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Charles W. Eliot (1869-1909)

From the Harvard University Archives

Charles W. Eliot President from 1869-1909

Charles W. Eliot
President from 1869-1909

From Singapore to London, from Paris to San Francisco, Harvard men everywhere honored the ninetieth anniversary of Dr. Charles W. Eliot, for 40 years president of Harvard College, and for even longer in his influence the man whom Grover Cleveland called “America’s foremost citizen.”

While what was probably the most distinguished gathering in the history of the University assembled at Memorial Hall, messages and telegrams of felicitation continued to arrive, in addition to the congratulations from 150 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada—most of them in Latin—and the greeting from 90 Harvard Clubs in the Old and New Worlds.

Under the March sky the ceremonial procession emerged for a few minutes from Memorial Hall as it passed to Sanders Theater nearby. Among those at the forefront was William Howard Taft, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, one of the three vice-chairmen of the honorary citizens’ committee, and besides, the personal representative at the ceremony of President Coolidge, chairman of the committee.

The bright colors of the blue and scarlet capes against the black robes of the professors, the silk hats of statesmen, the cutaway coats of ushers, gave the procession that followed Dr. Eliot to Sanders Theater on foot a sedate picturesqueness.

On either side of the procession stood undergraduates, many clad in knickers, and looking as informal as students always manage to do. Though without caps and gowns, youth had its place on either side of the dignified leaders of American thought, and it seemed, as Dr. Eliot passed, that his glance went beyond the men of experience about him, to the men of tomorrow, paying him silent tribute.

Later the undergraduates had their own few minutes for honoring Dr. Eliot. Gathered before University Hall when the speechmaking in Sanders Theater was over, and after men of middle age had tried to tell what they, and America, owed to the great educator, youth expressed the whole thing better, and far more simply.

It was done in a long Harvard cheer, with “Eliot” on the end. It was such a cheer as no football team ever got, and it echoed among the bare elms of Harvard Yard, and shook the windows of old University Hall. Perhaps it was an even greater tribute, in its way, than the worlds of felicitation from the 150 American colleges written in formal Latin.

The day’s program began at 2:45 when the south door of Memorial Hall and the doors of Sanders Theater opened to those with passes. Music followed in the theater, and at 3:10 what seats were left were thrown open to the public. At Memorial Hall, meanwhile, the distinguished guests who had come to honor Dr. Eliot formed into line. Among those who assembled were: Mr. Taft; Channing H. Cox, Governor of Massachusetts; Edward T. Sanford, ’85, president of the Harvard Alumni Association; James R. Angell, president of Yale; Raymond B. Fosdick, secretary of the honorary citizens’ committee; John Singer Sargent, artist; Edward Sanford Martin, ’77, an editor of Life; Samuel Wesley Stratton, president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology; John H. Finley, associate editor of The New York Times; Bishop Charles L. Slattery, of New York; Ralph Adams Cram and Cass Gilbert, architects; Harry A. Garfield, president of Williams College; Charles F. Choate, regent of the Smithsonian Institution; George Wharton Pepper (R), Senator from Pennsylvania; Charles R. Crane, formerly Minister to China; Lemuel H. Murlin, president of Boston University; Arthur Wilson Page, ’05, editor of The World’s Work; William Phillips, newly named Ambassador to Belgium.

At about 3:30 Dr. Eliot himself arrived by automobile at Memorial Hall from his home. The man in whose honor Paris and London Harvard Clubs are holding dinners tonight, and for whom, in far off Singapore, the one-man Harvard club, Philip W. Thayer, ’14, president, secretary-treasurer, and sole member, sends a cablegram, and plans a celebration all by himself, passed the morning in his home in Cambridge as usual, and departed little from his ordinary full day’s work.

Dr. Eliot spent some hours in the morning going through the newspapers in accordance with his regular practice, and in doing so his accustomed stint of writing. Only the few hours of the afternoon were set aside for the ceremonies of which he was the central figure.

The story of how Dr. Eliot became the head of Harvard College at 35 was told in the speeches in Sanders Theater. A graduate of Harvard at 15, and assistant professor at 24, he became college president in 1869, whereupon, in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, he proceeded to “turn the college over like a flapjack.” The radical changes he at once instituted in the hitherto select little New England college made it a great university, while they made him a national figure. His innovations deeply affect the educational institutions of all the United States. Dr. Eliot introduced Harvard’s first written examination, instituted a three-year course for the bachelor’s degree, inaugurated the elective system which freed students of the cramped routine previously prescribed for all.

Under him the graduate schools became powerful, while in outside affairs Dr. Eliot was, and has been identified with practically every economic or social question that came to the front. Writing and speaking with perfect fearlessness on all subjects, he has frequently been a storm center.

His attack on old-time football largely helped to bring the present open game while in a far different field in October, 1920, he vigorously defended the League of Nations against the criticism of 31 eminent Republicans.

When, at 75, Dr. Eliot quit the presidency of Harvard University, after being a defender of individualism in education all his life, he had held the post longer than the combined terms of his five predecessors.

Woodrow Wilson said of him, “No man has ever made a deeper impression of the educational system of a country than President Eliot has upon the educational system of America,” while Theodore Roosevelt exclaimed, “He is the only man in the world I envy.”

For a detailed online biography of Eliot, see

Charles W. Eliot

When Charles W. Eliot died in the summer of 1926, in his 93rd year, half a generation had passed since his resignation as president of Harvard University, and, although until the last few weeks of his life he had retained a remarkable degree of vigor and a wide range of social contacts, he had become a legendary figure to most of the young people of that decade. Now, a generation later, when many of those young people have risen to high positions in an era very different from that in which he was reared, his great figure has receded still further from their realization of what he stood for or their appreciation of his influence in the church life of his time. It may, therefore, be profitable to recall the memory of his activity as a layman in our churches.

Almost all his predecessors in the presidency had been trained for the ministry, whereas he was not only a layman but a scientist, a professor of chemistry, who shared the outlook of scientists of his period in their rejection of theological dogmas formulated in the ancient pre-scientific ages of the Christian Church. But he was also a deeply religious man with strong convictions, nurtured in the spiritual traditions of King’s Chapel, Boston, and well aware of the importance of well-educated ministers in the life of the community. His first wife was a daughter of Rev. Ephraim Peabody, a beloved minister of King’s Chapel, whose successor (my father) was Eliot’s brother-in-law. His wife’s younger brother was Rev. Francis G. Peabody, who in later years was Dean of the Divinity School and Chairman of the Board of Preachers at Harvard. And Dr. Eliot’s younger son, Dr. Samuel A. Eliot, in due time became the distinguished leader of the American Unitarian Association.

A regular attendant

With this background it was natural that he should both take an active part in church life and be deeply interested in providing an adequate training for the ministry. When he moved to Cambridge, he joined the First Parish Church and for the rest of his life was a regular attendant at its services. At his summer home in Northeast Harbor, Maine, he was one of the founders of the Union Church there and one of its most devoted supporters.

The progressive steps he took to raise the level of religion at Harvard were so effective that they widely influenced the procedure in many other institutions. In the 1880’s, he abolished the traditional compulsory attendance of students at morning prayers, greatly to the improvement of the spirit of worship, but he himself was the most regular attendant of all the members of the university staff at both the morning prayers and at the Sunday services which were then held in the evening in order not to draw students away from the Sunday morning services in their own denomination churches of the vicinity. About the same time he gave up the old-time practice of appointing one man as college preacher and established a Board of Preachers which brought to the college chapel a constant succession of distinguished ministers of different denominations.

Pioneer in chapel policy

In both of these policies he was a pioneer whose example has since been followed by many other colleges and universities with college chapels, but in his day there were few men who heard so wide a range of preaching of diverse types as did he, or who were personally acquainted with so many of the leaders in American Protestant church life. Although the visiting preachers were expected to deal with topics above the level of theological controversy, he no doubt sometimes heard interpretations of religion with which he disagreed and pious phraseology which he could not himself use, but his tolerant spirit and breadth of mind always respected honestly-held beliefs even when they differed widely from his own.

A stream of well-trained men

His far-sighted vision of the need to provide the churches with highly trained ministers led him to transform the Harvard Divinity School from a small local institution into one of the country’s leading centers for theological education. The school had been founded and endowed by Unitarians half a century before he became president, but it had never been under any official denominational control and its constitution provided that “every encouragement be given to the serious, impartial, and unbiased investigation of Christian truth, and that no assent to the peculiarities of any denomination of Christians shall be required either of instructors or students.” That provision opened the door for him to seek scholars of the highest standing in the several fields of religious study, regardless of their church affiliation, and before his administration ended the School was inter-denominational both in its faculty and its student body, both raised to the top academic levels. While its enrollment was not large,—partly because of its high requirements for entrance—it sent out a stream of exceptionally well-trained men into the pulpits of several denominations, and, quite as important, into teaching positions in many other theological institutions, all of them men catholic in spirit in the true sense of that word.

Such was the far-reaching influence of a single outstanding layman on the religious life of his time, and we may well take pride in the knowledge that it was a fruit of our tradition as religious liberals.

—Henry Wilder Foote, Christian Register, December 1953.

Memorial Hall (1866-1878).

Memorial Hall (1866-1878).

University Museums (1871).

University Museums (1871).

Robinson Hall (1894).

Robinson Hall (1894).

Emerson Hall (1900).

Emerson Hall (1900).

Harvard Union (1902).

Harvard Union (1902).

Newell Boathouse (1900).

Newell Boathouse (1900).

Harvard Stadium with performance of Aeschylus' Agamemnon (1906).

Harvard Stadium with performance of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (1906).

Soldiers Field Stadium (1902). Harvard Business School (1926).

Soldiers Field Stadium (1902).
Harvard Business School (1926).

Langdell Hall, Law School (1906).

Langdell Hall, Law School (1906).

Charles W. Eliot and Grandson (CWE 2nd; c. 1906).

Charles W. Eliot and Grandson (CWE 2nd; c. 1906).

Harvard Medical School, administrative building (1906).

Harvard Medical School,
administrative building (1906).

Charles W. Eliot (1907). Painted by John Singer Sargent

Charles W. Eliot (1907).
Painted by John Singer Sargent

Adams House (1910). Gold Coast Dormitories

Adams House (1910).
Gold Coast Dormitories

HARVARD CLASSICS: 1909-1914 The Legendary "Five Foot Shelf of Knowledge."

The Legendary “Five Foot Shelf of Knowledge.”

For a bibliography of Charles W. Eliot, see American National Biography, 1998.

Click here for supplemental reading about Charles W. Eliot on Amazon.

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Categories: Biographies, BIOGRAPHIES--NEW, Cambridge & Harvard, HIDE-NEW

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