- Historic Sites
Eliot Of Harvard
A stern but brilliant Yankee revolutionized American higher education while president of our oldest university
August 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 5
The state of the school was scandalous, as Eliot keenly felt, yet with such distinguished men as Holmes and Henry J. Bigelow on its roster it had means of resisting Eliot’s arguments for reform. The battle was soon joined, as noted in a letter that Dr. Holmes sent to a friend in April, 1870. “King Log has made room for King Stork,” Holmes wrote:
Mr. Eliot … comes to the meetings of every faculty, ours among the rest, and keeps us up until eleven and twelve at night discussing new arrangements.… I cannot help being amused at some of the scenes we have in our Medical Faculty,—this cool, grave young man proposing in the calmest way to turn everything topsy-turvy, taking the reins into his hands and driving as if he were the first man that ever sat on the box. I say amused, because I do not really care much about most of the changes he proposes, and I look on a little as I would at a rather serious comedy.
Things came to a head when Dr. Bigelow protested that the medical school had jogged along very well for eighty years. The doctor “found it very extraordinary” that changes were being proposed in so successful an institution, and, he concluded, “I should like to know how it happens.” Eliot’s reply was as follows: “I can answer Dr. Bigelow’s question very easily. There is a new President.”
“The tranquil assurance of this answer,” O. W. Holmes reported in his letter, “had an effect such as I hardly ever knew produced by the most eloquent sentences I ever heard uttered. Eliot has a deep, almost melancholy-sounding voice—with a little of that character that people have when there is somebody lying dead in the house, but a placid smile on his face that looks as if it might mean a deal of determination, perhaps of obstinacy.”
Eliot’s style, he himself maintained, was not a style at all. He ordered his thoughts and his facts succinctly and stated them plainly, with no adornment and a minimum of sentiment. The better part of rhetoric, Eliot thought, is persuasion, and the most persuasive element at his own command was himself, his character of integrity. To be plainspoken was natural to him and also his most effective means of address. “It is small virtue to me to speak plainly,” he once wrote in answer to a letter congratulating him upon some unpopular stand that he had taken:
It is rather an Eliot quality—some people would say, vice. Then I am singularly independent in position, having no debts to pay except those of love and friendship, and no ambition except to do my work as well as I can. Many men I meet are afraid to speak their thoughts because they do not wish to offend people to whom they owe something or from whom they hope something. Some think it no use to growl, or to oppose evils which their temperament makes them think inevitable.
Eliot’s own temperament was always as hopeful as a boy’s. He looked for the best from everyone and everything. Disappointed in such hopes he must necessarily have been most of the time, yet his optimism and good will remained. Not that he was fatuous, although in the cynical view that sometimes appeared to be the case. The rigor of Eliot’s puritanism gave him as sharp an edge as any selfprofessed realist.
Dignity, coolness, patience, tolerance, and honesty were all qualities that Eliot consciously projected. But he projected them in private just the same as publicly. What would have astounded him most of all, perhaps, about public life today is the Madison Avenue practice of publicizing palatable images that need not reflect the inner man. Psychological cosmetics, so to speak, were as foreign to his use as lipstick and rouge.
Speaking of cosmetics, it may not be unworthy of remark that Eliot bore a facial blemish of a sort that can be frightening at first glance. The right side of his face, down to his mouth, was disfigured by a liver-colored welt, a swollen birthmark. This had made his boyhood rather difficult, even unhappy, but positively developed the virtues named above. The same Dr. Bigelow with whom Eliot was to joust for control of the medical school once made an effort to remove the blemish. They were both students at Harvard it the time, and Bigelow, to Eliot’s astonishment, knew very ittle chemistry. Although Bigelow carried the experiment is far as he dared, it was altogether unsuccessful. Stoically, Eliot carried his birthmark like a flag, a purple banner, all :he way to his death at ninety-two.
Eliot often expressed his faith in “good stock,” which led superficial critics to accuse him of snobbery. But the famiies Eliot best approved were those that manifested charicteristics of health, intelligence, cheerfulness, and above ill “serviceability” to society at large from generation to generation. Position impressed him little, riches not at all. Harvard, he insisted, must not be a university of special privilege. To Charles Francis Adams n he wrote in 1904:
I am inclined to think that you would be more tolerant thah I of the presence of stupid sons of the rich. I care for the young men whose families have so little money that it would make a real difference to them whether the Harvard tuition fee were a hundred and fifty dollars or two hundred and twenty-five dollars. You do not seem to care for that large class. To my thinking, they constitute the very best part of Harvard College.