Light on the hill: A history of Tufts College, 1852-1952

Miller, Russell



GODDARD CHAPEL WAS JAMMED BEYOND CAPACITY early in the afternoon of April 21, 1902. Promptly at 2:00 P.M. a procession consisting of President Capen, the Trustees and Overseers, the mayors of Somerville and Medford, the presidents of several New England colleges and other specially invited guests, and the several faculties of the College marched down the path from Barnum Museum with the senior class acting as escort. The president took his official chair in the center of the chancel, flanked by Henry B. Metcalf, president of the Trustees, and George S. Boutwell, former governor of Massachusetts and the guest of honor. After an anthem by the College choir and prayer by Rev. Charles H. Leonard, dean of the divinity school, President Capen conferred the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws upon former Governor Boutwell, who then addressed the assemblage at some length.

It was a peculiarly fitting and even dramatic occasion, for the academic convocation was the climax of the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the College charter. Fifty years ago that day, Governor Boutwell had affixed the final signature to the document that had brought Tufts into corporate existence. At the conclusion of the ex-governor's address, the hymn composed by Mrs. Mary T. Goddard for the laying of the cornerstone of the College on July 19, 1853, was sung by the assemblage. A reception followed at the Capen residence, and the memorable day was closed with a reunion concert in the chapel, where nearly fifty alumni added their voices to the Glee Club, and the Mandolin Club exhibited its musical talents.

The celebration of the semicentennial of the opening of the College followed closely on the heels of the ceremonies marking


the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the charter.[1]  The decision was made to have the celebration coincide with the anniversary of the formal opening of the College in August 1855, but a sorrowful event intervened, and the celebration became a commemoration. President Capen attended a meeting of the Trustees on March 14, 1905, and as chairman of a special Committee on Nominations he presented the names of three men to fill vacancies on the Board. Eight days later he was dead. A sense of unreality and of loss permeated the College. A series of gay and festive events scheduled for the spring and early fall of 1905 gave way to services of remembrance and appreciation for a departed leader. A sober Commemoration Sermon was preached on June 18 in Goddard Chapel by Rev. William H. Ryder, of the Class of 1869. Two days later, the forty-ninth annual Commencement took place, and the next day (June 21) a solemn academic ceremony marked the anniversary of the opening of the College. Austin Barclay Fletcher, of the Class of 1876, delivered the principal oration. The College then conferred the largest number of honorary degrees given at any one time in its history.

Tributes to the late president poured in from every direction. Resolutions adopted by faculty, Trustees, Overseers, and the Alumni Association expressed with varying degrees of eloquence the magnitude of the loss the Tufts community and the larger educational world had suffered. The Overseers summed up the man and his accomplishments by paying homage to his "judicious, liberal and progressive policy . . . and . . . the tactful and persistent quality of [his] efforts. Under his guidance the alumni have been brought more and more into sympathetic relationship with the College. They have been made to feel that, with him at its head, the institution was intimately concerned with their interests . . . he was dignified, courteous and affable, patient in


explanation, tolerant of differing opinions, and considerate of every call for information or advice." Some of the most striking tributes came from clergymen representing faiths other than Capen's own. Leaders in the Protestant Episcopal Church sent in messages side by side with those of educators at Boston College and Holy Cross. On the Sunday following Capen's death, the priest in the Roman Catholic Church in Medford made special mention during Mass of the late president, and reminded his parishioners "that they should honor one who been the friend of Catholics at a time when they had few friends." Capen's broad and liberal Universalist principles were more than mere verbalisms.

The coincidence of the fiftieth anniversary celebration, the semicentennial, and the passing of President Capen made particularly timely a review of the past and present of Tufts. The College had been the 163rd such institution chartered in the United States. It had opened formally in 1855 with thirty students and had graduated its first class of three in 1857. Since then, some 2,000 alumni had gone out from the College, which had grown from one building to eighteen, had added four professional and pre-professional schools that gave it grounds to call itself a university, and could boast of an instructional staff of 175 and an enrollment of almost 1,000. Excluding the professional departments, Tufts had grown to be thirty-eighth in the nation in size of student body. Statistics, however, could not tell the whole story. Professor Kingsley, in an address to the students in 1900, had come much closer to the truth than mere numbers could reveal. "How do I know that a tree grows? I cannot go out today and measure one on our campus and then measure it again tomorrow and see that it has increased in girth or height. Yet I cannot but believe that the tree is growing." So it was with Tufts College.

Much of the tangible evidence of growth in the College had resulted from Capen's efforts and from his flexibility and his willingness to encourage change. The extension of the elective system after 1875 had brought a great increase in the range of departments already existing and in the introduction of new subjects. When the first catalogue was published in 1854-55, a thin pamphlet of fifteen pages had been sufficient to outline the entire scheme of a Tufts education. In 1904-5, a volume of nearly 300 pages was required to do the same. Tufts had likewise kept pace with the phenomenal


growth of the public high school movement, particularly in Massachusetts, by adjusting its admission requirements to new situations. As the number of high schools in Massachusetts increased from 60 to 260 in the half-century between 1852 and 1902, and as the preparatory school curricula changed in response to popular needs and demands, the College adjusted to the changes. It was largely through Capen's efforts that Tufts became the first New England college to challenge the rigidity of the traditional admission requirements.

In like manner, Tufts had been in the forefront of the movement to recognize the educational value of scientific instruction and to give science a leading place in the curriculum. When presenting his annual report for 1882-83, President Capen had suggested ways by which endowment funds could be most wisely spent. At the top of his list was the establishment of a scientific school where advanced experimentation could be conducted. Throughout his thirty years as president he had tried to promote the kind of growth and expansion that would "give Tufts College a place in the front rank of the progressive institutions of our time."


[1] A certain amount of confusion has arisen about the distinction between the two events. When the Executive Committee of the Trustees undertook in 1901 to make arrangements "for the proper observance of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the charter of Tufts College," President Capen suggested that it be distinguished from the semicentennial, which was to be an observance of the anniversary of the convening of the first faculty on October 9, 1854. The Trustees voted originally to begin the semicentennial celebration on the second Sunday in October 1904.

  • Light on the Hill, the history of Tufts College, was published to coincide with the centennial of the institution in 1952. A second volume was published in 1986. This edition was created from the 1966 edition of Light on the Hill, Volume I.
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