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Presidential Profiles

Henry Philip Tappan
The Michigan Alumnus 4

by Howard H. Peckham

The University had been
 operating in Ann Arbor for 14
 years before its first president was 
appointed. And it had been badly
 managed. The Board of Regents
 was active in administration as
 well as in determining policy. The 
faculty of 10 elected a chairman 
annually, supervised student 
behavior, regarded the Regents as 
their natural enemies, and quar
reled among themselves over 
relative teaching loads, admissions,
 etc. In addition, town and gown
 were at odds.

What changed the situation was not the light of experience, but a
 new state constitution, adopted in
 1850. It provided for popular elec
tion of Regents, one from each of 
eight judicial districts, for a term
 of six years. By that constitution 
the Board was given "general
 supervision of the University and 
the direction and control of all ex
penditures from the University in
terest fund." That fund was deriv
ed from the sale of lands granted
 by the federal government for 
higher education. Student fees and
 room rents provided other income;
 there was no state appropriation.

Further, the constitution ordered 
the Regents to elect a president,
 who would preside at all meetings
 of the Board. This constitutional
 provision for the University indicated a general dissatisfaction
 with the way the institution was 
being run, and removed it com
pletely from control by the State 
Legislature. Nevertheless, the legis
lature blandly assumed it still had
 some control and, at its first ses
sion, enacted a statute requiring an
 annual report to be sent to the 
superintendent of public instruc
tion, and the creation of a law 
school in addition to the existing 
literary and medical departments,
 as called for in the originating act
 of 1817. Later on, the State
 Supreme Court would nullify even 
this much authority over the
 Regents, saying that the Board
 derived from the constitution all the power necessary to govern in
ternal affairs of the University.

In the spring election of the eight
 Regents in 1851, the Democrats
 made a clean sweep, having 
nominated some distinguished and
 concerned citizens to serve. Two
 were former appointed Regents.
 When they convened in January,
 1852, they appointed one member
 as secretary and named a commit
tee to find a president.

The committee approached
 George Bancroft, former Secretary 
of War and a distinguished his
torian. He declined and suggested
 Henry Philip Tappan, a former
 professor of philosophy at New
 York University. His name was 
seconded by President Eliphalet
 Nott, of Union College, probably 
the foremost educator in the coun
try. But first the Regents offered 
the presidency to Henry Barnard, 
respected and widely known 
educator of New England who
 eventually became the first U.S.
 Commissioner of Education.

When Barnard declined, the 
Regents turned to the Rev. Dr.
 William Adams of the Madison
 Square Presbyterian Church, New
 York. He, too, refused (later ac
cepting the presidency of Union
 Theological Seminary) and the 
Board offered the job to Tappan,
 who had been interviewed by the
 secretary. His ideas were known,
 however, from his recent book: 
University Education. Tappan accepted the call.

He was a native of Rhinebeck,
 N.Y., born in 1805 of Dutch extraction. He had graduated from
 Union College in 1825 and from
 Auburn Theological Seminary two
 years later. After a brief period as 
a minister, he became professor of 
philosophy at New York University. In a faculty-administration
 quarrel in 1837, he was dismissed
 with several other professors. In 
the next seven years he published 
four notable works of philosophy.
 Tappan had a well-to-do wife, a
 son who became University li
brarian, and four daughters.

Living abroad part of the time,
 Tappan became enamored of German universities. In essence he 
believed that universities were a
 state responsibility, contrary to the 
English and American concept, and 
that their task was to train minds 
rather than character. Further, he 
felt that the University of Michigan
 was one of the few institutions in 
the United States where his ideas 
could be realized. In his book he 
made a disturbing indictment of 
U.S. colleges, declaring flatly that
 "we have no universities," because 
they lacked large libraries and 
laboratories, faculties devoted to 
research, freedom to inquire into
 every subject, and opportunities 
for students to pursue advanced degrees. His vision placed him 
above the current controversy in 
higher education between the old 
private colleges that emphasized a 
classical curriculum and close
 supervision of maturing ado
lescents (based on English models),
 and certain other colleges that em
phasized flexible entrance requirements and popular, useful
 courses in preparation for careers 
in business and politics. Tappan 
could see values and limitations in
 both camps, but he sought to 
move in a different direction and 
to reform faculties as well.

Arriving in Ann Arbor in October 1852, he was seen to look
 like a president. Six feet tall, with 
side and under-chin whiskers, he
 walked briskly and carried a cane.
 In a day of stovepipe hats, he
 wore a felt hat tipped rakishly to
 one side. Invariably, he was
 accompanied by one of his two
 huge St. Bernards. He was inspirational and optimistic, a charismatic 
leader who did not hesitate to take 
on a faculty committed to the 
English tradition and to secondary 
school methods of teaching. The
 public in general was concerned 
more with settling a continent and 
holding together a constitutional 
government threatened by the ab
solutism of slaveholders and aboli
tionists, while the State Legislature
 was indifferent to the financial
 needs of the University. Tappan 
would have to cultivate his vine in
 rather barren soil.

Two of his constituent bodies
 supported him warmly: the
 Regents and the students. The
 Board quickly recognized that they 
had got themselves a mover and
 shaker, and the best thing to do
 was give him a loose rein and stay 
out of his way. The students were
 overawed by his powerful intellect
 and his urbane manner. Though he 
believed in an aristocracy of in
tellect, he wanted and urged his 
boys to join that aristocracy by
 applying themselves diligently to
 the pursuit of knowledge. Every
one should be educated to the limit
 of his capacity. Vocations were
 something separate, to be pursued 

Tappan pulled the boys out of 
their dormitories in Mason Hall
 and South College in order to obtain more classrooms. Besides, he 
thought it better not to isolate 
them from the town, but to make 
them live daily in the community.
 He was not concerned about their
 conduct outside of class so long as 
it was law-abiding. If it was not, the police should take care of 
them. He was used to serving wine 
in his home and did not object if
 students drank beer. This was the
 German attitude toward students.

Tappan set about soliciting 
money to enlarge the library,
 planned a new chemical laboratory
 building, and in Detroit found
 most of the money for an obser
vatory with a 13-inch telescope. As
 director of the Detroit Observatory, he appointed a German
 astronomer, the first PhD on the 
faculty, who shortly became his 
son-in-law. He ordered the Univer
sity's first microscope. He called
 for an art gallery and encouraged
 the new Student Lecture Associa
tion to bring speakers of national
 prominence to Ann Arbor. He 
established four scholarships of $50
 each. He instituted a scientific cur
riculum (bereft of foreign lan
guages), along with the classical
 curriculum and conferred the first 
bachelor of science degrees in
 1855, the second school so to do.
 Two years later a degree in civil
 engineering was awarded. No
 wonder enrollment grew!

Reaction of the faculty to Tap
pan was mixed. He shortened their
 work year by tossing out the
 trimester schedule and starting two
 longer semesters, with the summer
 off — but it should be used for 
research and travel. Students could 
earn money then, too. This calen
dar lasted for 108 years. He added 
four members to the faculty, two 
in medicine and two in engineer
ing. All professors were supposed 
to continue working in their spe
cial fields and to involve students 
in research methods. They were
 advised to deliver lectures to their 
classes rather than conduct recita
tions from textbooks. In brief,
 their obligation was to maintain 
the excitement of learning. He
 himself assumed the chair of philo

Unfortunately, Tappan felt the 
superiority of his intellect, and his
 condescension irritated some of the
 faculty. He did not hesitate to
 reprove them, like students, even 
in front of others. He was not
 adept at settling their disagree
ments. His open admiration of 
things Prussian rankled some 
citizens, though not the German
 settlers of Ann Arbor. He felt he 
should attend the various Protes
tant churches in town, but this 
tolerance was construed to be indifference, and his meandering 
pleased no one.

The editor of the Detroit Free 
Press, W. F. Storey, made Tappan 
his special target. Storey was a
 venomous egotist of enormous prejudices and vitriolic language. He 
bought the Free Press in 1853 and 
made it a raucous Democratic 
organ, attacking the abolitionists,
 asserting the right of the South to
 hold slaves and to secede, and 
making his paper the bellwether 
for some 20 other Democratic
 papers in the state. Storey opposed
 Tappan's refusal to make the
 University a vocational college,
 ridiculed abstract knowledge, belit
tled his admiration of German 
universities, questioned his salary, 
made fun of his use of the title of
 chancellor, and generally accused 
him of un-Americanism and snob

In 1858 the terms of all the
 Regents expired. Now that there 
were 10 judicial districts, 10 
Regents were to be elected. The
 victors were all new and the ma
jority were new Republicans. They
 were not of the caliber of the 
previous Board. In a struggle for 
lost power, the leaders set out to 
reverse the recent trend and tell the 
president exactly how to run the
 University down to the least details. All the faculty were regarded
 as employees of the Board. Regent
 Levi Bishop, a Detroit attorney,
 had formed his views from reading 
the Free Press. Regent Donald 
Mclntyre, Ann Arbor banker, was
 an ardent prohibitionist who 
disliked Tappan's liberalism. With
 two other Regents critical of the
 University, the four men met from 
time to time in Mclntyre's bank 
and planned tactics to take control
 of the University out of Tappan's 
hands. Through 10 committees, ex
ecutive operations were sequestered for the Regents. Prof.
 Alexander Winchell became a con
fidant and informer of Regent 
Bishop. Tappan had hired Win
chell as professor of physics and
 civil engineering, but, as he did
 not succeed in those fields he was
 transferred to geology and biology. 
By 1860, Bishop was openly
 boasting that he intended to get
 Tappan fired. A few faculty 
members tried to mediate the differences between Board and presi
dent but without success.

Meanwhile, in 1859, the Regents 
authorized opening a law department, and Tappan found three 
part-time professors of distinction.
 The course ran for one year, as at
 Harvard, and led to a bachelor of 
laws degree. Four years later it was 
the largest law school in the na
tion. The old-style master's degree, 
awarded on an honorary basis,
 was changed to an earned degree
 after postgraduate study. Tappan 
pioneered in admitting special
 students not in a degree program,
 and in allowing seniors to select 
some of the courses they wished to
 study. The University became a
 national institution as the percen
tage of out-of-state and foreign 
students rose to 46.

Both the president and Andrew 
D. White, professor of history, encouraged the students to take an 
interest in current events. They 
debated political issues and fol
lowed the presidential campaign of
 1860. Tappan believed in effecting
 student discipline by keeping them 
busy enough to stay out of mis
chief and by exhorting them to 
assume responsibility and self-
control against temptations of vice,
 self-indulgence, and destructiveness 
if they expected to become influen
tial men. He felt that student
 deportment improved each year.

Word of South Carolina's attack 
on Fort Sumter reached Ann Arbor
 on Saturday, April 13, 1861. News
 of the fort's surrender followed late
 Sunday. Anxious students looked
 to their president on Monday mor
ning for leadership. He did not
 disappoint them. He called for a 
civic rally at the Courthouse at
 2:00 p.m. and said he would
 speak. Addressing an overflow 
crowd of townspeople and
 students, Tappan declared that 
government had borne with seces
sionists and traitors until forbear
ance was no longer a virtue. Now
 an overt hostile act had been com
mitted, and the government must 
respond or fall to pieces. The
 seceders must be conquered and
 the flag restored.

The excited students formed 
themselves into three companies of
 militia and began drilling on cam
pus. At the June Commencement,
 there were 150 graduates from the 
three departments. Seventy-nine
 promptly enlisted in response to
 President Lincoln's call. Enrollment 
had reached 675, but dropped by
 60 in the fall.

In the spring election of 1863,
 the existing Board of Regents was
 repudiated and all new members,
 limited to eight, were elected save 
for one. Further, for the sake of 
continuity, their terms were stag
gered and extended for eight years,
 so that two terms expired every 
two years. Storey of the Free Press
 had sold his paper and departed 
for Chicago. Tappan breathed a 
sigh of relief and felt himself
 secure. But the old Board had nine
 more months to go and felt vindic

Disgruntled and vengeful, with
 one Regent dead and two of the
 more enlightened ones absent in 
the war, the seven others met in an 
illegal secret session the night be
fore Commencement and planned
 the firing of President Tappan. 
 Next day, in regular session after
 Commencement, June 25, they 
briskly passed a prepared resolu
tion dismissing him. Tappan re
sponded that he regarded their
 shocking action as "extraordinary"
 since they had been repudiated by 
the people. He said he was not
 afraid of the verdict of history and 
then walked out. The Board then 
proceeded to hamstring its succes
sor Board by electing the Rev. 
Erastus O. Haven, a Methodist
 editor and former professor under
 Tappan, as president.

Students and local alumni held
 an impromptu indignation meeting
 and condemned the Board. Later 
that night some of them serenaded 
the Tappans at their home, and 
then threw stones at Regent Mcln
tyre's house and burned him in ef
figy. Next day citizens of Ann Ar
bor called a meeting and labeled 
the Regents "jackasses." As word
 spread southward among soldier 
alumni, a protest meeting was even 
held at Union headquarters before

But the students scattered for the 
summer, and some of the faculty
 left town. The remaining faculty
 acted out of expediency, and, fear
ing an open fight against the Board
 might injure the University, they 
pledged cooperation to Haven. 
Early in July the battle of Gettysburg riveted everyone's atten
tion on the war. Then, as names of
 casualties came in, various houses
 were saddened and shuttered. 
 Memorial services were held in 
churches repeatedly. The University quarrel seemed much less 

The Tappans left Ann Arbor in
 September for Europe and never 
returned to this country. Before
 they departed, the mayor and a 
large delegation of citizens pre
sented the family with a silver service. In 1875 the Regents expunged 
all criticism of President Tappan 
from their records and invited him 
to be honored guest at Commence
ment, but his health would not 
permit it. He died in Switzerland
 in 1881, aged 76.

Henry Barnard, then editor of 
the American Journal of Education, called Tappan's dismissal an 
"act of savage, unmitigated barbarism." Years later, President
 James B. Angell, himself an inter
nationally known educator, said:
 'Tappan was the largest figure of a
 man that ever appeared on the
 Michigan campus. And he was
 stung to death by gnats!"

It is almost impossible to exag
gerate the importance of Henry 
Philip Tappan in shaping the
 University of Michigan. He re
vealed to the people of the state 
the kind of university they had
 brought into being. It had been
 declared to be non-sectarian, and,
 at a time when sectarianism was 
rampant, Tappan proceeded to 
clarify what its absence meant and 
to channel the freedom that was 
thereby released. The prospect was 
frightening to most people because 
it was outside their experience.
 They were not ready to accept the 
University for what it was.

The fact that the University was 
imbedded in the state constitution,
 with its own elected governing
 Board, prevented the Legislature
 from dictating to it, although it 
tried. Tappan had argued each
 biennium that when the federal 
land grants were all sold, the 
Legislature must assume some 
responsibility for providing 
revenue if the institution was ex
pected to grow. He pointed out 
that there was precedent in the
 Legislature's recent actions to 
establish an agricultural school 
outside Lansing and a teacher 
training school in Ypsilanti. Thus
 he planted the seed for state aid.

His emphasis on a faculty
 capable of continuous research, on
 teaching methods that excited and 
involved students, on postgraduate
 study to achieve scholarly expert
ness, on student acceptance of 
responsibility for their proper 
behavior in order to make the
 most of the opportunities open to 
them, and on his ideal of an
 educated man exercising leadership
 in a democratic society — this
 philosophy of a vital university,
 not accepted everywhere then, has
 never been denied at Michigan.

On the contrary, the University 
has moved, albeit slowly, in the
 direction he indicated ever since.
 The tragedy of his administration,
 of course, was that he could not
 have remained at the helm for
 another 10 or 15 years to develop
 his challenging concept.