Sample text for The chosen : the hidden history of admission and exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton / Jerome Karabel.

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Chapter 1
Elite Education and the Protestant Ethos

On a clear fall morning in late September of 1900, a lanky young man with
patrician features and pince-nez glasses stood among the more than five
hundred freshmen gathered to register at Harvard. Though neither a brilliant
scholar nor a talented athlete, the young man had a certain charisma about
him -- a classmate later described him as "gray-eyed, cool, self-possessed,
intelligent . . . [with] the warmest, most friendly, and understanding smile."1
The freshman had been given a strong recommendation from his Latin
teacher, who described him as "a fellow of exceptional ability and high
character" who "hopes to go into public life."2 His name was Franklin Delano
Roosevelt, and in 1933 he became the fourth graduate of Harvard College to
serve as president of the United States.
Franklin"s acceptance at Harvard had been taken for granted.
Having attended Groton, the most socially elite of America"s boarding
schools, he was sure to be admitted to Harvard; in 1900, 18 of his Groton
classmates (out of a class of just 23) joined him in Cambridge.3 There the
Groton boys -- along with their peers from St. Paul"s, St. Mark"s, Milton, and
other leading private schools -- dominated the upper reaches of campus life.
Even then, however, the children of the elite did not constitute the
entire freshman class. Harvard, far more than Yale and especially Princeton,
took pride in the diversity of its student body. In his address to new students,
President Charles W. Eliot denounced as a "common error" the supposition
that "the men of the University live in rooms the walls of which are covered
with embossed leather." The truth, Eliot insisted, was quite the contrary: "the
majority are of moderate means; and it is this diversity of condition that
makes the experience of meeting men here so valuable."4
Though Eliot was downplaying the heavy representation of children
of privilege at Harvard, there was in fact a surprising degree of heterogeneity
among the students. More than 40 percent of Roosevelt"s freshman class
came from public schools, and many were the children of immigrants.5 And
of Harvard"s leading feeder schools, the top position in 1900 was occupied
not by Groton or St. Paul"s (18 students) but by Boston Latin (38 students),
a public institution that had long since lost its cachet as a school for the
sons of Boston Brahmins.6
Yet the Harvard attended by public school boys was separated
from the Harvard of Roosevelt and his friends by a vast social chasm. Its
physical symbol was the divide between Mount Auburn Street"s
luxurious "Gold Coast, where the patrician students lived," and the shabby
dormitories of Harvard Yard, some of which lacked central heating and
plumbing above the basement, where the more plebeian students stayed.7
Roosevelt was, by birth, a natural member of the Mount Auburn group; even
before he enrolled at Harvard, he visited Cambridge with his future roommate,
Lathrop Brown, to select a suitable spot on the Gold Coast. Their choice was
Westmorly Court (now part of Adams House), an elegant structure that
provided the young men with a high-ceilinged suite complete with two
bedrooms, a sitting room, an entrance hall, and a bath.8
As the scion of a prominent family with long Harvard ties -- his
father, James, had graduated from Harvard Law School in 1851, and his
distant cousin Theodore, then running for vice president of the United States,
graduated from the college in 1880 -- Roosevelt fit smoothly into the Gold
Coast atmosphere. Though he had pledged to make a "a large acquaintance"
at Harvard, young Franklin remained firmly within his milieu of origin. Taking
his daily meals at an all-Groton table in a private dining hall, he spent many
of his evenings at Sanborn"s billiard and tobacco parlor, where he could
meet "most of the Groton, St. M[ark"s], St. Paul"s and Pomfret fellows. "He
was also a regular on the Boston social circuit, attending teas, dinners, and
debutante parties.9
Though Roosevelt"s distinguished lineage guaranteed him a
certain social success, it did not free him from the need to compete for a
place in Harvard"s rich and highly stratified extracurricular life -- a realm of
energetic activity that occupied a far more central place in the lives of most
students than their studies. Occupying the apex of the extracurriculum at
turn-of-the-century Harvard was football, and Roosevelt dutifully went out for
the team. He was joined by 142 other students -- well over a quarter of the
entering class.10 Trying out for the position of end, he stood 6"1" but weighed
just 146 pounds. On October 13, 1900, Roosevelt -- who had been a
mediocre, if eager, football player at Groton -- was notified that he had failed
to make the team.11
Within days of being cut, Roosevelt decided to try his hand at
another prestigious activity -- the Crimson, Harvard"s student newspaper. On
October 19, he wrote to his parents, informing them that he was trying out for
the newspaper and expressing the hope that "if I work hard for two years I
may be made an editor."12 But at the Crimson, as in football, he did not
survive the fierce competition; vying for a slot among 86 candidates, he was
passed over when the first crop of freshman was selected in February.13
Yet Roosevelt persisted in his efforts to make the paper, scoring a
coup in April when his cousin Theodore, by then the vice president, visited
Cambridge and told him that he would be lecturing the following morning in
Professor Lowell"s class in constitutional government. Franklin broke the
story in the Crimson, and the following morning a crowd of 2,000 was milling
about in front of Sanders Theatre, trying to attend the lecture. From this point
on, Roosevelt"s star began to rise, and in the autumn of 1902, he became the
Crimson"s assistant managing editor.14
As Roosevelt advanced at the Crimson, his success owed more
to his doggedness than his journalistic talent, for he was an unremarkable
writer. His family name was perhaps his greatest asset; in September 1901,
after the assassination of William McKinley, Cousin Teddy became president
of the United States. In Franklin"s February 1903 campaign for managing
editor (a position that led automatically to the presidency), a poster
read: "For Managing Editor -- Cousin Frank -- the Fairest of the Roosevelts."
Roosevelt won the election, ultimately serving as president of the Crimson
from June to December of 1903.15
The Crimson valued hard work and talent, yet some of the same
social cleavages that divided the campus were nevertheless visible.
Remembering his days on the newspaper, Roosevelt"s classmate Walter E.
Sachs, later of the Goldman Sachs investment firm, recalled that he lived in a
very different world from Roosevelt"s. Whereas FDR ate at the Groton table
on the Gold Coast and went to fashionable parties in Boston, Sachs and his
friends lived in the Yard and ate cheap and disagreeable food at table 30 in
Memorial Hall, which served 21 meals a week for $4.25.16
Yet Roosevelt got along with his fellow students on the Crimson.
Though hardly a crusading president (he devoted his editorial energies to
such issues as the deficiencies of the football team and the need for wider
walkways in the Yard), he revealed a talent as a leader. Recalling that
Roosevelt "liked people . . . and made them instinctively like him," his
classmate and successor as Crimson president, Walter Russell Bowie,
observed that "in his geniality was a kind of frictionless command."17
Though the Crimson presidency was a prestigious position, the
pinnacle of social success at Harvard resided in membership in the
Porcellian, the oldest and most exclusive of the "final clubs." On the face of
it, Roosevelt seemed a perfect candidate -- his father had been named an
honorary member of Porcellian, and Cousin Theodore had also belonged.
Roosevelt had also attended the right boarding school; of the sixteen juniors
and seniors in Porcellian, five were Groton alumni.18
The Porcellian stood at the summit of Harvard"s elaborate and
rigid social hierarchy, which began to sort students from the moment the new
freshmen arrived in Cambridge. By sophomore year, the class was officially
divided into the social elect and the outsiders by the venerable Institute of
1770, which identified the one hundred members of the class most fit
for "society." Elections were organized into groups of ten, with the first group
chosen by the previous class, the "first ten" choosing the second, and so on
until the tenth and final group had been selected. So exalted was election to
the Institute that the Boston newspapers and the Crimson published the
names of the students in the precise order in which they were admitted, a
practice that continued through 1904.19
Roosevelt, however, was bypassed not only by the "first ten" but
also by the four groups that followed. In late November, his roommate Lathrop
Brown was chosen, and Roosevelt was in a state of intense anxiety. Finally,
on January 9, 1902, he received word that he had been picked as "the first
man among the 6th ten."20 His election, albeit late, would give him automatic
entrance to Delta Kappa Epsilon (also known as DKE or "the Dickey"), a
secret fraternity that required its members to undergo arduous initiation rites
that have been aptly described as "a curiously primitive rite of passage." But
Roosevelt accepted these rites without complaint, writing to his mother that "I
am about to be slaughtered, but quite happy nonetheless."21
Roosevelt"s elation at being selected was understandable, for only
the first seven or eight groups of ten from the hundred students admitted to
the Institute of 1770 were invited to join the Dickey, and membership was a
prerequisite for election to a final club. Nevertheless, the fact that fifty
students had been placed ahead of a young man of such an unimpeachable
background was surprising and a bad omen. FDR"s placement may have
reflected some personal qualities that caused irritation even within the
Roosevelt family. On the Oyster Bay side of the clan (Theodore Roosevelt"s
side of the family), young Franklin had been given a variety of unflattering
nicknames, including "Miss Nancy" (because he allegedly "pranced and
fluttered" on the tennis court) and "Feather Duster" (a pun on FD deriving from
his supposed resemblance to the "prettified boys" displayed on a well-known
brand of handkerchief boxes). The gentlemanly and slight Roosevelt may
have been viewed as somewhat lacking in those "manly" qualities then so
highly valued -- an impression consistent with a Crimson poster that referred
to him as "Rosey Roosevelt, the Lillie of the Valley."22
Though friendly, hard-working, and well intentioned, Roosevelt was
not universally liked by his peers. Some of them, including his Groton
classmates, found him two-faced, a "false smiler," and -- beneath the veneer
of easy self-confidence -- rather "pushy." Others, including some of the well-
appointed women with whom he socialized, considered him shallow,
excessively smug about his family"s social standing, and priggish.23 But
whatever the sources of Roosevelt"s weak social position within Harvard"s
Class of 1904, a rank of number 51 in the Institute of 1770 did not augur well
for an invitation to the Porcellian Club, which accepted only eight new
members annually.
Nevertheless, Roosevelt continued to hope that he would be
elected.24 Yet when the moment came, he was rejected.25 It was a crushing
blow -- a deep humiliation for a young patrician who had taken for granted
entry into the most rarefied social circles. Though he was elected to the Fly,
another prestigious final club, it was little consolation. More than fifteen years
later, when he was assistant secretary of the navy, Roosevelt told Sheffield
Cowles (the son of Teddy Roosevelt"s sister Anna) that his rejection by
Porcellian had been the "greatest disappointment of my life" -- a failure made
still worse by the fact that two of Teddy Roosevelt"s sons, Theodore Jr. and
Kermit, had been elected to the club. Years later, Eleanor Roosevelt went so
far as to claim that the incident had given her husband an "inferiority
complex," albeit one that "had helped him to identify with life"s outcasts."26

The Big Three in the Early Twentieth Century

In his intense preoccupation with social and extracurricular recognition,
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an emblematic student of his time. Not only
at Harvard, but at Yale and Princeton as well, the academic side of the
college experience ranked a distant third behind club life and campus
activities. As a consequence, the competition for social position and the
leadership of extracurricular activities could be -- and often was -- ferocious;
in scholastic matters, however, the "gentleman"s C" reigned supreme.
At the center of student consciousness was football, which had
risen to extraordinary prominence in just three decades. Indeed, the
term "Big Three" may be traced to the 1880s, when the three institutions
established their dominance in collegiate football.27 By 1893, the game
between Yale and Princeton -- then held in New York City -- attracted
40,000 spectators and was such a compelling event that ministers cut short
their Thanksgiving service to arrive at the game on time.28 A decade later,
Harvard Stadium -- the first reinforced concrete structure in the world --
opened to welcome 35,000 people to the Yale game. Harvard Stadium later
expanded its seating capacity to 58,000, but it was its archrival Yale that in
1914 opened the largest football stadium in the nation, a shrine to football
that seated 70,000 spectators.29
Although big-time college football has long since shifted to other
schools and regions, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were the preeminent
powers in the nation at least through 1915. Yale, where the legendary Walter
Camp (the inventor of the "All-American" team) served for many years as
advisory coach, ran the leading football program in the country; between 1872
and 1909, the Yale Bulldogs won 324 games, lost 17, and tied 18.30 For
many Americans, the Big Three were known primarily as football
powerhouses; Frank Merriwell, the mythical Yale football hero of two hundred
dime-store novels published between 1896 and 1916, became a gigantic
mass phenomenon, with the series selling as many as 200,000 copies a
Princeton, too, was a major force in football, winning or co-winning
9 national championships (compared to Yale"s 14) between 1880 and 1915
and producing at least one All-American in every year but two between 1889
and 1914. Harvard, which lost regularly to Yale until a new coach changed its
fortunes in 1908, fielded the weakest team of the Big Three.32 According to
Brooks Mather Kelley, "Yale"s success against Harvard was so great that
Cambridge men began to think of Yalies as nothing but muckers [hired
professionals], while Yale men had serious doubts about the manliness of
the Harvards."33 Yet even Harvard was a major power, being designated
national champion or co-national champion seven times between 1890 and
1913.34 In 1919, Harvard -- named co-national champion along with Notre
Dame and Illinois -- went to the Rose Bowl, where on January 1, 1920, it
defeated Oregon, 7-6.35
But the Big Three were famous for far more than football. As
America"s most prominent colleges, they were widely viewed as training
grounds for the nation"s leaders. Between September 1901 and March 1921,
no one occupied the White House who was not an alumnus of the Big Three.
First Teddy Roosevelt (Harvard 1880), then William Howard Taft (Yale 1878),
and finally Woodrow Wilson (Princeton 1879) served as president. Not since
the early days of the Republic, when John Adams (Harvard 1755), James
Madison (Princeton 1771), and John Quincy Adams (Harvard 1787) were
elected to the presidency, had the nation seen anything like it.
Big Three alumni were also well represented among leading
corporate chieftains. In one study of top executives in the early twentieth
century, Harvard and Yale led the way; in another, Harvard ranked first,
followed by Princeton, Columbia, and Yale.36 Though self-made men such
as Andrew Carnegie still loomed large in the world of corporate magnates,
they overwhelmingly sent their own sons to elite private colleges. William
Rockefeller (a brother and partner of John D.) and Edward Harriman, for
example, were among the leading robber barons of the late nineteenth
century, and neither had attended college. But their sons, William
Rockefeller Jr. and Averell Harriman, both graduated from Yale. Even the
great John Pierpont Morgan, a cultivated man from a privileged background,
was not a college graduate; John Pierpont Morgan Jr., however, graduated
from Harvard, where he founded his own final club (Delphic, also known as
Gas) when he was slighted by the existing clubs.37
By the 1890s, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton had become iconic
institutions, exerting a broad influence on the national culture and on the very
definition of what it meant to be "a college man." Evidence of the public"s
interest in the Big Three was everywhere: in newspapers, in the crowds that
flocked to football games, and in the campus portraits that had become
regular features in national magazines such as McClure"s, Atlantic Monthly,
North American Review, and Scribner"s.38 Ernest Earnest, in his fine book
Academic Procession: An Informal History of the American College (1636-
1953), observed: "To an amazing degree the pattern set by Harvard, Yale and
Princeton after 1880 became that of colleges all over the country. The clubs,
the social organization, the athletes -- even the clothes and the slang -- of
the "big three" were copied by college youth throughout the nation."39 Though
Harvard, Yale, and Princeton may have faced stiff competition from other
universities -- notably Chicago, Columbia, and Johns Hopkins -- in the
battle for leadership in research and graduate education in the early years of
the century, their dominance in setting the tone of undergraduate life was
Despite their growing prominence, however, Harvard, Yale, and
Princeton faced serious problems. Yale had become the archetype of the
elite private college through the immense popularity of Frank Merriwell and
later of Dink Stover (the hero of Owen Johnson"s 1912 novel, Stover at Yale),
but deteriorating academic standards were a subject of intense internal
discussion.41 So, too, was the alleged decline in standards of deportment --
a significant issue for an institution that prided itself on turning
out "gentlemen." According to the Yale historian George W.
Pierson, "Disorders, infractions, and petty irritations had been getting rather
frequent and unnecessary." By 1902, "an unending stream of individuals had
to be disciplined for cheating, or for drunken disorder, or for throwing bottles
out the windows, or even for going sailing with low women."42
In 1903, a committee headed by Professor Irving Fisher issued a
devastating report about the academic atmosphere at Yale. Scholarly
performance, the report concluded, had been dropping regularly since 1896-
1897, with the decline most marked among the highest-ranking students. The
value system underpinning campus culture, which elevated social, athletic,
and fraternal activities over scholarship, was at the root of the problem: "An
impression is very strong and very prevalent that the athlete is working for
Yale, the student for himself. To be a high-stand man is now a disadvantage
rather than otherwise . . . In fact, hard study has become unfashionable at
"In general," the report went on, "the man who attends strictly to
study (the "grind") is regarded as peculiar or even contemptible. It is believed
that a man should "know men" at Yale; that "study is a mistake."" To support
its sobering conclusions, the report offered an intriguing fact: whereas 26 of
34 of Yale"s valedictorians had been tapped by one of Yale"s prestigious
senior societies between 1861 and 1894, only 3 of 9 had been tapped
So anti-intellectual was the undergraduate culture at Yale that
classes vied with one another for the honor of being the least studious. In
1904, the yearbook boasted of having "more gentlemen and fewer scholars
than any other class in the memory of man." But the Class of 1905, judged
by the Fisher Committee to have been the worst in recent Yale history,
bested its predecessor, offering the following ditty:

Never since the Heavenly Host with all the Titans fought
Saw they a class whose scholarship
Approached so close to naught.44

Meanwhile, the Yale senior societies continued to select their members on
the basis of athletic talent, prominence in extracurricular affairs, and social
background. And so great a public honor was election to a society that the
question of who was (and was not) "tapped" on Tap Day was the subject of
regular coverage in the New York Times.45
If intellect was not highly valued at turn-of-the-century Yale, it was
perhaps even less esteemed at Princeton. Headed since 1888 by Francis
Landley Patton, a Presbyterian theologian noted for his administrative laxity
and his failure to enforce disciplinary and academic standards, Princeton had
a reputation as the least academically serious member of the Big Three.46
Patton himself hardly helped matters when he reportedly said at a faculty
meeting: "Gentleman, whether we like it or not, we shall have to recognize
that Princeton is a rich man"s college and that rich men do not frequently
come to college to study."47 Patton also made a remark that was to haunt
Old Nassau"s reputation for years to come: Princeton was "the finest country
club in America."48
A sense of the atmosphere at Princeton circa 1900 is provided by
a newspaper account of a "rush" (a common event) that took place after the
freshman- sophomore baseball game: "The first-year men won the game, and
to celebrate the victory endeavored to parade the streets of Princeton under
the protection of the junior class . . . a battle, in which fists and clubs were
used freely, lasted for ten minutes. The sophomores, overwhelmed by
numbers, slowly retreated, and a running fight ensued, which was stopped by
the combatants becoming widely scattered over the campus. Many of the
students were badly used up, but no serious injuries were inflicted."49
Eugene O"Neill, who attended Old Nassau (as Princeton was often called by
its alumni) a few years later before dropping out after nine months, found a
similar atmosphere; "Princeton," he observed, "was all play and no work."50
By the early twentieth century, being selected for membership in one of
Princeton"s eating clubs had become far more important to most students
than their studies.51
So weak was Princeton"s academic atmosphere that a faculty
committee was formed in 1901 to investigate "the scholastic condition of the
college."52 Patton vigorously opposed its recommendation to raise academic
standards, and by March 1902 a group of trustees began to look into the
matter. It became apparent that Patton"s end was near when, at a dinner at
the Waldorf in New York, men from Harvard, Columbia, and Hopkins told
several trustees in blunt terms that "Princeton was becoming the laughing
stock of the academic world, that the President was neglecting his duty, the
professors neglecting theirs, the students neglecting theirs, that Princeton
was going to pieces."53 In a matter of weeks, Patton had been forced to
resign, and Woodrow Wilson, an eminent political scientist who had been on
the faculty since 1890, was named president. Wilson spent much of the next
eight years trying to raise his school"s academic standards.54
Though Harvard was by far the most academically distinguished of
the Big Three, it too suffered from a student culture largely hostile to
academic exertion. As at Yale and Princeton, a faculty committee was
formed at Harvard to identify the sources of low academic standards and to
devise policies for elevating them. The committee, which was chaired by Le
Baron Russell Briggs and included Harvard"s future president A. Lawrence
Lowell, concluded that the amount of time that students spent studying
was "discreditably small."55 Its analysis of replies to letters of inquiry from
245 instructors and 1,757 students revealed a surprising fact: the instructors
believed that students spent twice as much time on their studies than they
actually did. Even the better students were devoting only about 25 hours a
week to academic work, including the 12 hours spent at lectures; the less
committed students spent considerably less time on academic tasks.56
This was the era of Eliot"s liberal -- and much-criticized --
elective system, and many students gravitated to the "snap" and "cinch"
courses then abundantly available. So common was this practice that the
students joked about "the Faculty of Larks and Cinches."57 Henry Yeomans,
a government professor who was himself an alumnus (1900), aptly described
the atmosphere of the time: "Few, among either instructors or students, who
knew the College about 1900, and who respected intellectual achievement,
could be satisfied with conditions. A man who worked hard at his studies
was too often called a "grind." As if the term were not sufficiently opprobrious,
it was not uncommon to strengthen it to "greasy grind."" The problem, he
believed, was made worse by "the development of a social cleavage between
the men who studied and the men who played, or more commonly and
worse, who loafed." In Yeomans"s view, there could be little question about
who set "the undergraduate standard of idleness: it was the rich and socially
The low academic standards at the Big Three were in no small
part a product of just how easy it was to gain admission. A candidate had
only to pass subject-based entrance examinations devised by the colleges.
Like many American universities, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia
administered their own exams.59 But the tests were not especially
demanding, and a young man with modest intelligence from a feeder school
like Groton could usually pass them with ease.60 If he did not, however, he
could take them over and over again to obtain the requisite number of
Even the unfortunate applicant who failed to pass exams in
enough subjects could still be admitted with "conditions." In practice, this
meant that he gained entrance by special action of the faculty. At each of the
Big Three, admission with conditions became a common pathway to the
freshman class; in 1907, 55 percent of those admitted at Harvard had failed
to fulfill the entrance requirements.62 Similarly, at Yale in 1909, the
proportion of freshmen admitted with conditions was 57 percent; of these, 22
percent had one condition, 14 percent two, and 21 percent three.63 Even
Princeton, a smaller institution that was making a vigorous effort to raise its
standards under Woodrow Wilson, admitted a clear majority of its students
with one or more conditions; between 1906 and 1909, the proportion of
students so admitted ranged from a low of 56 percent in 1909 to a high of 65
percent in 1907.64
Why would these eminent universities admit so many students
who did not even meet their modest entrance requirements? Part of the
answer is their eagerness to enroll what later came to be called "paying
customers," for tuition provided the bulk of their income (over 60 percent at
Harvard in 1903- 1904).65 But there was also a powerful sense of pride in
sheer bigness, especially at Harvard and Yale. In the 1890s,Harvard
Graduates" Magazine (HGM) bragged about how its enrollment had grown
spectacularly and in the process outstripped Yale; in 1900, it boasted that
Harvard had the largest undergraduate enrollment in the nation and that its
total enrollment of over 4,000 placed it "among the great universities of the
world, surpassed in population only by Berlin, Vienna, Madrid, and
Paris. "Harvard, HGM noted proudly, had passed England"s two ancient
universities, Oxford and Cambridge, which enrolled just 3,500 and 3,000
students respectively.66
Although Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were willing to allow the
size of the freshman class to fluctuate from year to year to accommodate the
growing number of students who could pass some or all of the required
exams, there were powerful forces limiting expansion. In addition to
escalating competition from smaller colleges, such as Dartmouth, Williams,
and Amherst, there was an increasingly visible disconnect between the Big
Three"s traditional entrance requirements and the curricula offered by the
nation"s rapidly expanding public high schools.67 Both Yale and Princeton
required that candidates pass examinations in both Greek and Latin, thereby
effectively excluding most high school graduates, for only a handful of public
schools offered both languages.68 Even Harvard, which under Eliot had
abolished its Greek requirement in 1898, still required Latin -- not a problem
at well-established secondary schools such as Boston Latin and
Philadelphia"s Central High School, but still an insurmountable obstacle at
most public schools.69 The Big Three therefore found it hard to tap into the
expanding pool of high school graduates -- a point frankly admitted in 1909
in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, which noted that it did not recognize many
of the subjects taught in public high schools while its own requirements,
especially in classical languages, could not be fulfilled in most of them. Even
the public schools in nearby New York City, the nation"s largest urban
center, did not offer the courses required by Princeton.70
Especially when coupled with the high cost of tuition, the net
result of these requirements was that the students at Harvard, Yale, and
Princeton were overwhelmingly from well-to-do backgrounds. Almost
exclusively white (though in some years Harvard and Yale enrolled a handful
of blacks) and composed largely of graduates of elite private schools, the
student bodies represented the most privileged strata of society. Though
Harvard -- which had the most flexible entrance requirements and the most
generous scholarship program -- was a partial exception, the Big Three were
strikingly homogeneous, not only in class and race, but also in religion and
ethnicity.71 At Princeton, whose country club reputation was not without
justification, Catholics and Jews together made up only 5 percent of the
freshmen in 1900; at Yale, which was in a city with a large immigrant
population, the combined Catholic-Jewish population was just 15 percent in
1908.72 Even Harvard, which was in a dense urban area with large numbers
of immigrants from Ireland and southern and eastern Europe, the Catholic
proportion of the freshmen was 9 percent in 1908, with Jews constituting
roughly the same number.73
These were by no means trivial numbers, especially at Harvard
and Yale, but it was clear that the same relatively compact social group
predominated at each school: old-stock, high-status Protestants, especially
Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians. The Big Three were, in
short, overwhelmingly populated by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, or
WASPs -- a term coined more than half a century later by the sociologist
and chronicler of the WASP upper class, E. Digby Baltzell.74

The Protestant Upper Class and the Creation of a Cultural Ideal

As the nineteenth century ended, the Protestant upper class stood at the
summit of a nation that was more powerful than ever before. For the first time
in its history, the United States was a genuine global power; its population of
76 million far surpassed that of Great Britain, Germany, or France, and its
economy was the most dynamic in the world. In 1898, the United States had
made the fateful decision to enter into a war with Spain -- "the splendid little
war" that made the United States a colonial power, owning the Philippines,
Guam, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico along with de facto control of Cuba.75 The
United States thus took its place among the great imperial powers in a world
increasingly divided into zones controlled by the major European powers.
Though members of the Protestant upper class -- notably
Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, Elihu Root, John Hay, and Alfred T.
Mahan -- were at the forefront of the imperial project, the WASP elite was in
fact bitterly divided over America"s new imperial role. Indeed, it was graduates
of Harvard and Yale who made up most of the members of the Anti-Imperialist
League. And it was patricians such as William James, Thomas Wentworth
Higginson, and Charles W. Eliot -- joined by a diverse group that included
Jane Addams, Samuel Gompers, Mark Twain, and Andrew Carnegie -- who
led the opposition to the annexation of the Philippines.76
Condemning "Expansion, World-Power, Inferior Races, Calvination, Duty-and-
Destiny" as "twaddle and humbug," the anti-imperialists ringingly reaffirmed
America"s tradition of anticolonialism -- after all, the United States owed its
very origins to its colonial struggle against Britain.77
Yet the proponents of a new and more muscular American global
role carried the day, their cause strengthened by the brute reality that
European powers had gained control of one-fifth of the world"s land and one-
tenth of its population between 1870 and 1900 and that recent years had
seen the rise of Japan and Germany as colonial powers. In the wake of the
new global position of the United States, many white Americans (though not
Irish Americans), as the historian Nell Painter has noted, "renounced their
traditional anglophobia (a legacy of the American Revolution and, especially,
the War of 1812) to proclaim the kindredness of the English-speaking people
and the natural superiority of Anglo-Saxons."78 The ideology of Anglo-
Saxonism, though hardly new, received a powerful boost from America"s
entry into the ranks of imperial nations. Among the core tenets of the
ideology was the conviction that, not only blacks, Native Americans, and
Asians, but also the burgeoning population of Italians, Jews, Poles, Irish, and
other immigrants lacked the distinctly Anglo-Saxon talent for self-
During the three decades before 1900, the Protestant elite had
become a true national upper class. Under the stimulus of rapid
industrialization, urbanization, and nationalization of what had been a largely
regional economy, the upper class developed a set of institutions that helped
weld it into a national entity that bridged the cultural and social divide
between the old patricians and the nouveaux riches of the Gilded Age.
Among the upper-class institutions that either were invented or came to
prominence in the 1880s and 1890s were the Social Register (its first edition
was published in New York City in 1888), the country club, the exclusive
summer resort, and the elite men"s social clubs that arose in cities such as
New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.80
Educational institutions -- notably, boarding schools and the elite
private colleges -- played a critical role in socializing and unifying the
national upper class. Indeed, it was only during this period that entry into the
right clubs at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale -- few of which predated the Civil
War -- became a student obsession. Meanwhile, the upper classes of the
great eastern cities increasingly sent their children to the Big Three; by the
1890s, 74 percent of Boston"s upper class and 65 percent of New York"s
sent their sons to either Harvard, Yale, or Princeton.81
Perhaps even more than the Big Three, the emblematic institution
of the Protestant upper class was the private boarding school. Bringing
together children as young as eleven from the upper classes of the major
eastern metropolitan areas, the boarding school was the ideal instrument to
shape the personal qualities and instill the values most esteemed by the
Protestant elite. Educational and cultural ideals, Max Weber once observed,
are always "stamped by the decisive stratum"s . . . ideal of cultivation."82 In
the United States in the late nineteenth century, the "decisive stratum" was
the WASP upper class and its ideal, that of the cultivated "gentleman" along
British lines.
As early as 1879, the North American Review, a venerable
magazine founded in Boston in 1815 that was one of the few American
periodicals to compete with the great British quarterlies, published a two-part
series, "The Public Schools of England." It was written by Thomas Hughes,
the author of the popular Tom Brown"s School Days, and it was intended to
introduce an American audience to the peculiar British institution that had
proved so successful in welding the aristocracy and the rising bourgeoisie
into a cohesive ruling class.83 Hughes proposed that private boarding
schools on the British model be built in the United States to serve as
a "stepping-stone . . . between the home of the American gentry and the
"It is not easy," he wrote, "to estimate the degree to which the
English people are indebted to these schools for the qualities on which they
pique themselves most -- for their capacity to govern others and control
themselves, their aptitude for combining freedom with order, their public spirit,
their vigor and manliness of character, their strong but not slavish respect for
public opinion, their love of healthy sport and exercise." "However
discriminating a nation may be in spirit and character," he argued, "the time
must come when it will breed a gentry, leisure class, aristocracy, call it by
what name you will." The public schools had "perhaps the largest share in
molding the character of the English gentleman." Two "nations of the same
race, and so nearly identical in character and habits as the people of the
United States and the English, "Hughes concluded, would benefit from
employing the same type of educational institutions to shape their leadership
Less than four years later, a young Massachusetts patrician
named Endicott Peabody proposed the establishment of a boarding school in
New England almost exactly on the model described by Hughes. A member
of a distinguished family whose roots went back to the Puritans, at the age of
thirteen Peabody had moved to England, where his father joined Junius
Morgan (the father of J. P. Morgan) as a partner in a banking firm. "Cotty," as
the young man was called by friends, immediately entered Cheltenham, an
English public school, and soon became a devoted Anglophile. The sturdy
Peabody flourished at Cheltenham, joining enthusiastically in the athletic life
of the school and becoming skilled in cricket, tennis, and rowing. After five
years at Cheltenham, he went on to Trinity College at Cambridge, where he
studied law and once again was a star athlete. Though born a Unitarian,
Cotty developed a deep attachment to the Church of England during his time
at Cambridge.86
By the time Peabody returned to the United States in 1880, he
was as much British as American in both speech and demeanor. In search of
a career, he initially followed the family tradition by joining Lee, Higginson
and Company, a brokerage firm founded many years earlier. But he quickly
became restive in business and soon enrolled at the Episcopal Theological
Seminary in Cambridge. A competent but uninspired student, he briefly left
the seminary before being ordained to serve as parson in the remote town of
Tombstone, Arizona. Cotty then returned to complete his studies, and it was
there, in the spring of 1883, that he conceived the idea of a school that would
stress religious education and Christian life while striking a balance between
the acquisition of culture and participation in athletics. His vision, shared by
his fellow seminarian and lifelong friend Sherrand Billings, was of "a school
where boys and men could live together, work together, and play together in
friendly fashion with friction rare."87
For most twenty-five-year-old men, such a vision might be a
distant dream, but Endicott Peabody was no ordinary young man. Tall, broad-
shouldered, blue-eyed, and fair-haired, he was a striking presence whose
enthusiasm, energy, and obvious decency left a strong impression. More
than personal presence was needed, of course; founding a school, especially
a boarding school on the British model, would require considerable
resources. Cotty"s family, fortunately, was at the center of a network of some
of the wealthiest and most powerful patricians in the United States, so
resources would prove no obstacle. Starting with his relative James
Lawrence, who (along with his brother) donated ninety scenic acres of
farmland for the school, Peabody put together a board of trustees that
included J. P. Morgan, James and William Lawrence, Phillips Brooks, and
his father, Samuel Endicott Peabody. Its site was approved by no less a
figure than Frederick Law Olmsted, the renowned landscape architect. The
Groton School opened its doors in the fall of 1884.88
Groton was the second of seven elite boarding schools -- the
others were Lawrenceville (1883), Hotchkiss (1892), Choate (1896), St.
George"s (1896), Middlesex (1901), and Kent (1906) -- founded between
1883 and 1906.89 It was a period of tremendous social change in America,
and many of the transformations were deeply disturbing to the old Protestant
upper class. Mass immigration and rapid urbanization, in particular, created a
sense among patricians that they were losing control of the country,
especially its cities. Increasingly, they withdrew to their own clubs and
summer resorts.
The transformed urban environment of the late nineteenth century
presented a distinctive set of problems for the rearing of upper-class children;
whereas in previous years the elite had relied on private day schools and
tutors to educate their offspring, they believed that the city had become an
unhealthy place for children to grow up. One solution could be to send them
to an undefiled rural or small-town setting in which Christian educators of
solid character could be entrusted with their children"s moral development.90
The official announcement of the opening of "a School for Boys in
Groton, Massachusetts" made a direct appeal to these sentiments: "Every
endeavor will be made to cultivate manly, Christian character, having regard
to moral and physical as well as intellectual development . . . A farm of
ninety acres, in a healthy and attractive situation near the town of Groton, 34
miles from Boston and in direct communication with New York, has been
given the school, and upon this estate will be erected during the coming
season a building with classrooms and dormitory." In a preface to the
announcement, the trustees described the idea of Groton as "an attempt to
found a boys" school in this country somewhat after the manner of the Public
Schools of England"; they noted that the headmaster was a graduate of
Cambridge University who had spent five years at Cheltenham. Like its
British counterparts, which were "under the influence of the Church of
England," Groton would be "under the influence of the Protestant Episcopal
Church" and its headmaster, an Episcopalian clergyman.91
The tiny Groton School was an almost immediate success.
Within five years of its founding, Theodore Roosevelt, who had declined
Peabody"s invitation to become one of the school"s first teachers, wrote to
the headmaster, telling him that he was "doing a most genuine service to
America" and that "it has been a great comfort to me to think of small Ted
[then ten years old] at your school."92 In 1889, Peabody was asked to apply
for the presidency of Columbia University (he declined), and in 1890, the
prominent diplomat and future secretary of state John Hay asked Peabody to
place his two sons on the list of students wishing to attend Groton. To
support his request, he offered a list of references that included Oliver
Wendell Holmes, Henry Adams, and Phillips Brooks. (In the end, Peabody
placed the boys on the wrong waiting list, and they were forced to attend
other schools.) Even Emily Post entered one son"s name at birth for
admission to Groton and the other"s at age two.93 By 1900, a veritable
Who"s Who of the American ruling class -- Whitneys, Biddles, Adams,
Saltonstalls, du Ponts, and Roosevelts -- had entrusted their sons to
Endicott Peabody and Groton.94
Social distinction was at the very center of Groton"s magnetic
appeal to the Protestant upper class. Peabody himself -- with his patrician
appearance, his gentlemanly demeanor, and his ardent commitment to the
boys" cultivation of impeccable manners -- attracted the scions of leading
families. The men of wealth and power who entrusted their sons to him were
well aware of his unique social position. To be sure, many other boarding
school headmasters shared his background (if not his British education). But
none of them could match his personal location at the crossroads of
America"s two most important investment banking firms of the era -- the
House of Morgan and Lee, Higginson and Company -- in New York and
Boston, the nation"s two greatest financial centers.95 To the Protestant elite,
a Groton education meant, not only the inculcation of the right values, but
also the fostering of intimate ties to "the right people." One of the principal
motivations to send boys to Groton and like institutions seems to have been
their parents" desire to rescue them from the life of luxury and self-indulgence
that they feared the children were destined to lead unless vigorous
countermeasures were taken. "Early Groton parents," wrote Peabody"s
biographer (and Groton alumnus) Frank Ashburn, were privately disgusted
with the bringing up of well-to-do American boys of the period, "whom they
considered "spoiled ladies" men tied to women"s apron strings."96 Affluence,
they believed, was rendering their sons soft and effeminate.
In response to these concerns, the "St. Grottlesex" schools
imposed a regime of Spartan deprivation on their charges. At Groton, the
students lived in small, barren cubicles almost totally lacking in privacy.
Showers were cold, and weekly allowances were limited to a quarter, a nickel
of which was to be donated at Sunday church services. Deprivation, Peabody
firmly believed, was salutary; otherwise, the parental "tendency to overindulge
their children" would lead to a "lack [of] intellectual and moral and physical
What did not loom large among these parents was a commitment
to intellect. "For scholarship as such," Ashburn observed, "many parents
never gave a hang"; indeed, many of the most eminent among them had
never attended college themselves.98 What they correctly saw in Peabody
was a man who considered character far more important than intellect. In
hiring teachers, the rector (as everyone called him) valued intelligence, but he
believed that "there were things distinctly more important" such as "fine
character," a "lively manner," and a love of boys.99
At the core of Peabody"s vision of Groton was the ideal of "manly,
Christian character." Though the WASP elite was not particularly religious
(Ashburn notes, "Some of the early fathers do not seem to have cared
tuppence for religion, except as a thing to be generally encouraged and
strengthened"), it found this vision congenial.100 Especially appealing was
the emphasis on "manly" character, for the elite (and not only the elite) was
deeply worried that American men were losing their "manliness." A variety of
forces were behind this fear -- the closing of the frontier, the rise of white-
collar employment, the decline of family farms and businesses, the paucity of
opportunities in the decades after the Civil War to express valor on the
battlefield, and the expanding role of women.101 What Peabody implicitly
promised was to turn their often fragile and overindulged sons into the kind
of "manly" men fit to run the affairs of a great nation.
The idea of "manly Christian character" was a British import that
may be traced back to the writings of Charles Kingsley (1819-1875), an
Anglican clergyman, novelist, and Cambridge professor who exerted a
profound influence on the young Peabody.102 A passionate advocate of what
came to be known as "muscular Christianity," Kingsley was a devoted
English patriot and a stout defender of British imperialism. A proponent of a
reformist strand of "Christian socialism," he believed that committed
Christians were warriors on behalf of goodness whose responsibilities both at
home and abroad could not be met without great "strength and
hardihood."103 Kingsley was a firm champion of vigorous athletics, for sports
would instill the sturdy character and shape the strong body that permitted
Christians to do God"s work. Athletics, he believed, would offer England"s
privileged classes "that experience of pain and endurance necessary to bring
out the masculine qualities."104
Kingsley was near the height of his influence when Peabody was
a student at Cheltenham and Cambridge. Early in his college career, the
young American read the Life of Charles Kingsley, which first gave him the
idea of becoming a minister. Kingsley"s biographer, Peabody later
recalled, "set forth his subject"s enthusiasm in connection with social
problems" and "introduced me to a man of vigorous, virile, enthusiastic
character; a gentle, sympathetic, and unafraid example of muscular
Christianity, a "very" gentil Knight."105
Kingsley"s distinctive version of muscular Christianity exerted an
enduring impact on Peabody as well as on the headmasters of many other
leading American boarding schools.106
As at the British public schools, Groton"s vehicle for the
development of manly Christian character was athletics. Competing in sports,
Peabody believed, helped develop in students a multiplicity of virtues: loyalty,
courage, cooperation, and masculine strength. By teaching young men to
exert themselves to the fullest while playing within the rules, athletics would
teach self-control and a sense of decency and fair play.
Though quite attached to crew and "fives" (a kind of squash
imported from Eton), Peabody reserved his greatest enthusiasm for football.
All boys, however physically slight or personally uninterested, had to
play.107 Football was, in Peabody"s view, a deeply moral enterprise Writing
to a friend in 1909, he articulated his views: "In my work at Groton I am
convinced that foot ball [sic] is of profound importance for the moral even
more than the physical development of the boys. In these days of exceeding
comfort, the boys need an opportunity to endure hardness and, it may be,
suffering. Foot ball has in it the element which goes to make a soldier."108
For Peabody, as for many of his contemporaries in the British and American
upper classes, life was a ruthless Darwinian struggle between good and evil
in which the morally superior -- those who represented "civilization"
against "barbarism" -- would sometimes need physical force to impose moral
With athletes occupying the apex of the student pecking order,
both Christianity and character tended to be overshadowed
by "manliness."110
Ranking lower still was intellect -- a quality that was viewed with
suspicion as oriented to the self rather than the community. "I"m not sure I
like boys who think too much," Peabody once said. "A lot of people think of
things we could do without."111
In such an atmosphere, the boy of bookish or artistic inclination
who lacked interest in -- or talent for -- manly sports was relegated to the
lower ranks and sometimes despised. Remembering his years at Groton,
Ellery Sedgwick, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly who later became a
trustee, recalled "but a single instance of a boy who became the
acknowledged head of the school wholly innocent of athletic supremacy and
merely gifted with character and superlative intelligence." In a school in
which "organized sport is the personification of manliness" and the belief
widespread that "moral courage is a by-product of the physical struggle,"
Sedgwick observed, "the boy who seeks another path to his development
presents to the master a picture of a shirker and not infrequently a poltroon
as well."112
There was little room at Groton for the boy of artistic or intellectual
inclination; as his biographer admits, Peabody "distrusted artists as a
genus," believing them to be "a folk who have unreliable relationships with the
world, the flesh, and the devil, with a consequent weakening of moral
fiber."113 Nor was there much room for the independent spirit; in a letter to
the parents of a boy whom Peabody suggested "would get more from a
different school," the young man, whose offenses were admittedly "very
slight," seems to have been guilty of the crime of being "an individualist who
has little in common with his surroundings."114
Peabody was fond of saying that a headmaster has "to be a bit of
a bully"
and needs to have the capacity to inflict pain.115 But in Groton"s
system of authority and social control, it was often the students who used
the harshest means to enforce conformity and to punish classmates judged
deviant. For students deemed to be in violation of the school"s rigid and
sometimes mysterious code of etiquette or who were felt to be lacking the
right "tone" (often by showing insufficient deference to upperclassmen), the
punishment could be brutal.
George Biddle, of the Class of 1904, describes what would
happen when a student was judged to run afoul of school norms:

The heaviest of the fourth-formers -- perhaps a dozen of them -- grabbed the
offender, jerked him off the ground, and ran him down the cellar-stairway to
the lavatories in approved football rush . . . A first offender was given only
about ten seconds. The water came from the open spigot with tremendous
force and the stream could be concentrated in violence by thumb and fore-
finger. Besides the culprit was winded and frightened and held upside down
during the pumping. He was being forcibly drowned for eight or ten seconds.
Then he was jerked to his feet, coughing, choking, retching . . . If he hadn"t
had enough the first time he was put under again for ten seconds.116

Employed until the 1920s, "pumping" was carried out with the approval of the
senior prefect (the school"s highest-ranking student authority, appointed by
the headmaster) and the knowledge of the rector himself. Among those
students pumped in the early years at Groton were Teddy Roosevelt Jr. (who
was judged "fresh and swell-headed"), the future secretary of state Dean
Acheson ("cheeky"), and Peabody"s own son, Malcolm ("bad tone").117
The harsh atmosphere was part of a larger system of socialization
that imposed on the children of the privileged a willful regime of austerity and
deprivation. These schools were hardening the sons of the elite for a life of
command in which subordinates -- whether inferior classes, ethnic or racial
groups, or colonial "natives" -- would often be disinclined to obey and would
sometimes mount resistance. The system of power and control at the elite
boarding schools was devised to expose the young men who went through
them to the experience of both obedience and command, often under trying
conditions. Having survived institutionalized bullying, the graduates would
have the necessary toughness to succeed in their future leadership
The Groton ethos, like that of the leading British public schools,
was an uneasy admixture of two seemingly contradictory systems of belief:
gentility and social Darwinism.119 On the one side, men such as Peabody
were deeply committed to the nurturance of Christian gentlemen: men whose
devotion to such virtues as honesty, integrity, loyalty, modesty, decency,
courtesy, and compassion would constitute a living embodiment of
Protestant ideals.120 But on the other side, life was viewed as a struggle in
which the battle went to the strong, and those individuals and nations not
manly enough to participate would be left remorselessly behind in a world in
which only the fittest survived. The Christian gentleman thus had no choice
but to be aggressive and even ruthless in order to win.121
Peabody"s most important ally in promulgating this ideology was
Theodore Roosevelt, who had been preaching the virtues of "the strenuous
life" since the 1890s. A close friend of Peabody"s and the father of a
student, TR was a frequent visitor at Groton, where he unfailingly preached
the virtues of a life of gentlemanly service to the public. In a speech on
Groton"s twentieth anniversary, in 1904, President Roosevelt told the
students: "You are not entitled, either in college or life, to an ounce of
privilege because you have been to Groton -- not an ounce, but we are
entitled to hold you to exceptionable accountability because you have been
to Groton. Much has been given you, therefore we have a right to expect
much of you."122
Adherence to the philosophy of "the strenuous life," Roosevelt
believed, implied a "duty toward the people living in barbarism to see that
they are freed from their chains, and we can free them only by destroying
barbarism itself."123 The Christian gentleman, then, was impelled on both
moral and practical grounds to take up what some have called
the "gentleman"s burden": the responsibility, in the wake of the Spanish-
American War, to "fulfill duties to the nation and . . . to the race" and to "do
our share of the world"s work by bringing order out of chaos in the great, fair
tropic islands from which the valor of our soldiers has driven the Spanish
Peabody, whose beloved Cheltenham had sent many of its
graduates into the imperial civil service in India, shared Roosevelt"s
enthusiasm for America"s fledgling empire. Indeed, even before the Spanish-
American War ended, he wrote to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, offering
Groton as a source of the officials who would be needed to administer the
empire.125 Yet Peabody was not, as the historian James McLachlan has
rightly noted, "a howling imperialist; he simply believed that if America was to
have an empire, it should be a Progressive empire -- honestly administered
by well-educated gentlemen, pure, clean, and Christian."126
Peabody"s proposal to Lodge was an expression of his abiding
commitment to public service. Inscribed in the school"s motto -- Cui Servire
Est Regnare, "To serve is to reign"127 -- the emphasis on service was at
once a noble and altruistic ideal and an expression of a deeply embedded
assumption that the type of young men who went to Groton would (and
should) rule America. "In season and out," recalled Ellery Sedgwick, "public
service was held up to every boy as a shining goal."128 Yet the rector"s
dedication to public service was not purely disinterested, for public service is
also a form of public power.129 And to the extent that the power exercised
by a small group was perceived as serving the public good, it would enjoy the
legitimacy that was the condition of its survival.
Despite Peabody"s constant exhortations, most Grotonians
rejected the call to public service, choosing instead to pursue lucrative
careers in the private sector. While the rector was urging his boys to "keep
away from Wall Street," the financial centers of New York City held a special
allure for "Grotties."130 According to a study carried out by Groton, the
majority of alumni worked in business, with a particularly heavy concentration
in "finances, stocks, bonds, etc."; according to another study, Grotonians
were especially well represented in finance and banking, with a striking
presence in J. P. Morgan and Company and Lee, Higginson and
Company.131 A Groton alumnus from the Class of 1906 captured the depth
of resistance to Peabody"s efforts: "When he urged the boys to be true to
themselves and drop out of their parents" income class, they simply did not
hear him. They were going to make money enough to be able to send their
sons to Groton."132 Two students of the American establishment have put it
well: for most Groton graduates, "service to God and Country was
overshadowed by service to Mammon."133
Yet for a small but influential group, Peabody"s call to service
struck a chord. The Boston wing of the Social Gospel movement, the
historian Arthur Mann has argued, could be divided into two main groups: "the
moderates, who wished to Christianize capitalism; and the radicals, who
wished to socialize Christianity."134 No radical, Peabody clearly belonged to
the first group, but he was sincere -- as was TR -- in his desire to soften the
rough edges of a system too often dominated by greed. Inspired by the
rector"s quest for ameliorating reforms, a number of Groton alumni -- among
them, Averell Harriman, Dean Acheson, and Sumner Welles -- dedicated
their lives to public service.135
One young Grotonian who took Peabody seriously was Franklin
Delano Roosevelt. Registered by his parents at Groton in 1883, before
construction of the school had even begun (and when he was just a year old),
FDR came from a family committed to the same ideal of manly Christian
character as Peabody.136 His father, James Roosevelt, so respected the
rector that he wrote to him a few years before his son was scheduled to enter
the school, asking if he could recommend "a New England man," if
possible "a gentleman . . . with the culture and training of Englishmen,
combined with the standard character of the American gentleman" to serve
as a tutor.137 Though Peabody"s reply has been lost, a clearer statement of
the social and cultural ideals the two men shared would be hard to find.
Like many of his classmates, young Franklin felt respect
bordering on awe toward Peabody. But unlike many of his peers, he
genuinely shared the rector"s deeply felt religious beliefs. To FDR, as to
Peabody, the essence of Episcopalian faith was "a pure, simple,
unquestioning and unquestioned belief in God as a loving Father and in the
consequent ultimate beneficence of universal processes."138 According to
Eleanor Roosevelt, her husband"s deep religious faith -- which she described
as "simple," but "unwavering and direct" -- was an important source of his
self-confidence, his faith in his own judgment, and his belief that he and the
people he represented would ultimately prevail.139
As a student, Roosevelt was active in the Groton Missionary
Society, frequently visiting an eighty-four-year-old black woman who was the
widow of a Civil War drummer and twice serving as a counselor in a two-week
summer camp that Groton held for children from the slums of Boston and
New York.140 These activities reflected his devotion to Peabody"s ethic, and
they were the first step in a life devoted to public service. Yet Roosevelt"s
commitment to being of service to others was not entirely innocent of self-
interest; in a paper written during his second year at Harvard, trying to
explain why some of the great old Dutch families of New Amsterdam, but not
the Roosevelts, had gone into decline, he suggested that their fall had
occurred because "they lack progressiveness and the true democratic spirit."
The Roosevelts, on the other hand, had retained great "virility" as a family
because "they have felt that being born in a good position, there was no
excuse for them if they did not do their duty by the community."141
Though Roosevelt was energetic and intelligent, he never gained
Peabody"s full approval while at Groton. True, the rector had written a
generous note to his parents on his graduation, describing him as "a
thoroughly faithful scholar and a most satisfactory member of the school
throughout his course" from whom he would part "with reluctance."
Nevertheless, Peabody had denied him the school"s highest honor -- being
named a senior prefect.142 More than three decades later, the rector
offered his candid assessment of Roosevelt as a student: "He was a quiet,
satisfactory boy of more than ordinary intelligence, taking a good position in
his Form but not brilliant. Athletically, he was rather too slight for success.
We all liked him."143
Yet Roosevelt remained one of his most loyal "boys," asking him
to officiate at his wedding, sending all four of his sons to Groton, and saving
every single one of the birthday cards that the rector sent him (as he did all
Groton alumni) annually.144 In 1932, when FDR ran for president, Peabody
voted for Hoover, judging him an "abler man" even though he had been "very
fond of" Franklin "ever since he was a small boy." Nevertheless, his position
was to separate politics from personal sentiment: "I do not," he wrote to
Ellery Sedgwick, "consider personal relationships when I am casting my vote
for a Government official."145 Perhaps to soften the blow to Roosevelt -- that
a man whom he so admired would fail to support him at the climactic
moment of his political career -- Mrs. Peabody sent him a letter of
Yet Peabody was proud of Franklin"s ascension to the
presidency, describing it as "very much in the tradition of the Groton
School."147 FDR, in turn, maintained a reverential attitude toward the rector,
whom he invited to preside over religious services at St. John"s Episcopal
Church on inauguration day in March 1933. There Roosevelt sang hymns with
the rector, who had asked for "Thy blessing upon thy servant, Franklin."148
Roosevelt"s public display of religiosity met with Peabody"s strong approval,
and the rector later wrote to him that "it is a great thing for our country to
have before it the leadership of a man who cares primarily for spiritual things.
At a time when the minds of men are distraught and their faith unsteady, a
spiritual leader at the head of the nation brings fresh power to the individual
and to the cause of Christ and His Church." "To us in this School," he
added, "it is a great thing to be able to point to a Groton graduate, now in the
highest position in the country, believing in the Church and devoted to its
Throughout his years in the White House, FDR and Peabody
maintained a lively correspondence, with the president always beginning "My
Dear Mr. Peabody" and the rector responding with "My Dear Franklin." As the
New Deal unfolded, it became increasingly clear to Peabody that FDR was
trying to introduce changes that embodied the moderate strand of Social
Gospel reformism to which the rector adhered. In 1935 Peabody wrote to the
president, praising him as a man with "one supreme purpose in mind, the
guidance of this country in such a way that all its citizens who are minded to
do honest work shall have a chance to secure a living free from anxiety and
with an opportunity for the development of which they are capable." The rector
singled out for praise the Social Security Act and the Civilian Conservation
Corps, but it was FDR"s larger vision -- "that there should be throughout the
land a greater emphasis laid upon the duty of the citizen to the community
and this even among those who were formerly considering only their own
interests" -- that caused him to "most heartily rejoice."150
Though Peabody did not agree with all of Roosevelt"s policies and
rhetoric ("I do wish that Franklin had not denounced big business men as a
class"), he defended him stoutly against his enemies, especially those who
accused him of insincerity and a lack of integrity.151 Having known him so
long, the rector was secure in his evaluation: "While Roosevelt is not in my
judgment a particularly aggressive person, I believe that when he is convinced
that a thing should be done he has [the] courage to put it through."152
Roosevelt was, in short, a man of sound character, and that was good
enough for the rector.
Peabody"s enthusiasm was not shared by the vast majority of
Groton graduates. At a dinner at the Union Club in New York City given in
honor of the rector as he was approaching his eighty-first birthday, he
addressed the anti-Roosevelt mania among Groton graduates, telling the
assembled: "Something has troubled me a good deal lately. Personally I
don"t pretend to know much about politics or economics. But in national
crises like the present one, we get pretty excited and perhaps we give vent to
expressions that later on we are sorry for. I believe Franklin Roosevelt to be a
gallant and courageous gentleman. I am happy to count him as a friend."153
Silence greeted his remarks -- a fitting response, perhaps, for a group in
which the sentiment was widespread that FDR was a "traitor to his class."
But in Peabody"s view, Roosevelt was rather its savior. In a context in
which "change of a drastic nature was called for," the president"s
reforms "secured this country from the serious attacks made upon it by
extreme radicals."154
By 1940, with the Nazis occupying France and poised to overrun
Britain, the United States faced the greatest threat to its survival since the
Civil War. Realizing the nation was in peril, Peabody and Roosevelt drew
even closer, affirming the basic values they had long held in common. On
April 25, 1940, FDR wrote to Peabody: "More than forty years ago you said,
in a sermon in the old Chapel, something about not losing boyhood ideals in
later life. Those were Groton ideals -- taught by you -- I try not to forget --
and your words are still with me and with hundreds of others of "us boys.""155
Less than six weeks later, with Paris about to fall to the Germans, Roosevelt
wrote to the rector once again, assuring him that he was "deeply conscious
of the great responsibilities resting on this country in the present dark hour of
the world"s history" and firmly "convinced that the people of the United States
will not fail in upholding, and, if necessary in defending, the ideals which have
made their nation great." Peabody responded immediately, praising the "high
wisdom and magnificent courage" with which the president was confronting
the "grave problems" facing the nation.156
Roosevelt was disappointed that Peabody, then eighty-three, was
unable to preside over religious services at the start of his third term, in
January 1941, but his response was magnanimous: "I count it among the
blessings of my life that it was given to me in formative years to have the
privilege of your guiding hand and the benefit of your inspiring example."157
They remained in contact, exchanging notes in the immediate aftermath of
the attack on Pearl Harbor and visiting in 1942. Although Peabody was
twenty-five years his senior, Roosevelt apparently found it difficult to conceive
that the sturdy headmaster was mortal, for when he wrote the directions for
his funeral service, he requested that the rector preside. When the end finally
came for Peabody, in November 1944, the person with him at his sudden
death reported that they had been chatting pleasantly and that his last words
were: "Franklin Roosevelt is a very religious man."158
Gravely ill himself, Roosevelt was shaken by Peabody"s death and
sent this wire: "The whole tone of things is going to be a bit different from now
on, for I have leaned on the Rector all these many years far more than most
people know."159 Soon after, in his 1945 inaugural address, the president
harkened back to something that "my old schoolmaster had said":
that "things in life will not always run smoothly . . . [but that] the great fact to
remember is that the trend of civilization itself is forever upward; that a line
drawn through the middle of the peaks and valleys of the centuries always
has an upward trend."160 Remarkably, these words reprised the rector"s
sermon that FDR had heard almost forty-five years earlier, at the dedication
of Groton"s new chapel on October 15, 1900.161 Things came full circle:
three months after his own address, Roosevelt too was dead of a cerebral
Though Roosevelt had been Peabody"s most renowned student,
the rector"s standing in the larger community had been established long
before FDR became a public figure. In 1904, with President Theodore
Roosevelt delivering the keynote address and Franklin (recently graduated
from Harvard) in attendance, Peabody presided at a festive celebration of
Groton"s twentieth anniversary. Prominent old Grotonians poured in from
distant quarters, but the most visible sign of the school"s remarkable
success came from the presence of representatives from Harvard and Yale,
both of which conferred honorary degrees on the rector. In granting Peabody
a master of arts, Yale attached the citation: "What strength is to weakness,
what experience is to ignorance or blind confidence, what light and faith are
to darkness and doubt, what courage is to trembling fear, what the spiritual
potter is to the pliant clay of youthful character, what Paul was to Timothy --
that, all that, is the Head Master of Groton School to the young manhood
blessed with his devoted instruction and companionship." Harvard, still the
destination of most Groton graduates, did Yale one better, conferring on the
rector a doctorate of sacred theology. Its citation read: "Endicott Peabody,
graduate of the English Cambridge, clergyman, headmaster of a school for
boys that stands for purity, manliness, and helpfulness."162
In two short decades, Groton had established itself as the nation"s
most prestigious boarding school, exerting an influence that went far beyond
the small social group in which it originated.163 Yet Groton and comparable
schools rarely spoke in public of cultivating "Christian gentlemen"; instead,
they called for building "character" -- a way of freeing the values embodied in
the notion of a gentleman from their association with a particular social
class.164 By conferring honorary degrees on Endicott Peabody -- the
quintessential Christian gentleman -- Harvard and Yale were consecrating
the educational and cultural ideals that he and his school represented.
Implicit in these ideals was a particular definition of "merit" -- one that
considered "character," "manliness," and athletic accomplishment as
important as academic excellence. Less than two decades later, when
Harvard, Yale, and Princeton adopted selective admissions policies and for
the first time imposed a limit on the size of the freshman class, it was this
definition that profoundly shaped the admissions criteria -- and the social
composition -- of the Big Three.

Copyright © 2005 by Jerome Karabel. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Universities and colleges -- Atlantic States -- Admission.
Education, Higher -- United States -- History.