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The Attacks on President Tappan

Henry Philip Tappan
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.