Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM American National Biography Online. © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in American National Biography Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Eliot, Charles Williamlocked

(20 March 1834–22 August 1926)
  • Philo A. Hutcheson

Eliot, Charles William (20 March 1834–22 August 1926), educator and university president, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Samuel Eliot, Harvard University treasurer, and Mary Lyman. He was raised in a combination of rigorous schooling, first at a dame school (where instructors offered courses on subjects such as modern languages in their homes) and then at Boston Latin School, and the liberal religiosity of Unitarianism.

Eliot began his college studies at Harvard in 1849 at the age of fifteen. His family had a long tradition at Harvard; his father was a Harvard graduate and the university treasurer and had published a history of the university. His grandfather had endowed a Harvard professorship, his uncles had been Harvard professors, and two of his classmates were cousins. He was not an especially social person, having resolved at an early age to be disciplined and not let a birthmark that covered the right side of his face and twisted his lip inhibit his success. While an undergraduate, he took advantage of Harvard’s partial elective system as well as laboratory and field courses in chemistry and mineralogy. His work with Josiah Parsons Cooke, a self-taught chemist, was a major influence in Eliot’s conception that university education should emphasize the scientific method. In addition to his academic work, Eliot pursued a physical education, with special attention to rowing. When Eliot graduated from Harvard in 1853, he was second in a class of eighty-eight students.

In 1854 Eliot accepted the position of tutor in mathematics at Harvard, and in 1858 he became an assistant professor of mathematics and chemistry, eventually moving to the university’s Lawrence Scientific School. Students and fellow professors recognized his strengths in teaching, including his use of clinical methods and interest in written rather than oral examinations. Nevertheless, his major strengths lay in the area of administration, and even at his young age he performed a wide range of duties that would later be those of several administrators. Harvard of the 1850s was small enough, however, that one person could do all those tasks; in essence Eliot operated as the assistant to President James Walker, who at times even asked Eliot to write faculty resolutions. During this period Eliot also developed an appreciation for research, collaborating on several publications with a friend and fellow chemist, Frank Storer. In October 1858 Eliot married Ellen Derby Peabody. They had four sons, two of whom died in infancy.

In 1863, at the end of his five-year appointment as assistant professor, Eliot did not receive the promotion to full professor that he had hoped for. The university was unable to support two professors at the Lawrence Scientific School, and Eliot refused to allow the university to raise money from his relatives, insisting that his merit rather than his family should determine his appointment. Declining a commission as a lieutenant colonel in the northern armies for the Civil War, Eliot went to Europe to further his studies. Although his father had lost much of his money in the financial panic of 1857 and the salaries of Harvard professors were not enough to finance such trips, he was able to make the journey because a previous investment had become quite lucrative.

Eliot was as interested in studying educational institutions in Western Europe as he was in furthering his chemistry education. While in Paris he examined such characteristics as French scholarship and the variety of French institutions of higher learning, yet he was most interested in those institutions that prepared students for occupations that used scientific methods. He then went to Marburg, Germany, to study chemistry, where he also learned a great deal about the German university. He became convinced that students in the United States were too young for the freedoms available in German universities and that faculty members in the United States needed to spend less time on introductory courses so that they could develop their research and assist advanced students.

Shortly before he left Europe, Eliot received a generous offer to head a textile company in Massachusetts, an offer he declined because he preferred to stay in education. Although he was unable to secure another teaching position at Harvard, the president of the newly opened Massachusetts Institute of Technology offered Eliot a professorship of chemistry. He accepted that offer in 1865, proving again his teaching qualities and an emphasis on scientific method as practiced in the laboratory. He also became involved in a curriculum debate, favoring a year of general education for all students. He again exhibited considerable administrative skills, ranging from establishing student fees as a safeguard against lost books and laboratory equipment to addressing student discipline problems.

Although no longer at Harvard, Eliot maintained an active interest in the affairs of the institution. He was interested in the university’s reform activities, as outlined in President Hill’s annual report of 1868. The report reaffirmed the elective system and suggested that professional schools and graduate students needed additional attention. In addition, Harvard was experiencing reform in its governance; in 1865 the Massachusetts legislature ended its election of the University Board of Overseers, and alumni assumed that responsibility. In 1868 the alumni elected Eliot, among others, to the board. The next year a committee of the overseers issued a report urging expansion of the elective system and further attention to graduate education.

Yet Eliot’s most important contribution to education in the late 1860s was not at MIT or Harvard but in the form of a two-part essay, “The New Education: Its Organization,” published in the Atlantic Monthly in February and March 1869. He argued for a liberal arts college and a separate technical school, best incorporated into a new form, the American university. This institution would offer the liberal arts and practical subjects, with rigorous study and postgraduate professional schools. He also addressed secondary schools, suggesting that Latin, French, mathematics, history, drawing, and singing should be part of the curriculum and that students should be prepared for more than the ministry or a literary life. He did not, however, urge the study of science, reserving that field for college-level studies.

President Hill resigned from Harvard in the early fall of 1868, and the early choice as his successor was Andrew Preston Peabody, preacher of the university. Peabody, however, was not a reformer and reflected the more traditional role of the university and of the president as teacher-administrator. In an unexpected move in March 1869 the corporation of the university nominated Eliot for the presidency. Two members of the corporation had offered Eliot the position at the textile company, and his dedication to education impressed them. Furthermore, one of those two, John Lowell, was a vice president at MIT and had high regard for Eliot’s work there. Finally, his administrative talents, his commitment to Harvard, and his election to the overseers by his fellow alumni were all points in his favor.

Nevertheless, some overseers were opposed to his appointment, preferring the traditions that Peabody represented or feeling uneasy about Eliot’s unyielding personality. They returned the nomination to the corporation, which responded with assurance in once again placing the nomination with the overseers. At the same time former president Walker lobbied the overseers. In May 1869 the Board of Overseers elected Eliot as president of Harvard. That same year his wife died; in 1877 he married Grace Ellen Hopkinson, who died in 1924.

Eliot began his presidency at a time of reform not only for Harvard, but also for colleges and universities across the nation. Furthermore, several important university presidents began their appointments in the same general time, including President Andrew White of Cornell University (1868) and President Daniel Coit Gilman of the Johns Hopkins University (1876). These presidents corresponded and visited with each other; it was an energetic and visionary time for the heads of higher learning in the United States. Although he had a substantial and lasting effect on Harvard in a number of other areas, Eliot’s particular contributions to higher education in the United States were in two areas: the further development of the elective system and the improvement of professional education. In view of his long forty-year presidency, which was the longest in Harvard’s history, he had ample time to effect his reforms.

In making organizational changes, the area of reform in which Eliot seemed most comfortable, he emphasized graduate study. This emphasis encompassed both the elective system and post-baccalaureate professional schools while furthering the conception of the university as an institution of advanced learning. Graduate study would also ensure that Harvard would eventually find qualified candidates to teach and conduct research at the higher levels of the university.

Eliot used a variety of devices to further graduate study, including raising faculty salaries and increasing the size of the faculties. He raised some faculty salaries in 1869 and 1890, and in 1905 he initiated a fund-raising effort for a teachers’ endowment that resulted in general raises. Eliot raided other institutions for their talented scholars and appointed, often without faculty advice, new professors whose interests were in research. Increasing faculty size reduced teaching loads, and new professors brought new interests and perspectives to the university. Hugh Hawkins suggests that a special characteristic of the new perspectives was a “premium on worldly wisdom” that reflected Eliot’s conception of the new university as a social institution. Yet that premium also reflected Eliot’s uneasiness with pure research; it was the Johns Hopkins University, with its successful graduates (some of whom came to Harvard to join the faculty) and international reputation that apparently convinced Eliot of the value of such research. In the latter case, Harvard faculty members informed Eliot that Harvard needed what Johns Hopkins had.

Although Eliot did not necessarily check with the faculty about early appointments, he encouraged their participation in university governance, establishing a reputation for allowing long faculty meetings where members were free to discuss issues at great length. Initially he relied on the departments to conduct the affairs of the university, although he eventually found them divisive and unaware of the needs of other departments or the university as a whole. He also established several committees with faculty membership, to the extent that professors eventually requested relief from such service, especially when it impinged on their time for scholarship and teaching. Eliot responded by reducing the number of committees and expanding the administration to support the faculty.

Eliot wrote extensively about the elective system and promoted its benefits both with internal and external constituencies. He argued within the traditional framework of college education as voiced in the Yale Report of 1828, noting that it would be electives and not required courses that would provide mental discipline or training. The development of the elective system at Harvard occurred slowly; seniors had full choice in 1872, but the freshmen did not have it until 1885. Still, by 1885 Harvard students had complete choice; Eliot had no interest in concentrations or majors as offered at other institutions with elective systems. He even viewed choice in other areas of student life, such as student government or in regard to discipline and rule, as paramount. Toward the end of Eliot’s presidential career, some members of the faculty increasingly opposed the specialization of studies that the elective system allowed.

Eliot’s initial interests, however, lay with the professional schools. Although Harvard had addressed electives for decades—as early as George Ticknor’s advocacy of that system in the 1820s—the professional schools were moribund. Eliot was concerned about three issues: the admission of students regardless of their previous education (the professional schools did not require a college degree), the rigor of the schools, and the quality of teaching. He attended faculty meetings, something his predecessors had rarely done, and the deans he appointed proved to be valuable allies. Eliot’s emphasis on teaching eventually brought about the use of clinical and laboratory methods, pedagogical approaches he had long preferred. By the time of his departure from the presidency in 1909, Harvard’s medical, law, and theological schools had attained their lasting reputation for emphasizing rigor and scholarship. Despite the considerable resistance of the professional school faculties, Eliot achieved his goals, in part because he urged change upon them as “a new President.”

By the late 1890s Eliot had achieved most of his goals for the reorganization of Harvard and the development of new programs. In 1894 the Harvard faculty passed a resolution praising Eliot for his work in placing Harvard among the leading universities of the world.

One area that escaped his reformist efforts was intercollegiate athletics, especially football. Although an ardent rower, Eliot had little use for football, but the game’s rapidly rising prestige among the press, the public, alumni, and students meant that he had no chance of restricting its development at Harvard. In another area of student life, Eliot experienced considerable success. Admission to Harvard had been based primarily on classical secondary education. As a member of the Committee of Ten of the National Education Association, and eventually its chair, Eliot argued for more courses in the modern languages and science and for common features in the secondary school curriculum. That curricular shift complemented his work with Nicholas Murray Butler in the development of standardized admission tests. Eliot and Butler were instrumental in the establishment of the College Entrance Examination Board (CEEB) in 1900, and the Harvard faculty accepted the CEEB examinations as substitutes for the university examinations in 1906. No longer did candidates have to present in such areas as Greek and Latin; rather, they could have the sort of utilitarian, standard preparation, assessed by the apparently scientific method of a standardized examination, that Eliot considered an essential part of the new education.

Although some portrayals of Eliot (including a reference to him in a 1915 report by the American Association of University Professors) suggest that he was an ardent defender of academic freedom, he was in fact ambiguous. For example, early in his career he asked an economics professor to remove a controversial statement from a textbook; toward the end he reflected on that action and suggested in a speech at Cornell University that the professor had appropriately decided on his own to remove the statement. Eliot added that such caution was a faculty’s most appropriate defense of academic freedom. While on the one hand he was a public defender of faculty freedom, on the other hand he saw the necessity of some limitations.

Initially Harvard students viewed Eliot as cold, and one even made a practice of shaking his hand on the assumption that the act disrupted him. Yet Eliot treated students with respect, doing away with many intricate disciplinary rules such as wearing black on Sundays. And there is a nearly legendary story of his taking in a lonely student suffering from smallpox and making his own family leave their home to provide the student with care.

Often characterized as a liberal, more accurately Eliot was a liberal of the late nineteenth century, emphasizing liberty but not equality. Hence, he felt free to argue on behalf of Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise and to suggest that northerners would have also segregated their schools if there had been large numbers of blacks in northern cities. He was distrustful of the potential of Jews to control various industries, and he cautioned against Christian-Jewish marriages because he thought that Jews would dominate. He was interested in attracting students from Asia, particularly those from the upper class. Upper-class students resided in an area known as the “Gold Coast,” and Eliot did not particularly object to the separation of the wealthy. Nevertheless, he established more diversity at Harvard, with the conviction that the university could help assimilate blacks and immigrants into the larger white society because it was a meritocratic institution.

Eliot was in the public eye. As early as 1900 both the Republican and Democratic parties sought his endorsement for their presidential candidates, and in 1907 his name surfaced in a New York World editorial as a prospective presidential nominee; the other name suggested was Woodrow Wilson. Following his retirement in 1909, Eliot stayed active in the public intellectual world. He edited the series of works known as the Harvard Classics, a “five-foot shelf” for the literary education of those who would not otherwise have such an education. During World War I he wrote approximately sixty articles, urging restraint in the midst of the fervor to make the world safe for democracy as well as support for the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations. He was also a very popular speaker who was considered an expert on education from the early grades through the university.

Eliot wrote extensively. Two important works following his essays in the Atlantic Monthly include Educational Reform: Essays and Addresses (1898), which includes a spirited argument for the elective system, and University Administration (1908), which details his vision of the proper organization of the university.

His reorganization of Harvard, often lost in the scholarly discussions of his development of the elective system, remains his institutional legacy. He was seemingly tireless, although summer vacations in Maine offered him great respite, and he was an excellent speaker, crafting his words with precision. The reputation of Harvard’s professional and graduate schools began under his presidency. His impact on other institutions, especially large eastern universities, is far less clear because they generally approached the elective system, professional education, and graduate programs in arts and sciences with less enthusiasm than Harvard did. His overall effect on higher education in the United States may well be the standardized admission test, in view of his involvement in the foundation of the College Entrance Examination Board. Eliot died in Northeast Harbor on the island of Mount Desert, Maine.


It is likely that there are more essays, articles, and books about Charles W. Eliot than any other college or university president in the United States. As his Time obituary suggests, he was a president of considerable national stature, at an institution of considerable national stature. Three biographies seem to be the most substantial: Edward H. Cotton, The Life of Charles W. Eliot (1926), Henry James, Charles W. Eliot, President of Harvard University, 1869–1909 (1930), and Hugh Hawkins, Between Harvard and America: The Educational Leadership of Charles W. Eliot (1972). There are also several books that examine Eliot in regard to a number of issues, including Laurence Veysey, The Emergence of the American University (1965), Harold Wechsler, The Qualified Student (1977), and Marcia Graham Synnott, The Half-Opened Door: Discrimination and Admissions at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, 1900–1970 (1979). Of the many articles on Eliot, one that captures his nineteenth-century liberalism is Jennings L. Wagoner, Jr., “The American Compromise: Charles W. Eliot, Black Education, and the New South,” in Education and the Rise of the New South (1981), pp. 26–46. An obituary is in the New York Times, 23 Aug. 1926.