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Memoir (2)

James Burrill Angell
James Burrill Angell and the University of Michigan - The Michigan Alumnus 326

The administration of James Burrill Angell, President of the University of
Michigan for thirty-eight years, covered a significant period in the history of
American education. It was also a critical time in the life of the University.
In the years between 1871 and 1909 the University of Michigan made a
practical and successful demonstration of a new experiment in education, the
popularization of education, and the maintenance of a school system and a
university by the state.

While the University of Michigan might have developed much as it has
without the guidance of President Angell, it may be questioned whether it
would have been as effective as a leader in the new movement. The
principles, which underlie the state university system, were stated well by
the founders who incorporated the fundamental idea of popular education in
the first constitution of the State. Michigan's first great President, Chancellor
Henry Philip Tappan, tried his best to make them practical. But he was
ahead of his time, and it was not until President Angell came to Michigan
from Vermont, in 1871, that there was progress towards a true University.

When he came Michigan was still a college. It was the work of Dr. Angell to
build, and to build well, upon foundations already laid, to harmonize, with
practical idealism and diplomacy, the advanced ideals of the University with
the slower progress of the Commonwealth. While it has come to be no
reproach upon the fame of Dr. Tappan that he failed in just this particular, it
is the great achievement of Dr. Angell that he succeeded. He made Michigan
the model for all succeeding state universities.

Dr. Angell came to Michigan fresh from his work in the East as Professor of
Modern Languages at Brown University, wartime editor of the Providence
Journal and President of the University of Vermont in June 1871, eight
years after the resignation of Chancellor Tappan. The seven years from 1863
to 1870 had been filled with success by the Reverend Erastus O. Haven, a
man of much more conservative temper, who devoted himself to caring for
the material affairs of the University rather than the problems of future
development. Professor Henry S. Frieze, one of the most striking figures in
the history of the University, followed as Acting President for one year. He
found opportunity in his short administration to further Dr. Tappan's ideas in
many ways. Two steps were taken at that time, which have had a farreaching
effect in American education, the admission of women and the
final establishment of organic relations with the high schools of the State. In fact, the first two women were graduated at the end of the same year that
saw President Angell assume his new duties as Dr. Frieze's successor.

The company, which greeted him in 1871 was a brilliant one, though in
numbers the Faculty was small, less than forty all told, compared with over
ten times that number when he resigned his office. The Catalogue of 1871
shows 1,110 students enrolled, in contrast to the 5,223 in 1909.

At the time of his death Dr. Angell was eighty-seven years old. He was born
in Scituate, R. I., January 7, 1829, of good New England stock, and lived the
simple life of a country boy. He attended the village school, the academy of
one Isaac Fiske, a Quaker pedagogue, of Scituate, - until he was ready for
more advanced studies at the academies of Seekonk, Mass., and North

This early training, in his later estimation, furnished him the best possible
instruction, because it involved personal attention from special instructors, a
good old fashioned method, which the rapid development of this country has
made almost impossible, yet a practice for which he stood consistently as far
as possible throughout his whole career as an educator. In speaking of his
early schooling he said that "no plan had been marked out for me; being
fond of study and almost equally fond of all branches, I took nearly
everything that was taught, merely because it was taught."

His health as a boy, however, was delicate, giving small promise of his hale
and hearty four score years, and he spent perforce two years, from fourteen
to sixteen, on a farm. As to the value of this experience, far from uncommon in the lives of many men eminent in the history of this country, he said, "I prize very highly the education I received then. I learned how much
backache a dollar earned in the field represents." He prepared for Brown
University at a grammar school in Providence where he studied under Henry
S. Frieze, destined to become his immediate predecessor in the Presidency of
Michigan. He was graduated from Brown, with highest honors, in 1849.
This early New England training was particularly fortunate for one who was
to come into such close relationship with the pioneer settlers of Michigan, -
New Englanders to a very large extent.

Equally fortunate was his later training. His first residence abroad, where he acquired the familiarity with
modern languages which fitted him for his first professorship, had been
preceded by a year as assistant in the library at Brown University; then he
became tutor, and later a student of civil engineering in the office of the city
engineer of Boston. In fact, he spent this period to such advantage that later,
upon his return from Europe, he was given the choice of a professorship
either in civil engineering or modern languages, an evidence of the wide
range of his interests. He finally chose modern languages as his subject, and
entered upon his career as a teacher, where he developed the highest
qualifications. He remained at Brown for seven years.

Many articles and reviews published in the Providence Journal justified his
selection in 1860 as the editor of that paper, a position that he held
throughout the Civil War with singular distinction.

In 1866, Dr. Angell was offered the Presidency of the University of
Vermont, and he accepted it. He took charge of the University when its fortunes were at a low, and the future was not bright. It was due to the administrative ability of the new President as well as to his ripe experience
and culture that the day was saved and Vermont prospered, intellectually and
financially, during the five years of his administration.

After the resignation of President Haven in 1869, the Regents of the
University of Michigan invited Dr. Angell to the vacant chair, but he felt
constrained to decline; his work at Vermont was not completed. Two years
later the call was again extended and this time it was accepted. Speaking of
his decision to come to Michigan, Dr. Angell said twenty-five years later:
"While, with much embarrassment, I was debating the question in my own
mind whether I should come here, I fell in with a friend who had very large
business interests, and he made this very suggestive remark to me: 'Given
the long lever, it is no harder to lift a big load than it is with a shorter one to
lift a smaller load.' I decided to try the end of the longer lever." (President
Angell’s Quarter Centennial; Addresses, p. 34.)

James Burrill Angell was inaugurated President of the University of
Michigan in June 1871. From that time his life was the life of the University
except for interludes of diplomatic service in China, Turkey, and upon
various commissions. His diplomatic career, though only incidental to his
life work as an educator, showed that he possessed the necessary
qualifications for what might well have been a very distinguished career in
other fields. At the time of his appointment to China as Minister
Plenipotentiary, diplomatic relations in the East was decidedly indirect and
characteristically Oriental.

It had just taken Germany two years to conclude
a rather unimportant commercial treaty, and upon his arrival at Peking his colleagues in the diplomatic service laughed at him for supposing that his one-year's leave of absence would suffice for his far more important
mission. Yet the revision of the Burlingame treaty, restricting the
importation of cheap coolie labor into this country, which he sought, was
accomplished within two months. Another important commercial treaty
relative to the importation of opium had likewise been completed in the
same time. He was also successful in his mission to Turkey in 1898 and as a
member of the Alaska Fisheries and other international commissions.

But his heart was in his work at Ann Arbor, and thither he always returned
despite flattering temptations to enter diplomatic life. A great opportunity
lay before him when he took up his new duties and he recognized it. It was
his task to bring the State, exemplified in particular by a not always
sympathetic Legislature, and by a Board of Regents of continually varying
complexion, to a realization of the true function of a university supported by
the state. He must arouse the enthusiasm for education and learning which
he knew lay deep in the hearts of the people of Michigan. As Professor
Charles Kendall Adams, later President of Cornell and Wisconsin said:
"What was called for first of all was the creation and dissemination of an
appreciative public opinion that would produce in some way or other the
means necessary for the adequate support of the University." So well did Dr.
Angell accomplish this purpose that of late years he loved to dwell, in his
speeches before the alumni, upon what he chose to call the "passion for
education" on the part of the people of the State, forgetting utterly the
yeoman service he performed all his life toward bringing about that same
regard for popular education. It is true that the foundation and declaration of the educational ideals of the
West cannot be ascribed to him.

Nevertheless he must be regarded, more than any other one man, as the successful pilot who avoided the difficulties,
which the very novelty of the situation presented. The comparative freedom
from precedent offered an unrivalled opportunity to try new theories in
education, and was a continual temptation to try policies, which must have
proved too advanced.

A survey of the educational system in the West at the time he came to
Michigan may be of interest. As regards the number of students, quality of
work, and the eminence of the men upon her Faculties, Michigan stood far in
advance of other state institutions. This very pre-eminence, however, threw a
greater responsibility upon the new President. Lacking precedents, he had to
make them for himself, so that the place of the state University in the
educational world today is in great degree the measure of success he had in
dealing with the practical problems, which confronted him throughout his
extraordinarily long term of office.

When he came to Michigan there was only one other state university of any size, Wisconsin, although several
others had already been established. If the report of the United States
Commissioner of Education for 1871 is to be relied upon, none of them
except Michigan, and possibly Wisconsin, were in anything like a
flourishing condition. While Michigan had, all told, 1,110 students, of whom
483 were in the Literary Department, Wisconsin had only 355, omitting a
preparatory department of 131 students. Minnesota had but 167 students
with 144 in the preparatory department, while Kansas enrolled 313. No
figures were given for Illinois, which was then the Illinois Industrial
University, and Nebraska, both of which had been established for several years.
Yet Michigan, although she was well in the lead in point of numbers as well
as in the strength of her professional schools, was far from realizing her
possibilities. It would, of course, be a rash assertion to say that she has
realized them now. But it is safe to say that no state has maintained more
truly the type of the well rounded university, a large college of liberal arts,
with traditions of culture and scholarship which began with its very
foundation, surrounded by a ring of effective professional schools.

Soon after he came the present system of revenue from the state was first
made operative in 1873. This was in the shape of an annual proportion of the
state taxes, fixed at first at one-twentieth of a mill on every dollar of taxable
property. This proportion continued for twenty years. Since then it has been
increased several times until it is now three-eighths of a mill on every dollar
and netted the University in 1909 $65o,ooo instead of the $15,000 of 1873.
The total income of the University for the last year of Dr. Angell's
administration was $1,290,000 as against $76,702.52 received during his
first year. In fact, when President Angell came to Michigan it had just
become in reality a state institution, as the first appropriation of money for
its support, aside from the sale of certain public lands, which went for a
song, was made in 1867-69. Before that time, the State had never given any
financial proof that the University was a state institution, beyond loaning the
original $100,000 when it was first founded. The idea was there, but it had
never been made vital.

It was perhaps in the more strictly academic side of the development of the
University that Dr. Angell's peculiar genius as an administrative officer was
most apparent. When he came, he was forty-two years of age, and in
Professor Hinsdale's words: "brought to his new and responsible post
extended scholarship, familiar acquaintance with society and the world,
administrative experience, a persuasive eloquence, and a cultivated
personality." This urbanity and extraordinary ability as a speaker won for
him from the first a place in the hearts and in the imaginations of the people
of the State. His birth and training gave him a sympathetic appreciation of
their point of view, which apparently was the one thing which his
predecessor, Dr. Tappan, lacked. President Angell felt that the people only
needed to be shown and they would stand ready to help the University.

But there were other and even more vital administrative problems, which
faced him. In the first place, he had to make Michigan a true university as
distinguished from a college. He had to correlate and concentrate the various
departments and make them complete by adding a school for effective
graduate work. His immediate predecessors had instituted certain
revolutionary steps, such as the admission of women, the first tentative steps
toward free election of studies, the introduction of a scientific course, it
became his duty to make them a success.

Almost contemporaneous with Dr. Angell's inauguration as President was
the introduction of the seminar system of teaching, in effect a further
application of the German methods: not only should the teacher be an
investigator and searcher after truth, but the student as well; and more
important still, the student should be taught how to carry on original
investigation himself by means of seminar classes where student and teacher worked together on original problems. According to Professor Hinsdale
"there is good reason to think that Michigan was the first American
university to naturalize this product of German soil."
With all these innovations under way, Dr. Angell found many other
opportunities for the introduction of new ideas in education - some of them
as startling and as revolutionary as certain of the earlier experiments. These
included a modification of that traditional course of classical studies, which
can be traced back directly to the Middle Ages. The establishment of the
Latin course, which dropped the requirement of Greek, was the first step;
this was further modified in 1877 by the establishment of an English course
in which no classics were required. The scientific course also underwent
further modifications during this year (1877-78), which was characterized by
many radical changes, though they do not strike one so now a days. A still
more revolutionary step was taken by throwing open more than half the
courses to free election, permitting some students to shorten their college
course, and enabling others to enrich their course with other than these
prescribed studies, heretofore compulsory and admitting of almost no

All these changes resulted in an immediate increase in attendance, almost
20% the first year they went into force. As a direct result of Dr. Angell's
recommendation the first chair in the Science and the Art of Teaching in any
American university was established in 1880, coming as a necessary
corollary to the intimate relation maintained and encouraged by the
University between itself and the high schools of the State. In 1891 this
department was empowered to grant certificates permitting any student possessing one to teach in any high school in the State.
The Graduate School practically came into being during his administration,
as there was really nothing worthy of the name of graduate work before, in
spite of the heroic efforts of President Tappan. It was during Dr. Angell's
administration also that the professional schools assumed the prominent
place they now occupy. When he first became President both the Law and
Medical Schools consisted of two courses of lectures of six months duration,
with no severe examination required for admittance. Now they require three
and four years of nine months each, as well as two years of work in the
Literary College.

Neither position, public honors, nor improvement in the equipment and
personnel of the University represents rightly, however, the real work of
President Angell. His greatest influence lay in his dealings with the
students, and through them, upon the educational ideals of the West. And it
is precisely this influence, quietly acquired and characteristically wielded,
which represents what is perhaps his greatest claim upon the consideration
of the future. No one who had the privilege of hearing him speak failed to
respond to the quiet persuasiveness of his presence and the charm of his
personality. There are some persons in who is inherent a certain magnetic
mastery over numbers. He had this to an extraordinary degree. Merely by
rising he could bring absolute stillness upon a cheering throng of students or
alumni, and with a few words, quiet but remarkably distinct, he could rouse
to a remarkable pitch that sentiment known as college spirit. His whole
figure was expressive of a benign goodness, illuminated most humanly by
the worldly wisdom of an old diplomat.

Many -honors came to Dr. Angell in the course of his long life, as was
inevitable. His scholarship was universally recognized. He received the
degree of LL.D. from Brown University in 1868, Columbia University in
1887, Rutgers College in 1896, Princeton University in 1896, Yale
University in 1901, Johns Hopkins University in 1902, University of
Wisconsin in 1904, Harvard University in 1905 and the University of
Michigan in 1912. He was a member of the American Philosophical Society
of Philadelphia, the American Antiquarian Society of Worcester, the
American Academy of Arts and Sciences of Boston and the American
Historical Association, of which be was president in 1893. Dr. Angell was a
charter member of the American Academy at Rome. For many years he was
also regent of the Smithsonian Institution at Washington. He was always a
leader in the Congregational Church and presided at the International
Congregational Council, which met in Boston in September 1899. This body
was composed of delegates from all parts of the world and represented the
scholastical and ecclesiastical organization of the church in the persons of its
most distinguished members.

All through his career, Dr. Angell gave evidence of certain characteristics,
which had definite effects upon his policy as President. Professor Charles H.
Cooley has characterized the especial qualities, which made for his success
as "his faith and his adaptability.” Dr. Angell always believed in the
tendency of the right to prevail, and was willing to wait with a “masterly
inactivity," avoiding too much injudicious assistance. He was always able to
maintain a broad and comprehensive view, the attitude of the administrator,
and was faithful in his belief in the Higher Power, which guides the destiny of men - and universities. His diplomatic genius, the combination of teacher and man of the world, enabled him to keep in close and sympathetic touch,
not only with the student life about him, but also with the difficulty
problems of an ever-growing Faculty. He always showed himself
surprisingly shrewd, yet withal charitable, in the judgment of men and of
their character, a qualification, which enabled him to follow a laissez-faire
policy until the proper time. Often his penetration and insight in analyses of
recent current problems and questions, which might be supposed not to
interest so particularly a man of his years, have surprised his young
associates and have given evidence of the wonderful vitality, the spirit of
youth, which lived within him.

Ann Arbor was long accustomed to his familiar figure on his invariable
morning constitutional, walking with an elastic, springy step and a ruddy
freshness in his complexion, which almost belied his gray hairs and his wellknown
age. He passed few blocks without a word to some one, for a simple,
kindly interest in those about him was one of his chief characteristics. It was
this essential democracy, which kept him for so many years in personal
relations with his students, an interest, which never flagged until the last, and
which was shown by the close track, which he always kept of the alumni of
the University. For the alumni, he has always born that simplest and most
beloved of academic titles, "Prexy." No gentler tribute has ever been paid
than the words of his former pupil, Professor Charles M. Gayley, '78, now of
the University of California, in the Commemoration Ode, read at the Quarter
Centennial of Dr. Angell's Presidency:

"For he recks of praises nothing, counts them fair nor fit:
He, who bears his honors lightly,
And whose age renews its zest - "

To James Burrill Angell must be given a pre-eminent place among those
who have made advanced learning for the young people of the land a matter
of course. More than any other one person he helped to give to this country,
one of her proudest distinctions, the highest percentage in the world of
college men and women.