Cochell: The Early History of the Cornell Mathematics Department


Through the extensive efforts of historian, Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918), and telegraph magnate, Ezra Cornell (1807-1874), "the first American University"  [12,334] was born in 1868.  Both men came into their joint effort through vastly different sets of circumstances.

Ezra Cornell was born in Westchester County, New York (today the Bronx section of New York City), the son of Quaker parents of modest means.  When he was young, his family moved to a farm in DeRuyter, New York, in the western part of the state, and he was brought up as a potter and carpenter.  With little formal schooling he left home at the age of nineteen to seek his own fortune.  By 1828 he had been drawn to Ithaca (on the south banks of Cayuga Lake) to work as a carpenter during the building boom there..  Over the next decade, he earned a reputation as an "industrious small-town artisan" [11,12].  When recession hit the economy of the United States in 1837, however, the economic slow down caused the cancellation of the project for connecting Cayuga Lake with Lake Ontario (and hence Ithaca's hope of being connected on a wider transportation network were dashed).  Hard times also naturally hit the building boom in Ithaca, and by January 1, 1839 Cornell found himself out of a job.  After a number of failed ventures, he became involved in the experimental telegraph line of S. F. B. Morse and supervised the laying of the first telegraph line in America - - between Baltimore and Washington, D. C. in 1843.  As the telegraph spread across America, Cornell rode the ups and downs of the new industry.  In 1857, he helped form the Western Union Telegraph Company which soon emerged as the leader in the industry.  That same year tired of the day-to-day operations of the telegraph business, Cornell returned to a simpler life in Ithaca.  He bought and moved his family onto the 300 acre DeWitt farm on the hill between the two deep gorges overlooking Cayuga Lake and Ithaca.  There, he poured his energy into creating a model farm (now the site of Cornell University), organized a local agricultural club, and wrote about agriculture for the town paper.  In 1862 he traveled abroad as an official delegate of the New York State Agricultural Society, and learned of farming practices in England and France.  When he was elected to the New York State Senate in 1863, he quite naturally  became the chair of its Committee on Agriculture.  It is in this setting that he first met Andrew White.

Andrew Dickson White was born to well-to-do parents in Homer, New York (some thirty miles south of Syracuse, New York).  His family eventually moved to Syracuse, and there they made their mark as "dealers in money, well served in spacious houses" [11,30].  White never knew the feeling of want.   He had good schooling as a boy and wished to go to college at either Harvard or Yale.  His father, however, forced him to go to Geneva (today Hobart and William Smith) College in Geneva, New York, to receive an Episcopalian education.  White tolerated only one year of "the regime of the religious-oriented college" [50,68], before moving on to Yale where he graduated in 1853.  Although he enjoyed his years in New Haven, White was unsatisfied with the methods of instruction in higher education that prevailed there.  As he put it, "[t]here was too much reciting by rote and too little real intercourse between teacher and taught" [11,33].  It was this colonial view of American higher education "whose watchword was the much repeated phrase 'mental disipline'" that White so much opposed [53,21].

After graduating from Yale, White traveled to Europe, studying in Paris, serving as French interpreter to the American Minister to Russia, and finally entering the University of Berlin where they "were remaking the concept of historical study" [11,34].  He returned to America in 1856 and accepted a professorship in history at the University of Michigan the following year.  This position freed him from the conventional form of higher education in America that he so disliked.

Michigan's President, Henry Philip Tappan (1805-1881), had consciously modeled his university on the German institutions of higher education [53,10], and   White was influenced by what he saw at Michigan: a nonsectarian institution operating successfully and giving students curricular freedoms absent from most other colleges of the day.  It was during his time at Michigan that White first articulated his own vision of the ideal university.  In an 1862 proposal to Gerrit Smith, a wealthy abolitionist and reformer from Peterboro (near Syracuse), White argued that to found a university it was necessary:

First to secure a place where the most highly prized  instruction may be afforded to all--regardless of sex or color.
Second, to turn the current of mercantile morality which  has so long swept through this land. Thirdly, to temper and restrain the current of military  passion which is to sweep through the land hereafter.
Fourthly, to afford an asylum for Science--where truth  shall be sought for truth's sake, where it shall not be the main  purpose of the Faculty to stretch or cut science exactly to fit  "Revealed Religion."
Fifthly, to afford a center and a school for a new  Literature--not graceful and indifferent to wrong but earnest- -nerved and armed to battle for the right.
Sixthly, to give a chance for instruction in moral  philosophy, history and political economy unwarped to suit  present abuses in politics and religion.
Seventhly, to secure the rudiments, at least, of a legal  training in which Legality shall not crush Humanity.
Eighthly, to modify the existing plan of education in  matters of detail where it is in vain to hope improvement from  the existing universities.
Ninthly, to afford a nucleus around which liberally- minded men of learning--men scattered throughout the land,  comparatively purposeless and powerless,--could cluster,  making this institution a center from which ideas and men  shall go forth to bless the nation during ages.  [9,156-157]

Smith declined to underwrite a university along the lines detailed by White, but these points encompass many of the ideas that subsequently guided the founding of Cornell University.  They also expose "the mind of Andrew D. White--his fervor, his broad humanitarianism (with special notice of Negroes and women), his hostility to organized dogmatic churches, his concept of literature and history as moral and social forces" [11,42].

White remained at Michigan for only five years, leaving in 1862 to try to cure a severe case of dyspepsia.  He traveled abroad and even tried to enlist the British in the Union cause during the Civil War.  On his return to the States he settled back in Syracuse,  and was quickly nominated as a Republican candidate to the New York State Senate.  He won the election in 1863 and became chair of the committee in charge of educatiional matters, the so-called Committee on Literature [11,42].

Thus in January 1864, two freshmen State Senators, Ezra Cornell and Andrew White, met in Albany for the first time.  Cornell's controlling stock in Western Union had made him a wealthy man;  his yearly income in 1860 had only been $15,000, but it had risen to $140,000 by 1864 [9,61].  As a Senator, he aimed "to spend [his] large income to do the greatest good to those who [were] properly dependent on [him], to the poor and to posterity" [9,62].   To this end, he lobbied for a public library for Ithaca;  the incorporation bill had to go through White's Committee on Literature.  White was so impressed by Cornell's act of philanthropy  that he wrote: "On reading this bill I was struck, not merely by his gift of one hundred thousand dollars to his townsmen, but even more by a certain breadth and largeness in his way of making it.  . . . This breadth of mind, even more than his munificence, drew me to him" [11,59].

In fact, White and Cornell soon worked together to secure recently appropriated Federal land grant resources to move the Ovid Agricultural College to Ithaca .  Together with Cornell's gift of his Dewitt farm and $500,000, this allowed White to create the "great university" of his dream..

On February 7, 1865, White introduced a bill before the New York State Senate to establish the Cornell University as the state's land grant institution.  As White phrased it, the school aimed at "the cultivation of the arts and sciences and of literature, and the instruction in agriculture, the mechanic arts and military tactics, and in all knowledge" [9,162].  The next three months witnessed much political warfare, but on April, 27, 1865 Governor Reuben E. Fenton (1819-1885) signed the bill into law and so formalized the conception of Cornell University.  It very quickly became obvious that the governing board of trustees was willing to adopt a hands-off policy, letting Cornell worry about the building of the campus and White about the educational planning of the University.  At its third meeting, the board elected White president of the University.  After over three years of prenatal nurturing Cornell University was born on October 7, 1868.

The opening of Cornell clearly marked a milestone in American higher education.  As historian Frederick Rudolph put it in his study of the development of American colleges and universities:
 Cornell brought together in creative combination a number of  dynamic ideas under circumstances that turned out to be  incredibly productive.  There was no way to stop the arrival of  the American university.  Andrew D. White, its first president,  and Ezra Cornell, who gave it his name, turned out to be the  developers of the first American university  and therefore the  agents of revolutionary curricular reform.  [49,115-116]
Cornell University was founded to give students a broad and general training "in distinction to the narrow, old-fashioned college course with a single combination of studies" [18,182].  One of the guiding principles behind that emphasis on breadth of training was the concept of utility [53,60].  In the words of noted historian of American higher education, Laurence R. Veysey:  " During the ten years after 1865, almost every visible change in the pattern of American higher education lay in the direction of concessions to the utilitarian type of demand for reform" [53,60].  Cornell, as expressed in its motto, thus sought to be an institutiion where any person could find instruction in any field, whether that field be history or agriculture.  Yet this eclecticism and emphasis on utility needed to be tempered.  According to White, "there must be a union of the scientific and the aesthetic with the practical in order to produce results worthy of such an enterprise" [53,83].  He thus sought to blend the ideal of "instruction in any field" with that of creating and maintaining an institution of the first caliber.  White set out to find a faculty equal to the task of making this dream of an "utilitarian" education a reality.