Monday, December 14, 2015

"I hate Catholicism as I do poison": Harvard University President Charles William Eliot (1869-1909) and anti-Catholicbigotry in the 19th century

Years ago, on a TV comedy talk show called Fernwood Tonight, comedian Fred Willard made this observation to talk-show host Martin Mull: "Isn't it funny how times have changed?" Willard remarked. "During World War II, people were encouraged to shoot Germans. You might even get a medal for shooting one. But, boy, if you shoot a German today, you're in big trouble!"

I thought about Willard's remark as I considered recent efforts to condemn important historical figures--Americans who were once greatly honored. Take President Woodrow Wilson, for example. The New York Times recently editorialized in favor of striking Wilson's name from Princeton's School of Public and International Affairs based on his record of racism.  Wilson might have thought his legacy would be secure after he died; after all, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize! But the revisionists finally rooted out the racist rascal--exposed like a retired Nazi living in Argentina.

In New Orleans, a groundswell of local opinion will probably force Robert E. Lee's statue off its pedestal at Lee Circle, where it has stood for 100 years. I'm a little more ambivalent about outing Robert E. Lee. I read Douglas Southall Freeman's multi-volume biography of Lee  several years ago, and I became convinced that Lee had many noble qualities.

Nevertheless, I sympathize with the people who want to knock Lee of his perch. As a Catholic, I am offended by the many historical figures who continue to be honored in spite of their clear records of anti-Catholic bigotry.

For example, Christopher Columbus Langdell, Dean of Harvard Law School and father of the case method of teaching, barred graduates from Catholic colleges from being admitted to Harvard Law School. Yes, and in spite of this well-known fact, Harvard's law library is still named Langdell Hall.

Harvard's president, Charles William Eliot, supported Langdell's bigoted policy, claiming it was based on the inferior quality of Catholic colleges and not prejudice. Was President Eliot himself an anti-Catholic bigot? This is what Eliot wrote about Catholicism when he was a young man visiting Europe in the mid-1860s: "I hate Catholicism as I do poison, and all the pomp and power of the Church is depressing and mortifying me."

Charles William Eliot, President of Harvard  1869-1909
"I hate Catholicism as I do poison . . ."
So, let the revisionist historians have a ball. Down with all the statues of Confederate generals! Agitate for the revocation of President Wilson's Nobel Peace Prize!  Remove Andrew Jackson's picture from the twenty-dollar bill!

But let's not let the anti-Catholic bigots lie undisturbed. Harvard's Langdell Hall must be renamed! Surely some Catholic Harvard law students are willing to take over the dean's office to make that happen. And Harvard should take down all the portraits of President Eliot and place them in a broom closet--and I mean now!

Indeed, there are scores of anti-Catholic bigots who should be posthumously humiliated: Horace Mann, John Dewey, Lyman Beecher, and President John Adams; and that's just for openers.

As for you, Ulysses S. Grant, don't get too comfortable in that tomb of yours. If the revisionists examine your views on Catholicism closely, you might be evicted from your final resting place and replaced by someone whose life contained no whiff of bigotry. In fact, we 're measuring Harriet Tubman  for your spot right now! Tubman's Tomb--it has a ring to it, don't you think?

Grant's Tomb:
Hey, Ulysses, don't get too comfortable in your tomb. You might get evicted!


Daniel R. Coquilette & Bruce A. Kimball. On the Battlefield of Merit: Harvard Law School, The First Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

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