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(sifting icon)1949

Sifting and Winnowing

Theodore Herfurth


THIS STORY of the Struggle for academic freedom at the University of Wisconsin begins with a political revolution in the year 1890. In the preceding year the Republican legislature, under Governor William D. Hoard, had passed the Bennett Law which brought all parochial schools under the control of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Despite the protests of those favoring complete independence for parochial schools the Republicans chose to support the Bennett Law in the election of 1890. The first plank of the party platform disclaimed any design "to interfere in any manner with such schools, either as to their terms, government, or branches to be taught therein," and argued that since the law was "wise and humane in all its essential purposes" it should not be repealed.

Opposedly, the last plank of the Democratic platform contended that the law represented needless interference with parental rights and liberty of conscience, and denounced the regulation as "unnecessary, unwise, unconstitutional, un-American and undemocratic." The Democrats demanded repeal.

In the campaign which followed, debate centered principally on the Bennett Law. Republicans plastered all parts of the state with placards bearing a picture of the little red school house and a legend urging support of the law. Their campaign failed. Except for the single term of Governor Taylor, (1874-1876), the Republican party had dominated in Wisconsin since 1856. In 1890 the Republican control was broken. George W. Peck of Milwaukee, author of widely known stories about Peck's Bad Boy, became Democratic governor for two consecutive terms. Under Democratic auspices the legislature promptly repealed the Bennett Law.

The Democratic victory also elevated Oliver E. Wells, an obscure teacher from Appleton, to the office of State Superintendent of Public Instruction. He assumed his position July 1, 1892. By virtue of this office, Wells automatically became an ex-officio member of the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin. Within a few years he achieved notoriety by becoming the antagonist and violent public accuser of Professor Richard T. Ely, liberal director of the School of Economics, Political Science and History at the University.

Professor Ely had come to Wisconsin as one of America's most distinguished political economists. He had taken his doctorate at Heidelberg in 1879, and after 1881 had been a member of the faculty of the Johns Hopkins University, then the foremost graduate institution in the United States. According to Professor Edward A. Ross, who had taken work with Ely at Hopkins, his courses were by far the most pervasive and influential offered in the social sciences. Long before he had moved to Madison, Ely had freed himself from orthodox free-trade economics and had pioneered with a realistic, inductive approach to the subject. Since his economics aimed at promoting the welfare of human beings, Ely's attentions turned frequently to the concerns of the workaday world. He had a special interest in organized labor, an interest which involved him in dispute with Oliver E. Wells shortly after his removal to Madison.

Labor relations had been untroubled in Wisconsin's capital city prior to Ely's arrival. Then in the winter of 1892-93 a union organizer named Klunk, of Kansas City, came to town to organize the printers of the Democrat Printing Company. In January the printers struck, just as the company began fulfilment of its contract for state printing, which in that year amounted to more than $25,000. The company imported strike breakers and housed them in upper rooms of the Democrat building. There were numerous fights, clubbings, a stabbing in a North Pinckney Street saloon, and other disorders between strikers and strike breakers. A lockout followed the failure of the strike.

Within seven weeks there was another unsuccessful strike, this time at the shop of Tracy-Gibbs Printing Company. Five weeks before the strike Professor Ely called on W. A. Tracy to urge him to unionize his shop. At the time Ely was secretary and member of the executive committee of the Christian Social Union, an organization which sought to apply Christian principles and pressures to the solution of social problems. The printing of the organization's periodical was in Ely's hands, and it was his expressed desire to have this work done in a union shop. When he spoke to Tracy about the desirability of unionizing his shop he coupled the request with a veiled hint that unless the shop were organized the officers of the Christian Social Union might require him to withdraw the printing from Tracy-Gibbs. Ely spoke to Tracy five weeks before the strike, during the strike, and again after the strike, always in the same vein. His suggestions were adroitly discreet: in personal capacity he never threatened a boycott. However, Tracy thought he could divine the professor's intent.

While talking with Tracy about the strike, Superintendent Wells heard of Ely's urgings in the matter. Wells also interviewed strikers at the Democrat company, from whom he gained the impression that Ely had not only fomented their strike, but had also conferred with, advised, and entertained Klunk, the organizer. His suspicions aroused, Wells then read Ely's new book, Socialism: An Examination of Its Strength and Its Weakness, with Suggestions for Social Reform. Wells' hasty conclusion was that the book was a piece of rank socialistic propaganda.

Convinced that Ely was an economic heretic, Wells resolved to move against him. Several times he complained to President Charles Kendall Adams and the Regents about Ely's diabolical practices and teachings. They were not interested. Disappointed by his inability to get official action, Wells decided to make public charges against Ely, charges which would force the Regents to take cognizance and settle the question for all time.

On July 5, 1894, Wells prepared a scathing, excoriating and denunciatory letter which The Nation published under the heading, "The College Anarchist." It read as follows:


Sir: Your statement in the last Nation, to the effect that there is a sort of moral justification for attacks upon life and property based upon a theory which comes from the colleges, libraries, and lecture rooms, and latterly from the churches, is supported by the teaching and the practice of the University of Wisconsin.

Professor Ely, director of the School of Economics, believes in strikes and boycotts, justifying and encouraging the one while practicing the other. Somewhat more than a year ago a strike occurred in the office of the Democrat Printing Company, the state printers. An agitator or walking delegate came from Kansas City to counsel and assist the strikers. He was entertained at Professor Ely's house and was in constant consultation with him. A little later a strike occurred in another printing office in this city, in which Professor Ely was also an abettor and counsellor. He also demanded of the proprietors that their office should be made into a union office, threatening to take his printing away if they did not comply. (They were publishing a paper for him as secretary of some organization or association.) Upon the refusal of his repeated demands, Professor Ely withdrew his printing, informing them that he had always been in the habit of dealing with union offices. In conversation with one of the proprietors he asserted that where a skilled workman was needed a dirty, dissipated, unmarried, unreliable, and unskilled man should be employed in preference to an industrious, skillful, trustworthy, non-union man who is the head of a family. He also stated that the latter would have no ground of complaint, as he could easily remove the objections to him by joining the union, and that conscientious scruples against joining the union would prove the individual to be a crank.

Such is Ely the citizen and business man--an individual who can say to citizens and taxpayers, "Stand and deliver, or down goes your business," and to the laboring men, "Join the union or starve with your families." Professor Ely, director of the School of Economics, differs from Ely, the socialist, only in the adroit and covert method of his advocacy. A careful reading of his books will discover essentially the same principles, but masked by glittering generalities and mystical and metaphysical statements, susceptible of various interpretations according as a too liberal interpretation might seem for the time likely to work discomfort or loss to the writer. His books are having a considerable sale, being recommended and advertised by the University and pushed by publisher and dealers. Except where studiously indefinite and ambiguous, they have the merit of such simplicity of statements as makes them easily read by the uneducated. They abound in sanctimonious and pious cant, pander to the prohibitionist, and ostentatiously sympathize with all who are in distress. So manifest an appeal to the religious, the moral, and the unfortunate, with promise of help to all insures at the outset a large public. Only the careful student will discover their utopian, impracticable and pernicious doctrines, but their general acceptance would furnish a seeming moral justification of attack on life and property such as this country has already become too familiar with.1

Within a few days the Wells letter had been reprinted in the New York Post, and from there many other newspapers reprinted the story with varying comments. Wells had proceeded effectively. He had precipitated so highly embarrassing a situation that the Regents2 could not afford to ignore it. A prompt hearing of the case became imperative.

The board appointed a committee to investigate the charges. Members of the committee were H. W. Chynoweth of Madison, chairman, Dr. H. B. Dale of Oshkosh, and John Johnston of Milwaukee. The committee decided that the Wells letter should constitute the complaint, and that the scope of the hearing should be limited to the charges that Ely had encouraged and fomented strikes in Madison, that he had practiced boycotts against non-union shops, and that he had taught socialism and other vicious theories to students at the University. The committee decided against a complete investigation of Ely's books, lectures and professional papers.

Since Ely was in New York on a lecture engagement when the crisis developed, the defense of his interests was voluntarily taken over by his friends. David Kinley, a former Ely student who later became president of the University of Illinois, and Frederick Jackson Turner, the noted historian, busied themselves in his behalf. They collected evidence, and engaged one of Madison's most skilled and scholarly attorneys, Burr W. Jones, to represent the economist before the Regents' committee.3

Both Wells and Ely were summoned to the first hearing, scheduled for the evening of August 20, 1894 in the senior classroom of the Law Building. Many students, faculty members and prominent townspeople were present, as were Ely and his attorney. Wells did not appear. Instead he sent a letter, explaining and justifying his absence, and protesting against the limited scope of the trial; he was particularly anxious to investigate all of Ely's professional writings.4

In an effort to lure Wells to the next session, the committee wrote a letter assuring him a full and impartial hearing, and urging him to appear on the evening of August 21. This time he came, reinforced by a distinguished local attorney, Colonel George W. Bird. The latter operated at a disadvantage, for he had been called into the case so suddenly that he had had no time to interview witnesses or make other necessary preparations. Ely's attorney suffered under no similar handicap. The accused also enjoyed the advantage of a large and sympathetic audience. As points were scored for Ely, the audience registered approval with noisy applause, much to the discomfiture of Wells and his attorney, who threatened to withdraw if demonstrations of favoritism continued.

One of the first to testify before the committee was Thomas Reynolds, a striker at the Democrat office. Presumably he could offer proof that Ely had been involved in that dispute. Colonel Bird tried to compel Reynolds to admit that he had said that Ely had conferred with and counseled the organizer, Klunk. Reynolds declared that if he had ever thought that Ely was involved, he had been mistaken; that if he had said that Ely was implicated it was because someone had unreliably told him so; and that he, personally, had no such knowledge. Unable to get worthwhile testimony from Reynolds, Bird found it impossible to prove that Ely had encouraged a strike.

When W. A. Tracy, the printer, was called to the stand he testified that, although on three separate occasions Ely had urged him to unionize his shop, he had not coupled it with a threat that he personally might assume responsibility for taking the Christian Social Union's printing to another establishment. In fact, even though Tracy's shop remained unorganized, Ely had left the printing with Tracy. In view of this it was impossible to prove that Ely had practiced a boycott.

Had Ely indoctrinated students with socialist ideas? Wells demanded that all of the professor's pamphlets, books, lectures and professional papers he investigated as pertinent to this question. Chairman Chynoweth laughingly rejected this suggestion as involving too stupendous and irrelevant a task. Wells and Bird, who assumed such an exploration was implicit in the promise of a full and impartial hearing, were tremendously dissatisfied with the chairman's ruling. With Wells in full retreat the hearings were adjourned until the evening of August 23.5

Once again Wells failed to appear, and once again he submitted a lengthy letter expressing dissatisfaction with the narrow scope of the trial. Despite the fact that his letter repeated many charges previously made, it contained one important admission: "It is proper to state that I am unable to establish the correctness of the information upon which I made the statement in my letter of July 5th to The Nation, that the walking delegate from Kansas City was entertained at Professor Ely's house and was in constant consultation with him, or that Professor Ely's connection with the strike in the Democrat Printing Company's office was as there stated." However, he insisted that since Ely had urged unionization on the firm of Tracy-Gibbs company, he had, "whether intentionally or not ... aided and abetted this strike."

After the Wells communication had been read at the third session, formal trial procedure was abandoned at the suggestion of Ely's attorney. The meeting was then thrown open to the search for truth, wherever found. At this juncture David Kinley presented a letter he had received from Klunk, the organizer. Klunk reported that while at Madison he had had a long conference with one he had assumed to be Ely at the professor's seminar room in the old Fuller Opera House, now the Parkway Theatre. Klunk made a point of describing the physical appearance of his conferee; the description obviously did not fit Ely. It did fit a student in Ely's seminar, H. H. Powers, so the supposition was that Powers, and not Ely, had conferred with the labor organizer. At that time both Ely and Powers wore short full beards. This superficial similarity might have led to error in identification. The Klunk letter made a profound impression on those present at the hearing; its effect was an alibi for Ely.

This was followed by a reading of many letters, highly commendatory of Ely, over the signatures of prominent American economists, historians and educators. E. Benjamin Andrews, president of Brown University, wrote that Ely was America's most influential teacher of political economy. "For your noble university to depose him," declared Andrews, "would be a great blow at freedom of university teaching in general and at the development of political economy in particular." Carroll D. Wright, United States Commissioner of Labor, offered the opinion that Ely had given workingmen catholic views of their relations to industry and society. "His influence upon workingmen has been the influence of the pulpit," Wright averred. Dr. Albert Shaw, writer and editor, observed that Ely's teachings and writings, considered in their totality, encouraged reverence for government, law and order. President Charles Kendall Adams of Wisconsin, who had undertaken an analysis of Ely's Socialism for the committee, reported that "From the beginning to the end of the book there is not a paragraph or a sentence that can be interpreted as an encouragement of lawlessness or disorder." Granting that parts of the book, taken out of context, might suggest a sympathy for socialism, Adams insisted that "I am utterly unable to see how any careful reader can read the whole of the book without commending the fairness of its spirit and the general elevation of its tone and without conceding that the reasoning of the author leads away from socialism rather than towards it." When the reading of testimonials had been finished the dramatic trial of Richard T. Ely was brought to a close.6

It was evident that Wells had lost his case, and that Regents Chynoweth, Dale and Johnston would submit a report exonerating Ely. Another matter was less evident. During the course of the trial little had been said about the question of academic freedom. Would the Regents be content with clearing the accused, or would they use the occasion to publicize some larger statement favorable to academic freedom?

On September 18, 1894, the trial committee submitted its final report to the board. The report, unanimously adopted, exonerated Ely, and heralded the board's devotion to academic freedom:

As Regents of a university with over a hundred instructors supported by nearly two millions of people who hold a vast diversity of views regarding the great questions which at present agitate the human mind, we could not for a moment think of recommending the dismissal or even the criticism of a teacher even if some of his opinions should, in some quarters, be regarded as visionary. Such a course would be equivalent to saying that no professor should teach anything which is not accepted by everybody as true. This would cut our curriculum down to very small proportions. We cannot for a moment believe that knowledge has reached its final goal, or that the present condition of society is perfect. We must therefore welcome from our teachers such discussions as shall suggest the means and prepare the way by which knowledge may be extended, present evils be removed and others prevented. We feel that we would be unworthy of the position we hold if we did not believe in progress in all departments of knowledge. In all lines of academic investigation it is of the utmost importance that the investigator should be absolutely free to follow the indications of truth wherever they may lead. Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.7

The outcome of the Ely trial, and especially the proclamation of academic freedom, were given wide publicity by the press. Years later Richard T. Ely could pridefully refer to the Regents' report as "that famous pronunciamento of academic freedom which has been a beacon light in higher education in this country, not only for Wisconsin, but for all similar institutions, from that day to this. Their declaration on behalf of academic freedom ... has come to be regarded as part of the Wisconsin Magna Charta ..."8

1 The Nation, 59 (July 12, 1894), 27.

2 In 1894 the Board of Regents comprised the following:

State Superintendent of Public Instruction, ex-officio O. E. Wells
President of the University, ex-officio C. K. Adams
John Johnston Charles Keith William P. Bartlett
H. W. Chynoweth George H. Noyes Orlando E. Clark
N. D. Fratt George Heller D. L. Plumer
B. J. Stevens H. B. Dale John W. Bashford

3 Richard T. Ely, Ground Under Our Feet (New York, 1938), 218-233, describes Ely's reactions to his trial for economic heresy.

4 Madison Democrat, August 21, 1894. Newspaper coverage of the trial was complete, and remarkably accurate. A full stenographic transcript was taken during the hearings. One copy of this transcript is filed with the manuscript papers of the University Board of Regents, for August, 1894. Other copies are available in the Ely Collection, located in the Manuscript Division of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

5 Madison Democrat, August 22, 1894.

6 Complete texts of the letters and reports from which the above extracts were taken, were published in the Madison Democrat, August 24, 1894.

7 Ibid., September 19, 1894.

8 Ely, Ground Under Our Feet, 232.