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Eliot, Charles W. (1834-1926)

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Charles William Eliot

Courtesy of the Unitarian Universalist Association Archives


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 Boston—an importer who operated a store that was a forerunner of the great department stores of today. The grandfather on his mother’s 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.


Samuel Atkins Eliot Father of Charles

Samuel Atkins Eliot
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.

Eliot at the Age of Fifteen

Eliot 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 in mathematics.
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 reform.


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.

Charles W. Eliot as a Harvard Faculty Member

Charles W. Eliot 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.


Ellen Peabody Eliot

Ellen Peabody Eliot

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 at the Begining of his Presidency

Charles W. Eliot at the Begining of his Presidency

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?

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.

Eliot on muleback in California

Eliot 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 College—Dr. Hill had resigned, due to impaired health.

Four days later, Eliot’s 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.

A Bas-Relief of Eliot

A 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.

Eliot's 90th Birthday

Eliot 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 Eliot—friend, 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.”

Eliot at his home in Cambridge

Eliot 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 the nomination.

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 writing.

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 students—more 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 accomplished—a court flanked by five buildings constructed of marble, designed to give a Greek effect.


Harvard University's Eliot House

Harvard 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 Parker’s 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 replace them.

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 Review.

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. Eliot’s 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.

— Adapted from The Life of Charles W. Eliot by Edward H. Cotton, edited by Herbert F. Vetter and David Eliot Stein.

Harvard's Eliot Gate

Harvard's Eliot Gate Harvard's Eliot Gate

The Charles William Eliot Gate at Harvard University. (Photos by David Eliot Stein, Harvard ’04) 

The Religious Life and Influence of Charles William 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.

Photographs of Harvard University in Eliot’s Time

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.”

Description of the Occasion of Eliot’s 90th Anniversary

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.”

— Courtesy of the Harvard University Archives

Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection 

The President Meets the Prophet: Charles W. Eliot’s 1910 Encounter with Kahlil Gibran