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(sifting icon)1949


THIS ENTIRE STUDY had its inception in a desire to identify the author of the "sifting and winnowing" motto for which the University of Wisconsin has become famous. When inquiries on this point were first addressed to friends at the University, two candidates for the honor of authorship were prominently mentioned. Attention was called to the declaration of the elder La Follette that "This declaration of freedom was framed by Herbert W. Chynoweth, then a member of the board ..."9

Contradicting this, however, was the assertion of J. F. A. Pyre, historian of the University: "The sentences were written by President Adams, though they have sometimes been ascribed to the chairman of the committee which reported them to the Board of Regents."10 The association between Professor Pyre and President Adams had been quite intimate, so that Pyre might well have had direct evidence on the authorship of the well-known words. Unfortunately, neither Pyre nor La Follette holstered his nomination with supporting testimony.

Of the major participants in the Ely trial, Ely was the sole survivor when this study was undertaken in 1942. Inquiry disclosed that at that time Ely was in his 89th year, was living in semi-retirement near New York City, and was in declining health. It was not known whether Ely could or would bear evidence as to the authorship of the words on the tablet. Of all living men it seemed patent that he, the defendant in the trial of 1894, should have such first-hand knowledge. He had had the friendship, the aid, and presumably also the confidence of President Adams in 1894. His testimony, if obtainable, was vital to the purposes of this study.

At the request of the author, three of Ely's close acquaintances successively consented to solicit a statement from Ely. The three letters were written at varying intervals because of Ely's failure to make seasonable reply to the first two inquiries. However, he did make prompt answer to the letter addressed to him by W. S. Kies, a prominent New York alumnus who was closely associated with Ely for a number of years and was one of the trustees of Ely's Foundation.

On the facing page is a photographic copy of that letter.

About the same time Professor E. E. Witte also received an answer from Ely, offering the same emphatic information. It is evident that the quest was initiated seasonably. Ely died in the following year.

The Alfred T. Rogers mentioned in the Ely letter was the son-in-law of H. W. Chynoweth, chairman of the hearing committee.

In view of this evidence each reader may decide for himself whether or not, in the spirit of the motto, the truth has been found.

9 Robert M. La Follette, La Follette's Autobiography (Madison, 1913), 29.

10 James F. A. Pyre, Wisconsin (New York, 1920), 293.