Mr. Rockefeller Acts

Soon after reaching home I was further encouraged by two items of news. Dr. Morehouse wrote that Mr. Rockefeller, without solicitation, had forwarded Five Hundred Dollars for the current expenses of the Education Society. This was done in face of the fact that he had at an earlier period declined to make any contribution at all. The second was that Mr. Rockefeller, who had returned to New York, had now granted an interview to Dr. Harper, and had told the latter that he “had liked Mr. Gates” and that he had made up his mind to act in his educational benefactions through the American Baptist Education Society. This was indeed good news. For it might mean the full realization of all I had dreamed the Society might do for our colleges, and possibly also for the proposed institution at Chicago.

Our Board was to meet again on February twentieth (1889), this time not in Washington, but in New York. All of us were hoping that Mr. Rockefeller would do something for the Society or for Chicago, or both, before the date of meeting, but the day came without a word from Mr. Rockefeller. Just as the meeting was called to order, however, a note to me came from Mr. Rockefeller, contributing One Hundred Thousand Dollars to the Society “for its contributions to educational work in the United States.” I will not undertake to describe the delight this letter gave me and every other member of the Board. It insured for the Society a career of power and usefulness limited only by the good sense and disinterestedness of our policies. Mr. Rockefeller, always cautious, had wisely provided that he should himself approve appropriations before they could become effective. He was not a member of the Board.

The next day I wrote a grateful letter, in part as follows:

“I am instructed by the Board to convey to you their acceptance of your noble gift, under the conditions which you name, and to express to you their grateful appreciation of this mark of your confidence in the possible usefulness of the Society. They believe that your influence and patronage, thus generously tendered the new organization, will do much to assure that unity and efficiency in promoting Christian culture which the Baptist denomination has sought in forming a national educational society. They venture to hope that your example will encourage others, who may contemplate employing the Society in a similar way, whether for the appropriation of large or smaller sums. The Board will designate your donations to such institutions, in such amounts, and under such conditions as you may approve and as, in their judgment, shall promise the largest, most certain and most permanent fruitages of good.”

This letter was published by us, of course, and indeed was written not more for Mr. Rockefeller than for the perusal of the whole Baptist denomination. Still we were all disappointed that Mr. Rockefeller did not seem to be moving in the Chicago matter. One Hundred Thousand Dollars, even if all were to go to Chicago, would be insufficient to justify even a start. It would do far more good parceled out among our feeble institutions, conditioned in each case on their raising several times the amount locally.

We decided, however, that we would not for the present make any appropriations, but announce our gift, and await applications for conditional aid. The most important matter decided by us at this February meeting was a change of location of the headquarters of the Society from Washington to New York, and to secure a Legislative Charter from New York, the Legislature being then in session.

Meanwhile the proposal for a college in Chicago was making no progress. We seemed to be in a cul-de-sac. What was to be done? Mr. Rockefeller did not act, and he did not explain why. He was silent. We were in a quandary. What was holding back Mr. Rockefeller and how could we move him to action? I saw, as I reflected upon it, that there was not now in sight any definite, authoritative plan for the proposed institution, its character, organization, or cost, and that perhaps his decision would be hastened if we had a well-considered and acceptable plan with detail. Without consulting anyone, I wrote Mr. Rockefeller a letter, partly as follows. It was dated February twenty-third, 1889, three days after our board meeting.

“It seems to me that it would be wise for our Board to appoint the best possible committee of three, to study Chicago and report in writing, on the points subjoined herewith. My present purpose is to recommend it at the next meeting of the Executive Committee. If such action on their part would be a blunder, or in any way interfere with or embarrass any study you may be giving the subject, I know you will have the kindness to tell me, so as to prevent it. Otherwise, I think the Board ought to take the initiative [in formulating a Chicago plan].”

This letter was cast into the deep waters at random with the hope that Mr. Rockefeller would see that my proposal was sensible and anyhow break his silence. If he declined to approve my suggestion, we might as well drop the Chicago enterprise. For it would be clear that he had decided under no circumstances to act. If, on the other hand, he were to acquiesce by silence or formally to approve, which would be better, there would be much ground for hope. Mr. Rockefeller replied as follows, three days later:

“Answer to yours of the twenty-third delayed on account of my illness. The action you propose, in reference to the appointment of a committee by the Baptist Education Society, to investigate Chicago, as a place for a college, will not at all interfere with, or embarrass me, and in the event of giving for such an institution, I would prefer to give through the Educational Society, and hope its history will encourage the friends of our denomination to give through it.”

The answer justified the letter. I was happy.

The committee enlarged to nine, some of whom were suggested by Mr. Rockefeller himself, was soon chosen from among our most suitable men. Each was furnished in advance with an elaborate questionnaire to guide his thought. They met in New York in April, and formulated an initial plan for a Baptist college, to be located within the city of Chicago. The vital parts of the plan will appear later. Dr. Goodspeed was not present, but he forwarded an excellent paper. The report was good in its every feature. Mr. Rockefeller received it politely but gave no indication whatever of any purpose of his own with respect to it. We had played our last card. There was nothing before us but weary waiting.

But the clouds were shot through by one ray of sunlight. Before returning to the West I had occasion to meet Mr. Rockefeller on business in connection with his pledge to our Society. I did not refer to Chicago. In the course of the conversation he asked me, however, when I expected to be in the East again. I told him not until the May Anniversaries in Boston, a month or more away. These, I said, would necessarily call me to Boston. He said, “Perhaps you can find it convenient to come and see me on your way to Boston.” With this ray of hope in the darkness I returned to my Western home.

I went back to the West full of work. There was before me a great burden of correspondence with colleges and academies, now that we had One Hundred Thousand Dollars to distribute. It was necessary to visit some of these. Also, I had my first annual report to write. The charter must be put through the Legislature at Albany, and the middle of May with our annual meeting at Boston was approaching. My days were very full, and they passed quickly.

I pressed my work and managed to be able to start for Boston early enough to give me two or three days in New York. Here is the answer that I received from Mr. Rockefeller in reply to my note saying I was now in New York on my way to Boston as agreed, and placing myself

at his disposal. “I have nothing new in regard to the educational question. If you find it convenient I will be pleased to see you at my house tomorrow, Sunday afternoon, at four-thirty, to hear what, if anything, you may have that is new and interesting.” I had nothing new or interesting. The new and interesting thing I was expecting him to announce.

With hopes somewhat chastened, I presented myself at Mr. Rockefeller’s door at the appointed hour. I then made my first appeal for action. I urged Mr. Rockefeller to act now. The denomination had been committed to the Chicago scheme. The papers and the leaders had adopted it. A National Education Society had officially made it the first denominational policy. The plans, even down to details, had been formally and officially drawn up by an approved and distinguished committee. The scheme had acquired publicity and momentum. Everybody was talking about it, everybody was in expectancy, to postpone action would cause the loss of the unity and momentum we had gained, and these once lost we could never recover. At these meetings in Boston we ought to avail ourselves of the public interest to set the thing on its feet and begin actual work. To do this was to win. To delay was to be defeated. So, I argued.

The only encouragement I got was an invitation to breakfast next morning. I was not late to that breakfast. After it we stepped out on the street and walked to and fro in front of Mr. Rockefeller’s house. It was a fine, balmy May morning. It was agreed between us that the least possible sum for a mere start, that would give confidence of perpetuity, would be One Million Dollars. He confided to me that he thought he might perhaps give as much as Four Hundred Thousand Dollars. You will recall that many months before he had told Dr. Goodspeed and Dr. Harper that he might give “several” hundred thousand. Mr. Rockefeller’s present proposal was entirely consistent with every word he had said up to that time. But I was obliged to reply with sincerity to Mr. Rockefeller that with Four Hundred Thousand Dollars we could not raise the balance of the Million. He then offered Five Hundred Thousand. I told him also regretfully that we could not possibly swing the other half. I then called his attention to the advantage of going before the denomination with more than half already pledged. Such a leverage we would be obliged to have. Such a gift would win. The denomination could not and would not let it fail. He would have to start the movement with nothing less than Six Hundred Thousand Dollars towards the Million. Otherwise the attempt would be hopeless. At last he yielded the point, promised the Six Hundred Thousand, and we went down to his office to write out the pledge and get everything ready for the Boston meeting.

If any of you wish to follow the details further, I may say that you will find them with sufficient fullness in my introduction to Dr. Goodspeed’s excellent history of the University of Chicago, and in his Chapter II, entitled “The Inception of the Plan.” Also, in the Proceedings of the First Annual Meeting of the American Baptist Education Society, pages twenty-eight to forty-four. It was a meeting of great rejoicings. The twelve months since the stormy meetings at Washington, when the Society was organized, had seen a survey of our denominational education, the development and adoption of a denominational policy, the foundations laid for a college in Chicago with an initial pledge of Six Hundred Thousand Dollars, and the gift of One Hundred Thousand for conditional distribution among our needy academies and colleges. The formation of the American Baptist Education Society had been vindicated, and Baptist educational affairs had been lifted out of a morass of despair and set on solid ground of hope. All this had been made possible by Mr. Rockefeller’s cooperation with the Society.

My address made before the denomination at Boston, justifying the policy of founding a college at Chicago, was well received. It carried, I think, universal conviction, and the delight of the audience at the announcement of the pledge at its conclusion was indescribable. Mr. Rockefeller became at once the hero of Baptists. Dr. Harper was, of course, disappointed with the smallness of the gift, but hopeful of better things for the future. Dr. Broadus was full of the kindest feeling and words of the warmest appreciation. He told Mr. Rockefeller it was the best educational address he had ever heard. As our Grace married his grandson, I may be excused for repeating here these kind words.

You shall know my inmost feeling regarding the factors in the founding of the University of Chicago. I write these words in 1926.

“Dr. Strong had familiarized Mr. Rockefeller with great and costly universities in this country and in travel with him abroad, but had not convinced him that Baptists were ready for one, or that New York was, as Dr. Strong argued, the place for one, and least of all that he (Mr. Rockefeller) should singly found one with Fifteen Millions, as Dr. Strong insisted.

“I think Mr. Rockefeller could not spare from his exacting business at that time the money for such an enterprise, without great loss. He may have contemplated as a possibility of the future, if his hopes of great fortune should ultimately be realized, the founding somewhere of a great university. I think he did, but if so it was only a vague dream. Dr. Strong’s importunities finally became irksome to him, and it was with difficulty that he replied politely. With close friends he even allowed himself the play of irony about Dr. Strong’s plans. He used to say, ‘Well, I hope Dr. Strong will find his man!’ He liked Dr. Harper, as everybody did. Harper entertained and rested him. He admired his handsome person, his enthusiasm, his optimism, his ambition and energy. But he never intended to produce the impressions in Harper’s mind that we find in Dr. Harper’s letters to Drs. Goodspeed and Northrup. He never imagined for one moment that he had committed himself at Vassar, as Dr. Harper thought he had. In fact, he had not. Nor did he contemplate until some months after the success of our Chicago canvass, which pleased him greatly, the ultimate development of a great university at Chicago.”

The hundreds of pages of letters that passed between Drs. Harper, Goodspeed, Morehouse, Smith, Northrup, and me were gathered together twenty-five years later and several duplicate copies of them were made. I have a copy of them, Mr. Rockefeller has one, the University has one. They were all well-meant. We were a band of brothers, operating on Mr. Rockefeller in a worthy cause, in an entirely disinterested way, and but for our united efforts the University would probably not have been founded. When the thing at last came to Mr. Rockefeller in a way to release him at every point from personal responsibility, and he could simply join the denomination in an amount he was willing to spare, he made his pledge for a Baptist college to be located in the city of Chicago.

Mr. Rockefeller’s pledge had compelled a complete revision of the report I had prepared for delivery in Boston. I worked on this revision furiously and continuously in Boston and got very little sleep while there. I returned from Boston completely exhausted, to our little family in Racine for a few days of quiet and rest.

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A Baptist College for Chicago—Our Canvass