William Jewett Tucker — Founder of “The New Dartmouth”

President William Jewett Tucker, a theologian by training, remade Dartmouth and brought it into the 20th Century by remaking the curriculum, broadening the College’s base of students, and stripping Dartmouth of narrow parochialism. (Image courtesy of Rauner Special Collections)By Ke Ding and Thomas L. Hauch

“Snobbishness he abhorred, cheapness he despised, and vulgarity he hated. Life as he would have had it lived by mankind would have had nothing soft, nothing small, nothing indifferent in it, but, granted that his example could have been made all-pervasive, would have been cleaner, straighter, more unselfish, and more free from littleness and meanness than life among men has ever been.” — Ernest M. Hopkins, in A Tribute, about President William Jewett Tucker

Who was this hero, this prototypical Dartmouth Man, about whom another President could speak so effusively? Today, all who knew William Jewett Tucker are gone; and it is all too easy, reading the somber biographies and granite-etched achievements of Dr. William Jewett Tucker, to ignore the living, breathing Tucker. The man who was often seen strolling the campus, erect and alert, his “walk that of the army quick-step.” His greeting, to those passing by, was always friendly but never effusive, like “that of an officer, with an almost military salute.” With a century gone by, it easy to forget the man who spent his last years riding through Hanover “in his trim horse-drawn single-seater, buggy or sleigh, alone or with Mrs. Tucker at his side.” He could be expected every week at Rollins Chapel, “at the early morning period, or at the Sunday Vespers, apparently distant but really near, apparently impassive but actually impassioned.” But the details make the man, and the man who became “the Great President” is no exception. Understanding the achievements and the everlasting legacy of William Tucker requires returning to the start.  

The Young Tucker

The story of Dr. William Jewett Tucker begins where he was born, in Griswold, Connecticut in 1839. His grandfather was known as “Squire Tucker,” a prominent man judged by his success in business and his active role in politics. His father had joined the family business, though for a short time he studied at Amherst. With the death of Tucker’s mother, however, the Connecticut home began to break up, and he relocated with his aunt to the small town of Plymouth, New Hampshire. His uncle there was the Reverend William Jewett, pastor of the Congregational Church in Plymouth. And so it was in Plymouth, infused with the noble sensibilities of his grandfather and shaped by the rigid morals of a Puritan home, where the conscience of William Tucker began to form. Northern New Hampshire was then (and perhaps remains so today) a rough-hewn and traditional part of the United States. Life was certainly sheltered, and the religious and moral observances of Puritanism played a dominant role in village life. His uncle was not, as Tucker described, a  “boy’s man,” never quite understanding the interests and curiosities of a young child. But at the same time, Reverend Tucker did not ignore his nephew, allowing the boy to come into his own life. And as Tucker describes in his autobiography, beyond the cold surface of religion, his uncle was truly a charming man. “Whatever the Puritan home may have been aforetime, I know only by report, but when it became the home for my generation, it stood for a natural, intelligent, and reasonably free approach to the world.”

William Jewett Tucker enrolled at Dartmouth in 1857, by his own regard, “better prepared to pursue the course of study than to understand the moral significance of a college training.” Inured to the restrictive discipline of his Puritan upbringing and his preparatory education, he was wholly unprepared for the freedom of college. As an undergraduate, he noted, he could hardly understand the significance of his time at Dartmouth. But as an administrator in his later life, he was able to reflect upon the values he gained. In his 1919 autobiography, My Generation, he noted that  “the college of the earlier type was organized around the idea of unity: the modern college is organized around the idea of intensiveness.”  The faculty of Tucker’s undergraduate years was a group of scholars with similar training and a similar worldview. When he became president a generation later, it had transformed into a body of specialists with scarcely anything in common.  The curriculum of Tucker’s time had served to unite the student body, but the College had since traded a focus in the liberal arts for the practice of narrow specialization. As president of Dartmouth, these memories played an active role in his decision-making. He was wholly guided by the traditions of a past generation, and, perhaps more than any president before or since, committed to maintaining what he saw as the unique character of the College. 

His time at Dartmouth also coincided with the first rumblings of the Civil War. Though drawn in his early days to study law, the start of this conflict instilled in him a new sense of purpose. For Tucker, the call to the ministry might have “lacked some of the usual motives,” as he did not feel an especially strong commitment to the Church.  He felt the need, instead, to restore the spiritual values that were lost amidst the bloodshed. After Dartmouth, he continued his theological work at Andover Seminary in Massachusetts. After receiving his doctorate there in 1866, he returned to the seminary the very next year as a minister. 

Development of a Radical

This 1870 picture captures Tucker in the middle of his studies at Andover Theological Seminary, where his Calvinism developed in a controversially heterodox way.In his thirteen years as a minister at Andover, he developed an altogether radical view of Protestantism, and begun crafting a new theology that confronted social problems. According to Tucker, “the religion of the previous generation had become largely introspective…It sent the religious man to his closet…It was a religion of charity as well as of experience. But it did not send him into the shop or the factory. It was not a type of religion fitted to understand or to meet the problems involved in the rise of industrialism.” He recognized the positive impact of missionary work, which for so long had characterized the religion. But as he pointed out, Christianity had simply “shrank from contact with the growing material power of the modern world. It saw the religious peril of materialism, but not the religious opportunity for the humanizing of material forces.”

His liberal views proved a danger to himself, however, when the “Andover Controversy” erupted in 1886. Several members of the seminary, including Tucker, published a journal called the Andover Review. The Review accommodated Darwin’s theory of evolution and lent credence to a number of other supposedly “radical” views. In the effort to suppress the Review, the governing board of the Andover Seminary launched a heresy trial against Tucker and four other professors, charging them for their calls to liberalize the Congregational Church.  The case ultimately traveled to the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, where at last the charges were declared faulty and the five professors, Tucker chief among them, were acquitted. In an era long before the more infamous Scopes Monkey Trials, the significance of the ruling and the dogged spirit of William Tucker, who stood for his ideals in the face of extraordinary pressure, cannot be understated.  

At the Helm 

In 1892, almost immediately after the Andover Controversy had been defused, Dr. Tucker received his first call to the presidency of Dartmouth College. He declined the offer in a published letter, owing his decision to a sense of obligation to Andover.  The requests were renewed, however, and again and again, the Board “threw the whole responsibility of the standing or falling of the institution onto his shoulders.” He could not hold out forever, and he finally accepted the offer in 1893. Addressing the College for the first time, Tucker was, as always, honest and forthright, his language stripped of bland ideals and combed of any hopeful fantasies.  The College, he explained, should not strive to be an ivory tower. “The modern college is not a cloister, and the discipline which it demands is not the power of mental abstraction, but the power of mental concentration.” Speaking practically, he conveyed the stern compassion of a weathered minister, admonishing those who believed they would graduate without discipline or hard work. He lamented the rate at which students were dropping out of Dartmouth, but reminded those listening that each man himself was the chief factor in this problem. Of this, he said: “To reduce the matters to plain routine, it depends upon the ability of a man to school himself to work steadily rather than spasmodically, and to work under interruption, in the midst, that is, of somewhat disturbing surroundings.” 

As it was later written in one of his numerous biographies, “[Tucker’s] chief goal was not to create academics, but to create leaders. He believed in the Dartmouth man, and he instilled in every student a sense of self-respect and obligation.” Regarding his ideal student, and in turn the ideal man, Dr. Tucker explained the role of self-respect. “The self-respecting man is quite sure to meet those obligations which make him a power for good to himself and to others. He will not be apt to forget his business, he will not be apt to lose his way or stay for a long time off the path of rectitude and honor. Knowing his own rights, he will respect the rights of others, and measuring the needs of his fellows by his own standards he will contribute generously to the common good.” 

As Dr. Tucker recognized, the unique aspect of college life is indeed its inherent sense personal freedom. He had discovered that for himself as undergraduate at Dartmouth. But in the intervening years, he had come to realize that the privilege of freedom is worthless without the moderation of self-respect, or a sense of personal obligation. And as for arrogance, to which freedom so often gives rise, Dr. Tucker reserved his harshest rebuke: “Conceit is a disgrace to any man, and it is an unpardonable disgrace to a college man.” There was introspection and idealism here, but also a firm attachment to discipline, to the real and the practical, and above all else, an unyielding commitment towards the highest goal of educating men.

When Tucker entered office in 1893, Dartmouth was still reeling from the shocks and controversies of the previous administration of William Bartlett. By the time he stepped down, Bartlett had lost the support of faculty, students, and alumni alike. The graduating class of 1881 had, in fact, called for his immediate removal from office, and the Board of Trustees was forced to launch an investigation into his presidency. As a chronicler of Tucker described it, “Into the rights and wrongs of that controversy I do not need to enter at this late day; but it had alienated the sympathetic interest of a considerable number of the alumni, and some of the outgoing graduates had departed in a mood either indifferent or hostile.” 

One of Tucker’s early goals, then, was to repair the embattled relationship between the administration and the alumni. It could even be said that Tucker relied too heavily on the Board and on the faculty for decisions. As Charles Richardson, a professor of the College at the time, explained, “Dr. Tucker always made it a cardinal principle to give every really interested person, instructor or student, ample time to state his whole view, if thus light might be secured.” In the end, it was worth it. Tucker’s delegation of authority and his openness to different views led to the development of self-reliance among students and confidence in Tucker as an administrator. 

But there was one quality of leadership, in particular, which served to strengthen the moral resolve of students and unite the College as a whole: Tucker’s facility as a communicator was the triumph of his presidency. As one biographer put it, “His greatest achievement for Dartmouth, after all, must forever be declared to be the influence of his ten-minute chapel talks at Sunday vespers. Here, in a union of spirituality, common sense, and the pithiness, week after week and year after year, he struck straight home to the moral element in the undergraduate mind…” 

At the time, chapel attendance was required among students, and every Sunday Dr. Tucker was there at the pulpit. The topics of his sermons varied from week to week, from the overtly spiritual to the purely practical. But regardless of the subject, his goal was always to instill a sense of self-respect and personal obligation. Dr. Tucker believed that in order to render his greatest service to society, a man must develop the highest capacities within himself. As President Hopkins described those weekly talks, “[Dr. Tucker] revealed to college men the value of learning, the worth of moral purpose, the beauty of holiness. Men went out from his presence wishing to be larger and more unselfish.”

Of course, Dr. Tucker also brought about improvements of the more tangible variety, and for that he was often called the “founder of the New Dartmouth.” 

His administration saw a transformation of the Dartmouth landscape and an expansion of its horizons: 19 new buildings were constructed; water, lighting, and heating systems were installed throughout campus; annual revenues rose from less than $20,000 to over $120,000; enrollment increased from 347 in 1893 to 1067 in 1909; and the percentage of students from outside of New England doubled. When President Tucker arrived, the College was at risk of becoming irrelevant. Public education in the US had expanded, and more students were enrolling at colleges than ever before. But Dartmouth at the time simply did not have room for more students. It did not have the equipment to expand the physical sciences, and it did not have the money to hire new faculty. It was under the administration of Dr. Tucker that Dartmouth grew from a small, undistinguished rural school into a truly world-class institution. Of his accomplishments Dr. Tucker said, “They are to be told only in terms of human values: the morale of the College, its renewed vitality, it quickening influence upon the undergraduates, its expanding influence across the Nation and across the seas.” 

With this rapid growth, however, Dr. Tucker faced the challenge (that remains with us today) of maintaining the unique character of Dartmouth College.  In My Generation, Dr. Tucker explained one of his fondest observations: “I have been greatly interested in observing how surely the traditions of the College, if by any chance they have been submerged under the passing enthusiasm of an undergraduate generation, reappear in the graduate of after years.” Under his administration, Dartmouth could very well have followed the path of other schools, but Dr. Tucker was able to resist the temptation of transforming the College into a university. 

Creating Unity, Building Bridges

Tucker’s efforts to rebuild burnt bridges with alumni paid handsome dividends. Importantly, he cultivated a relationship with Edward Tuck ’62, who provided the money for Tuck Business School during Tucker’s tenure.Under previous administrations, the elective system at the College had continued to expand, often at the expense of existing departments. With so much freedom, however, the curriculum lacked the necessary degree of concentration and purpose. Indeed, the College did not have majors or minors, and students were able to graduate without true mastery of any one subject. In 1902, Dr. Tucker brought the faculty before him, and together they agreed upon a radical overhaul of the College curriculum. Although freshman were to be given some latitude in their choices, after their first year, students now had to organize their electives within a pre-defined “major.” Although it marked an unquestionable reduction in academic freedom, Dr. Tucker’s decision served to reunite the student body along the lines of a fundamental education. 

Dr. Tucker also faced the issue (also relevant to today) of conciliating with an entrenched alumni base, something his predecessors had failed to accomplish. The institution had long been a stronghold of conservatism, dominated by reactionary theology, averse to educational experimentation, and working in large part with the material facilities of the eighteenth century. There was the imperative need for “reconstruction and expansion,” to fulfill a modern education. But to raise funds, Dr. Tucker had to seek help from the alumni. “I think a great deal can be accomplished by impressing upon the alumni the fact that the College must depend upon them increasingly for financial support,” Tucker wrote. “It is no more than as the alumni of our colleges increase in wealth, the colleges should share in the increase; but the necessity for this should be made apparent.” 

Midway through his administration, the College began receiving the aid of Edward Tuck, of the Class of 1862. Significant both for their timeliness and magnitude, his donations were the most important individual factor in the expansion of the College. Tuck was the first among wealthy alumni to identify himself financially with the College. After decades of decay, Dr. Tucker began, by winning the favor of Tuck, to gradually repair the ties between the alumni and Dartmouth. It is strange and yet somewhat comforting to realize that the divide Dr. Kim grapples with today has a precedent in the divide that Dr. Tucker faced, and ultimately overcame, a century ago. 

None of the problems faced today, of course, can compare with the specter of the First World War. The duty of steering Dartmouth through those turbulent times fell with full force upon Dr. Tucker, and he did so with grace. Never one to shield his own reflections, Dr. Tucker applied his intelligence and reason to the politics of waging war, doing so candidly and forthrightly. In his work, Not Yet in the Name of Religion, published in 1917, Dr. Tucker set forth the reasons why, on religious grounds, a peace with Germany “must be deemed impracticable while she remains in her present mood. For not only Christianity, but the religious principles that found acceptance long before the advent of Christ, are under assault.”  Tucker asserted that the Germany’s nationalist psyche remained unbowed even after it had been knocked to its knees. It was a controversial view at the time, but one that rested its arguments on honest and forthright characterizations. The same brand of thinking appears throughout much of his work. In an article written in 1912, for example, regarding the presidential race between William H. Taft, Woodrow Wilson, and Theodore Roosevelt, Tucker ascribed his vote for Taft as much for reasons of policy, as for his scorn for what he saw as the personal arrogance and conceit of Roosevelt. 

When Tucker finally retired from the Dartmouth presidency in 1909, the College had undergone the most significant transformation, both moral and physical, that it had ever seen (and probably will ever see). Students and faculty, as well as alumni from across the country, understood very well what he had accomplished. In A Tribute, Ernest Hopkins wrote:  “Some one at some time may tell with reasonable completeness what President Tucker did, so far as tangible results indicate this. No one can ever know how much the intangible factors of life in his time were affected by him.” 

Hanover’s Sage

Tucker retired to a house on Occom Ridge.In 1925, The Daily Dartmouth ran a profile of Tucker, the now retired, elderly neighbor of Dartmouth. He would pass away the following year, leaving behind a remarkable legacy that lives on in the liberal disposition of his Dartmouth, and in the moral work of the Tucker Foundation, established by President Dickey to honor the memory of his predecessor. But in 1925, it was already clear how great his influence had been. “The man most responsible for Dartmouth College as it is today lives in comparative seclusion on Occom Ridge. His reputation has been that of a ‘Christian statesman’ the nation over, and he has been characterized by his benevolent leadership and a personality which wins the love of those around him. His capacity for unselfish friendship seems unending; and his nature is enriched by a deep sense of humor,” wrote The Daily Dartmouth. “One of President Tucker’s favorite doctrines was ‘Sympathy.’ As he described it, ‘Sympathy’ is the Christian term for contact. It is the most concrete and sensitive expression of both love and justice. The kind of consideration which demands of one man in behalf of the other is expressed in the personal words ‘Put yourself in his place.’

“He belongs to the American Nobility, the nobility of true democracy, holding its title from no hand of royalty, but that of self-conquest.”