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Michigan Technic Memoir

James Burrill Angell
Michigan Technic 85-87

The University and the State of Michigan, not to speak of the country as a
whole have been profoundly moved in the passing of their great figure – the
President-Emeritus of the University. It seems to be generally accepted that
the true measure of a man is character rather then a surpassing brilliancy of
intellect if unaccompanied by this high moral quality. The personality of
President Angell was something ennobling, and went out like a grateful
benediction to all within his sphere of influence. About it there was nothing
cold or formal, but a wealth of geniality and humor, which radiated from
him like flashes of sunshine. The stooped figure which until quite recently
moved morning and afternoon with halting gait along the campus walks, is
one that will be keenly missed by the entire community.

James Burrill Angell was born in Scituate, R.I., January 17, 1829. After
preparing for college at the University Grammar School in Providence, he
entered Brown University and was graduated with the highest honors in
1849. After a year of work in the library, he undertook with one companion
an extended horseback trip through the southern states, mainly for the
purpose of regaining his health, which had become seriously impaired. His
ambition had been to enter the ministry, but the affection of his throat
continued obstinate and he accepted instead a position as civil engineer in
the office o the city engineer of Boston. In the early fifties of the last
century engineering training bore but little resemblance to that of the present
day, but it is interesting to remember that young Angell undertook the
preparation of an elaborate map of the Boston Common with all paths and
trees represented. The greater part of his work, however, had to do with the
Cochituate Water Supply of the city. He was the only member of the staff
who had any knowledge of calculus, most engineers of the time having
begun as rodmen and having acquired rule of thumb methods in practice,
with but little conception of their meaning. In his autobiography Dr. Angell
says, “As one recalls how slender where the opportunities in those days for
training studies and observes the large number of excellent engineering
schools in our country, one may say that in no branch of education has there
been more rapid or more helpful development that in that of engineering in
all its applications.”

In his capacity of engineering, Mr. Angell assisted in preparing an immense
may to be stretched in a tent erected on Boston Common in connection with
the celebration of the opening of the Grand Trunk Railroad from Montreal to
Boston. While engaged in preparing his map of the Common, the work was
interrupted by the unexpected opportunity for European study and travel,
which he decided to avail himself of. With his companion of the southern
horseback journey, Mr. Hazard, he now visited Europe and enjoyed
opportunities for study in the different countries.

While in Vienna Mr. Angell received a litter form President Weyland of
Brown University, offering him as he might prefer, either the Chair of Civil
Engineering or that of Modern Languages and Literatures in his Alma
Mater. It was the last mentioned Chair which he decided to accept, and with
it ended his brief career as an engineer, through he always retained a lively
interest in engineering subjects.

Under him as professor and friend were a number of men who have since
distinguished themselves, notably Richard Olney and John Hay, both of
whom became Secretary of State of the United States. Hay’s biographer
says, “Professor James B. Angell, - subsequently, President of the University
of Michigan, - both stirred Hay’s enthusiasm and recognized his ability.
They read together several of the great German and French masterpieces,
and Hay proved the best translator Dr. Angell ever had in his classes.”
Two years after entering upon his professorship, Mr. Angell married Sarah
Swoope Caswell, daughter of Professor Alexis Caswell, D. D., who
afterwards became President of Brown University. Mrs. Angell was a
woman of great force of character, and an ideal helpmate to Mr. Angell,
after it is after her that Sarah Caswell Hall has been named.
They had three children: for Judge Alexis C. Angell, of Detroit; Professor
James R. Angell, of the University of Chicago; and Lois Thompson
McLaughlin, wife of Professor Andrew C. McLaughlin, of the University of

From the plan to enter the ministry Mr. Angell had been forced by
circumstances to turn his attention first toward civil engineering, and later
toward the teaching of modern languages. In 1860 another complete change
in his career occurred when he resigned his professorship to accept the
position of editor of the Providence Journal, a strong abolition newspaper,
which he ably edited throughout the period of the Civil War, but resigned in
1866 to accept the presidency of the University of Vermont. Except for two
interruptions to undertake important diplomatic missions, this field of
university education was to absorb all his attention until, burdened with
years, he retired from active service in 1909 as President-Emeritus of the
University of Michigan.

Of his editorial career Dr. Angell wrote, “My experience of newspaper life
has been of great service to me in all my subsequent career. Editorial work
trains one to both readiness and accuracy in writing…One who has a
responsible charge in the conduct of a newspaper has large opportunities to
understand men and to test his courage in standing by what is right and
conducive to the public good, especially when in his opinions he differs
from some of his friends.”

In 1971 Dr. Angell having already once declined a call to the Presidency of
the University of Michigan, was on further solicitation induced to accept,
thus entering upon the service, which continued, with two short
interruptions, for no less than thirty-eight years. During this period the
University grew from a small institution of 1,110 students, thirty-five
instructors and three departments, to one of the largest and most influential
in the country with between five and six thousand students and seven
separate departments. There was introduced during this period the diploma
system of admission to the university from secondary schools, the mill tax
provision for supporting the university, a system of unusual freedom of
election of studies, and graduate and summer schools. Other state
universities adopted several of these policies. The Schools of Dental
Surgery and of Pharmacy were organized, the medical courses were greatly
strengthened and extended, and the medical hospitals were founded.

His notable success in molding the future of the University of Michigan, and
through its example other universities as well, President angel ascribed
chiefly to two policies, which he maintained throughout. His aim was to
make the people feel that they were in a sense stockholders in the institution,
and to make all secondary schools and their teachers regard themselves as
parts of one system of state education culminating in the university.

Among honors, which came to President Angell, may be mentioned the
honorary degree of Doctor of Laws conferred in turn by Brown University,
Columbia University, Rutgers College, Princeton University, Yale
University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Wisconsin.
President Angell’s career in the diplomatic service included his appointment
as United States Minister to China in 1880-81, and as United States Minister
to Turkey in 1897-98. In 1887 he was appointed a member of The
International Commission on Canadian Fisheries, and in 1896 he was made
the chairman of the Canadian-American Commission on Deep Waterways
from the Lakes to the Sea, a commission consisting largely of prominent
civil engineers. He was long one of the trustees of the Smithsonian
Institution in Washington. A brilliant conversationalist, his genial
personality attracted to him distinguished men in all walks of life, and many
were the appeals to him for his wise counsel. In this capacity of counselor
he was largely instrumental in molding the destinies of two important
eastern universities through a happy selection of their presidents, - Wellesley
College in the choice of Alice Freeman, and the Johns Hopkins University,
which by the wise policy of President Daniel Coit Gilman introduced a new
and much needed element into American university training.

Among the qualities, which President Angell possessed in quite unusual
degree, was the gift of public speaking. Despite a voice, which was never
strong, and a manner of speech, which borrowed little from oratory, his wellchosen
words and his strong personal magnetism rendered his speeches
wonderfully impressive. Few men have in so high a measure had the
wisdom to say just the right word at the right time and never a word too much. The writer well recalls a banquet at a southern university where a long program of speeches proved dull and apparently almost interminable.

The banqueters were tired out when at 1:3- A.M. the venerable President
Angell was called upon to respond to a toast. Through cleverly recalling an
incident of his horseback journey, which supplied a bit of local color, he
soon had everyone awake and made a speech, which brought a veritable
storm of applause.

The thousands of students who came under the influence of President
Angell, and in whom he had a strong personal interest, are now scattered to
the four corners of the earth carrying with them the legacy of a noble
example of the Christian scholar and gentleman.