The Michigan Alumnus 603-605
The Attacks on President Tappan
An Account of Some of the Difficulties faced by Michigan's First President
(Excerpts from the Series of Articles on Dr. Tappan by Professor Charles M. Perry who Tells among other Things how Dr. Tappan came to Drop the Title of “Chancellor”)
Dr. Tappan started out with youthful energy to realize the ideas which had cherished so long. When Dr. Tappan came to the University the library contained about 4,500 volumes, four thousand of which had been purchased in Europe in 1844 by Professor Asa Gray. It had been the custom for some member of the Faculty to hold the nominal office of librarian while some student under his direction gave out books once or twice a week. As a result of lack of system many had been scattered or lost. The library consisted most ly of English books, being deficient in scientific works, works in American literature and works of reference. Tappan centered his interest on the Library as a pivotal point in his undertaking. He appealed to the citizens of Ann Arbor and they responded with a subscription of $1,500. After this the Regents made an annual appropriation for the purpose. A room was fitted up and the books we re arranged by John L. Tappan, the President's son, whom the Regents appointed librarian. Under these favorable auspices the library began to in- crease in valuable books and to take on the char acter that such a department of the University should have.
One of Tappan's earliest undertakings was the establishment of an astronomical observatory. On the day of his inauguration, Henry N. Walker of Detroit, after hearing his inaugural address, called upon him and asked what he could do for the Uni versity. Dr. Tappan replied with a suggestion that the citizens of Detroit be asked to subscribe money for the erection and equipment of an observatory. This idea appealed to Mr. Walker and at his suggestion Dr. Tappan addressed a meeting of some of the gentlemen of Detroit, $7,000 being raised in a few days. How much energy the new President put into this task is indicated by the story that while Tappan was tramping about the streets of Detroit one of his contributors called him into his factory and offered to add a pair of boots to his contribution, saying that the Doctor had worn out at least one pair of boots in a good cause.
When Tappan started for Europe in February of 1853, according to plans arranged before he accepted the presidency of the University, Mr. Walker accompanied him as far as New York City, where they placed an order for a twelve-inch refracting telescope. While in Europe Dr. Tappan placed orders for further equipment and made the ac quaintance of Dr. Brunnow at Berlin, whom he induced to come to America and take the chair of astronomy in the University. This was a great piece of good fortune for the new observatory, as Dr. Brunnow was already an astronomer of repu tation. In the summer of 1853 Tappan returned and made his report to the Regents.
Thus far the new administration was running in well-oiled grooves; the Regents were sympathet ic; outstanding citizens like H. N. Walker appre ciated Tappan's idealism; and elements in the population who would normally be critical had not yet found anything to oppose. But a storm was gathering.
The editor and owner of the Detroit Free Press at the time was W. F. Storey. Storey was a self- made man. He respected no man's opinions with the possible exception of those of Lewis Cass. He declared that he wanted no friends, as having friends would hamper his freedom in printing the news. He despised the social proprieties and con ventions. He was opposed to showing favors to anyone because of wealth, station, political affiliations, or influence. When Tappan returned from Europe a report was made in the due course to the Board of Regents. In that report Tappan recounted what he had done in getting instruments for the observatory, spoke freely of the men whom he had met and the assis tance they had given him, and had a great deal to say about Dr. Brunnow, Professor Encke's assis tant. In saying these things it was almost inevit able that places should be mentioned and words used that would challenge the fierce democracy of a pioneer State. He mentioned the ''Royal Observ atory of Prussia" and made various references to the Prussian system of education and to the uni versity ideal. This was Storey's opportunity.
Earlier than this there had been at least one ominous rumble. The Free Press for March 5, 1853, in commenting upon Tappan's departure for Europe had made reference to the fact that in some quarters he was mentioned as the "Chancellor of the Univer sity of Michigan," and had stated that ''by the terms of the constitution he is simply and plainly the President of the University." The word "Chancel lor," though it had been contained in the law of 1837 organizing the University, now seemed to have a foreign and aristocratic sound, and his using it was destined to be interpreted as an act of pre sumption on Tappan's part. But the storm did not break until more material was available.
December 24, Storey published his first article on Tappan's report to the Board of Regents and other articles followed within the next few days. The writer was not unreservedly hostile. He says, for instance, "We have hoped, and yet hope, that he (Tappan) combines those qualifications which are essential to a successful administration of the University. We trust he will succeed;" "Egregious vanity and assumption are tolerable, if there are counterbalancing good qualities." But Storey had a keen eye for what he regarded as Tap pan's pretensions. Affectations in style especially aroused his sarcasm and he either italicized Tap pan's pet phrases or put them in quotation. He states, for example, how the President, speaking of the observatory, "cannot but be sanguine of the results we shall arrive at under the transparent and serene skies of Michigan."
And in this flood of ridicule the question of the Chancellorship had to come up. Storey observes that the President still clings to the title of "Chan cellor" and proceeds to comment. "He had better drop that, if he ever expects to succeed in his office. It is an assumption alike unwarrantable, ridiculous, and contemptible. It betrays a weakness and a vanity that is inexcusable." By the terms of the Constitution he is President of the University— nothing more and nothing less. "He can assume his legitimate title, or he can continue to make himself the object of public ridicule that will soon grow into public contempt."
Of a piece with this ultra democracy, Storey criticizes Tappan's leaning towards the "Prus sian system." A practical man, he admits, could undoubtedly learn much by an examination of that system, but to believe that we want it in its entirety is preposterous. We want just so much of it as can be profitably adapted to our system of government, trade, and so forth. To make this adaptation, however, requires great judgment and caution and a thorough understanding of the genius of our institutions and the educational needs of our people. Tappan seems "to be in danger of forgetting that Michigan is not Prussia, and Ann Arbor not Berlin."
Moreover, Michigan did not need a "high uni versity." What the citizens of the State needed was a school that should prepare men for the practical duties of life. To extend education beyond this point was no part of the business of the State. Universities such as Dr. Tappan was advocating must be the work of private enterprise, not supported by taxation. Tappan would send the University to ultimate ruin; the idea of magnificence must be abandoned, the scale of operations reduced. It must seek to be useful rather than grand.
But the pinch came in regard to the cost of Tappan's plans. The University "must be carried on with the means already at its command; for the people will not brook taxation for its support" The present endowment was regarded as sufficient to enable it to realize all the purposes for which it was created, at least for years to come. When its operations should require it to be enlarged, its per manent resources might also be enlarged. If the endowment should not prove sufficient, the recipi ents of its benefits should be taxed to make up the deficiency.
In his hostility Storey began to tread on more and more questionable ground. He questioned the method by which Tappan had secured the presidency and charged that he had deceived the Regents re garding his previous contract to go abroad in private pay the following summer, and also regard ing his relations to homoeopathy. He accused him of discharging the elected secretary of the Board for personal reasons and substituting his friend Palmer. He hinted that Tappan had taken com- missions on purchases made by him for the Univer sity. Again, with enormously inflated figures, he tried to show that the proposals of President Tap pan to introduce the "Prussian System" would cost sums greatly in excess of the income of the Uni versity.
In the beginning of 1855 the storm began to abate. Whether it was due to the arguments which the friends of Tappan put forth, or to a more concili atory attitude on Tappan's part or to a change in popular interest is hard to say. Early in January of that year the report of the Board of Visitors of the University was made public. In that document the use of the title of Chancellor by Dr. Tappan was explained as having been due to a misunderstand ing at the time of his inauguration and they recom mended that it be dropped as a vain and useless appendage. This report tended to soften the at titude of the Free Press. About the same time Tappan made a speech to the members of the two houses of the legislature in Lansing in which he detailed at length the meaning of the word "Chan cellor" and told the chain of circumstances under which it had been given him. He concluded by say ing that he had not laid it aside when he found it made the ground of attack, because he was not per haps disposed to yield more easily than other people; he was a Dutchman and had perhaps some degree of Dutch obstinacy. But he would agree to lay it aside forever if they in return would give him the means to popularize education. Concerning that speech even the Lansing Journal said: "Very many of his practical suggestions met our cordial approbation."
What did this whole attack mean? It was probably due, as much as to anything, to pique and love of fighting on the part of V. F. Storey. He may have been irritated not only by Tappan's pretentions but also by the fact that certain of the pro fessors had been participating in anti-slavery organizations. Whedon had been charged by the former Board of Regents with advocating the "higher law," and Haven had been charged with taking part in the "Jackson disunion convention." The last sentence of the above quotation indicates that he was sensitive on that point. The storm of criticism may also be credited to the fact that there were editors over the State who looked upon their positions as affording opportunity to air their opinions and who imitated Storey in their style.
How profound the influence of this disturbance was it is hard to say. Haven says that the attacks were "frivolous and groundless and soon subsided." Whether their consequences subsided so soon is open to question. Making the man and his policies ridicu lous before so many people was a serious matter and must have carried over into subsequent controver sies. How it affected the legislature is shown in an account sent from Lansing to the Free Press. A joint resolution was before the House to invite the Rev. Dr. Tappan to address the two houses. Sher man of Ontonagon moved to strike out "Doctor" and insert "Kanzler." A scene ensued and Sherman finally withdrew his motion. The resolution was then amended to read, "allowing" instead of "invit ing," and in this form it was carried. Such an at titude was not favorable to the President's getting what he wanted for the University, though, as a matter of fact, he succeeded in making a good im pression when he made the address above referred to.
In concluding this chapter two things should be mentioned in extenuation of Tappan's attitude on the Chancellorship. One is that the law of 1837 organizing the University had contained a provision for a "chancellor," though the office never had been filled. If it had the sanction of law for fourteen years, until two years before Tappan's in auguration, it could not have been a very serious- offense against the spirit of democracy for him to assume it through a misapprehension. And the sec ond consideration is that the title stuck to him later, whether he wanted it or not, as a term of reverence and endearment. His "boys" thirty, forty, and fifty years later loved to refer to him as the "Old Chancellor." There was no other title that was resounding and glamorous enough to fit his position and achievements in the history of the State. The fact that no one else ever bore it set him apart from more prosaic persons and made him almost mythical. Tappan stands out so strongly now, in the purity of his motives and the loftiness of his conceptions that his opponents of those days are distinctly dwarfed in their perhaps unconscious meanness and ingratitude.