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James McCosh

McCosh, James (1811-1894), eleventh president of Princeton, took office in 1868, precisely a century after his fellow-Scot, John Witherspoon, whom he resembled in character, religious ardor, statesmanship, devotion to the task of educating young men, and in the rolling rhythms of his native accent. He had been born on a farm near the banks of the River Doon in Ayrshire, the country of Bobby Burns, matriculated at the University of Glasgow in 1825, and moved on to Divinity Hall, University of Edinburgh, in 1829, for the study of religion, philosophy, and psychology. In the spring of 1834 he was licensed to preach by the presbytery of Ayr. ``I preached all around,'' he later wrote, ``both in town and country, but chiefly in the country. I had a good horse, and set out on the Saturday with my sermons in a saddlebag behind me, preached twice on the Sabbath, and returned home on the Monday.'' His first ministerial charge was the Abbey Chapel in Arbroath, and his second at Brechin, Forfarshire, where the earnest young parson was soon involved, heart and soul, tooth and nail, in the reformation movement within the Church of Scotland. This movement, known as ``The Disruption,'' resulted in the organization of the Free Church, which McCosh himself called ``a great event in the history of Scotland,'' and to which he devoted his considerable powers as thinker, propagandist, and orator.

During his pastorate at Brechin he met Isabella (daughter of the eminent physician Alexander Guthrie), who became his wife in September 1845. ``She had a good deal of the Guthrie character,'' he wrote. ``She was characteristically firm, and did not always yield to me. She advised and assisted in all my work as minister and professor.''

Having fought valiantly for the establishment of the Free Church, McCosh went on to make his mark as professor of philosophy. He had been trained in the subject at Edinburgh, where his essay on Stoic Philosophy had made a stir in 1833. When John Stuart Mill's System of Logic appeared in 1843, McCosh took issue with Mill's apparent refusal to give due weight to supernatural powers, and counterattacked in 1850 with his own lively volume, The Method of Divine Government, Physical and Moral, which was instrumental in leading to his appointment to the chair of Logic and Metaphysics at Queen's College, Belfast, founded that year by the British government ``for the promotion of nonsectarian education.'' During his sixteen-year tenure in Ireland, he continued to develop and fortify his philosophical position (``a theory of the universe conditioned by Christian revelation'') in a series of brilliant books: Typical Forms and Special Ends in Creation (with George Dickie, 1855); The Intuitions of the Mind Inductively Investigated (1860); The Supernatural in Relation to the Natural (1862); and An Examination of Mr. J. S. Mill's Philosophy (1866), in which he returned to the demolition of his British compeer so well begun in 1850. John Grier Hibben called this book ``one of the most convincing statements concerning the principles of the Intuitional philosophy in opposition to pure empiricism.''

McCosh's fame was now widespread in the English-speaking world, and on his first visit to the United States (1866) as a representative of the Evangelical Alliance, he was treated like a visiting potentate. When President John Maclean resigned his post in 1868, the Board of Trustees invited McCosh to serve as his successor.

Just as the Revolutionary War had attenuated the student body and impoverished the exchequer in Witherspoon's time, so the Civil War had severely inhibited the further development of the College during the conflict and the early years of Reconstruction. McCosh's twenty-year presidency changed all that. Andrew Fleming West, who entered as a freshman in 1870, compared the new president's influence to ``an electric shock, instantaneous, paralyzing to the opposition, and stimulating to all who were not paralyzed.'' McCosh raised up a distinguished faculty, revised and greatly modernized the plan of study, developed elective course-options, instituted graduate work, found money for fellowships, brought in an expensive array of scientific equipment, dedicated the new Bonner-Marquand gymnasium to the greater glory of intercollegiate sport, founded schools of science, philosophy, and art, and entered upon an ambitious program of building and plantation that greatly enhanced and beautified the hitherto austere campus.

He was also a teaching president, with regular classes in the history of philosophy and in psychology, as well as ad hoc meetings in his personal library at Prospect where guest lecturers presented papers and led discussion over a wide range of philosophical and ethical topics. When Darwin's Origin of Species threatened to overturn age-old beliefs in God's creation and government of the world, McCosh ``stood out almost alone'' among American clergymen in defending evolutionary doctrine, insisting that the Darwinian hypothesis, far from denying the existence of God, only served ``to increase the wonder and mystery of the process of creation.''

A staunch believer in books as tools for the solution of these and other difficult problems, McCosh strongly supported the building-up of Princeton's collections. Under his aegis the octagonal 70,000-volume Chancellor Green Library was dedicated in 1873 with a stirring address by the poet William Cullen Bryant. ``I remember,'' wrote McCosh, ``that some critics found fault with me for laying out too much money on stone and lime; but I proceeded on system, and knew what I was doing. I viewed the edifices as means to an end, at best as outward expressions and symbols of an internal life.''

His position on the college curriculum was much the same. He wanted to reject ``all that was factitious and pretentious,'' and to continue ``the good old solid'' course of study ``handed down from our fathers.'' No one, he said, ``should be a graduate of a college who does not know mathematics and classics, the one to solidify the reasoning powers, and the other to refine the taste.'' At the same time he recognized the enormous advances that were being made in the physical sciences, as well as in philology, history, and psychology. From these branches of knowledge, Princeton students were encouraged to choose a wide range of electives to be taken ``side by side with obligatory and disciplinary courses.''

In the winter of 1885 President Charles W. Eliot of Harvard came to New York -- a sufficiently neutral territory -- to conduct a debate with McCosh on the ideal college curriculum. Princeton's president was highly critical of Eliot's scheme, which allowed students to choose, virtually ad libitum, among some two hundred courses. This, said McCosh, obviously encouraged dilettantism, everything being ``scattered like the star dust out of which worlds are said to have been made.'' Even worse, Harvardians were not obliged to attend classes, with the result that a typical professor often found himself lecturing to a roomful of empty seats. Matters were more sensibly ordered at Princeton, where regular attendance was required, and where the whole curriculum had been carefully weighed and logically worked out for all four years, including obligatory core courses and a reasonable variety of solid electives, so that one subject led to another, and the student could develop his powers in an orderly fashion. Most Princetonians believed that McCosh had won the debate handily despite, or perhaps because of, his seventy-three years.

He was seventy-seven when he retired from the presidency in 1888, moving out of ``Prospect'' to the new house, planned and built under his supervision approximately on the site later occupied by Quadrangle Club. His parting words to the College reflected the noble simplicity of his nature:

``It is not without feeling that I take the step which I now take. It recalls that other eventful step in my life when I gave up my living, one of the most enviable in the Church of Scotland, when the liberties of Christ's people were interfered with. . . . I may feel a momentary pang in leaving the fine mansion, which a friend gave to the college and to me -- it is as when Adam was driven out of Eden. I am reminded keenly that my days of active work are over. But I take the step firmly and decidedly. The shadows are lengthening, the day is declining. My age, seven years above the threescore and ten, compels it, Providence points to it, conscience enjoins it, the good of the college demands it. . . . I leave the college in a healthy state, intellectually, morally, and religiously, thanks be to God and man. I leave it with the prayer, that the blessing of Heaven and the good-will of men may rest upon it, and with the prospect of its having greater usefulness in the future than even that which it has had in the past.''

His successor, Francis L. Patton, observed admiringly that McCosh was ``more than a model President: he was a model ex-President.'' This meant that, having once laid down his staff of office, he made no subsequent attempt to use it as a cudgel. He was, however, deeply touched when the Class of 1889 unanimously requested that their diplomas should carry his signature along with Patton's. He met their delegation in the front hall of his house, listened to their words, dabbed quickly at his eyes with a handkerchief drawn from the inside pocket of his clerical frock-coat, and called to his wife. She felt ``no scruples'' about her own tears, seizing her husband's handkerchief, vigorously wiping her eyes, and saying tenderly, ``James, your lads are nae for forgettin' you.''

While McCosh lived, his tall, massive, and somewhat stooped figure was often seen strolling along the walk that bore his name, admiring the shrubs and trees he had planted and the way the sunlight struck the stone of the buildings he had caused to be erected. When passing students bowed to him, his response was often the same: ``I know ye, whooo air ye, whatsyourname?'' And the students, having identified themselves and listened to a few ``wurruds'' of greeting, commonly went away exalted. For most of them knew and believed the old man's hearty boast, ``It's me collidge. I made it.'' Sixty of them gathered on his eightieth birthday in 1891 to present him with a golden pitcher inscribed with a legend in Greek from The Clouds of Aristophanes: ``May prosperity attend him who, while passing into the vale of man's decline, still cultivates wisdom and imbues his mind with learning ever new.''

As if the shade of Witherspoon, which had symbolically presided at his induction to the presidency, were still in friendly control, McCosh died quietly on November 16, 1894 -- precisely a hundred years and a day after the date of Witherspoon's death. These stalwart Scots, in their respective centuries, had each contributed mightily to the growth of Princeton, and the modern university is indebted to them both.

Carlos Baker

From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).



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