The Executive Board of the American Baptist Education Society was made up of members widely scattered throughout the country, but a disproportionate number was from the city of Washington and its vicinity. For it was expected at first that the executive offices would be located in Washington, and a quorum could be counted upon only if a considerable portion of the Board consisted of nearby residents. Besides this Dr. Morehouse and others, who had named the Board expected at the time of the organization in the previous May, had believed the first work of the Society would probably be to build up Columbian University in Washington as a national university for Baptists. In the interest of that plan the Board might appropriately contain a majority who lived near and were known to be interested in Columbian. In fact, the Board had been packed for Columbian at Washington.
However, I read my paper to the Board (December third, 1888), advocating a college at Chicago to become a university. Dr. Welling, President of Columbian, urged upon the Board, as the first duty of Baptists, the development of that institution. Dr. Harper came strongly to the support of the Chicago policy, urging, in addition to my plea, the high probability of success at Chicago, on account of the interest which, as he assured the Board, Mr. Rockefeller had expressed to him personally. This interest Dr. Harper disclosed in language more or less veiled but all the more seductive by that fact. It is certainly most creditable to the disinterestedness of those whose hearts were with Columbian that in the end they voted unanimously to postpone Columbian and adopt the Chicago policy with the resolutions which I had drawn up in advance. These resolutions instructed me, as Executive Secretary, to use every means at my command to forward the Chicago enterprise. At the same time, and by the same resolutions, the Board expressed its preference for a location within the city of Chicago, rather than in a suburb, thus eliminating Morgan Park as a possible location, for my study of the question had convinced me that the new institution must be located in the heart of the city.
The Chicago enterprise, reinforced by the supposed approval of Mr. Rockefeller and the actual endorsement of the Executive Board of the Education Society, was now promising enough to command the interest of Chicago Baptists, lay as well as clerical, and also of the Baptist denomination at large.
Consideration of the claims of Columbian urged by Dr. Welling was postponed, with his consent. I then hoped and believed that this postponement would be permanent, and so in the sequel it proved to be. The city of Washington was not, is not now, and I think is not likely to become suitable for a seat of learning. I cannot but think that the Catholics and the Methodists made a mistake, as the Baptists did, in attempting to found a national university at Washington. I thought so then, and forty years have only confirmed my views. The population of the city is made up, for the most part, of Government clerks. There was then in Washington little permanent local wealth. The city is of course governed by Congress, there is small local pride, or enterprise, or public spirit. None of the conditions which make for the growth and stability of powerful institutions of learning exist in that city. The government exhibits, departments, libraries, and museums, so often urged as aids to students, can by no means take the place of expensive illustrative material, owned by the institution itself for use, and even destructive use, on its own campus. There is almost no point of view from which the plea for Washington, on careful examination, will not be found to be illusory. In view of the later success of our Chicago plans, any attempt to rehabilitate Columbian as a Baptist university at Washington became impossible. It was always mainly a night school for government clerks, and after a time the institution changed its name, and by a change in charter passed out without objection from Baptist denominational interest and control.
Our greatest universities have always, as now, drawn the majority of their students from a radius of less than a hundred miles. This vast country now has many great universities and will need more, but it will never have one that can justly be called The National University.
After the board meeting which adjourned at a late hour in the evening, I spent nearly the entire night in conference with Dr. Harper, and we became, from comparative strangers, fast friends. One thing I strongly urged on Dr. Harper as in my opinion indispensable to success. I pleaded for a modest beginning.
Leaving the further approach to Mr. Rockefeller solely in the hands of Drs. Harper and Goodspeed, as from every consideration their due,
I sought the backing of the denominational press for the new enterprise, and we were soon able to present publicly an entire united denominational front. And so, in the middle of December, everything having worked out according to my mind, I returned to our home in Racine, to await the results of the efforts of Drs. Harper and Goodspeed with Mr. Rockefeller. Dr. Harper wrote Mr. Rockefeller a brief letter describing our meeting and disclosing the favor with which the denomination had agreed with our action. But Mr. Rockefeller made no reply. Various tactful attempts by Dr. Harper to get interviews with Mr. Rockefeller were all met by polite evasions. A month passed by, with patient waiting and increasing gloom. Drs. Goodspeed and Harper at length determined to shift the burden of enlisting Mr. Rockefeller to other shoulders. Dr. Harper, therefore, in the middle of January 1889, invited me to come to New Haven for conference, with the design of transferring the responsibility of enlisting Mr. Rockefeller to me. I therefore made a trip to New Haven, with a plan of procedure that I thought out to win Mr. Rockefeller’s approval. For I felt then, as always, that a modest beginning was the only wise or possible thing for Baptists from every point of view, and that the merit of such a plan, if fully explained, could not fail to attract Mr. Rockefeller. Dr. Harper gave his assent to my plan, not because it met his hopes, but glad of any release from further responsibility. So, I went from New Haven to New York, armed with a formal letter of introduction from Dr. Harper to Mr. Rockefeller. He was still shy, however, and gave polite reasons for preferring that I write. I did so in the following letter:
Your reasons for declining the interview with me, invited by Dr. Harper, I heartily appreciate and welcome the courteous suggestion of a letter instead, as affording in some respects a better method of saying what Professor Harper has thought you might wish to consider.
“May not the question whether the institution contemplated in Chicago shall be a college or a university be held in abeyance for a few years without imperiling any valuable interest?
“Even if a university were now designed, the college would naturally be the first work, and to thoroughly equip a college in the wisest way, will almost of necessity be the exclusive work of the earlier years, probably requiring all the funds which in that time we can reasonably anticipate. A few years may possibly justify the doubt as to the wisdom of planting the associated schools [of a university] or perhaps make it evident that the funds now required for such schools might be more profitably employed in strengthening Western country colleges in preparation for a future university.
“If, on the other hand, experience and study on the ground shall demonstrate the need and assure the success of advanced departments or technical schools, the years will be sure to bring here and there exceptionally favorable openings. Citizens of wealth and local pride will assist in founding favorite departments; specialists rarely gifted and available will appear. All things come to him who waits. Our best and greatest schools have developed broadly and healthily step by step in this way. Holding the possible scope of the institution in abeyance for a few years will cost nothing, while time will of itself solve the question easily and with certainty.”
This letter was by no means a tactful attempt to meet what I guessed might be in Mr. Rockefeller’s mind. It must be remembered that I had no acquaintance with Mr. Rockefeller. I lived in Racine, Dr. Goodspeed in Morgan Park, Dr. Harper, almost a stranger, in New Haven. The correspondence between Drs. Goodspeed and Harper had been confidential. Almost none of it had been shown to me. My letter to Mr. Rockefeller accurately represented my own independent views of denominational policy. Baptists needed, I thought, a college in Chicago. I did not believe that Baptists needed a great university at that time either in Chicago or elsewhere. Certainly, it would be unwise to put vast sums of money into a university, to the neglect of our needy colleges and academies throughout the country.
But these independent views happened to coincide with Mr. Rockefeller’s. He came out of his shell. His whole attitude towards the Chicago enterprise and towards our Society was at once reversed. Within two days after receiving this letter he wrote Dr. Harper: “Of late I had rather come to feel that if Chicago could get a college and leave the question of university to a later date that this would be more likely to be accomplished.” Moreover, on receipt of this letter of mine the difficulties about the interview with me seemed to vanish, and he invited Dr. Morehouse and me to lunch with him. At this interview, which was purely social and for acquaintance only, Mr. Rockefeller invited me to take the same train with him to Cleveland on my way homeward.
Of course, I was on the tiptoe of anticipation, expecting a long, interesting, and possibly decisive conversation. But I did not forget that I was a guest, and that Mr. Rockefeller had been possibly over pressed on the Chicago matter, as even Dr. Harper then felt, and the review of the correspondence certainly shows. Moreover, I was, as I have said, Mr. Rockefeller’s invited guest and must act the part. I would not broach the subject, or any educational subject. I must leave the initiative wholly to Mr. Rockefeller. I think this was soon perceived by Mr. Rockefeller, that it surprised and pleased him, and that he amused himself by putting my sense of propriety to the test. We started for Cleveland in the same Pullman, at about six o’clock in the evening. I kept my seat, he kept his. Hour after hour passed. I was in an agony of apprehension as the precious time sped by. But I stuck to my resolution. Later in the evening, after a brief chat on indifferent subjects, Mr. Rockefeller went to bed and I followed him, a miserable, disappointed man. I had stood the test, however, and the next morning, as we neared Cleveland, and I was on nettles, Mr. Rockefeller himself relieved me by opening up. His inquiries were directed not to Chicago, but wholly to the work of the Education Society. They were many and direct and disclosed high intelligence and experience of human nature. He was pointed in his inquiries about the different members of the Board. He stressed the importance of their being disinterested. He warned me against cabals with axes to grind, and he intimated that we might have to sift for years before we could get the right kind of Board. I expressed my views as to educational policy for Baptists North and South. He wished me to visit the South—from which he was getting many appeals—and indicated that the Society might become a relief to him. At parting he said that his mind moved slowly in these things, but that he was making progress and requested that our conference be held as confidential as possible.
You will be interested in my first impressions of Mr. Rockefeller, for I had never met him before. He was then about fifty years of age. Fortunately, these first impressions of him are preserved in a letter, substantially as follows, written to my parents immediately after my return home:
“Mr. Rockefeller is broad, clear-headed, self-poised, devoted to what he regards as duty, little influenced by considerations of position, or the authority of advocates of special causes. A child with a clear case would have as much weight with him as an eminent man. He is solid for the Education Society as a theory. He will lean on it in practice just as rapidly as its breadth, disinterestedness, and good sense will justify. He gave me valuable suggestions as to sifting its Board, and winning confidence for it, and he promised to be as helpful as possible. I am now contemplating a trip South partly in his interest and at a hint from him.”
In making up the berths, the porter carelessly let one of the partitions fall as he was slipping it into place. It fell in such a way as to give Mr. Rockefeller a whack on the top of the head. He uttered no word, made no exclamation, gave not one word of reproof to the careless porter, and reassured him, when he offered profuse apologies. During the whole trip, in which he was accompanied by a lot of Standard Oil men, I observed that he spoke very little indeed, and always in a low and quiet voice. He impressed me with his extreme reserve, without austerity. He had then been in business for thirty-five years and during most of that time had been a national storm centre. His look, manner, conversation, and general carriage were those of a man who had cultivated and acquired an easy and habitual self-command.
Mr. Rockefeller Acts