HARVARD UNIVERSITY PRESIDENT
CHARLES W. ELIOT
Adapted from The Life of Charles W. Eliot by Edward H. Cotton
Edited by Herbert F. Vetter and David Eliot Stein,
The life of Charles William Eliot cannot be understood apart from the
stock from which he sprung. His grandfather, Samuel Eliot, was one of
the wealthiest merchants of Bostonan importer who operated a store
that was a forerunner of the great department stores of today. The grandfather
on his mothers side, Theodore Lyman, Sr., was a prosperous and influential
merchant in Boston, engaging in East India trade. Theodore, Jr., uncle
of Charles, was mayor of Boston.
Samuel A. Eliot, father of Charles, was a stately gentleman of the old
school of manners and dress, who invariably appeared in black swallowtail
coat and dark trousers. After completing Harvard with distinction, he
graduated from the Divinity School in 1820. In 1848, while treasurer of
the College, he published a short history of the institution entitled,
A Sketch of the History of Harvard College and of its Present Condition.
Mr. Eliot wrote often for the North American Review and the Christian
Examiner. He edited the sermons and a brief biography of his minister,
Dr. F. W. P. Greenwood.
Samuel Eliot was the first president of the Boston Provident Association,
which sought to obtain accurate knowledge of the poverty-stricken so as
to render adequate aid. He served in both branches of the state legislature
and in Congress. In 1837 he was elected mayor of Boston, succeeding his
brother-in-law, Theodore Lyman, Jr. Late in life, Mr. Eliot became a silent
partner in a dry goods commission firm. In 1857 the firm failed, and Mr.
Eliot's entire holdings were lost. Almost overnight he passed to a position
of poverty and dependence. Fortunately his son, Charles, by that time
was able to provide a home for his parents.
Father of Charles
Charles W. Eliot was born on March 20, 1834 at 31 Beacon Street, Boston,
on the site now occupied by the left wing of the Massachusetts State House.
He was the fourth in a family of seven children and the only son.
After attending the Boston Latin School at age ten, Eliot entered Harvard
at the age of fifteen and remained at the College as student, tutor and
assistant professor for nine years.
Charles entered Harvard in 1849. The period produced men who were giants
in debate: Webster, Clay and Calhoun. The time was one, too, of brilliant
literary achievement. Washington Irving published his Life of Washington
while Eliot at Harvard. The fame of James Fenimore Cooper was ringing
throughout the English-speaking world, for he had just published his Leather
Stocking Tales. Bancroft was writing his great histories. William H. Prescott
had published The Conquest of Mexico in 1843 and The Conquest of Peru
in 1847. Hawthorne gave his Scarlet Letter to the public when Eliot was
a college sophomore.
Harvard of 1850 was a country college numbering between three and four
hundred students. Its surroundings were those of a thriving New England
village, where everyone knew one another.
In the catalogue for the year Eliot entered college is a regulation which
shows the rigid rules imposed on students: "On the Sabbath, on examination
and commencement days, and at exhibitions, and on all other public occasions,
each student in public shall wear a black coat with buttons of the same
color and a black hat or cap." It was not unusual to see young students
of fifteen and sixteen going from class to class in tall silk hats.
at the Age of Fifteen
Josiah Quincy, who had served the College as President from 1829 to 1845,
and had been its most progressive head, had introduced the elective system;
but the innovation not being favored by Dr. Sparks, his successor, it
was about extinct when Eliot became an undergraduate. Freshmen and sophomores
had no choice of studies, and juniors and seniors relatively little; they
could, however, select among mathematics, Greek, Latin, German, Spanish
and Italian. The year of his entrance the College had no laboratory. Prescribed
textbooks formed the foundation of all the courses, even references to
the library being exceedingly limited. Students were required to write
themes at stated periods and to deliver orations.
In his sophomore year Eliot was admitted to the private laboratory of
Prof. Josiah Parsons Cooke, being the only student allowed that privilege.
He found college generally barren of originality and inspiration. Hence,
he hailed with delight the chance of experimenting in the small laboratory
set up by Professor Cooke at his own expense in the basement of University
Hall. During the last three years of his course he paid weekly visits
to the laboratory. To the study of chemistry he added that of mineralogy;
during summer vacations, he accompanied Professor Cooke to various mines
and smelting factories. Due to the recommendation of Professor Cooke,
Eliot, on graduation, was elected a member of the Harvard faculty as tutor
His undergraduate days were over. The most important lesson he had learned
was that something was wrong in the methods employed in teaching youth.
The students with whom he had associated for the most part had accepted
the monotony and academic tradition as the evil incurable. Eliot, of an
enterprising and active turn of mind, was to be a leader in educational
Eliot was twenty-one years of age when he entered on his duties as tutor.
He continued in that capacity for four years, at the same time studying
advanced chemistry with Professor Cooke. The professor placed high estimate
on the chemical knowledge of his pupil, for in 1856 he asked him to give
the course of lectures at the Medical School which he himself had been
accustomed to give.
as a Harvard Faculty Member
As tutor, his labors lay chiefly with the sophomore class, a class of
seventy students, and in rather difficult subjects: advanced algebra,
trigonometry, and analytical geometry. He had found the accredited method
of conducting oral examinations, twice a year before committees from the
Board of Overseers, very unsatisfactory as a genuine test of a student's
knowledge of mathematics. Along with the other mathematics tutor, Eliot
filed requests with the faculty to conduct the mathematical examinations
of freshmen and sophomores in writing. After prolonged debate the faculty
reluctantly granted permission. Written examinations were then given,
the first ever held at the College.
In 1858, again on recommendation of Professor Cooke, Eliot was promoted.
For the first time the grade of Assistant Professor was created, and Tutor
Eliot was made Assistant Professor of mathematics and chemistry.
Soon after his appointment, when Eliot was twenty-four, he took part in
a memorable athletic contest. Eliot was always athletic: he was one of
the first to practice regularly in the Harvard gymnasium when the college
acquired one, and as a student and tutor, he had sought instruction in
boxing. Rowing was the first sport to be organized at Harvard, and in
1856, Eliot became a member of the Union Boat Club. He became known as
a rower of exceptional endurance, often rowing stroke or bow. In 1857,
a Harvard eight-oared crew had met a stinging defeat at the hands of the
Union Boat Club of Boston. The College made desperate efforts to retrieve
the disaster; and the following year called its two graduates to strengthen
the crew, Eliot and Alexander Agassiz. Two contests were rowed on the
Charles River Basin over a six mile course: one, June 22; the other, July
4. The Harvard crew won first prize in each race, a purse of money. The
Harvard crew had no uniform, rowing in their underclothing. But learning
that fourteen boats were to start in the contests of June 22, the men
concluded that a distinguishing color was necessary. Two members, Eliot
and Crowninshield, delegated to select a color, chose Chinese silk handkerchiefs
of a rich crimson. These, members of the crew bound about their heads.
This shade of red subsequently became the Harvard color.
At the time of his election to the assistant professorship, Eliot assumed
additional responsibilities. He was directing the work of completing Appleton
Chapel at the request of the Harvard Corporation. At the same time, Eliot
was superintending the erection of a double brick house on Kirkland Street,
Cambridge, which he himself had designed. Eliot was also responsible for
the care of his parents, who had been reduced to poverty.
In April, 1858, he became engaged to Ellen Derby Peabody, a descendant
of a merchant family from Salem, Massachusetts, which had acquired considerable
wealth in overseas ventures. She was the eldest daughter of Rev. Ephraim
Peabody, minister of King's Chapel, Boston, from 1845 to 1856. She and
Eliot were married in October of that 1858, and went to live in the newly
built house on Kirkland Street. Four children were born: Charles in 1859;
Francis in 1861; Samuel in 1862; and Robert in 1866. Francis and Robert
died in infancy.
The years passed. In 1860, Eliot was placed in charge of the chemical
laboratory of the Lawrence Scientific School, a position of considerable
responsibility for a young man of twenty-six. When Prof. Eben N. Horsford
resigned as Rumford Professor of the Application of Science to the Useful
Arts in 1863, Eliot was in line for promotion to the vacancy. When the
Corporation gave the promotion to Dr. Wolcott Gibbs, a chemist, Eliot
ceased to be connected with the College.
Eliot had approached a grave crisis. He had discovered that the way of the
teaching profession was not entirely a smooth one: should he abandon it
for a business career?
at the Begining of his Presidency
In September, 1863, accompanied by Mrs. Eliot and the children, he sailed
for Europe, intending to investigate old world systems of education, and
to do special work in chemistry and kindred sciences. The Eliots remained
in Europe until the summer of 1865. In April of that year, while at Rome,
Eliot received a letter offering him the position of superintendent of the
Merrimac Manufacturing Company in Lowell, Massachusetts. The appointment
carried with it a salary of $5,000 and a house. The offer exerted its influence
on a young man with no position. Should he continue to teach chemistry,
he could not hope for an income anywhere near that figure. Nevertheless,
after a week's grave debate with his wife, he sent back a refusal.
A month or so later while staying in Vienna, he received a letter from Professor
William B. Rogers of Boston, offering him a professorship at the Institute
of Technology which was to open its doors in Boston for the first time the
following September. Professor Rogers was to be its first president. The
undertaking was new, and no one could tell whether it would succeed or fail.
As yet not a single student had been enrolled. But the offer was in thorough
keeping with Eliot's tastes and ambitions, and he accepted it at once and
thankfully, though it carried a salary of but $600.
on muleback in California
While Eliot was happy in the work of laying solid foundations for the
department of chemistry, a cloud appeared on the family horizon: Mrs.
Eliot was threatened with tuberculosis. Physicians believed that she might
recover in a climate more congenial to her constitution than Cambridge,
so in June, 1867, the family a second time crossed the Atlantic. The Eliots
spent a year in Europe searching for health for the mother, but the insidious
disease secured stronger and stronger hold. In June 1868, they returned
to America. The Cambridge home was given up, and the family spent the
winter of 1868-69 in Boston.
Professor Eliot renewed his connection to Harvard when, at the commencement
of 1868, he was elected by the alumni a member of the Board of Overseers.
He was attending a meeting of the Board on March 9, 1869, when a member
of the Corporation informed him that the Corporation wished to elect him
President of Harvard CollegeDr. Hill had resigned, due to impaired
Four days later, Eliots wife died; for a time, he little thought
of much beyond the bereavement and the care of his motherless children.
Up to this period, notions of educational reform that were agitating
Eliot's mind were known only to himself; but in February and March, 1869,
two of his articles were published in the Atlantic Monthly, at that time
the leading magazine in New England. The articles dropped into the entrenched
camp of the scholastics with the shattering effect of an explosive shell.
These articles, particularly the first, outlined the new education with
powerful sweep of intellect, sure knowledge and clear foresight. Progress
was in the air.
Bas-Relief of Eliot
Eliot was not the first to write on educational reform. In April, 1867,
John Fiske, then four years out of Harvard College, with an illustrious
career as evolutionist and historian awaiting him, published an article
in the Atlantic Monthly entitled "Considerations on University Reform."
He declared in positive terms that requiring students of all degrees of
mental ability and working power to complete the same course of study
in the same length of time was both irrational and unjust. He urged college
authorities to recognize in students different mental faculty, and to
permit them to select studies in keeping with desires and capacities.
When Eliot's articles were published, the author found himself at a leap
in the very forefront of the reform movement. Eliot spoke vigorously against
the form of college training that forced the mind into the classical groove
regardless of capacity or inclination. He said in substance, it might
well be a matter of serious consideration for a careful parent whether
his son had not better devote the usual number of years (in college) to
a study of Chinese.
He probably voiced what many were thinking when he said: "The term
learned profession is getting to have a sarcastic flavor. Only a very
small proportion of lawyers, doctors and ministers, the country over,
have the degree of A.B. The degrees of LL.B. and M.A. stand on the average
for decidedly less than the degree of A.B. And it is quite possible to
prepare men of scanty education to be successful pulpit exhorters in a
year or eighteen months. A really learned minister is almost as rare as
a logical sermon."
That he was already thinking of the ideal American university is evident:
"The American university has not yet grown out of the soil. It must
grow from seed. It cannot be transplanted from England, France or Germany.
The American university will be the outgrowth of American social and political
habits. The American college is an institution without a parallel; the
university will be equally original."
When the Corporation and Board of Overseers of Harvard sat to select
a successor to Dr. Hill, however much they may have wished to ignore the
young insurgent, they found it impossible. His articles in the Atlantic
had placed him in the front rank of candidates.
in front of University Hall at his nintieth birthday celebration.
When Eliot's name was mentioned to the Corporation, the suggestion received
immediate endorsement. Among others who urged his candidacy was Dr. James
Walker, former President of Harvard, beloved for his genial personality
and trusted for his wisdom. The Corporation elected Eliot on March 12,
1869, referring its choice, as was customary, to the Board of Overseers.
The majority of Overseers were not convinced that so young a man, a scientist,
and an iconoclast, could pilot the ship through the storm of which they
already had seen warning signals. After prolonged and heated discussion,
a vote was taken to refer the election back to the Corporation with disapproval.
But the Corporation refused to abandon the ground it had taken, and on
May 19, informed the Overseers that the body stood as at first. Nothing
remained for the Overseers to do but to vote again, when fifteen were
found in favor and nine opposed. A formal ballot immediately followed;
the vote stood sixteen to eight, and Charles William Eliot was declared
the twenty-second President of Harvard College.
The new President was inaugurated on Tuesday, October 19, 1869, at the
First Church (Unitarian), across the street from the College. The procession
formed at Gore Hall at two forty-five in the afternoon, with the students
leading, freshmen first and seniors last. Following the students came
the principal participants, including leading educators and statesmen.
The alumni brought up the rear. A band of twelve musicians provided marching
music, and played by way of entertainment while the procession was slowly
entering the church between lines of students. Rev. Dr. Peabody gave the
prayer. The congratulatory address was given in Latin by John Silas White,
member of the senior class.
Eliot was inducted into office by John Henry Clifford, President of the
Board of Overseers, in a learned and ponderous address, punctuated with
Latin phrases, but one, also, that was freighted with wisdom and wise
admonition. Clifford reminded the audience that for the first time a President
of Harvard was being inaugurated without the aid of the Chief Executive
of Massachusetts, since control of the College had been taken from the
Legislature and confided to the alumni. As Clifford concluded he handed
to Eliot the Keys, the Ancient Charter and the Seal of the College. The
President-elect accepted them with a brief, dignified response, beginning,
"Mr. President, I hear in your voice the voice of the alumni, welcoming
me to high honors and arduous labors, and charging me to be faithful to
the duties of this consecrated office."
After the chorus sang again, the new President arose to deliver his inaugural,
facing many who were hostile to his ideas. In fact, for the better part
of his career as President of Harvard he was aware of speaking to people
who did not agree with him.
He plunged at once into the point at issue: "This University recognizes
no real antagonism between literature and science, and consents to no
such narrow alternatives as mathematics or classics, science or metaphysics.
We would have them all and at their best. Truth and right are above utility
in all realms of thought and action." As he had done a few months
before in the Atlantic, he surveyed the field of education, showed how
inadequately the schools were meeting their obligations to the fast expanding
nation, and proposed reorganization, not sudden but continuing through
a period of years: "A university is not built in the air, but on
social and literary foundations which preceding generations have bequeathed.
If the whole structure needs rebuilding, it must be rebuilt from the foundations."
The address then moved serenely and convincingly on to a complete discussion
of the best courses for colleges and how to impart them. "The actual
problem to be solved is not what to teach, but how to teach." The
speaker left no subject until he had presented it in all its aspects.
In turn, he discussed college entrance examinations, the value of college
residence for young men, admission of women, admission of rich and poor.
With a calmness that must have disturbed somewhat the governors whose
tenure of control over the College had been long, he distinctly outlined
the tasks and obligations of the faculty, Corporation and Board of Overseers,
at a stroke securing the ascendancy. Thus quietly did he pass to a position
of leadership over them. Without conscious effort, but nonetheless decisively,
he took the helm of the ship. After that address no one would question
who commanded the vessel. Many members of the faculty and governing boards
were old enough to be his father; but in wide and accurate knowledge of
the science of education, in mental reach and power, in demonstration
of administrative capacity, he might have been the father and they the
children. At length he told them what the duties of the President were,
not leaving them in doubt that he whom they had chosen must be accepted
as adviser and leader of every activity connected with the establishment.
President Eliot went home to the president's house on Quincy Street, and
to his two motherless boys. Grief still lingered there, for the young
mother had died in March of that year. The congregation at the church
had seen a quiet, self-contained President, severe, profound, adventurous.
But there was another Charles Eliotfriend, councilor, and father,
who for the time was to be father and mother to his children. Busy with
many labors, he reserved the best for his home. Richly did the sons repay
his efforts. Charles, the younger, did for landscape architecture what
his father did for education, and was fast proving his worth when he died
suddenly of cerebro-spinal meningitis in 1897. The other son, Samuel,
entered the Unitarian ministry, and in 1900 was elected president of the
American Unitarian Association. With a statesmanship reminding one of
the administration his father gave Harvard University, he administered
this great liberal organization with zeal and diplomatic power.
It appears from contemporary papers and magazines that the choice of
the governing boards for President of Harvard was a matter of surprise
and universal comment and discussion. But gradually the astonishment seems
to have given way in the community to the resolve to stand back of the
new executive. Men spoke their minds freely about the iconoclast who was
demolishing their idols, one after the other; but they sustained him in
the end. He had loyal supporters, and one of them, James Russell Lowell,
wrote a word that must have given confidence to the young commander: "Our
new President of the College is winning praises of everybody. I take the
utmost satisfaction in him, and think him just the best man that could
have been chosen. We have a real captain at last."
at his home in Cambridge
Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, at the time, was a member of the medical faculty.
One can see the twinkle in his kindly eye as he wrote: "Mr. Eliot
makes the Corporation meet twice a month instead of once. He comes to
the meeting of every faculty, ours among the rest, and keeps us up to
eleven and twelve o'clock at night discussing new arrangements. He shows
an extraordinary knowledge of all that relates to every department of
the University, and presides with an aplomb, a quiet, imperturbable, serious
good humor that it is impossible not to admire.
Aware that many years must pass before the experiment would prove itself,
Eliot went to work immediately. He secured an increase in the tuition
fee, raising it from $100 a year to $150, an innovation which drew protests
from critics who declared that the increase would drive deserving students
away and make Harvard a rich man's college. But the change added with
the stroke of a pen the sum of $28,000 yearly to the college treasury.
Thayer Hall, named after its donor, Nathaniel Thayer, a member of the
Corporation, was opened, and provided an income of $10,000. The custom
of class subscriptions was instituted, which paid $50,000 to the College
the year following President Eliot's inauguration. With funds in its hands,
the Corporation could expand the courses. This it did, enriching the curriculum
with five new professorships: mathematics, history, entomology, Latin
(language and literature), and modern languages.
The first furrows had been turned. The President would not take his hand
from the plough until the entire field of education had been cultivated.
The end in view could be achieved only through organization. Prof. E.
W. Gurney was made dean, and did much of the work formerly done by the
President. Eliot invited Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Fiske, each of whom
was in the black books of the conservatives within the college circle,
to deliver lectures. Emerson's lectures appear not to have excited undue
disturbance, but Fiske's did. They were published, as given, in the New
York World, which, to attract attention, commented editorially on the
"astonishing changes" which must be under way at the famous
Puritan university when it could sanction such heresies. Members of the
clergy, doctrinaires, and alumni of conservative stamp protested with
one voice that the President was collaborating in the production and publication
of lectures that aimed to undermine revealed religion. Eliot stood like
a rock. The next year he invited Fiske to lecture again, and, supported
by those liberally inclined clergymen, James Freeman Clarke and Edward
Everett Hale, prevailed with the Overseers to allow Fiske to occupy temporarily
the chair of Assistant Professor of History. But when he thoroughly understood
the intensity of the opposition on the part of the governing boards to
making Fiske a permanent member of the faculty, he refrained from presenting
Medical education had interested him from the time when years before he
had taken over Professor Cooke's course of lectures at the Medical School.
A chemist of repute, he knew, also, the more scientific aspect of the
practice of medicine. In the first report he presented to the Corporation,
he gave intimations of his intentions: "The whole system of medical
education in this country needs thorough reformation.
In 1869, the school was considered the most flourishing part of the University.
It numbered three hundred and eight students, and had on its faculty authorities
in the world of medicine and surgery. But it demanded practically no examinations
for entrance; any youth of honorable character could gain admission by
registering and paying the admission fee. Of course this meant that many
members of the school had preliminary training of the most meager quality.
But these conditions prevailed in all the medical schools of the United
States after the Civil War. Large numbers were in the Harvard and other
schools who were later to install themselves in communities for the exceedingly
serious purpose of assuaging pain and saving life, who could hardly sign
their names to the register and had difficulty in deciphering the simplest
Lectures began in November, and continued daily from morning until night.
They were given by men, learned in their calling, but who, from perpetual
repetition through the years had become blunted to the sensitive minds
of listeners. It was a weary, exhausting experience to take notes on four
and five lectures in succession, delivered in small, unventilated rooms.
Little wonder if much said by those professors who unfortunately lectured
near the end of the school day, failed to lodge in weary minds. But, as
it happened, the medical faculty contained that remarkable philosopher
and wit, Oliver Wendell Holmes, who, because of the marvelous faculty
he possessed of brightening the dullest intellect, was given the last
hour of the day.
As he got inkling of the President's intention he went about button-holing
members of the Board of Overseers, assuring them with persuasive speech
that the Medical School would be ruined in a year if permission were given
the President to apply his reforms. What was the matter with the Medical
School? Wasn't it the leading department? He told the Overseers that the
new President was urging written examinations for graduation. "I
had to tell him," he would say, "that he knew nothing about
the quality of the Harvard Medical studentsmore than half of them
can barely write."
One day, President Eliot, with that determined, dignified tread many remember
so well, walked into the room where the medical faculty was holding a
meeting. Astonishment spread over every face. Never before had a president
of Harvard University passed within those jealously guarded doors. He
had come to propose changes more or less overturning. Dr. Bigelow and
a portion of the faculty made it plain that they believed those changes
would wreck the school. But among the teachers were a few who saw that
a revolution in medical instruction was at hand. Already the call had
gone forth for a renaissance in America in the practice of medicine and
surgery. By December 1871, the entire University, as well as the Medical
School, had been given a thorough shaking up.
Now that the corner had been turned, progress was steady. Given a powerful
impetus by the high standards and success of the Harvard Medical School,
medical science swept the country.
A committee directed by Prof. Henry P. Bowditch and Prof. J. C. Warren
undertook to raise ten million dollars for the establishing of a medical
school with adjacent hospitals, the extent of which had never before been
equaled in this or any other country. J. Pierpont Morgan and John D. Rockefeller
became interested: Morgan gave three buildings and Rockefeller gave one
million dollars for endowment. Other friends of the College gave with
proportionate liberality, and in 1906 the plan was accomplisheda
court flanked by five buildings constructed of marble, designed to give
a Greek effect.
University's Eliot House, an undergraduate dormitory.
Law had been taught at the College since 1815, when seventy-five hundred
dollars were made available from the sale of lands left by General Isaac
Royall, the Royall Professorship of Law was established, and Isaac Parker,
Chief Justice of Massachusetts, was appointed to administer it.
Judge Parker, however, was a practicing jurist, and could only give about
one-third of his time to the professorship. The extent of instruction
in law at Harvard, therefore, for a number of years was a series of about
twelve lectures given in the summer to the senior class. Gradually Judge
Parker, quite aware of the inadequacy of his lectures, knowing that neither
in Europe nor America was there a school where a complete course in jurisprudence
could be secured, conceived the notion of establishing such a school at
Cambridge. The only way a lawyer could then be trained was for him to
serve an apprenticeship.
The Corporation entertained Judge Parkers proposal with favor and
voted that a resident Professor of Law be appointed and that the degree
of LL.B. be instituted. The school became widely known and students flocked
there. Though the School was ably served by other distinguished teachers
of the law, Judge Story was its real inspiration. For sixteen years he
devoted his great abilities to its promotion, resolutely refusing any
increase to his original salary of one thousand dollars a year. Amounts
over and above that figure offered him by the Corporation were invested
in improvements for the school.
When the Civil War broke out the Law School numbered one hundred and fifty-two
students, many of whom had homes in the West and South. During the war
years the attendance declined appreciably, but was beginning to pick up
at the crisis in 1869. The school had great traditions. It had numbered
among its faculty some of the ablest teachers of law the nation had produced.
Its graduates had brought added luster to the legal profession as practiced
in the United States. For the most part, faculty, alumni, and students
were satisfied. But the new President of the University was not. Examining
the status of the School with patience and care, he found that one-half
the law students were building on an unsafe foundation since they had
no college training. The only requirement for admission was a certificate
of character. Lectures could be attended or not as the student felt disposed.
If a student had been enrolled in the school for eighteen months he could
receive a degree. If he would pay twenty-five dollars, he could become
a member of the school for half a term.
As an entering wedge President Eliot wished to appoint to the Dane Professorship,
then vacant, Christopher Columbus Langdell, whom he had known in undergraduate
days, and who at that time was an eminent member of the New York bar.
Langdell came to Cambridge in the spring of 1870. With the opening of
the School the next fall, he launched his thunderbolt. Thenceforth law
would be taught at Harvard experimentally rather than theoretically. In
other words actual cases were going to supplement textbooks and in instances
It was all revolutionary. Storms of protest beat about the doors of Dane
Hall where Langdell had his office, and about the President. The alumni
would not sustain the venture. The students were hostile to the case method
of instruction, and dropped away one by one. Attendance, that surest criterion
of a popular school, declined. But Dean Langdell had not been disciplined
in the school of poverty and reverse for nothing. He went cheerfully on
with his "cases." Courses were extended, and an A.B. or its
equivalent required for admission. It seemed long in coming, but it came:
Langdell's men began to rank high as pleaders and interpreters of law.
The case system, from a position of obscurity and derision, attained national,
then international fame. No subject in the law reviews was more debated.
The system made its way into law schools throughout the United States.
Austin Hall, erected through the generosity of Edward Austin, one of the
school fathers, to care for the overflow from Dane Hall, proved unable
to accommodate the men. The alumni shifted their position of attack to
one of defense and zealous enthusiasm. In 1886 they organized the Harvard
Law School Association, with an official publication, The Harvard Law
Professor Langdell lived to see all this, directing the policies of the
school until 1900 when he retired with the title of professor emeritus.
In 1903 the Langdell Professorship of Law was endowed, and in his memory
Langdell Hall was dedicated.
The celebration of Dr. Eliots seventy-fifth birthday and his resignation
as President of Harvard University after a forty-year term, the longest
in the history of the College, came within a few weeks of each other.
His term exceeded in duration that of his five predecessors, Hill, Felton,
Walker, Sparks and Everett. In October 1908 he had informed the Corporation
that he wished to resign, the resignation to take effect not later than
May 19, 1909. On that date he retired from the office. The president next
to him in duration of service had been Edward Holyoke, who in 1789 had
concluded a term of thirty-two years.
In retirement, one of his roles was to be the editor of the 50-volume
Harvard Classics known as "the five foot shelf of books."
On June 5,1926, Charles Eliot left Cambridge and went, as had been his
custom for many years, to the summer home at Northeast Harbor, Maine.
After he calmly told those about him that he would die within a week,
he died Sunday afternoon, August 22, 1926.