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When Yale buildings speak

A talk to the students and fellows of Timothy Dwight College, October 2, 2023

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In September of 1985, at the dedication of Rosenfeld Hall, I joked that old graduates never die; they just become dormitories. At that time, Rosenfeld Hall was principally Yale's language laboratory, but since then, the building has been reconfigured to provide additional TD housing. So, my joke became prophesy. I am now a dormitory.

Mary Lui, the head of this college, has invited this old dormitory to share his thoughts about Yale with you. In this year of my 60th Yale class reunion as well as my 82nd birthday, I feel privileged to tell you not only what I hope my building says but also what I hope other eponymic figures of TD might say, especially the Reverends Timothy Dwight, for whom the college is named, and the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, for whom the common room in Rosenfeld Hall is named. This is a good time for these eponymic figures to speak.

So, what do we from the past have to share with you? Situated as we are in different centuries, in different life stories, and in different Yale relationships, what common experience have we had that might serve as a lesson for today? I think there is at least one, which is this: that, contrary to what many believe, the Enlightenment was not simply an historical period of intellectual and philosophical development. The Enlightenment was also a choice that this nation and Yale have had to make and will continue to have to make each and every day.

When Timothy Dwight became president of Yale, it was during the presidency of George Washington. The period we call the Enlightenment was at its close, and the US government was at its beginning. Revolutions in England, France, and the United States were then complete, with each country possessing a bill of rights to guarantee the freedoms for which its revolution was fought.

Important Americans had advocated for freedom in each of these countries. Thomas Jefferson, America’s ambassador to France, had coauthored France’s Declaration of Rights of Man and The Citizen at the beginning of the French Revolution, as he had championed an American Bill of Rights at the end of ours. Thomas Paine had galvanized support for the American Revolution with his pamphlet Common Sense and its plan for an American democracy, had gotten himself outlawed in England for writing against monarchy, had helped draft a constitution for the First French Republic, and finally, in 1794, capped the Enlightenment with his book The Age of Reason, which challenged the dogma and authority of established religion. According to Paine, the Age of Faith was gone. Literally and figuratively, the Age of Reason was at hand.

Tom Paine and his Age of Reason were very popular at Yale when Timothy Dwight became its president in 1795. As one student, Lyman Beecher, recalled, "Before he came, college was in a most ungodly state. The college church was almost extinct. . . . That was the day of the infidelity of the Tom Paine school. Boys that dressed flax in the barn, as I used to, read Tom Paine and believed him.... [M]ost in the class before me were infidels, and called each other Voltaire, Rousseau, D'Alembert, etc., etc."

Yet a "Tom Paine school" was not a school that Timothy Dwight could accept. For Timothy Dwight, the Age of Faith remained.

Timothy Dwight was a charming and charismatic human being who believed in Yale’s original mission to be a divinity school but did not support, either for the nation or for Yale, the toleration or the democracy that Enlightenment philosophes espoused. Timothy Dwight reflected the values of his home state of Connecticut, which taxed all citizens, regardless of their religion, to support its established Congregational church, allowed an old aristocracy of fewer than a dozen Yale families (the "Standing Order") to run its affairs since colonial times, and resisted replacing its old colonial constitution with a new state constitution until well into the nineteenth century. From colonial days through the presidency of Timothy Dwight, only white, male, Protestant property owners could hold public office in Connecticut.

Timothy Dwight's opposition to Enlightenment philosophes and the French Revolution made him not only a leader in his home state of Connecticut but also an important ally to George Washington's Federalist administration, which had grown disillusioned with the French Revolution and with ideologues like Paine, Voltaire, and Rousseau. In recent years, the French Revolution had turned increasingly violent, executing the French king, guillotining many prominent aristocrats, disestablishing its Christian church, and replacing old state churches with so called Temples of Reason.During the two years prior to Timothy Dwight's election, the radical Jacobin Maximilien Robespierre and his sans-culotte street people had made the guillotine a frightening symbol of what their revolution meant.

George Washington's vice president, John Adams, was particularly incensed by the French Revolution and by Tom Paine's democratic writings, commenting to Thomas Jefferson, "What a poor ignorant, Malicious, short-sighted, Crapulous Mass, is Tom Pains Common Sense." Adams's home state of Massachusetts, like Connecticut, had an official state church and an undemocratic constitution that Adams himself had drafted, including substantial property and religious qualifications for voting and office holding. Adams saw pure democracy as the road to mob rule, and, in his mind, France had proven the case. Yet America's democrats strongly disagreed.

American democrats like Thomas Jefferson supported the French Revolution and the democratic ideals that Enlightenment philosophes had championed. Jefferson had persuaded his home state of Virginia to disestablish its official state church, and he opposed wealth or property qualifications for voting or office holding. He championed freedoms of religion and expression that we find in the American Bill of Rights, and he instilled the idea that "all men are created equal" in the dreams of many American democrats.

Disagreement about support for the French Revolution divided America into our two-party system. After George Washington failed to support the new democratic republic of France despite an alliance promising to do so, Thomas Jefferson led many Americans, who themselves wanted a more democratic republic, to form the Democratic-Republican party. Thus, when John Adams succeeded George Washington to the US presidency in 1797, he faced a democratic opposition that made his own task very much the same as Timothy Dwight's at Yale, which was to defend against the influence of French philosophes and to overcome his democratic opposition.

To defend against the influence of the "Tom Paine school" at Yale, Timothy Dwight required Calvinist religious studies for all Yale students, imposed punishments for denial of Scripture, made attendance at his Calvinist Congregational Church compulsory, and forbade attendance at other churches, even for Episcopalians. Month after month, he preached the Bible as truth to Yale students, and he converted one third of the student body to his Calvinist faith.

Adams did not have Timothy Dwight's powers of persuasion, but he did, as president, command the new federal government, which he used so undemocratically that many thought he wanted to be king. He used a sedition act, in violation of the First Amendment, to jail his newspaper critics and even a US congressman, and he used immigration laws to keep French refugees from obtaining US citizenship and thereby a chance to vote for his opposition. He proclaimed national days for prayer and fasting to ally his administration with the religious establishment and used his new federal army as well as private Federalist militias to suppress popular dissent. Thomas Jefferson called Adams's presidency a "reign of witches."

By the summer of 1798, the battle between John Adams's Federalists and Thomas Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans was at a fever pitch. On Independence Day, the Fourth of July in 1798, as Yale President Timothy Dwight—by then known as the "Pope of Federalism"preached in New Haven against Enlightenment philosophes and the French Revolution (and in praise of John Adams's administration), students at William and Mary College in Thomas Jefferson's Virginia were burning John Adams in effigy. That was the depth of the divide.

For many, the presidential election of 1800 was a second American Revolution, deciding that Jefferson's dream of democracy was America's dream as well. John Adams's undemocratic theory and practice of government not only cost him that presidential election; it cost his Federalist party both houses of Congress and the chance ever to govern again. Democracy was America's future, though not so clearly for Yale.

During the next hundred years, the nation continued on the Enlightenment path the nation chose in 1800. By mid-century, all states, including Connecticut and Massachusetts, disestablished their official state churches and removed property and religious qualifications from voting and office holding. During the 1860s, the nation elevated Thomas Jefferson's messages of equality over any remembrance of his slaveholding to fight a war that ended slavery and allowed constitutional amendments to require states (as much as the federal government) to honor the Bill of Rights.

Yet, during the same hundred years, Yale retained its theocratic presidency and its mandated religious observance, and therefore, in 1886, chose Timothy Dwight's namesake grandson, the second Reverend Timothy Dwight (for whom this college is also named) to become its religious leader and its president, just as Yale College was becoming Yale University. Ironically, Tom Paine's Age of Reason would haunt this Timothy Dwight just as it had his grandfather.

To the dismay of religious leaders like Timothy Dwight, religious skepticism had been gaining ground during the course of the nineteenth century, as Evangelical revivals and increasing American Arminianism fractured mainstream Calvinism into many Protestant denominations and as advances in technology and two Industrial Revolutions allowed science to challenge religion as the best measure of human accomplishment.

Furthermore, in 1859, Charles Darwin challenged the biblical story of creation with his alternative explanation for the "Origin of the Species" as evolution and natural selection, whereupon two schools of Darwinian thought rejected biblical injunctions to help the weak and disadvantaged in favor of letting natural selection run its course.

The first of these was Social Darwinism, advocated by British sociologist Herbert Spencer, who praised natural selection as "the survival of the fittest" and urged unfettered competition to reward the fittest and the denial of any safety net for those who were not.

The second of these was “eugenics,” a pseudoscience and vocable that Darwin's second cousin Francis Galton invented for his plan to breed human beings selectively, that is, to accelerate natural selection by getting society’s desirable people to procreate and preventing its undesirable people from doing the same. Enthusiasts for eugenics found support for Galton’s plan in the green pea plant experiments of geneticist Gregor Mendel, which demonstrated that selective breeding could make the inheritance of dominant traits mathematically predictable.

By the beginning of the 20th century, eugenics had become a popular social movement and, for some, even an existential philosophy by its association with German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who, writing at the same time as Galton, had declared that "God is dead" and that a new ethics based on everyone’s pursuit of his own self-fulfillment and a new societal goal of producing the superior human (the Übermensch) offered better roads to any promised land. As the 20th century unfolded, Adolf Hitler would adopt this thinking in his genocidal pursuit of an Aryanmaster race; Yale University would adopt this thinking in its discriminatory pursuit of the ideal Yale Man,and, in the Nordic prototype of a superior being that Galton’s eugenics generated, the Übermensch, the Aryan,and the Yale Mancame to mean essentially the same man.In all events, at the end of the nineteenth century, in the face of increasing religious skepticism, and upon the retirement of Yale's second Reverend Timothy Dwight in 1899, Yale embraced the disestablishmentarianism of the Enlightenment and chose to disestablish the Congregational Church from its presidency. For the first time in two hundred years, Yale would choose a president who was neither an ordained Christian minister nor even an avowed Congregationalist. Arthur Twining Hadley was a railroad expert, an economist, and a Social Darwinist, who favored an unregulated economy as a racetrack for the fittest and 19th century monopolies as appropriate rewards for those who won. As Hadley correctly observed, "We have lost faith in... supernatural manifestations of power; in certain dogmas and formulas once supposed to be essential to salvation. We have gained faith in man, faith in law, faith in the truths of nature, and faith in the justice of God." In this new more secular Yale, compulsory church attendance would soon be gone. Though the Enlightenment's scientific method and religious skepticism had found traction at Yale and in the nation during the course of the nineteenth century, the Enlightenment's vision of toleration and equal rights remained a dream as yet unachieved. American Blacks, though freed from enslavement, were still segregated from the rest of American society, as were Asians who were subject to exclusion laws, as were Jews and Catholics who suffered social, cultural and religious discrimination, as were women who were subordinate by law. To make things worse, a flood of Catholic, Jewish and other non-Protestant refugees from Eastern and Southern Europe were heeding the call of Lady Liberty and clamoring for entry to America. Some of their children sought entry to Yale. So, at the start of the twentieth century as at the start of the nineteenth century, the Enlightenment posed questions of equality and toleration that the nation and Yale would again have to decide.

The first decades of the twentieth century are known as the Progressive Era, when, among other efforts to democratize the country, a major push for equality began. In those early years, civil rights organizations like the ACLU, the NAACP, and the Anti-Defamation League were formed. In 1913, thousands of suffragettes made a march on Washington, and in 1920, a constitutional amendment gave women the right to vote.

Yale, however, remained steadfastly distant from equality and toleration. The same belief in science that had freed Yale from the intolerance of a theocratic leadership now produced a comparable intolerance in the racism and eugenics of Yale President James Rowland Angell, who succeeded Arthur Twining Hadley in 1921.

James Rowland Angell believed that "human races differ appreciably in their native intelligence." Within a year of his inauguration, he welcomed the American Eugenics Society, which would lead the American eugenics movement for the next twenty years, to establish its headquarters on the Yale campus, and, in 1924, he created the Institute of Psychology to make Yale the preeminent research center for the study of eugenics and "racial" behavior. Both organizations were headed by Yale faculty.

From the start of his administration, Angell monitored the enrollment of racial and religious minorities at Yale, examining what he called the "problem" of Jewish enrollment. In 1922, he instituted a "Committee on the Limitation of Numbers," which imposed new restrictions and policies on admissions, starting in 1923, that kept Yale College entirely white (except for tokens), 10 percent Jewish, and just above 10 percent Catholic from 1923 through the time I entered Yale, under the 10 percent Jewish quota, in 1959. These restrictions also affected the graduate schools, with instructions to the medical school admissions committee: "Never admit more than five Jews, take only two Italian Catholics, and take no blacks at all."

A decade after the imposition of these restrictions, James Rowland Angell answered a report from his admissions director that many Jewish applicants came from New Haven, Bridgeport, and Hartford. "It seems quite clear," Angell wrote, "that if we could have an Armenian massacre confined to the New Haven District, with occasional incursion into Bridgeport and Hartford, we might protect our Nordic stock almost completely.”

When William Sloane Coffin became Yale’s new chaplain in 1958, the university had no expectation that anything was about to change. Yale’s president at that time was A. Whitney Griswold, who had been a student at Yale in the 1920s when James Rowland Angell was president and was a direct linear descendant of the Griswold family who had ruled Connecticut, as part of the state’s Standing Order,when the first Timothy Dwight was president. William Sloane Coffin himself bore the mantle of Yale's traditional leadership, as an ordained Congregational minister of pure English ancestry, who was white, a Yale graduate (as were his brother, father, uncle, and grandfather), and of wealth and social prominence.

In short, A. Whitney Griswold and William Sloane Coffin looked like old Yale, so what happened at Yale when Bill Coffin took the pulpit came as a complete surprise to students, faculty, alumni, and administration alike.

As I wrote in a piece for the Yale Daily News, "Upon ascending Yale's pulpit in 1958, Bill Coffin spoke boldly and in a fashion that Yale had never heard before, enunciating articles of faith he described as 'the uncomfortable Gospel.' As Battell Chapel filled (soon with people of all religions) to hear him, he preached that Yale should care about disenfranchised Black people, about victimized Asians, about Jews, Catholics, the poor, and everyone else. He said Yale should eschew bigotry and prejudice, that its admissions and societies should be open to all who were qualifiedregardless of race, creed, religion, color, or social class. He said Yale should be something better than an enclave for the privileged; it should be a moral example to the world and concerned citizen of the world. From the moment he arrived at Yale and during the ensuing decade of the 1960s, William Sloane Coffin exercised his moral authority to lead Yale away from a quarter millennium of fashionable bigotries and clubby isolation to embrace a set of values as democratic as the US Constitution and as outreaching as the Statue of Liberty."

Two years after his arrival at Yale and in the highly charged atmosphere of moral expectation and social awareness that his ministry had created, Coffin confronted Whitney Griswold with accusations of racial and religious discrimination in Yale admissions. When Griswold balked at the claims, Coffin warned the Yale president that Yale’s chaplain would be an unremitting “conscience of Yale” on the subject, and Griswold reluctantly gave Coffin permission to conduct an investigation. Coffin did so in 1961 and, with the support of Yale’s other religious leaders, proved the discrimination to Griswold in March of 1962, convincing him that admissions needed to change. One month later, the President’s Committee on the Freshman Year proposed new admissions policies, omitting race and religion as factors in admissions, elevating “outstanding intellectual capacity” as the preeminent criterion for acceptance, and recommending that women be admitted. On May 19th, the Yale Corporation approved these proposals; the proposals became policy, and Yale’s long history of institutional racism and religious intolerance finally came to an end.

I see William Sloane Coffin, not Elihu Yale, as the founder of the Yale we know today. As the plaque in the William Sloane Coffin Common Room attests, “Under his moral leadership in the 1960s, Yale opened wide its doors to all of the human family."

And so it was, a quarter millennium after its founding, that Yale finally chose the open-mindedness and the liberalism of the Enlightenment, the equality of Thomas Jefferson, the toleration and empiricism of John Locke, the intellectualism of Voltaire, the optimism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the individualism of Adam Smith, and the opposition to dogma of Thomas Paine's Age of Reason. The Age of Reason was now welcome at Yale, as were that open-mindedness and liberalism that lie at the heart of the Enlightenment.

So, what about this fellow Rosenfeld? Under Bill Coffin's moral leadership, I was transformed from a child of the 1950s to what everyone understands to be "a child of the 1960s." As an undergraduate, I joined Bill Coffin's freedom rides and sit-ins to integrate Blacks in the South, wrote against racial segregation, and started a political magazine to encourage debate. I withdrew from my fraternity when its national charter prevented the acceptance of an African-American applicant.

 As a child of the '60s, I created a business that enabled a million less privileged Americans to travel, including thousands of African Americans, who visited ancestral roots in West Africa; wrote a revisionist history of the Early American Republic to show the benefits of teaching history from Thomas Jefferson's Democratic-Republican point of view; and tried to address homelessness through board service for the Salvation Army and to advance civil liberties through board service for the ACLU and the NAACP.

So, we come to Rosenfeld Hall.

The greatest opposition to the changes that William Sloane Coffin championed at Yale came from old Yale alumni, who remembered their Yale as a fraternity of white, Protestant, Anglo-Saxon, private school graduates, males who were the legacies of Yale men who had gone before. The new Yale would not be the Yale they remembered, despite the efforts of the alumni office to reassure them otherwise. Those old alumni and even the Yale alumni office were of a different temporal community that would only diversify when future student bodies became old alumni like themselves. When that time came, as it did by the 1980s, only one temporal community remained to diversify, which was the community of eponymic figures whose names grace the buildings and other places at Yale.

As I commented to Yale President A. Bartlett Giamatti (who was Yale's first non-Anglo-Saxon and first non-Protestant president) at the dedication of Rosenfeld Hall, I looked forward to a time when the names on Yale's buildings and other places would exhibit the same diversity as the student body that Bill Coffin had championed. That would be a final measure of the distance Yale had traveled from the time of the first Timothy Dwight.

Thus, it is as a remembrance of William Sloane Coffin and as a product of the 1960s that Rosenfeld Hall and I stand before you today. With the other eponymic figures whose names adorn TD buildings, I am here to remind you that the Enlightenment was not just a period of cultural and philosophical development but rather a choice that Yale and the nation have had to make and will continue to have to make each and every day.

For the future, it is my hope that neither Yale nor our nation will allow politics, tribalism, ignorance, superstition, or demagoguery to turn us away from the Enlightenment, from respect for the scientific method, from reliance on an honest press, from freedom of thought and expression, from a fair and impartial judiciary, from a wall of separation between church and state, from a respect for diversity, from free and competitive enterprise, from the need for an enlightened citizenry, from a belief in democracy and the encouragement of every vote, from respect for difference of opinion, and from the expectation that open-mindedness, facts, reason, and a very liberal education will chart the nation's best road ahead.

About the road ahead, I close with an observation of the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, who intoned with his usual moral clarity, "Remember that even if you win the rat race, you are still a rat." So, let's all try to do some good.

Thank you.

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