BY LE BARON RUSSELL BRIGGS
CHARLES WILLIAM ELIOT was thirty-five years old when, in 1869, he left a professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to become President of Harvard College. Approval of his election was by no means unanimous. He was a chemist; and to make a chemist President was a perilous innovation. He was not widely known, though certain articles of his in the Atlantic Monthly had attracted attention by their new treatment of educational problems. He was not popular, nor capable of bidding for popularity. To many he was personally formidable, a Bostonian aristocrat, now puritanical, now dangerously radical, and always tactlessly outspoken. To-day he is the greatest figure in the history of American education, the foremost citizen of the United States — not honored only, but beloved.
The transformation of public feeling toward him is caused in part by the steadily increasing greatness of his own character and life, but chiefly by the discovery of that character and of the use to which that life is put. Power he exhibited early. Power over men and affairs he acquired, day by day, with a speed which bred bewilderment, distrust, and alarm. People talked of him as a tsar. Slowly and surely they have learned that every power with which nature and unremitting labor have equipped him he directs to one supreme end. His noble speech, perfect in voice and enunciation, unmistakable in purpose, dignified, controlled, with tremendous strength in reserve, his amazing capacity for work and his delight therein, his scorn of fear and favor and defeat, his every gift of body or of mind, he has used with complete unselfishness for a purpose beyond the horizon of most men in private life or in public.
President of Harvard College for forty years, possessed by the determination to make of Harvard College a great university, he knew not how to work for Harvard only. Beyond the university was his country; beyond his country was the world. Every selfish motive, every academic motive, every provincial motive was below him. As he himself acquired power, so should his university, so should his country, acquire it — always for freedom and for man. Hence, among those who have come to understand him, no disagreement with his opinions can affect by one jot admiration of his character. They may denounce his doctrines and believe, forever, in him. All who know him he enlarges. Even in his Faculty, men whose whole academic career might hang on his good-will would openly oppose his dearest schemes, feeling that failure to speak out was personal disloyalty to him. Nor did any teacher’s opposition warp his estimate of that teacher’s value to the university or retard that teacher’s promotion. Nor did he listen less eagerly to opponents than to friends.
The inscription on a cup which the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences gave him twenty years ago tells of ‘his passion for justice, for progress, and for truth.’ This passion is the unquenchable fire of his life. Even his prejudices — the strong prejudices of a strong man — turn to ashes in his consuming zeal for justice. Nor is he, as many leaders are, blind to small things in the close pursuit of great ones; his mastery of details is a constant revelation. Nor does the intensity of his public work diminish the intensity of his devotion to his home.
At ninety, he still strikes with uncompromising truthfulness and courage, for every great cause in America or out of it; and his voice, whether recognized as his or not, is heard throughout the world.
‘Strive for the truth unto death, and the Lord shall fight for thee.’
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