actuated by any hostility to religion. A man of profoundly religious nature, impatient of irreverence of any kind, and deeply attached to the Christian communion in which he was reared, he seeks only to lift the timid faith which dares not trust the God of the universe to deal truly with the human mind he has made to the loftier conviction that—in his own noble words—"there is a God in this universe wise enough to make all truth-seeking safe, and good enough to make all truth-telling useful."