Andrew Dickson White

Cornell University’s co-founder and first president was a scholar, educator, book collector, politician, and diplomat. In 1862, he wrote to Gerrit Smith, a wealthy and prominent reformer and abolitionist, proposing that they found and build a university together. White suggested, “There is needed a truly great University.” Smith declined, but two years later, White would meet Ezra Cornell in the New York State Senate.

White insisted that this new university should be non-sectarian and co-educational, both progressive and controversial ideas in the 1860s; but with these convictions for a more inclusive and expansive course of study, he became the architect of the modern American university.

He amassed one of the greatest personal book collections of his day, and was instrumental in the development of the University’s library.

White met Lincoln at the White House, hosted Grant at Cornell, and served all of the U.S. Presidents of his day as a distinguished diplomat and statesman.

Morris Bishop called him “a kindly man, and a great man, earnest, noble, and manly.”

Andrew Dickson White started collecting books in his undergraduate years and continued to do so for the rest of his life, amassing one of the great book collections of the nineteenth century. His collections on architecture, witchcraft, the Reformation, the French Revolution, slavery, abolition and the Civil War were among the finest in the world.

In 1871, White commissioned William Henry Miller, a Cornell student, to design his campus home, the President’s House, now known as the A.D. White House. He would live there, in between his international travels and after his diplomatic career in Europe, until his death in 1918.

When White retired as Cornell’s president in 1885, he offered to give the university his personal collection of 30,000 books. At the time, the university’s library was located in McGraw Hall and held a collection of approximately 90,000 books, many of them acquired by White for the university. But the retiring President set two conditions. He asked that the university provide a suitable space to house his collection—he stipulated a fire-proof room—and he requested that proper provision be made for the ongoing maintenance of his collections.

For Andrew Dickson White, “the ideas of a great university and a great library [were] inextricably linked.” He had purchased the library’s first books, and he played an active role throughout his life in developing the library’s collections.

He hired Willard Fiske to be Cornell’s first University Librarian, and worked closely with him to develop innovative and progressive policies for their library. Through his efforts a dedicated library building was prominently sited in the southwest corner of the Arts Quad. The University Library, now known as Uris Library, opened on October 7, 1891, the twenty-third anniversary of the day that classes began at Cornell. He helped the building’s architect, William Henry Miller, design and ornament this space, especially the room that would house his personal collection of books.

The maintenance and cataloging of White’s collection became the responsibility of George Lincoln Burr, a member of the Cornell Class of 1871. Burr was White’s secretary and personal librarian as well as the first curator of the White Historical Library. Originally hired by White when he was a Cornell sophomore, Burr worked closely with him to develop and care for his library. When Burr first saw the three tiers of wrought-iron stacks filled with White’s books, he wrote that it “gave one such an idea of a multitude of books. You see and feel them all. They quite overawe one.” Setting the future goal for the collection, he promised to make the library, in his words, “the great living, growing historical workshop of the University.”

With the signing of the Cornell Charter, Andrew Dickson White became responsible for designing the new university. Even though he had dreamed of creating an ideal university for many years, it is easy to forget that he was only thirty-four years old when he wrote out his plans for a college “of wider scope.”

Expanding his ambitions for Cornell beyond the requirements of the Morrill Land Grant Act, White set a broad vision for the university that elevated the study of agriculture and the mechanic arts (engineering), that expanded the conventional liberal arts and general studies to include such subjects as history, political science and modern literatures, and that offered students greater freedom and choice in selecting their courses of study. In this small document is the blueprint for the modern American university.

Published as a two-volume set, Andrew Dickson White’s expansive and meticulously researched treatise chronicles the relationship between science and religion through history, documenting the gradual emancipation of science from theology. The culmination of over thirty years of research, the book was both popular and controversial in its day. Contemporary scholarship, however, now tends to regard its warfare motif and conflict thesis as oversimplifications of a complex issue, but one that continues to inspire debate.

White’s personal copy of the two volumes is heavily annotated with his notes and updates for a proposed second edition of the work that was never completed.

In a political career that started in the New York State Senate, Andrew Dickson White was once considered a candidate for governor of New York, and during the presidential campaign of 1900, he was urged by some members of the Republican Party to run for Vice President. He had served as a diplomat and statesman for United States presidents, and he conversed and negotiated with kings and emperors. But he declined to run for Vice President, and instead recommended that Theodore Roosevelt be considered for the position. Roosevelt, then governor of New York and a somewhat reluctant candidate, would be elevated to the Presidency with the assassination of William McKinley.

In 1902, White decided to retire from his post as the U.S. Minister to Germany on his seventieth birthday that year and return to his house at Cornell. Roosevelt reluctantly accepted White’s resignation, and sent a series of three letters to his friend and colleague to honor his service to the country.

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