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

Miller, Russell



FINDING A SUCCESSOR TO MINER in 1875 posed almost as much of a problem as the Trustees had faced in 1861-62 at the death of President Ballou. The most likely candidate seemed to be Israel Washburn, Jr., a long-time member of the Board of Trustees and exgovernor of Maine. Before his name was formally proposed, he wrote the Trustees that, much to his distress, he had seen his name mentioned in the papers as a candidate. He insisted that he was not qualified for the position and would not, if elected, dare accept it. He requested that no one vote for him if anyone placed his name in nomination. The Trustees did not take him at his word. They elected him to the presidency anyway, and sent a committee to Portland, Maine, to inform him in person. He declined promptly and with finality. Washburn claimed, among other things, insufficient time to devote to College affairs. His attendance record at Trustee meetings seems to support this; he seldom came. One of the few times he was present was the meeting at which his letter of refusal of the presidency was read.

The faculty took a hand in recommending the next candidate. This body transmitted to the Trustees a lengthy communication signed by all thirteen members outlining several requirements for the ideal president. The candidate should be a "college man"; that is, "one of college education, & therefore familiar with college life & college work." The next president should also be an alumnus, "with a sincere love for his Alma Mater, a just pride in her good name, & an earnest desire for her prosperity." Although some of the faculty demurred, the majority agreed that the president of Tufts should also be "a clergyman, especially a Universalist clergyman." It was further considered "a sine qua non that he should reside on College Hill." The final recommendation was unanimous: that the


Rev. Elmer Hewitt Capen was the best choice.
It is impossible to know whether the Trustees would have chosen otherwise without faculty urging, but it is clear that they agreed with the faculty in every respect. The report of the Trustee nominating committee was merely a paraphrase of the faculty letter, which went on to say that Capen's "scholarship and his fitness for the high duties of the office" made him a most appropriate candidate. The nominating committee added that the faculty communication indicated "the cordiality with which he would be welcomed," and pointed out his active role on the Board of Trustees. Capen's nomination and election were unanimous. He was inaugurated on June 2, 1875,


purchased property from the College on Professors Row on which to erect a residence, and assumed his new duties with such smoothness that there was no break at all in the administration of the College.[1] 

The first paragraph of Capen's Inaugural Address made it a certainty that continuity was to be the watchword of his administration.[2]  "I am no revolutionist or iconoclast; if I were I should not have ventured to respond to the summons which has placed me in this chair." He would not have taken on the responsibility, he said, if he had been asked to do otherwise than carry out "the wise intentions of the projectors and founders of this seat of learning." He underlined his basically conservative philosophy with the statement that it was the task of an institution of higher learning "to hold with a tenacious grasp whatever the experience of ages has approved, and to enter the portals of the future by those ancient and established ways over which the sages and philosophers of every time have successfully travelled." This comment is particularly interesting in view of the fact that some of the most dramatic changes in the history of the College came during the latter half of his administration.

Capen's prospectus for Tufts College was reminiscent of one of the ancient Greek ideals of a university: "culture, - pure and simple, and this, too, for its own sake." In fact, he envisioned the institution as another studium generale which took all knowledge to be its province, and rejected as a collegiate goal the providing of practical education in the narrow vocational sense. He would not have the course of study already established curtailed in any of its departments but, on the contrary, would have it expanded and enlarged in all respects. He would restore history (originally taught by President Ballou) to the curriculum, and add jurisprudence. He championed not only the continuance but the strengthening of "the classic languages of Greece and Rome," announced that he would resist any attempt to reduce such instruction, and went so far


as to recommend that Latin and Greek be added to the curriculum of every elementary school. The College also needed additional students, who he wished would flock to the institution "in overwhelming numbers, as they went after Abelard at Paris in the twelfth century . . . as they went in the same epoch by thousands and tens of thousands to Oxford and Bologna." The enrollment at the time he delivered his address was fifty-six (exclusive of the divinity school); only eleven students were graduated in June 1875 (nine in the A.B. program and two in the engineering program).

The man who had been selected to serve as the third president of Tufts and who had delivered such an eloquent Inaugural Address had already exhibited unusual talents when he was called to head his Alma Mater. Born in Stoughton, Massachusetts, in 1838, he received his preparatory education at Pierce Academy in Middleborough and at Green Mountain Institute in South Woodstock, Vermont. He had enrolled in the College in 1856 but interrupted his undergraduate studies in 1859 to serve a term in the Massachusetts legislature as a representative from his native town. In so doing he became, at twenty-one, the youngest member of that body when he took his seat. At the expiration of his term, he resumed his college studies and was able to graduate with his class in 1860, with the expectation that he would become a lawyer. Instead, he decided to enter the Universalist ministry, and when he resigned his third pastorate (in Providence, Rhode Island) to accept the presidency of Tufts, he had already made clear his devotion to the cause of education.

Like his predecessor, Capen was instrumental in the establishment of Dean Academy in 1865 and served as the first secretary of its Board of Trustees. Before he took up his official duties on the Hill, he had been president of the New England Commission on Admission Examinations, and during part of his thirty-year tenure as Tufts' president was chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education. He also served as chairman of various educational groups, including the Board of Visitors of the Salem Normal School and the school building committee of the town of Fitchburg. His political activities included service as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1888, which nominated Benjamin Harrison for the presidency of the nation. Within his denomination Capen was a Trustee of the Universalist General Convention for


some twenty years. It was from Capen's able and active pen that came the articles on Universalism and on Tufts College in the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The history of the College during his long service bore witness to the wisdom of the Trustees in selecting the first alumnus to serve as president. Aside from an unusual ability to get along with everybody, from Trustees to students, Capen was able to prevail in his insistence that the development of Tufts must be balanced among and within its increasingly numerous divisions, departments, and schools.


[1] Capen sold the house to the Trustees in 1894 and rented it until his death in 1905.

[2] The address was reprinted in E. H. Capen, Occasional Addresses (Medford: Tufts College Press, 1902), pp. 1-39. This work, which Capen personally paid to have printed, was one of several publications that came from the Tufts College Press, operated by H. W. Whittemore (Class of 1886). The story of the Press is given elsewhere in this history.

  • 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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