Butler at Columbia
To the Editor:
In his article, “Dinner with Butler and Eisenhower” [January], Edward Le Comte raises the question of Nicholas Murray Butler’s attitude toward Jews but offers no answer other than a repetition of Diana Trilling’s account of the circumstances surrounding her husband’s appointment to Columbia’s English department.
I have recently spoken about this matter with long-time Columbia faculty members I.I. Rabi, Salo Baron, and James Gutmann as well as Albert Marrin, a Butler biographer, and Mrs. Trilling, who, incidentally, erred when she stated that her husband was the first Jew appointed to Columbia’s English department. Joel Spingarn, a literary critic later instrumental in founding the NAACP, was appointed to Columbia’s faculty in 1899 at the age of twenty-two.
Mr. Le Comte’s assertion that Butler’s anti-Semitism “if it existed, would not be easily detected,” is correct, but not, as he suggests, “because Butler was so far from coarse.” The distaste for Jews prevalent in the circles in which Butler moved was discernible, genteel as it might be. It was after all the era when Morris Raphael Cohen could be turned down for a Yale appointment because “he didn’t know how to wear a dinner jacket.” (Indeed, one of Butler’s two wives is said to have nurtured a more overt anti-Semitism.) It was Butler’s lordly aloofness from both students and faculty that made it impossible then, and difficult even now, to ascertain his views vis-à-vis Jewish students and faculty. Rabi, a Nobel laureate whose career “just rocketed” once he stepped on Columbia’s academic ladder, and who subsequently single-handedly created at Columbia one of the greatest physics departments in the world, not only never had dinner with Butler, he never spoke with the man. . . .
In making academic decisions where Jews and Jewish issues were involved, Butler was subject to the pressures of his Middle East faculty and of the Union Theological Seminary, with which Columbia has ties. Though there is much to learn about how Butler handled such matters during the four-decades-plus of his presidency (1901-45), he appears, even in his eighties, to have been, as Felix Adler quipped, “in control of his faculties.” Certainly, he managed some scholarly coups in Jewish studies that would have been impossible at other universities.
In 1944 Butler obtained Adolph S. Oko’s great Spinoza collection for Columbia after it had been refused by Princeton “on the grounds that it would bring in Jewish students and scholars.” He also actively pursued Emma Lazarus’s correspondence. . . .
But the foremost of Butler’s Jewish academic “credits” must be considered the establishment of a chair of Jewish studies in 1929, the first of its kind in an American university. Created by the bequest of Nathan J. Miller, the chair’s title and departmental “location” were hot potatoes tossed among Columbia’s linguistics, theology, and history departments, until Butler named it “Jewish history, literature, and institutions” and placed it firmly in the history department. His appointee, the thirty-four-year-old Salo Baron, had insisted, “I am a historian.”
Butler appears to have had an interest in the early history of Jews in New York, and made inquiries on the subject to Dr. Louis Finkelstein of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Perhaps this interest stemmed from the fact that Gershom Mendes Seixas, the first cantor born and bred in America, was an incorporator and early trustee of Columbia University; perhaps it was because Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo, with whom Butler had a warm friendship, came from a Sephardi family that had settled in New York before the American Revolution. . . .
Butler’s major contribution to Jewish life on campus may have been his refusal in 1907 to permit a Protestant dedication of the newly built St. Paul’s chapel because that would have prevented Jewish and Catholic students from holding exercises in it. When a churchman remonstrated with Butler, he is said to have silenced him with the declaration, “I am Pope on Morningside Heights.” Butler is also credited with adding Catholic and Jewish religious counselors to the college’s staff, . . . though he appears to have had little or no concern with the everyday variety of anti-Semitism faced by Jewish students and faculty.
On friendly terms with fellow academician and eminent economist Edwin R.A. Seligmann, five years his senior and a member of the Columbia faculty since 1885, Butler maintained amicable social relations as well with the Lewisohns, Klingensteins, Buttenwiesers, and Schiffs, who made large contributions to the university. . . . Yet the building Adolph Lewisohn contributed to Columbia in 1904 was called “Mines” before it took his name, and the building Jacob H. Schiff contributed was never named for him. And along with ordinary Jewish students, the scions of the elite experienced slights and insults, and were blackballed by Gentile fraternities. (The first Jewish fraternity in the country was established at Columbia in 1898.)
Pontifical, aloof, cautious . . . Butler, although one of the 119 signatories along with Presidents Woodrow Wilson, William Howard Taft, and Theodore Roosevelt of the January 1921 “Christian Protest” against anti-Semitism, was essentially silent on Zionism and the Holocaust, the great Jewish issues of his era. In reply to requests in the 30′s and 40′s from Jewish leaders, including Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, his informal adviser on Jewish affairs, for statements, Butler often asserted that his status as trustee of the Carnegie Endowment prohibited him from taking public stands. . . .
Intolerance on the grandest scale is what triggered Butler’s interest in Jews. “Undemocratic behavior” tripped his pen. His statements ostensibly addressed to Jewish organizations on the subject of persecution were in reality supplications and admonitions to persecutors to behave better toward everyone.
Asked in 1924, the year Ku Klux Klan membership exceeded four million, for a Jewish New Year’s message on the subject of Christians and Jews, Butler sent the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle a statement in which he called the Klan “as un-American as hereditary monarchy,” and described its members as “enemies of America, not its defenders.”
In 1939, when refugees were streaming from Europe, he told the American Jewish Congress that he was opposed to “the worldwide persecutions of races and minorities which are now going on. This manifestation,” he added, “not only of narrowness of view, but of cruelty which almost approaches barbarism, is one of the marvels of our supposedly modern time. Unless we can bring men to look upon their fellows as human beings like themselves regardless of racial origin, economic status, or religion, we shall not be getting on with the building of a truly democratic society.” . . .
Was Butler anti-Semitic? Possibly. But he was also sufficiently committed to creating a great university to override his anti-Semitism. Or sufficiently shrewd to hide it. Or sufficiently principled to rise above it. It is tempting to believe that the Pope of Morningside Heights might have tried in his ponderous way to be worthy of his own ideals.
Bronx, New York
Edward Le Comte writes:
Estelle Gilson and I are hardly in disagreement. She cannot decide that Nicholas Murray Butler was anti-Semitic and neither can I. My article is the springboard for her independent (and useful) excursus.
Let me note, however, that my article was more than just “a repetition of Diana Trilling’s account” (which, however, is major evidence). I went analytically through Butler’s Across the Busy Years, told relevant anecdotes about appointments, and presented a view of Butler’s personality. I too consulted my old friend James Gutmann, who, not being well, wrote back briefly and too late.
The second sentence of Miss Gilson’s third paragraph does nothing to deny what the first sentence has me saying. “Far from coarse” and “genteel”: are not these synonymous?
As for Morris Raphael Cohen, I show in my article that one does not need to be Jewish in order not to “know how to wear a dinner jacket.”