Altschuler, Glenn C. Andrew D. White: Educator, Historian, Diplomat (Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1978).
Reviewed by John M. Alford (Hist 5040 - Fall 1997)

In my quest to find out more about Andrew Dickson White, I read his biography by Glenn C. Altschuler, a history professor at Ithaca College in New York. Dr. Altschuler graduated with a Ph. D. from Cornell, and he wrote his dissertation on Andrew White. Andrew White was the most famous person you have never heard of. At least, that is Altschuler's thesis. The author wrote a wonderful biography of this man, but he focused little on White's Warfare. One chapter was devoted to this seminal work, but I had already read it (the chapter was a reprint of the article I reviewed in Church History.) The scholarship of this work was outstanding. The book relied on primary sources, of which a diverse group were used. However, this was one of the worst structured books I have read in a long time. The author often got ahead of himself and told things before they should have been discussed. For example, he discussed White's leaving his post as minister to Germany BEFORE he even talked about his appointment. Also, he never clearly identified the area of history in which White specialized. He never told the reader what White studied in college. Nevertheless, this was a good biography. White was born in Homer, New York, on November 7, 1832, to wealthy parents. His parents pushed him towards a career in public service, but he resisted. From his teenage years, White rejected orthodox Christianity and resisted confirmation in the Episcopal church. He stayed in the church, committed to reforming it from the inside. White's lifelong waffling on religion would be seen throughout his life. One may correctly argue that he was a lifelong waffler. He seemingly could never make up his mind and act decisively. (More on that later, I do not want to get ahead of myself, right Dr. Altschuler). White attended Geneva College, a small private school near his home at his parents insistence. White was a serious student and performed well in his studies; he typically rose at 5:00 AM and abstained from tobacco or caffeine. White grew tired of Geneva and entered Yale. I presume he graduate there (Altschuler does not say or I could have missed it), and he spent two years studying at the University of Berlin. There he developed a lifelong appreciation of the German nation and culture. White returned to Yale and then began a teaching career at the University of Michigan. At Michigan he came under the influence of the university president, Henry Tappan, who was a leading reformer in higher education. Tappan believed that a university should be a community of scholars which provided professors, libraries, and facilities in all areas of human learning. He was later removed from the University of Michigan. As early as 1862, when his parents died and left him a pile of money, White began to develop plans for a university. He soon embarked on a career in politics when powerful New York Republicans convinced him to run for the New York State Senate. White won easily and quickly became a powerful and popular senator. As the legislative session was only three months long, he was able to keep his professorship at Michigan. During his state senate service, White met Ezra Cornell, a fellow senator, who also had a large pile of money. Cornell had earned his money in the telegraph business and was interested in starting a university. he wanted White as Cornell's president. They encountered heavy resistance in the state senate, with many senators believing that the university should have a religious foundation. White and Cornell believed that the university should be nonsectarian. Opponents were hard to convince and argued that students deprived of denominational guidance might begin to view religious indifference as a proper mode of thought. White rejected that argument and reminded those folks that the greatest atheists and deists (Voltaire, Diderot, and Gibbon) were educated in places where sectarian texts were rigid (p. 80). The fight for Cornell University was a difficult one, but White seemed willing to compromise. He pushed the religious character of Cornell and reminded opponents that the university would have a chapel and a University Christian Association . He devoted little attention to nondenominationalism in his Report on Organization of Cornell because he wanted to convince critics that the charter, not Cornell's president set university policy. White was concerned about the declining ratio of people going to college. Between 1840 and 1870, the proportion of the population attending college decreased. Total university enrollment only went up by 4,000 during this period. White wanted to ensure that every area of the university was properly and equitably treated. This report is getting long. I'll send another.

Here is Part II of my report on White's biography: White was viewed as a "radical," a perception he liked. He believed in coeducation, nonsectarian structure, and strange concepts (for that time) such as agricultural education. He did not believe that nonsectarian organization subverted Christianity. Cornell finally opened in 1868 and he was inaugurated president on October 7th of that year. Many New York luminaries attended the inauguration, but the governor of the state refused to attend, still angered over the founding of Cornell. Cornell would prove to be a famous institution in the history of American higher education, according to Altschuler. The university would have the first classes in the United States taught on the German seminar method. These classes were taught by White's friend and replacement, Dr. William Russel. Cornell still received bitter attacks from all over. Charges of "atheist" and "infidels" were regularly applied to the folks in Ithaca. White, ever the waffler, always defended Cornell's Christian roots. He reminded civic groups in speeches that nonsectarianism was not the same as non-Christian. Prayers began all public services and working days. Furthermore, Cornell students were expected but not forced to attend chapel services. The president even instituted a system of rotating ministers in Ithaca. White refused a permanent minister, however. White was appointed Minister to Germany in 1879. There he got along well with everyone, but his tenure was marred by Germany restrictions on American pork. He was allowed to remain president of Cornell even while serving in Germany. His friend Russel, a fellow historian was in charge of the university. White returned from Germany in 1881. He would go on to be the president of the American Historical Association, of which he was the first president. In that capacity, he stressed the role of the "professional historian." White continued to play a major role in Republican politics. He supported Senator James G. Blaine of Maine for the GOP nomination and avoided looking silly when the "Plumed Knight" fell on his face. He became Minister to Russia in 1892, but failed to make a big impression in Russia because he failed to learn much about the Russian culture and came home in 1894. Altschuler recounts that White turned down many opportunities in life. He blew a chance to be secretary of state when he took the Russian job. Similarly, he failed to enter the New York gubernatorial race in 1890 when many powerful GOP supporters were on his side, and his campaign never got off the ground. White also turned down two chances to run for Congress. White served as Ambassador to Germany in the early 1900s and was dismayed by what Germany did in World War I. He thought that Germany was America's second parent country and loved the German culture and language. He felt this way until his death in 1918. Throughout his career, White was a waffler. He was ambivalent at ever turn, never able to make up his mind. If he made up his mind, what he did never made sense. White was an ardent abolitionist, but he was afraid that blacks would receive too much government help after the Civil War and become wealthy. He supported universal suffrage but endorsed literacy tests. White never paid much attention to his family or his first wife. He remarried (his second bride was the first female Ph. D. in the United States) to a woman he credited with saving his life, but let it be known he preferred his first wife. White placed paintings of his first wife in every room of his home during his 2nd marriage and even cut short his honeymoon with wife #2 to dedicate a bust of #1 at Cornell! White believed in sectarianism, but he always defended the Chrisian atmosphere of Cornell. In essence, I cannot believe that a man such as this, a born waffler, could write a book that sought to tear down the Christian religion. Although his book (Warfare) is not waffly, his motives could not have been as spiteful as many say. White was a strange person, and he did some unusual things. Nevertheless, he was a seminal figure in the 19th century in the United States.