The Story of the University of Chicago

Chapter 1: Beginnings

Thomas W. Goodspeed


THE plainest record of the origin, rise, and development through its first third of a century of the University of Chicago sounds like an educational romance. It might have come out of the Arabian Nights. But, although it has all the elements of a romance, it is a true tale. The University itself, with its faculty, its students, its buildings, its resources, and its alumni is the eloquent witness of the truth of the story. It is not the creation of any lamp of Aladdin; but men of the generation preceding its birth labored and the University entered into their labors. It grew out of a soil made rich and productive by earlier institutions.

Among these institutions was the first University of Chicago. There was such an institution quite distinct from and antedating by thirty-four years the present University. It was established under the same religious auspices and bore the same name. It originated in a grant by Senator Stephen A. Douglas, in 1856, of about ten acres of land "for a site for a university in the city of Chicago." This site was on

( 2) the west side of Cottage Grove Avenue, a little north of Thirty-fifth Street.

Dr. J. C. Burroughs was elected president; a four-story stone building, the south wing of what was intended to be a monumental structure, was erected, and the work of instruction in the new building was begun in September, 1859. The central part of the building was begun in 1863-64. It was large and imposing, with. a lofty tower in front and the Dearborn Observatory in the rear. Before it was fully completed the institution had become so burdened with debt that building operations were suspended, never to be resumed. The University suffered from a series of public calamities, which, combined with internal dissensions, finally brought its useful career to an end. The panic of 1857 destroyed the value of its first large subscription. The Civil War of 1861-65 made financial progress impossible for a number of years. The great fire of 1871, followed by the panic of 1873 and the second big fire of 1874, completed its financial ruin, though it continued its struggle for existence twelve years after this last disaster. Notwithstanding this unfortunate fiscal history the old University had an interesting and fruitful educational career. Many of the most distinguished citizens of Chicago were members of its board of trustees. Senator Douglas was the first president of the board and was succeeded by William B. Ogden. Following Dr. J. C. Burroughs

( 3) in the presidency of the institution were Senator James R. Doolittle, Dr. Lemuel Moss, Alonzo Abernethy, Dr. Galusha Anderson, and Dr. George C. Lorimer. In April, 1886, the trustees elected to the presidency Dr. William R. Harper, later president of the present University of Chicago. Seeing no hope for the future of the institution, Dr. Harper declined the position and a few months later, in June, 1886, the educational work of the first University of Chicago was discontinued. Measured by present-day universities it had always been a small school. It had medical and law departments, a preparatory school, and college, but during the entire twenty-eight years of its educational work it did not enrol above five thousand students in all its departments.

But it had good teachers and served its students well. From its college classes 312 graduates were sent out. From among them rose capitalists, bankers, editors, ministers, missionaries, lawyers, professors, judges, presidents of colleges, men and women successful, some of them eminent, in all the activities of life.

The first University of Chicago was not a large institution. It had a troubled history. But it produced a profound conviction that Chicago was the predestined seat of a great institution of learning and the inextinguishable desire and unalterable purpose that a new university, built on more secure foundations

( 4) and offering greater and better facilities, should succeed the old one. It was this interest and this desire and this purpose that, when the time came and the call for offerings was made, brought so great a response. The first University was an essential factor among the forces, the conjunction of which prepared the way for and eventually combined to create the present University.

Another of these factors, not less important than the first, was the Baptist Union Theological Seminary, which is now the Divinity School of the University. This school opened in the fall of 1867. The number of students was small for a number of years and the financial resources very slight. The classes were accommodated in the University lecture-rooms. The two institutions, had they consulted the state of their treasuries and their financial prospects, would have occupied the University buildings together for an indefinite period. The colossal nature of the blunder committed by the University in erecting its main building, and thus incurring debts that finally crushed it, had not, at this time, 1867, become apparent. It was in the full tide of success, with a magnificent new building, the confidence and generous co-operation of Chicago, and an apparently splendid future. The Baptists of the city were prosperous. Their churches were growing. They were proud of their educational institutions and looked forward to a great and influ-

( 5) -ential future. It was not to be thought of, therefore, that the new Seminary should not have a building of its own. Before the work of instruction began architects were employed. The trustees were prudent men, and it must be said for them that they fully intended to build so modestly that there would be no question about their ability to finance the enterprise. Four months after the opening of the work of instruction, plans for a building were submitted which the trustees were assured would cost $36,500. This sum, it was felt, could be raised. The trustees, indeed, subscribed most of it themselves, and the building was erected. When it was finished the cost was found to be $60,000.. Desperate efforts were made to raise the money, but in the end it became necessary to issue bonds to the amount of $30,000, bearing interest at the current rate of 8 per cent! The erection of this building was almost as fatal to the Seminary as the building of Douglas Hall was to the University. The debt hung round its neck like the old man of the sea for twenty years, all the time threatening its life. It finally became impossible to meet the current expenses. Under these circumstances the trustees accepted an offer of lands and a building at Morgan Park, which, now a part of Chicago, was then a suburb thirteen miles southwest of the business center of the city, and the Seminary was transferred to the new location in 1877, just ten years after the beginning of its work. It was

( 6) then that my intimate connection with this story began. I became the financial and recording secretary of the board of trustees. Instead of continuing this relation for a very brief period, as I intended, I became more and more involved in the developments which followed and after forty-seven years am not yet entirely released. It was during the first ten years of this period that the permanent endowment of the Seminary, amounting to above $250,000, was secured. Two great friends and patrons appeared, E. Nelson Blake and John D. Rockefeller. Mr. Rockefeller became interested in the work of the Seminary in the early eighties. For nine years he served as vice-president of the Theological Union. He rivaled Mr. Blake in his contributions, continuing these from 1882 until the union of the Seminary with the new University in 1892. It was during these years that I became acquainted with him and conceived the hope that through him a new university would come to Chicago.

The Theological Seminary was fortunate in having at its head during the twenty-five years of its independent existence that great teacher, Dr. G. W. Northrup. Dr. William R. Harper was called to the chair of Hebrew on January I, 1879, and developed those extraordinary teaching and administrative gifts which made him, a few years later, president of the new University.

At Morgan Park the attendance of students in the

( 7) Seminary reached 190 in 1891-92. During the twenty-five years of its history as a separate school it enrolled above 900. At the end of that period, the Old University having been succeeded by the new University of Chicago, the Seminary became the Divinity School of the University and entered on a new career. As one who knows I can assure the reader that the Theological Seminary was not created and sustained and partly endowed by rubbing the lamp of Aladdin and voicing pious wishes, but by hard and sometimes heartbreaking work which culminated, at last, happily in the new University.

The entire history of the Seminary emphasized the conviction of the importance of Chicago as an educational center. The men having its interests in charge realized more profoundly than anyone else could do the greatness of the loss of the Old University. That institution had been the preliminary training-school for large numbers of its students. It needed beyond measure such a training-school to prepare students for its classes. A new university was felt by all its friends, and most of all by its officers of administration, to be indispensable to its highest usefulness. To them, it was a thing not to be thought of that there should not exist a college or university in immediate proximity to the Theological Seminary. They gave themselves, therefore, to the founding of a new university with a determination that no one else could feel. This inter-

( 8) -est and purpose were controlling factors in forwarding the movement for the new institution. And a great constituency ready to follow where they led was behind the Seminary and its friends.

But it was not institutions alone that were important factors in preparing the way for the University. There were men who were not merely important, but essential, factors in that preparation. It goes without saying that chief among these was John Davison Rockefeller. He was one of those men who change history. It fell to him to alter for the better the future of mankind; not through his business successes, save as these were one condition of all that followed, but through his philanthropies, which extend round the world, and are so organized that they will continue to influence, and, in ever widening circles, to bless the human race. To say the least that can be said, our race will be a healthier, a more intelligent, and therefore a happier race because he lived. When, on November 8, 1892, the board of trustees "voted unanimously that, in recognition of the fact that the University owes its existence and its endowment to Mr. Rockefeller, the words `Founded by John D. Rockefeller' be printed in all official publications and letterheads under the name of the University, and be put upon the Seal," it expressed far less than the full truth. Other institutions have been founded by some particular man. They might have been founded by some

( 9) other man just as well. But there was no other man to do for the University of Chicago what Mr. Rockefeller did for it. Without him an educational institution of some kind might have been established, but nothing resembling the University of Chicago. For bringing that institution into existence he was the one essential man.

When the Old University of Chicago discontinued its work in 1886, Mr. Rockefeller was not only the wealthiest man among American Baptists, but also their most liberal contributor to education. It was therefore inevitable that people of that faith in Chicago who felt humiliated over the loss of their University and profoundly interested in the rehabilitation of their educational work should turn to him in their adversity and entreat his assistance. In ding this it fell to me to speak for them for the first two and a half years. I had become acquainted with Mr. Rockefeller in 1882 in connection with my work for the Theological Seminary. I had met him frequently and, as he became a generous contributor to the Seminary, had occasion to write him many letters. I had become deeply concerned about the Old University, which in the spring of 1886 was staggering to its fall. In April of that year I began a series of letters to Mr. Rockefeller continuing through thirty months on the subject of a new university for Chicago and soliciting his help in founding it. He answered all these letters

( 10) in the kindest way, never indeed making any promises, but never shutting the door of hope completely.

During all this time Mr. Rockefeller was being strongly urged by his honored friend President A. H. Strong, of the Rochester Theological Seminary, to establish a university in the city of New York. I was writing in behalf of Chicago quite unconscious of this very powerful contrary influence.

While these things were going on, an event had happened of the first importance in its relation to the future University of Chicago. The American Baptist Education Society—the organization through which Mr. Rockefeller was destined to act in the founding of the University—had been organized. This Society played an essential part in preparing the way for the coming of the University. It was organized by a convention representing thirty-six states which convened in the city of Washington, May 16, 1888.

One of the first steps of the executive board of the new Society was also one of the most important, in its relation to the founding and history of the University of Chicago, that the board was destined ever to take. It appointed the Rev. Frederick T. Gates, then of Minneapolis, Minnesota, corresponding secretary of the Society. Mr. Gates was pastor of the Central Baptist Church, Minneapolis. He closed a successful service in 1 888 to undertake to raise an endowment for Pillsbury Academy, a Baptist school in Min-

( 11) -nesota. Having secured this in an astonishingly short time, Mr. Gates was offered, but had not accepted, the principalship of the Academy. He was a young man, only thirty-five years of age. His eight years in the ministry had been spent in the West. Little did those who now appointed him corresponding secretary of the new Education Society understand the extraordinary abilities of their appointee.

The organization of the Education Society and the appointment of Dr. Gates greatly encouraged us at Chicago. We believed it to be a step toward the realization of our hopes. At the same time many anxieties oppressed our minds. Many questions occurred to us. What would the new Society do? What attitude would Dr. Gates assume toward Chicago? Would he see the situation as we saw it and give us his powerful help? I give the answer to these questions in the following quotation from the introduction Dr. Gates wrote in 1916 to my History of the University of Chicago:

The writer was made secretary of the new society on its organization in Washington. I knew nothing of any movement to found a college or university at Chicago. I did not know that Dr. Goodspeed had been in correspondence with Mr. Rockefeller; I did not know that Mr. Rockefeller had made up his mind that the founding of a college or university at Chicago was important, and that he would assist in the enterprise. I knew only that the old University at Chicago had come to its death in spite of every effort to keep it alive, and that the friends of education in the West were profoundly discouraged. With no prepossessions in fa-

(12)  -vor of Chicago and consulting with no one, I immediately began a careful, independent study of Baptist educational interests, north and south, east and west, and covering all the Baptist academies, colleges, and theological seminaries in the United States, their location, equipment, endowment, attendance. I sought to ascertain the laws governing the growth of educational institutions; 1 examined particularly the question of location, in its relation to patronage, financial stability, wise management. This study involved correspondence with all Baptist institutions in the United States, and it was pursued with very close application daily for many months before I had reached conclusions which I thought secure.

1 speak of these studies because it was these that disclosed to me with overwhelming evidential power that the first great educational need of Baptists was to found a powerful institution of learning, not in New York nor in Washington, but in the city of Chicago, and not in a suburb outside the city, but within the city itself and as near its center as might be conveniently possible. When I had reached these conclusions I wrote a paper stating the grounds of them, and read this paper to the Baptist ministers of Chicago, on their invitation, on October 1 , 1888.

By the kindness of Drs. Goodspeed and Harper this paper, somewhat revised and improved, was placed in Mr. Rockefeller's hands and by him, as I later learned, read with approval. I find it in his files. Mr. Rockefeller began to make inquiries about the Education Society and to disclose an interest in its organization and prospects. He saw at that time in the infant society a possible means of breaking the deadlock in which he found the conflicting denominational interests.

When Dr. Gates reached this momentous decision the battle for Chicago was practically won. The way was open to advance.


No Notes

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2