By James Tobin
Tappan was the largest figure of a man that ever appeared on the Michigan campus, and he was stung to death by gnats!– James Burrill Angell
Chapter 1 A Rabble in Arms
Mrs. Tappan had tried to make the best of things, after all.
Did these uncouth westerners realize what she and her husband had given up?
And now they meant to depose him? When his accomplishments in Michigan had only begun?
Did they have the remotest appreciation of the sacrifice she and her husband had made by abandoning their lives in New York and Europe in order to plant the seeds of higher education in this remote village at the edge of civilization?
They had come to Michigan in 1852. In the decade since, her husband, the University’s first true president, had brought about something akin to a miracle.
Because of him, a ragtag little college now aimed to become a university like the great academies of Europe.
Because of him, the first astronomical observatory in the West stood at the edge of the campus with telescopes trained on the heavens.
Because of him, the institution was bringing honor to its young state.
Yet almost since the beginning, her husband had been mocked and pilloried by jumped-up farmers and press hacks educated in one-room schoolhouses—he, a philosopher honored in European seats of learning, and a doctor of divinity, no less!
And the locals were still hooting and howling over that perfectly innocent remark she had made to some ladies to the effect that she and her husband saw themselves as “missionaries to the West.”
And why not put it that way? After all, she was a Livingston. Her family tree included Hudson Valley landholders of immense wealth; a signer of the Declaration of Independence; a member of George Washington’s cabinet.
In fact, it had been rather beneath her station to marry a mere clergyman, even one as distinguished as Henry Philip Tappan. But they had made a happy life together, and raised four children, and when he decided he must accept an invitation to become president of this fledgling school in the western pines, she had gone along and done her best.
And now, it seemed, a rabble wanted to take it away.
Chapter 2 “Ridiculous and Contemptible”
The president’s chief antagonist in his early years was Wilbur Storey, owner and editor of the Detroit Free Press, a fierce Democrat of the Andrew Jackson stripe in the days when American newspapers were warring organs of the political parties.
Storey set up Tappan as a target for the Democrats’ antipathy toward all things that smacked of exalted manners, European tastes and rule by fancy-pants aristocrats. He attacked Tappan for referring to himself as the University’s “chancellor.” The word was in the state’s constitution, but Storey said it sounded European, “ridiculous, and contemptible.”
Then he slammed the president for hiring an actual German, Franz Brunnow, as professor of astronomy — even suggested the two men enjoyed illicit relations.
The state’s other Democratic papers picked up the scent and joined the chase.
“Of all the imitations of English aristocracy, German mysticism, Prussian imperiousness, and Parisian nonsensities, he is altogether the most un-Americanized —the most completely foreignized specimen of an abnormal Yankee, we have ever seen,” said the editors of the Lansing Journal.
But Tappan’s defenders fired back. Students loved the president. A number of the faculty regarded him as an inspirational leader. One letter-writer put the Free Press on notice: “The Prussian system thus far has worked most admirably, and the course of our institution is onward and upward.”
After a while, Storey lost interest and went off in search of other prey.
Tappan’s new antagonists would be closer to home.
...he is altogether the most un-Americanized, the most completely foreignized specimen of an abnormal Yankee, we have ever seen.– Lansing Journal
Chapter 3 “Hauteur and Arrogance”
How was Tappan doing? It depended on who was asked.
Some professors believed he was just the right man for the job. Tappan made a deep impression on Andrew Dickson White, a young historian who would become the founding president of Cornell University. “His influence, both upon faculty and students, was, in the main, excellent,” White would write. “He sympathized heartily with the work of every professor, allowed to each great liberty, yet conducted the whole toward the one great end of developing a university more and more worthy of our country.”
Others took a very different view. Alexander Winchell was at the root of the trouble.
Winchell was appointed to the faculty on the recommendation of a good friend on the Michigan faculty, Erastus O. Haven, a professor of Latin and English. Both men were fervent Methodists. From the first, they were ill at ease with Tappan’s intention to favor the truths of secular science over biblical truth.
Winchell started as professor of physics and civil engineering. Tappan thought his work in those fields was sub-par, so he was fired. Then he was rehired as professor of zoology, geology and botany. (This was before strict faculty specialties took hold.)
Next, Winchell began to feud with Silas Douglas, a founder of the Medical Department. When Tappan sided with Douglas, Winchell took it personally.
Skirmishes between Winchell and the president broke out again and again, and other professors were drawn in. Most were trivial, but they brought out an imperious streak in Tappan. “We must have a University and nothing less,” he wrote a friend back east, “and then this earth will be firm beneath us, and the skies above will fight for us.” A man who saw God on his side in every minor argument was sure to irritate people after a while. Even those who respected him got tired of it.
Winchell, too, was something of a dramatist. Complaining about Tappan to a friend, he wrote: “I cannot…enumerate nor even recall a tithe [tenth] of what I have suffered; and still less can I depict the crushing hauteur and arrogance with which he causes me to feel his power.”
Writing under pseudonyms, Winchell began to criticize Tappan in the newspapers, especially Storey’s Detroit Free Press. When the Methodist Conference of the state passed resolutions criticizing the “moral condition” of the University, it was whispered that Winchell was behind it.
Chapter 4 Religious Wars
Fights about who taught which class and who ran the University’s telescope were insider stuff. Not many beyond the campus cared.
But when religion became the issue, they certainly cared.
You have to remember that before the Civil War, almost every American college was an auxiliary of a religious denomination. The main purpose of most was to train men for the ministry. That was only beginning to change.
U-M had been set up as a secular institution. But the churches still held a good deal of sway over how it was run.
So until Tappan, faculty slots had been doled out by an unspoken rule among the main Protestant denominations — Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Congregational, Episcopalian.
Tappan opposed this kind of power-sharing. He wasn’t anti-religion; far from it. He was an ordained member of the Presbyterian clergy. But he didn’t want the churches in charge. He hired faculty for their brains alone, with no questions about where they went on Sundays.
This caused trouble. Leaders of the church-based colleges — Baptists at Kalamazoo and Hillsdale; Methodists at Albion; Congregationalists at Olivet — raised a perennial stink about public support. Weren’t their colleges good for the state, too? So why favor the upstart in Ann Arbor with land and special breaks?
Tappan tried to explain. But to certain ears, anything he said about pursuing the truth regardless of religious affiliation sounded downright atheistic.
He tried to make everyone happy by attending services at all the churches in town. But this struck his fellow Presbyterians as a little odd, and it apparently struck others the same way.
He got into a spat with his fellow Presbyterians over the parish’s money. Then there was the matter of wine and beer.
Anti-saloon sentiment was running strong, especially in the new states. The territories might have been settled by people who grew apples for hard cider and made moonshine out back. But more respectable types had followed them, and they were cracking down. Since statehood, Michigan had enacted tight restrictions on hard liquor. Beer and wine were still allowed, but they were in foul odor among a great many people.
The Tappans had spent years in Europe. At their table, according to the European custom, they served wine with dinner.
When this got around, eyebrows rose. When a student died in a drunken fraternity initiation in 1857, temperance advocates pointed at the president’s poor example.
In the eyes of many, this fellow with his rich Eastern wife and his New England accent and his pompous turns of phrase, who praised European professors and pooh-poohed the dangers of drink, was surely some species of a snob — and if not downright godless, he was hardly the sort of plainspoken, good-hearted fellow who ought to be shepherding youngsters into Christian manhood.
In 1858, the regents who had appointed Tappan and supported his initiatives were turned out of office.
The president was on his own.
Chapter 5 The Regent from Detroit
Of the 10 regents elected in 1858, eight had never been to college. One had sat on the board of the Albion Female Collegiate Institute. The rest had never played any part in managing a college.
Their informal leader was a Detroiter named Levi Bishop. He had gone to work in a tannery at the age of 15 and risen to the management of a shoe factory. On the Fourth of July in 1839, Bishop lost his right hand when a cannon discharged at the wrong moment. So he became a lawyer.
In public life Bishop cherished two causes — public education and capital punishment. “Bitter and venemous” by nature, according to one student, he “possessed many peculiarities of character, and was often inclined to take the opposition of any question rather than concur with the majority.”
Bishop apparently had read every word the Free Press published about Tappan and sided entirely with Wilbur Storey’s view of the president. Once he joined the board, his expectations were confirmed. At one commencement, he sat on the stage with the other regents, barely containing himself as Tappan unloaded multi-syllable words and grand ideas. Finally Bishop stood up in the middle of the speech, stormed off the stage and then outside, where he stamped around and “declared, in the profanest form of swearing, that he could endure such stuff no longer.”
He had not been a regent long when he told people in Detroit that before his term was up, he would have Tappan’s head on a platter.
Chapter 6 Revolt from Above
According to one commentator, “Bishop came in assuming the air of one who had been sent by the people to reform corrupt and negligent practices.”
He sent his own pseudonymous critiques of Tappan to the Free Press.
He slammed Tappan for appointing his son as University librarian and for retaining his son-in-law, Franz Brunnow, as director of the Detroit Observatory even after Brunnow had married Tappan’s daughter.
By 1859, Bishop was leading a sort of revolt from above. He challenged Tappan’s power on constitutional grounds, saying the regents, not the president, were supposed to run the University. Bishop rammed through a plan by which the regents, for all intents and purposes, would run the University themselves through an unwieldy set of committees. Tappan’s executive freedom would be limited; in fact, his remaining duties would be little more than ceremonial.
He challenged the scheme, appealing to the faculty, the legislature, the attorney-general of Michigan. And the regents fought back.
Behind the scenes, Professor Winchell acted as an agent in the anti-Tappan cause, spreading ill will for the president among his colleagues. “He has long striven for absolute power,” Winchell wrote. “Whatever power he has been permitted to exercise has been wielded generally for the purposes of personal or family aggrandizement.”
For two years, then three, then four, this bureaucratic battle raged even as the nation plunged into civil war.
Tappan nourished his resentments. He couldn’t overlook a slight or put an argument behind him. And woe unto any professor whom he had helped and now dared to disagree with him.
He tallied up his grievances:
Professor Boise: “I [was] with him in sickness. I… performed the funeral rites over his sainted wife….[but] that he has long been hostile to the President…every one knows.”
Professor Fasquelle: “Although often invited to my house, together with his family, [he] never invited me or my family to break bread with him.”
Professor Winchell “attempted to form a cabal…for the removal of the President…”
Professor Watson: “None of the cabal were more openly hostile or active than himself.”
But worst of all was the man Tappan saw as the mastermind of the conspiracy, the puppet-master of all his enemies, “the Regent from Detroit,” Levi Bishop, whose “presence seemed to be ever hanging over the University like an incubus,” spreading “anonymous reports and letters, reviling the President of the University, fostering intrigue in and about the institution.”
Regent Donald McIntyre of Ann Arbor, who began calling himself “the resident regent,” took on day-to-day powers over the University, “holding grounds and buildings, museum, library, laboratory and observatory within his grasp, directing everything, governing everywhere.”
McIntyre’s son, the University’s steward, bragged around town that the president and professors were simply the “employees” of the regents.
Tappan stewed. He thought about resigning.
But friends urged him to sit tight. The regents would face the voters early in 1863, they pointed out. Many of the state’s men of influence sided with Tappan. So did most alumni. If he just outlasted the current board, all would come out right.
So he waited for the election.
Tappan and his supporters got their wish. Eight members of the board were turned out of office. New members were expected to back Tappan.
But the existing board would remain in office for several more months. And the two who had generally backed Tappan were now far away in the Union Army.
As Tappan put it later, “disappointed regents were now ready to carry out the long cherished purpose which the Regent from Detroit had years previously announced with an oath. They took, at the last moment, the revenge which remained to them.”
He has long striven for absolute power.– Alexander Winchell
Chapter 7 “A Great Mortification”
June 25, 1863, was Commencement Day. Tappan presided as usual. After the proceedings, the regents assembled for their regular meeting.
They asked President Tappan to step out of the room.
They didn’t take long.
A bill of grievances was presented: The president had taken on too much power; he was too often absent from Ann Arbor; there had been excessive rancor between Tappan and the faculty; when he disagreed with professors, he attacked their character and motives; “habits of wine and beer drinking to excess, and other improper habits, were not sufficiently discountenanced.”
It was moved, seconded and decided “that Dr. Henry P. Tappan be and he is hereby removed from the offices of President of the University of Michigan and Professor of Philosophy therein.”
Then they fired Tappan’s son, too.
And they voted to offer the presidency to Erastus Haven.
Tappan was called back in and given the news.
According to one account, Tappan stood, went to the door, then turned back and said: “The time will come, gentlemen, when my boys will take your places. Then something will be done for the University.”
* * *
The news spread quickly. Students were shocked. They converged on the President’s House and sang songs to honor the Tappans. Night fell and they moved in a mob toward Regent McIntyre’s house uptown. They pelted the windows with rocks and burned McIntyre in effigy.
For several days the party of Tappan held out hope. Angry Ann Arborites gathered to denounce the regents as “jackasses” and urged Erastus Haven to turn down the presidency. Letters flooded the regents demanding Tappan’s reinstatement. Word came by telegraph that U-M alumni in the Union Army massing at the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg had held a meeting to protest Tappan’s firing. There were cries of outrage in the national press, too; the editor of the Journal of Education called the firing an “act of savage, unmitigated barbarism.”
But then, in the first few days of July, dispatches from Vicksburg in the South and Gettysburg in the East brought news of great battles with enormous loss of life, and suddenly it seemed petty to make such a fuss about a college president.
If the faculty had united behind Tappan, he might have had a chance. Instead, a number of them sent a pledge of cooperation to the new man, Erastus Haven.
Even professors who might have preferred Tappan were in no mood to fight for him.
One of these was Thomas McIntyre Cooley, leader of the law faculty. He wrote to fill in his friend, Andrew Dickson White, who had recently left the faculty.
“You will have heard…that Dr. Tappan has been removed,” Cooley wrote White, “& that some people would pull the institution down about our ears for very spite. … It has certainly not been especially pleasant here.”
Despite the “great danger” of losing Tappan, Cooley said, “when the thing was done, there was no other…than to stand by it & make the best of it.”
And Cooley thought the president had hardly helped his own cause.
“It was a great mortification to Dr. Tappan to be removed just as he had got everything fixed here to suit him,” Cooley remarked. “His imperious manners were more noticeable than ever, & for a brief period he was monarch of all he surveyed. Then came the blow. For a short time he was doubtful that it had hit him, & expected the public voice to compel a reverse of the action. But …by this time he must have lost hope.”
Chapter 8 Aftermath
For some time Tappan apparently held out hope of being recalled, at least until the new regents took office. But no reprieve came. Eventually he and his wife sailed for Europe and settled in Switzerland, near their daughter and her family, taking frequent trips to European capitals.
Tappan continued to correspond with friends in Ann Arbor and elsewhere at home. In 1869 he was offered the presidency of the University of Minnesota. If he had been 10 years younger, he said, he might have taken it, but not now, in his sixties, and with his family replanted in Europe.
In Michigan, the weight of opinion slowly began to swing back in his favor. James Burrill Angell, who succeeded Erastus Haven as president in 1871, could not quite believe that an educator of Tappan’s vision had been so shabbily treated. “Tappan was the largest figure of a man that ever appeared on the Michigan campus,” he would write, “and, he was stung to death by gnats!”
Of course, Angell was overlooking the traits in Tappan that had contributed to his own undoing — his intellectual and moral arrogance, his ham-handed ways of dealing with faculty, legislators and regents. Angell’s own presidency was far longer and arguably more successful than Tappan’s for the very reason that Angell was far more astute than Tappan as an academic politician.
The tale was not quite done.
For some time, Tappan’s loyalists in Michigan, perhaps with a helping hand from Angell, had been nudging the regents to make a conciliatory gesture to the proud and aging philosopher abroad.
In 1875 their efforts were rewarded when the board formally invited Tappan to attend the University’s commencement exercises that spring. When he declined, citing temporary poor health, the regents agreed on an extraordinary expression of regret for what their predecessors had done a dozen years earlier.
In their official proceedings, they said they hoped Tappan might be able to come to Ann Arbor for the next year’s commencement.
Then they recorded their “full recognition of the great work done by him in organizing and constructing this institution of learning upon the basis from which its present prosperity has grown,” and their “regret that any such action should ever have been taken as would indicate a want of gratitude for his eminent services…”
Finally, they approved “a repeal and withdrawal of any censure, express or implied, contained in the resolution which severed his connection with the University.”
Tappan was touched, though not quite surprised.
“These resolutions are full and handsomely expressed,” he wrote to a friend. “They appear to me to cover the whole ground. This act of justice has been long delayed, but ‘my boys’ have been laboring for it until they have accomplished it. Their fidelity & devotion to me affects me deeply. Next year, now that the way is prepared, I hope to visit them…
“God knows I labored with a single eye to the good of the University. It was with me a labor of love.”
Tappan never did return to the United States. He died of a heart attack in 1881 at the age of 76.
* * *
Sources included Paul E. Lingenfelter, “The Firing of Henry Philip Tappan,” student paper, 1970, Bentley Historical Library; Review by Rev. Dr. H.P. Tappan of His Connection With the University of Michigan (1864); Charles M. Perry, Henry Philip Tappan: Philosopher and University President (1933); “Andrew D. White on President Tappan and the University as Tappan Made It,” Michigan Alumnus, March 1903; Howard H. Peckham, edited and updated by Margaret L. and Nicholas H. Steneck, The Making of the University of Michigan, 1817-1992 (1967, 1994); Autobiography of Andrew Dickson White (1906); Wilfred Shaw, The University of Michigan (1920); Proceedings of the Board of Regents, 1871-1875.