“My time is up,” he said, its meaning at first unclear, and then – “Gentlemen, this the last lecture I will ever deliver in the Halls of Columbia University.”
The speaker was Charles A. Beard, the most prominent and beloved historian of American politics of the early 20th century, and one of the towering figures in all of American historiography even to the present. He had just abruptly resigned from his position at Columbia University, to protest the firing of two professors, James McKeen Cattell and Henry Wordsworth Longfellow Dana.
A beat of silence followed, and then, there was uproar. First, it was the students of his class, who cheered and stamped their feet, drowning out all other noise for a full fifteen minutes. As Beard tried to leave, his students surrounded him, showering him in affection and preventing him from going.
And then – then, it was the whole country.
It is strange to think of a professor’s resignation as being as widely affecting as Beard’s was. But it was – It was national news, printed in papers nationwide, and undoubtedly discussed in thousands of homes and streets. Its impact is still ongoing: it is, at least in academic mythology, probably the defining moment in the institutional establishment of academic freedom in the United States, its impact only rivaled by the Red Scare of the 1950s. To put it another way, the resignation of Charles Beard is probably the most significant historical event to happen at Columbia, second only, possibly, to the '68 occupation – and it all, bizarrely, revolved around one cantankerous history professor. So how did it happen?
Above: a Columbia Spectator article (page right) on Cattell and Butler's confrontation
Above: an editorial cartoon entitled 'Wash Day at Columbia'
It’s hard to tell exactly where to begin this story. We could start with the longstanding tension between Charles Beard and the Columbia University trustees, Butler among them. Beard was something of a political radical, although he was not particularly revolutionary. He is most remembered today by his book, An Economic Interpretation of the United States Constitution, which attributed the 1787 constitutional convention – one of the most hallowed moments in US history – to concerns among the framers over their financial holdings. Beard’s constitution was the product of class conflict. Many (such as, apparently, the Columbia University board of trustees) found his interpretation to be offensive. Beard had gotten into trouble with the administration and trustees before, but had been protected by his popularity among the students; he know his resignation would provoke uproar.
We could also begin with another longstanding tension, between James McKeen Cattell and Nicholas Murray Butler. Cattell was likely a difficult man, to say the least. Newspaper accounts described him as a thorn in Butler’s side openly – in those words. One particularly noteworthy moment came in March of 1917, just before war was declared, when Cattell impoliticly suggested (publicly, in written form) that the Faculty Club, a social club for professors, be relocated to Nicholas Murray Butler’s house. Butler – who Cattell once said was “fit only to be a ward politician" – to was not amused. Nor were the faculty, many of whom (including John Dewey) signed a letter denouncing Cattell. He was a man with few friends.
We could also probably start with some unspecified speech given by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana, now lost to the ages – a tub-thumping speech opposing the war. Some accounts say he gave many of such speeches, but it’s unclear just what he said in them.
But most accounts begin with the abrupt firing of Cattell and Dana in the early autumn of 1917. Neither man was likely the first fired for their opposition to the school’s war policies: that may’ve been Leon Fraser, an economics department instructor, who opposed preparedness exercises. Both men, however, were immediately recognizable for their small roles in the Phillips/Parker/Cattell trial, where Professor Cattell’s son was one of the defendants, and Dana put up bail. When they were fired, Beard resigned in protest.
Beard, it should be noted, was not a pacifist in the slightest – far from it. In fact, he had been involved with Butler’s reshaping of the university, and had quickly urged the country to declare war after the sinking of the Lusitania. But he did believe in academic speech, as he explained in his widely reprinted resignation letter:
Beard hit a nerve. Within a day of his resignation, tensions on campus reached a fever pitch, and newspapers around the country were listening closely. On October 10th, the Chicago Tribune and the Attleboro Sun (of Attleboro Massachusetts) both noted that the students of Columbia University were planning a walk-out or a strike in protest.
That same day, a small riot erupted on campus when a group of Beard supporters, led by one Benjamin Ginsburg of the Journalism school, clashed with conservatives led by R. N. West, a sophomore at Columbia College on the steps of Low Library. The violence was instigated by the conservative students, who decided to rush the radicals. Ginsburg was punched several times, and according to the New York Evening Sun, left sprawling on the ground. Eventually the conservatives backed off, ostensibly moved by one Beard supporter’s plea for fair play.
The situation spiraled. The Philadelphia North American noted that one third of the faculty of Barnard College was threatening to resign, and Barnard students adopted a resolution in Beard’s support. A planned walk-out of one of Butler’s speeches to the Journalism School fell through, but the students in attendance did not rise when he entered as was costumary, and treated him to little approbation.
The administration and trustees refused to comment. The planned walk-out was delayed by the senior class council, who were in charge only because so much of the student council was at war. That evening, five hundred students stood on the steps of Low, and speakers exchanged opinions on Beard’s actions. Pacifists tried to seize on the meeting, but were pushed out by force. By the end of the 11th, the New York Tribune was referring to the happenings on campus as the “Columbia Student Revolt.”
Meanwhile, the faculty was beginning to gather. The Political Science department, of which Beard had been a member, and which contained some of the most powerful and prominent figures on campus like E.R.A. Seligman and William A. Dunning, met secretly for three hours to discuss the situation. Seligman later admitted that it was mostly a meeting of Beard’s friends, and that the group couldn’t decide what to do.
Reactions to Beard’s resignation outside of the academy were more mixed.
But perhaps the most noteworthy response came from the New York Times, which published an editorial entitled “Columbia’s Deliverance,” lauding Beard’s departure. Butler and the trustees remained silent, though a Columbia Spectator article written many years later alleges that it was Butler himself who wrote the Times editorial, stepping in for his friend Adolph Ochs. The Columbia Alumni news likewise expressed regret over Beard’s departure, but intimated that he was being more self-aggrandizing than principled.
Meanwhile, students met again on the 12th, and then again later in the week, when pacifists were again violently driven off campus. The students supported Beard, but were not interested in opposition to the war.
But the situation was defused almost as quickly as it began. A group of nine powerful faculty members – including, for a short time, John Dewey, before he quietly left it to protest the firings – came to a compromise with the trustees. Newspapers called it the Columbia Free Speech Plan, and what it meant, in a nutshell, was that the wings of the trustees had been thoroughly clipped. Now, whenever the trustees (and with them, the administration) wanted to fire a professor, they would have to get the approval of a new body called the Committee of Reference. Butler would have a seat at on the committee, but would be far outnumbered by faculty. The faculty regained control, and eventually this principle became enshrined in university governance nationwide.
But this was not the only lasting consequence. Several years later, after the war ended, Charles Beard and John Dewey were among the founders of The New School, where they tried to build an institution where the faculty more empowered, and where speech was less restrained.