It was at the turn of century, on the threshold of an era first of prosperity and then of world tumult, of globalization and elite gentlemen commanding the global stage, that Nicholas Murray Butler came to power. One might not always describe the appointment of a university president as a "coming into power," the way that one describes the reign of a distinguished national political leader. But those words are right to describe Butler: Indeed, they came straight from his pen.
Though he was born in 1862 to a working-class family in New Jersey, one would not have guessed Butler's humble background. He affected a posh city accent throughout his life, belying how Michael Rosenthal, in his biography of Butler titled Nicholas Miraculous, describes his origins as a "parvenu from Paterson"—a man of obscure birth who gained his social status in adulthood. He received his bachelor's, master's, and doctorate degrees from Columbia in 1882, 1883, and 1884, respectively, and worked in the realm of education for the next decade before his inauguration as Columbia's president in 1902.
Butler was the University president for 42 years, and the era of his presidency was one of great political influence on and off campus. He captured the American public's attention for several decades straight, each year having his addresses to the nation published in the New York Times. His utter obscurity today, however, raises the question of how significant his accomplishments were: whether his "coming into power" was one of staying power, or if the enormity of his name was temporarily swollen in the public eye, doomed to deflate.
Butler's inflated perception of his own significance is perhaps best represented by a certain document. One day in 1940, Nicholas Murray Butler created this chart, to be found posthumously in a file labeled "Personal Odds and Ends":
Today, this chart is preserved in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library in the "Butler papers."
"Astonishing as this numerical confluence is," Rosenthal writes in Nicholas Miraculous, "it is no less astonishing than the demands of an imperial ego obsessed with making a claim for its own significance."
Who was this man who considered himself so irrevocably engraved into history? Who was he to compare with these statesmen that bore the weight of leading nations, some responsible for the immense tragedy of millions of lost lives?
Rosenthal describes Butler as a "splendid anachronism," a dinosaur—colossal but unadaptable—exemplary within his era but unable to make the crossing into post-World War II American society. One looks at the barest bones, the whisper of his fame today, and catches a glimpse of an American era in which the height of life and leadership was represented by the "educated gentleman." This was before the American aristocratic class had fallen from public reverence.
Butler's idea that the English-speaking world was best suited to spread its political ideologies and structures across the world, detailed in his collection of essays "Why War?", could not withstand the complexities and heightened tensions of post-World War II international relations.
Even as a highly accomplished academic, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 for his work on the Kellogg-Briand Pact—a 1928 international accord promoting peace over war—and a man described as "the most lavishly decorated member of the human race" in the Philadelphia record in 1928, one could not characterize Butler's impact as being of the same scale as Stalin, Roosevelt, Hitler, or Mussolini.
Grouping those four leaders together is ludicrous enough—they share the same decades and arena of influence, but little else—and adding Butler into the mix distorts the picture considerably. Where Butler might have best theorized his place among these men is not in the impact that he made on the world as an individual, but as the man who made Columbia Columbia, the powerhouse of intellectualism that it became under his leadership.
"Handing Butler the materials of a small school, [the trustees] watched admiringly as he made for himself a powerful empire of education," Rosenthal writes. "In turning Columbia into one of the largest and best-known universities in the world, he served the longest tenure of any university president." In the four decades of his leadership, Butler turned Columbia from a small college into an internationally influential research university.
Rosenthal writes, "Columbia was Butler's university, its stature a result of Butler's ability to goad, inspire, and sell it." His dream for Columbia was comparable in scale to many great dreams whose impacts reverberated through the centuries; like John Winthrop's dream of Boston as a city upon a hill, Butler wanted Columbia to be looked up to by the rest of the world. Whether this scale of dream for Columbia was actualized is debatable.
Butler spoke of Morningside Heights as a neighborhood with the potential to become an intellectual acropolis, declaring on his 75th birthday: "What was in my mind, and is in my mind still, is that Morningside Heights shall become the greatest capital of the mind that the world has ever seen—either ancient or modern—and that from it there shall go out to every part of this land and to every foreign land a steady and heartening stream of influence and inspiration in every field of thought and endeavor."
Graphic by Isabel Chun
If Columbia was the Athenian Acropolis to Butler, however unrealistic the notion, to many he was its Homer. Mihajlo Pupin, the physicist after which Pupin Hall was named, once wrote in a letter to A.V. Williams Jackson, a fellow Columbia professor, of the "magic of Butler's winged words."
Certainly the association of Butler Library and Homer is not a stretch for us students, the bard's name being engraved across the building's expansive façade. Yet this comparison is deceptive in its temporality, for while Homeric texts are the oldest texts in our Core Curriculum, their legacy withstanding the deteriorative forces of millennia, Nicholas Butler's legacy has largely been forgotten.
In his day, Butler was a powerful speaker and a self-assured leader whose linguistic and academic accomplishments were amply praised by his contemporaries, including Teddy Roosevelt, who first coined his nickname "Nicholas Miraculous." When the International Mark Twain Society awarded him a medal in 1937 for educational accomplishments, it was inscribed "To the American Plato" and presented to him by his friend Benito Mussolini. This event reveals two tenets of Butler's legacy: He was both an incredibly talented orator, and a long-time fascist sympathizer.
An ardent capitalist, Butler bonded with Mussolini over their shared resentment of socialism and communism, and particularly the way those political movements manifested in Russia under the Bolsheviks. The two were friends for years and would debate political theory over tables at dinner parties.
Butler's friendship with Mussolini, and his fascination with the dramatic economic changes that fascism had so quickly wrought in Italy, led Columbia's president to ardently declare in his essay "New Critics of Democracy" that "Fascism is a form of government of the highest order of excellence."
Though his relationship with Mussolini wasn't completely out of the ordinary for American intellectuals at the time, many of whom Rosenthal characterizes as having fallen under Mussolini's sway—"admiring his decisiveness, intelligence, and personal magnetism"—Butler was a man of expansive vision and sought friendships with like men.
Even so, the degree to which his friendship with Mussolini outpaced in vigor even his fascination with the Italian dictator is evidenced by the longevity of Butler's support for his agenda. "During the time that Mussolini gradually developed into the repressive political leader Butler ought to have despised, he continued to have faith in him," Rosenthal writes. Butler's ties to Mussolini himself eclipsed his ties to the man's political philosophy over time.
This overlapping of the personal and political is evident in the assistance that Mussolini offered Butler in the creation of Columbia's Casa Italiana in 1927, for which Mussolini provided financing, connections, and even the furniture, Rosenthal explains. In 1934, The Nation ran an exposé on Casa Italiana, claiming that it was the United States' fascist propaganda center.
Accompanying a published letter of response from Butler, which firmly disavowed any political significance to the Casa's functioning, was a letter from a Columbia professor at the time, Max Ascoli, who wrote, "Italy being what she is now, the Casa Italiana could not help being a center of Fascist propaganda," somewhat diluting the forcefulness of Butler's denial.
The tension between the grandiosity of Butler's vision, the larger-than-life scale of his image in the public eye, and the realities of his role as a university president—not a nation's leader—was evident in dilemmas such as this. Another such example was his choice to invite the Nazi Ambassador Hans Luther to speak on campus in 1933, which students protested to no avail.
Butler was also an overtly political figure in the domestic sphere, running unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920 and 1928, and was a delegate to every Republican National Convention from 1888 to 1936. But however large the magnitude of his ambition, Butler was no Roosevelt nor Mussolini.
What New York Times writer Thomas Mallon called Butler's "most creative involvement with the undergraduate college", in an article reviewing Rosenthal's book, was the variety of strategies Butler employed to keep Jewish enrollment in Columbia down, ranging from mandatory disclosure of familial background to physical examinations of prospective students by non-Jewish administrators.
His support of fascism and anti-Semitism were positions undoubtedly less favorable to the American public in the decades following World War II than the decades preceding. Along with many other men whose political ideas and ambitions failed to make the leap into the second half of the twentieth century, Butler's name, after his death in 1947, quickly lost its resonance.
Today his name remains slightly larger than life, as it signifies that massive facade, that Homer-Herodotus-Plato, those golden elevators and silent dusty rows of books and hours of students'morning, afternoon, night. But it is no wonder that students today might disassociate the library from the man behind its name. More motif than man, he is an inaccessible idea, a dusty dream, whose eyes we can only struggle without success to meet in his massive hanging oil portrait on the third floor Butler staircase.