On October fifteenth, 1888, the very day on which I made my address to the ministers’ conference, Dr. Goodspeed, on returning home from the conference, found awaiting him a letter from Dr. William R. Harper, then a professor of Hebrew at Yale, and a lecturer on alternate Sundays to the students of Vassar College. It contained the surprising and delightful news that Mr. Rockefeller, at Vassar on the previous Sunday, had spent several hours with him and Dr. Taylor, the President, and had disclosed not only a deep interest in the establishment of a Baptist university in Chicago, but also had indicated that he himself intended to found it. The letter was confidential, and Dr. Goodspeed did not show it to me, or give me a copy of it, but he confided to me orally, under pledge of secrecy, the substance of Dr. Harper’s delightful news. Dr. Goodspeed also asked for a copy of my speech, and through Dr. Harper this address at the pastors’ conference was sent to Mr. Rockefeller. Dr. Harper reported later that Mr. Rockefeller had read it and was impressed by the array of facts. I found it twenty-five years later in Mr. Rockefeller’s files.
But Dr. Northrup also shared the confidences imparted in Dr. Harper’s startling letter. He knew the ardent and optimistic nature of Dr. Harper better perhaps than Dr. Goodspeed did, and he also knew Mr. Rockefeller’s habit of extreme reticence. He expressed doubt about Dr. Harper’s interpretation of what Mr. Rockefeller had said. It would be easy, he thought, for Harper to draw unwarranted inferences from his own hopes. Dr. Northrup was cautious, therefore. He waited for some time before replying to Dr. Harper at all, and then ventured only to hope that Mr. Rockefeller would lay the foundations of an institution at Chicago, with an initial gift.
I was not long under any hallucinations. Dr. Harper’s letter was dated October thirteenth, 1888. On that very same October thirteenth, while Dr. Harper was dictating his enthusiastic letter, Dr. Taylor, quite unconscious of what Dr. Harper was writing in New Haven, was giving to Dr. Morehouse in New York his report of what Mr. Rockefeller had said in the Vassar talk. He said that Mr. Rockefeller’s mind was open and unsettled, that he inquired if Washington might not be the best place for a Baptist university, were one to be founded. He questioned whether any great university would be so helpful as the strengthening of colleges. This view Dr. Taylor himself had advocated in the talk, but he approved an institution at Chicago, though not necessarily a great university. This view Mr. Rockefeller seemed also to approve. Dr. Taylor was a man of calm judgment. To him Mr. Rockefeller was simply brooding over the Baptist educational situation, balancing conflicting claims and policies, open to all suggestions but committed not even in his own mind to any. To me Taylor’s interpretation of Mr. Rockefeller seemed natural and probable, and from that time forward I took Dr. Harper’s optimistic letters, for they kept coming, with due allowance. His enthusiasm, however, was wholly creditable and delightful.
Dr. Harper next saw Mr. Rockefeller, who as before was visiting his daughter, then studying at Vassar, on Sunday, November fifth. In this conversation Dr. Harper believed he had swept all before him, and again wrote Goodspeed. Five Millions, he said, was the least sum he (Harper) had suggested. He regarded the matter as “a certainty.” He invited Dr. Goodspeed “at Mr. Rockefeller’s request” to come immediately to New York to confer with himself and Mr. Rockefeller, but to hold everything confidential. This seemed to be conclusive and Dr. Goodspeed took train and arrived in New York with big figures in his mind, and with justifiable hopes to correspond. Drs. Goodspeed and Harper were received by Mr. Rockefeller at his home. The two friends had a long private conference in advance, however, in which they came to agreement on a common program. This Dr. Harper unfolded with eager enthusiasm. Dr. Goodspeed reported in a letter to his sons that Mr. Rockefeller said little, very little. He listened, only remarking at one point very significantly that he might be prepared to give “several hundred thousand dollars.” At the close, he quietly invited Dr. Goodspeed to present his views, when they had become fully matured, in written form. This Dr. Goodspeed did in a day or two, and after mailing the letter returned to Chicago. In this letter he asked that Mr. Rockefeller make an initial gift outright of One and a Half Millions and, with this as a starter, to agree to double all other gifts up to an aggregate of Four Millions.
Meanwhile Mr. Rockefeller had already agreed to visit Cornell University with Dr. Harper and had invited Dr. Strong to be one of the party, and the three, with President Schurman, of Cornell, a Baptist, were to have a conference together on Baptist educational matters. Mr. Rockefeller was also favorably considering an invitation from Dr. Harper to attend at Washington the December meeting of the Executive Board of the American Baptist Education Society. Thus, matters had stood when Drs. Goodspeed and Harper and Mr. Rockefeller met in the conference above described, at the latter’s home in New York.
But when Mr. Rockefeller received Dr. Goodspeed’s letter, with its big figures, he did not take his usual time for calm deliberation. On the very day that Dr. Goodspeed’s written proposition reached him he wired Dr. Strong, “We will not visit Cornell at present.” And the next day he wrote Dr. Goodspeed the following polite but disappointing reply: “The amount you suggest for me to contribute is very large, and I am not prepared to say anything on the question now.”
A few days later Mr. Rockefeller told Dr. Morehouse that he “fears he cannot attend the forthcoming meeting of the Education Society.”
Drs. Goodspeed and Harper were not mistaken in estimating Three or Four Millions as desirable at the very outset. They were right. Their estimate was modest, even assuming that they were to start a college only. Their error lay, as the sequel proved, in not suspecting the many personal and denominational considerations of high importance lying unexpressed in the back of Mr. Rockefeller’s mind.
Dr. Goodspeed was somewhat disillusioned by Mr. Rockefeller’s cold declination. He replied by reducing the Million and a Half to a Million and making other important modifications in his plan. All to no purpose. Mr. Rockefeller did not answer the letter. On the contrary he now withdrew completely into his shell. He declined Dr. Harper’s invitation to spend another Sunday with him at Vassar, though he had now in his hand Dr. Goodspeed’s modifications, and to his declination added these words, “Am no further along in the consideration of the Chicago question. Cannot move in it with reference to local pressure in any way.”
Even Dr. Harper himself now began to see that the pathway was not so clear as he had supposed, though he well knew that he and Goodspeed were wholly right in their estimates, even for a college. So, he proposed that Mr. Rockefeller should seek the counsel of Dr. Strong in the matter, whose figures would quite certainly be large, and that he should also confer with Mr. Gates, the secretary of the American Baptist Education Society. But Mr. Rockefeller declined either to ask Dr. Strong’s advice or to see Mr. Gates. It was now December first, 1888, and Dr. Harper wrote Dr. Goodspeed that “it will be best now to be quiet for a while.” Such was the situation when the Executive Board of the American Baptist Education Society met on December third, 1888, in Washington.
As for Dr. Goodspeed and me, it was not until all the correspondence and telegrams had been gathered together by me, twenty- five years later, and we had put them together in their precise order of date, that we were able to piece together the whole of the interesting story of futile urgency, and trace the path of Mr. Rockefeller’s mind.
The Chicago Policy Adopted