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The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton

The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton Cover




'Chapter 1

Elite Education and the Protestant Ethos

On a clear fall morning in late September of 1900, a lanky young man with

patrician features and pince-nez glasses stood among the more than five

hundred freshmen gathered to register at Harvard. Though neither a brilliant

scholar nor a talented athlete, the young man had a certain charisma about

him — a classmate later described him as "gray-eyed, cool, self-possessed,

intelligent . . . [with] the warmest, most friendly, and understanding smile."1

The freshman had been given a strong recommendation from his Latin

teacher, who described him as "a fellow of exceptional ability and high

character" who "hopes to go into public life."2 His name was Franklin Delano

Roosevelt, and in 1933 he became the fourth graduate of Harvard College to

serve as president of the United States.

Franklin's acceptance at Harvard had been taken for granted.

Having attended Groton, the most socially elite of America's boarding

schools, he was sure to be admitted to Harvard; in 1900, 18 of his Groton

classmates (out of a class of just 23) joined him in Cambridge.3 There the

Groton boys — along with their peers from St. Paul's, St. Mark's, Milton, and

other leading private schools — dominated the upper reaches of campus life.

Even then, however, the children of the elite did not constitute the

entire freshman class. Harvard, far more than Yale and especially Princeton,

took pride in the diversity of its student body. In his address to new students,

President Charles W. Eliot denounced as a "common error" the supposition

that "the men of the University live in rooms the walls of which are covered

with embossed leather." The truth, Eliot insisted, was quite the contrary: "the

majority are of moderate means; and it is this diversity of condition that

makes the experience of meeting men here so valuable."4

Though Eliot was downplaying the heavy representation of children

of privilege at Harvard, there was in fact a surprising degree of heterogeneity

among the students. More than 40 percent of Roosevelt's freshman class

came from public schools, and many were the children of immigrants.5 And

of Harvard's leading feeder schools, the top position in 1900 was occupied

not by Groton or St. Paul's (18 students) but by Boston Latin (38 students),

a public institution that had long since lost its cachet as a school for the

sons of Boston Brahmins.6

Yet the Harvard attended by public school boys was separated

from the Harvard of Roosevelt and his friends by a vast social chasm. Its

physical symbol was the divide between Mount Auburn Street's

luxurious "Gold Coast, where the patrician students lived," and the shabby

dormitories of Harvard Yard, some of which lacked central heating and

plumbing above the basement, where the more plebeian students stayed.7

Roosevelt was, by birth, a natural member of the Mount Auburn group; even

before he enrolled at Harvard, he visited Cambridge with his future roommate,

Lathrop Brown, to select a suitable spot on the Gold Coast. Their choice was

Westmorly Court (now part of Adams House), an elegant structure that

provided the young men with a high-ceilinged suite complete with two

bedrooms, a sitting room, an entrance hall, and a bath.8

As the scion of a prominent family with long Harvard ties — his

father, James, had graduated from Harvard Law School in 1851, and his

distant cousin Theodore, then running for vice president of the United States,

graduated from the college in 1880 — Roosevelt fit smoothly into the Gold

Coast atmosphere. Though he had pledged to make a "a large acquaintance"

at Harvard, young Franklin remained firmly within his milieu of origin. Taking

his daily meals at an all-Groton table in a private dining hall, he spent many

of his evenings at Sanborn's billiard and tobacco parlor, where he could

meet "most of the Groton, St. M[ark's], St. Paul's and Pomfret fellows. "He

was also a regular on the Boston social circuit, attending teas, dinners, and

debutante parties.9

Though Roosevelt's distinguished lineage guaranteed him a

certain social success, it did not free him from the need to compete for a

place in Harvard's rich and highly stratified extracurricular life — a realm of

energetic activity that occupied a far more central place in the lives of most

students than their studies. Occupying the apex of the extracurriculum at

turn-of-the-century Harvard was football, and Roosevelt dutifully went out for

the team. He was joined by 142 other students — well over a quarter of the

entering class.10 Trying out for the position of end, he stood 6'1" but weighed

just 146 pounds. On October 13, 1900, Roosevelt — who had been a

mediocre, if eager, football player at Groton — was notified that he had failed

to make the team.11

Within days of being cut, Roosevelt decided to try his hand at

another prestigious activity — the Crimson, Harvard's student newspaper. On

October 19, he wrote to his parents, informing them that he was trying out for

the newspaper and expressing the hope that "if I work hard for two years I

may be made an editor."12 But at the Crimson, as in football, he did not

survive the fierce competition; vying for a slot among 86 candidates, he was

passed over when the first crop of freshman was selected in February.13

Yet Roosevelt persisted in his efforts to make the paper, scoring a

coup in April when his cousin Theodore, by then the vice president, visited

Cambridge and told him that he would be lecturing the following morning in

Professor Lowell's class in constitutional government. Franklin broke the

story in the Crimson, and the following morning a crowd of 2,000 was milling

about in front of Sanders Theatre, trying to attend the lecture. From this point

on, Roosevelt's star began to rise, and in the autumn of 1902, he became the

Crimson's assistant managing editor.14

As Roosevelt advanced at the Crimson, his success owed more

to his doggedness than his journalistic talent, for he was an unremarkable

writer. His family name was perhaps his greatest asset; in September 1901,

after the assassination of William McKinley, Cousin Teddy became president

of the United States. In Franklin's February 1903 campaign for managing

editor (a position that led automatically to the presidency), a poster

read: "For Managing Editor — Cousin Frank — the Fairest of the Roosevelts."

Roosevelt won the election, ultimately serving as president of the Crimson

from June to December of 1903.15

The Crimson valued hard work and talent, yet some of the same

social cleavages that divided the campus were nevertheless visible.

Remembering his days on the newspaper, Roosevelt's classmate Walter E.

Sachs, later of the Goldman Sachs investment firm, recalled that he lived in a

very different world from Roosevelt's. Whereas FDR ate at the Groton table

on the Gold Coast and went to fashionable parties in Boston, Sachs and his

friends lived in the Yard and ate cheap and disagreeable food at table 30 in

Memorial Hall, which served 21 meals a week for $4.25.16

Yet Roosevelt got along with his fellow students on the Crimson.

Though hardly a crusading president (he devoted his editorial energies to

such issues as the deficiencies of the football team and the need for wider

walkways in the Yard), he revealed a talent as a leader. Recalling that

Roosevelt "liked people . . . and made them instinctively like him," his

classmate and successor as Crimson president, Walter Russell Bowie,

observed that "in his geniality was a kind of frictionless command."17

Though the Crimson presidency was a prestigious position, the

pinnacle of social success at Harvard resided in membership in the

Porcellian, the oldest and most exclusive of the "final clubs." On the face of

it, Roosevelt seemed a perfect candidate — his father had been named an

honorary member of Porcellian, and Cousin Theodore had also belonged.

Roosevelt had also attended the right boarding school; of the sixteen juniors

and seniors in Porcellian, five were Groton alumni.18

The Porcellian stood at the summit of Harvard's elaborate and

rigid social hierarchy, which began to sort students from the moment the new

freshmen arrived in Cambridge. By sophomore year, the class was officially

divided into the social elect and the outsiders by the venerable Institute of

1770, which identified the one hundred members of the class most fit

for "society." Elections were organized into groups of ten, with the first group

chosen by the previous class, the "first ten" choosing the second, and so on

until the tenth and final group had been selected. So exalted was election to

the Institute that the Boston newspapers and the Crimson published the

names of the students in the precise order in which they were admitted, a

practice that continued through 1904.19

Roosevelt, however, was bypassed not only by the "first ten" but

also by the four groups that followed. In late November, his roommate Lathrop

Brown was chosen, and Roosevelt was in a state of intense anxiety. Finally,

on January 9, 1902, he received word that he had been picked as "the first

man among the 6th ten."20 His election, albeit late, would give him automatic

entrance to Delta Kappa Epsilon (also known as DKE or "the Dickey"), a

secret fraternity that required its members to undergo arduous initiation rites

that have been aptly described as "a curiously primitive rite of passage." But

Roosevelt accepted these rites without complaint, writing to his mother that "I

am about to be slaughtered, but quite happy nonetheless."21

Roosevelt's elation at being selected was understandable, for only

the first seven or eight groups of ten from the hundred students admitted to

the Institute of 1770 were invited to join the Dickey, and membership was a

prerequisite for election to a final club. Nevertheless, the fact that fifty

students had been placed ahead of a young man of such an unimpeachable

background was surprising and a bad omen. FDR's placement may have

reflected some personal qualities that caused irritation even within the

Roosevelt family. On the Oyster Bay side of the clan (Theodore Roosevelt's

side of the family), young Franklin had been given a variety of unflattering

nicknames, including "Miss Nancy" (because he allegedly "pranced and

fluttered" on the tennis court) and "Feather Duster" (a pun on FD deriving from

his supposed resemblance to the "prettified boys" displayed on a well-known

brand of handkerchief boxes). The gentlemanly and slight Roosevelt may

have been viewed as somewhat lacking in those "manly" qualities then so

highly valued — an impression consistent with a Crimson poster that referred

to him as "Rosey Roosevelt, the Lillie of the Valley."22

Though friendly, hard-working, and well intentioned, Roosevelt was

not universally liked by his peers. Some of them, including his Groton

classmates, found him two-faced, a "false smiler," and — beneath the veneer

of easy self-confidence — rather "pushy." Others, including some of the well-

appointed women with whom he socialized, considered him shallow,

excessively smug about his family's social standing, and priggish.23 But

whatever the sources of Roosevelt's weak social position within Harvard's

Class of 1904, a rank of number 51 in the Institute of 1770 did not augur well

for an invitation to the Porcellian Club, which accepted only eight new

members annually.

Nevertheless, Roosevelt continued to hope that he would be

elected.24 Yet when the moment came, he was rejected.25 It was a crushing

blow — a deep humiliation for a young patrician who had taken for granted

entry into the most rarefied social circles. Though he was elected to the Fly,

another prestigious final club, it was little consolation. More than fifteen years

later, when he was assistant secretary of the navy, Roosevelt told Sheffield

Cowles (the son of Teddy Roosevelt's sister Anna) that his rejection by

Porcellian had been the "greatest disappointment of my life" — a failure made

still worse by the fact that two of Teddy Roosevelt's sons, Theodore Jr. and

Kermit, had been elected to the club. Years later, Eleanor Roosevelt went so

far as to claim that the incident had given her husband an "inferiority

complex," albeit one that "had helped him to identify with life's outcasts."26

The Big Three in the Early Twentieth Century

In his intense preoccupation with social and extracurricular recognition,

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an emblematic student of his time. Not only

at Harvard, but at Yale and Princeton as well, the academic side of the

college experience ranked a distant third behind club life and campus

activities. As a consequence, the competition for social position and the

leadership of extracurricular activities could be — and often was — ferocious;

in scholastic matters, however, the "gentleman's C" reigned supreme.

At the center of student consciousness was football, which had

risen to extraordinary prominence in just three decades. Indeed, the

term "Big Three" may be traced to the 1880s, when the three institutions

established their dominance in collegiate football.27 By 1893, the game

between Yale and Princeton — then held in New York City — attracted

40,000 spectators and was such a compelling event that ministers cut short

their Thanksgiving service to arrive at the game on time.28 A decade later,

Harvard Stadium — the first reinforced concrete structure in the world —

opened to welcome 35,000 people to the Yale game. Harvard Stadium later

expanded its seating capacity to 58,000, but it was its archrival Yale that in

1914 opened the largest football stadium in the nation, a shrine to football

that seated 70,000 spectators.29

Although big-time college football has long since shifted to other

schools and regions, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were the preeminent

powers in the nation at least through 1915. Yale, where the legendary Walter

Camp (the inventor of the "All-American" team) served for many years as

advisory coach, ran the leading football program in the country; between 1872

and 1909, the Yale Bulldogs won 324 games, lost 17, and tied 18.30 For

many Americans, the Big Three were known primarily as football

powerhouses; Frank Merriwell, the mythical Yale football hero of two hundred

dime-store novels published between 1896 and 1916, became a gigantic

mass phenomenon, with the series selling as many as 200,000 copies a


Princeton, too, was a major force in football, winning or co-winning

9 national championships (compared to Yale's 14) between 1880 and 1915

and producing at least one All-American in every year but two between 1889

and 1914. Harvard, which lost regularly to Yale until a new coach changed its

fortunes in 1908, fielded the weakest team of the Big Three.32 According to

Brooks Mather Kelley, "Yale's success against Harvard was so great that

Cambridge men began to think of Yalies as nothing but muckers [hired

professionals], while Yale men had serious doubts about the manliness of

the Harvards."33 Yet even Harvard was a major power, being designated

national champion or co-national champion seven times between 1890 and

1913.34 In 1919, Harvard — named co-national champion along with Notre

Dame and Illinois — went to the Rose Bowl, where on January 1, 1920, it

defeated Oregon, 7–6.35

But the Big Three were famous for far more than football. As

America's most prominent colleges, they were widely viewed as training

grounds for the nation's leaders. Between September 1901 and March 1921,

no one occupied the White House who was not an alumnus of the Big Three.

First Teddy Roosevelt (Harvard 1880), then William Howard Taft (Yale 1878),

and finally Woodrow Wilson (Princeton 1879) served as president. Not since

the early days of the Republic, when John Adams (Harvard 1755), James

Madison (Princeton 1771), and John Quincy Adams (Harvard 1787) were

elected to the presidency, had the nation seen anything like it.

Big Three alumni were also well represented among leading

corporate chieftains. In one study of top executives in the early twentieth

century, Harvard and Yale led the way; in another, Harvard ranked first,

followed by Princeton, Columbia, and Yale.36 Though self-made men such

as Andrew Carnegie still loomed large in the world of corporate magnates,

they overwhelmingly sent their own sons to elite private colleges. William

Rockefeller (a brother and partner of John D.) and Edward Harriman, for

example, were among the leading robber barons of the late nineteenth

century, and neither had attended college. But their sons, William

Rockefeller Jr. and Averell Harriman, both graduated from Yale. Even the

great John Pierpont Morgan, a cultivated man from a privileged background,

was not a college graduate; John Pierpont Morgan Jr., however, graduated

from Harvard, where he founded his own final club (Delphic, also known as

Gas) when he was slighted by the existing clubs.37

By the 1890s, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton had become iconic

institutions, exerting a broad influence on the national culture and on the very

definition of what it meant to be "a college man." Evidence of the public's

interest in the Big Three was everywhere: in newspapers, in the crowds that

flocked to football games, and in the campus portraits that had become

regular features in national magazines such as McClure's, Atlantic Monthly,

North American Review, and Scribner's.38 Ernest Earnest, in his fine book

Academic Procession: An Informal History of the American College (1636–

1953), observed: "To an amazing degree the pattern set by Harvard, Yale and

Princeton after 1880 became that of colleges all over the country. The clubs,

the social organization, the athletes — even the clothes and the slang — of

the 'big three' were copied by college youth throughout the nation."39 Though

Harvard, Yale, and Princeton may have faced stiff competition from other

universities — notably Chicago, Columbia, and Johns Hopkins — in the

battle for leadership in research and graduate education in the early years of

the century, their dominance in setting the tone of undergraduate life was


Despite their growing prominence, however, Harvard, Yale, and

Princeton faced serious problems. Yale had become the archetype of the

elite private college through the immense popularity of Frank Merriwell and

later of Dink Stover (the hero of Owen Johnson's 1912 novel, Stover at Yale),

but deteriorating academic standards were a subject of intense internal

discussion.41 So, too, was the alleged decline in standards of deportment —

a significant issue for an institution that prided itself on turning

out "gentlemen." According to the Yale historian George W.

Pierson, "Disorders, infractions, and petty irritations had been getting rather

frequent and unnecessary." By 1902, "an unending stream of individuals had

to be disciplined for cheating, or for drunken disorder, or for throwing bottles

out the windows, or even for going sailing with low women."42

In 1903, a committee headed by Professor Irving Fisher issued a

devastating report about the academic atmosphere at Yale. Scholarly

performance, the report concluded, had been dropping regularly since 1896–

1897, with the decline most marked among the highest-ranking students. The

value system underpinning campus culture, which elevated social, athletic,

and fraternal activities over scholarship, was at the root of the problem: "An

impression is very strong and very prevalent that the athlete is working for

Yale, the student for himself. To be a high-stand man is now a disadvantage

rather than otherwise . . . In fact, hard study has become unfashionable at


"In general," the report went on, "the man who attends strictly to

study (the 'grind') is regarded as peculiar or even contemptible. It is believed

that a man should 'know men' at Yale; that 'study is a mistake.'" To support

its sobering conclusions, the report offered an intriguing fact: whereas 26 of

34 of Yale's valedictorians had been tapped by one of Yale's prestigious

senior societies between 1861 and 1894, only 3 of 9 had been tapped


So anti-intellectual was the undergraduate culture at Yale that

classes vied with one another for the honor of being the least studious. In

1904, the yearbook boasted of having "more gentlemen and fewer scholars

than any other class in the memory of man." But the Class of 1905, judged

by the Fisher Committee to have been the worst in recent Yale history,

bested its predecessor, offering the following ditty:

Never since the Heavenly Host with all the Titans fought

Saw they a class whose scholarship

Approached so close to naught.44

Meanwhile, the Yale senior societies continued to select their members on

the basis of athletic talent, prominence in extracurricular affairs, and social

background. And so great a public honor was election to a society that the

question of who was (and was not) "tapped" on Tap Day was the subject of

regular coverage in the New York Times.45

If intellect was not highly valued at turn-of-the-century Yale, it was

perhaps even less esteemed at Princeton. Headed since 1888 by Francis

Landley Patton, a Presbyterian theologian noted for his administrative laxity

and his failure to enforce disciplinary and academic standards, Princeton had

a reputation as the least academically serious member of the Big Three.46

Patton himself hardly helped matters when he reportedly said at a faculty

meeting: "Gentleman, whether we like it or not, we shall have to recognize

that Princeton is a rich man's college and that rich men do not frequently

come to college to study."47 Patton also made a remark that was to haunt

Old Nassau's reputation for years to come: Princeton was "the finest country

club in America."48

A sense of the atmosphere at Princeton circa 1900 is provided by

a newspaper account of a "rush" (a common event) that took place after the

freshman- sophomore baseball game: "The first-year men won the game, and

to celebrate the victory endeavored to parade the streets of Princeton under

the protection of the junior class . . . a battle, in which fists and clubs were

used freely, lasted for ten minutes. The sophomores, overwhelmed by

numbers, slowly retreated, and a running fight ensued, which was stopped by

the combatants becoming widely scattered over the campus. Many of the

students were badly used up, but no serious injuries were inflicted."49

Eugene O'Neill, who attended Old Nassau (as Princeton was often called by

its alumni) a few years later before dropping out after nine months, found a

similar atmosphere; "Princeton," he observed, "was all play and no work."50

By the early twentieth century, being selected for membership in one of

Princeton's eating clubs had become far more important to most students

than their studies.51

So weak was Princeton's academic atmosphere that a faculty

committee was formed in 1901 to investigate "the scholastic condition of the

college."52 Patton vigorously opposed its recommendation to raise academic

standards, and by March 1902 a group of trustees began to look into the

matter. It became apparent that Patton's end was near when, at a dinner at

the Waldorf in New York, men from Harvard, Columbia, and Hopkins told

several trustees in blunt terms that "Princeton was becoming the laughing

stock of the academic world, that the President was neglecting his duty, the

professors neglecting theirs, the students neglecting theirs, that Princeton

was going to pieces."53 In a matter of weeks, Patton had been forced to

resign, and Woodrow Wilson, an eminent political scientist who had been on

the faculty since 1890, was named president. Wilson spent much of the next

eight years trying to raise his school's academic standards.54

Though Harvard was by far the most academically distinguished of

the Big Three, it too suffered from a student culture largely hostile to

academic exertion. As at Yale and Princeton, a faculty committee was

formed at Harvard to identify the sources of low academic standards and to

devise policies for elevating them. The committee, which was chaired by Le

Baron Russell Briggs and included Harvard's future president A. Lawrence

Lowell, concluded that the amount of time that students spent studying

was "discreditably small."55 Its analysis of replies to letters of inquiry from

245 instructors and 1,757 students revealed a surprising fact: the instructors

believed that students spent twice as much time on their studies than they

actually did. Even the better students were devoting only about 25 hours a

week to academic work, including the 12 hours spent at lectures; the less

committed students spent considerably less time on academic tasks.56

This was the era of Eliot's liberal — and much-criticized —

elective system, and many students gravitated to the "snap" and "cinch"

courses then abundantly available. So common was this practice that the

students joked about "the Faculty of Larks and Cinches."57 Henry Yeomans,

a government professor who was himself an alumnus (1900), aptly described

the atmosphere of the time: "Few, among either instructors or students, who

knew the College about 1900, and who respected intellectual achievement,

could be satisfied with conditions. A man who worked hard at his studies

was too often called a 'grind.' As if the term were not sufficiently opprobrious,

it was not uncommon to strengthen it to 'greasy grind.'" The problem, he

believed, was made worse by "the development of a social cleavage between

the men who studied and the men who played, or more commonly and

worse, who loafed." In Yeomans's view, there could be little question about

who set "the undergraduate standard of idleness: it was the rich and socially


The low academic standards at the Big Three were in no small

part a product of just how easy it was to gain admission. A candidate had

only to pass subject-based entrance examinations devised by the colleges.

Like many American universities, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia

administered their own exams.59 But the tests were not especially

demanding, and a young man with modest intelligence from a feeder school

like Groton could usually pass them with ease.60 If he did not, however, he

could take them over and over again to obtain the requisite number of


Even the unfortunate applicant who failed to pass exams in

enough subjects could still be admitted with "conditions." In practice, this

meant that he gained entrance by special action of the faculty. At each of the

Big Three, admission with conditions became a common pathway to the

freshman class; in 1907, 55 percent of those admitted at Harvard had failed

to fulfill the entrance requirements.62 Similarly, at Yale in 1909, the

proportion of freshmen admitted with conditions was 57 percent; of these, 22

percent had one condition, 14 percent two, and 21 percent three.63 Even

Princeton, a smaller institution that was making a vigorous effort to raise its

standards under Woodrow Wilson, admitted a clear majority of its students

with one or more conditions; between 1906 and 1909, the proportion of

students so admitted ranged from a low of 56 percent in 1909 to a high of 65

percent in 1907.64

Why would these eminent universities admit so many students

who did not even meet their modest entrance requirements? Part of the

answer is their eagerness to enroll what later came to be called "paying

customers," for tuition provided the bulk of their income (over 60 percent at

Harvard in 1903– 1904).65 But there was also a powerful sense of pride in

sheer bigness, especially at Harvard and Yale. In the 1890s,Harvard

Graduates' Magazine (HGM) bragged about how its enrollment had grown

spectacularly and in the process outstripped Yale; in 1900, it boasted that

Harvard had the largest undergraduate enrollment in the nation and that its

total enrollment of over 4,000 placed it "among the great universities of the

world, surpassed in population only by Berlin, Vienna, Madrid, and

Paris. "Harvard, HGM noted proudly, had passed England's two ancient

universities, Oxford and Cambridge, which enrolled just 3,500 and 3,000

students respectively.66

Although Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were willing to allow the

size of the freshman class to fluctuate from year to year to accommodate the

growing number of students who could pass some or all of the required

exams, there were powerful forces limiting expansion. In addition to

escalating competition from smaller colleges, such as Dartmouth, Williams,

and Amherst, there was an increasingly visible disconnect between the Big

Three's traditional entrance requirements and the curricula offered by the

nation's rapidly expanding public high schools.67 Both Yale and Princeton

required that candidates pass examinations in both Greek and Latin, thereby

effectively excluding most high school graduates, for only a handful of public

schools offered both languages.68 Even Harvard, which under Eliot had

abolished its Greek requirement in 1898, still required Latin — not a problem

at well-established secondary schools such as Boston Latin and

Philadelphia's Central High School, but still an insurmountable obstacle at

most public schools.69 The Big Three therefore found it hard to tap into the

expanding pool of high school graduates — a point frankly admitted in 1909

in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, which noted that it did not recognize many

of the subjects taught in public high schools while its own requirements,

especially in classical languages, could not be fulfilled in most of them. Even

the public schools in nearby New York City, the nation's largest urban

center, did not offer the courses required by Princeton.70

Especially when coupled with the high cost of tuition, the net

result of these requirements was that the students at Harvard, Yale, and

Princeton were overwhelmingly from well-to-do backgrounds. Almost

exclusively white (though in some years Harvard and Yale enrolled a handful

of blacks) and composed largely of graduates of elite private schools, the

student bodies represented the most privileged strata of society. Though

Harvard — which had the most flexible entrance requirements and the most

generous scholarship program — was a partial exception, the Big Three were

strikingly homogeneous, not only in class and race, but also in religion and

ethnicity.71 At Princeton, whose country club reputation was not without

justification, Catholics and Jews together made up only 5 percent of the

freshmen in 1900; at Yale, which was in a city with a large immigrant

population, the combined Catholic-Jewish population was just 15 percent in

1908.72 Even Harvard, which was in a dense urban area with large numbers

of immigrants from Ireland and southern and eastern Europe, the Catholic

proportion of the freshmen was 9 percent in 1908, with Jews constituting

roughly the same number.73

These were by no means trivial numbers, especially at Harvard

and Yale, but it was clear that the same relatively compact social group

predominated at each school: old-stock, high-status Protestants, especially

Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians. The Big Three were, in

short, overwhelmingly populated by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, or

WASPs — a term coined more than half a century later by the sociologist

and chronicler of the WASP upper class, E. Digby Baltzell.74

The Protestant Upper Class and the Creation of a Cultural Ideal

As the nineteenth century ended, the Protestant upper class stood at the

summit of a nation that was more powerful than ever before. For the first time

in its history, the United States was a genuine global power; its population of

76 million far surpassed that of Great Britain, Germany, or France, and its

economy was the most dynamic in the world. In 1898, the United States had

made the fateful decision to enter into a war with Spain — "the splendid little

war" that made the United States a colonial power, owning the Philippines,

Guam, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico along with de facto control of Cuba.75 The

United States thus took its place among the great imperial powers in a world

increasingly divided into zones controlled by the major European powers.

Though members of the Protestant upper class — notably

Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, Elihu Root, John Hay, and Alfred T.

Mahan — were at the forefront of the imperial project, the WASP elite was in

fact bitterly divided over America's new imperial role. Indeed, it was graduates

of Harvard and Yale who made up most of the members of the Anti-Imperialist

League. And it was patricians such as William James, Thomas Wentworth

Higginson, and Charles W. Eliot — joined by a diverse group that included

Jane Addams, Samuel Gompers, Mark Twain, and Andrew Carnegie — who

led the opposition to the annexation of the Philippines.76

Condemning "Expansion, World-Power, Inferior Races, Calvination, Duty-and-

Destiny" as "twaddle and humbug," the anti-imperialists ringingly reaffirmed

America's tradition of anticolonialism — after all, the United States owed its

very origins to its colonial struggle against Britain.77

Yet the proponents of a new and more muscular American global

role carried the day, their cause strengthened by the brute reality that

European powers had gained control of one-fifth of the world's land and one-

tenth of its population between 1870 and 1900 and that recent years had

seen the rise of Japan and Germany as colonial powers. In the wake of the

new global position of the United States, many white Americans (though not

Irish Americans), as the historian Nell Painter has noted, "renounced their

traditional anglophobia (a legacy of the American Revolution and, especially,

the War of 1812) to proclaim the kindredness of the English-speaking people

and the natural superiority of Anglo-Saxons."78 The ideology of Anglo-

Saxonism, though hardly new, received a powerful boost from America's

entry into the ranks of imperial nations. Among the core tenets of the

ideology was the conviction that, not only blacks, Native Americans, and

Asians, but also the burgeoning population of Italians, Jews, Poles, Irish, and

other immigrants lacked the distinctly Anglo-Saxon talent for self-


During the three decades before 1900, the Protestant elite had

become a true national upper class. Under the stimulus of rapid

industrialization, urbanization, and nationalization of what had been a largely

regional economy, the upper class developed a set of institutions that helped

weld it into a national entity that bridged the cultural and social divide

between the old patricians and the nouveaux riches of the Gilded Age.

Among the upper-class institutions that either were invented or came to

prominence in the 1880s and 1890s were the Social Register (its first edition

was published in New York City in 1888), the country club, the exclusive

summer resort, and the elite men's social clubs that arose in cities such as

New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.80

Educational institutions — notably, boarding schools and the elite

private colleges — played a critical role in socializing and unifying the

national upper class. Indeed, it was only during this period that entry into the

right clubs at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale — few of which predated the Civil

War — became a student obsession. Meanwhile, the upper classes of the

great eastern cities increasingly sent their children to the Big Three; by the

1890s, 74 percent of Boston's upper class and 65 percent of New York's

sent their sons to either Harvard, Yale, or Princeton.81

Perhaps even more than the Big Three, the emblematic institution

of the Protestant upper class was the private boarding school. Bringing

together children as young as eleven from the upper classes of the major

eastern metropolitan areas, the boarding school was the ideal instrument to

shape the personal qualities and instill the values most esteemed by the

Protestant elite. Educational and cultural ideals, Max Weber once observed,

are always "stamped by the decisive stratum's . . . ideal of cultivation."82 In

the United States in the late nineteenth century, the "decisive stratum" was

the WASP upper class and its ideal, that of the cultivated "gentleman" along

British lines.

As early as 1879, the North American Review, a venerable

magazine founded in Boston in 1815 that was one of the few American

periodicals to compete with the great British quarterlies, published a two-part

series, "The Public Schools of England." It was written by Thomas Hughes,

the author of the popular Tom Brown's School Days, and it was intended to

introduce an American audience to the peculiar British institution that had

proved so successful in welding the aristocracy and the rising bourgeoisie

into a cohesive ruling class.83 Hughes proposed that private boarding

schools on the British model be built in the United States to serve as

a "stepping-stone . . . between the home of the American gentry and the


"It is not easy," he wrote, "to estimate the degree to which the

English people are indebted to these schools for the qualities on which they

pique themselves most — for their capacity to govern others and control

themselves, their aptitude for combining freedom with order, their public spirit,

their vigor and manliness of character, their strong but not slavish respect for

public opinion, their love of healthy sport and exercise." "However

discriminating a nation may be in spirit and character," he argued, "the time

must come when it will breed a gentry, leisure class, aristocracy, call it by

what name you will." The public schools had "perhaps the largest share in

molding the character of the English gentleman." Two "nations of the same

race, and so nearly identical in character and habits as the people of the

United States and the English, "Hughes concluded, would benefit from

employing the same type of educational institutions to shape their leadership


Less than four years later, a young Massachusetts patrician

named Endicott Peabody proposed the establishment of a boarding school in

New England almost exactly on the model described by Hughes. A member

of a distinguished family whose roots went back to the Puritans, at the age of

thirteen Peabody had moved to England, where his father joined Junius

Morgan (the father of J. P. Morgan) as a partner in a banking firm. "Cotty," as

the young man was called by friends, immediately entered Cheltenham, an

English public school, and soon became a devoted Anglophile. The sturdy

Peabody flourished at Cheltenham, joining enthusiastically in the athletic life

of the school and becoming skilled in cricket, tennis, and rowing. After five

years at Cheltenham, he went on to Trinity College at Cambridge, where he

studied law and once again was a star athlete. Though born a Unitarian,

Cotty developed a deep attachment to the Church of England during his time

at Cambridge.86

By the time Peabody returned to the United States in 1880, he

was as much British as American in both speech and demeanor. In search of

a career, he initially followed the family tradition by joining Lee, Higginson

and Company, a brokerage firm founded many years earlier. But he quickly

became restive in business and soon enrolled at the Episcopal Theological

Seminary in Cambridge. A competent but uninspired student, he briefly left

the seminary before being ordained to serve as parson in the remote town of

Tombstone, Arizona. Cotty then returned to complete his studies, and it was

there, in the spring of 1883, that he conceived the idea of a school that would

stress religious education and Christian life while striking a balance between

the acquisition of culture and participation in athletics. His vision, shared by

his fellow seminarian and lifelong friend Sherrand Billings, was of "a school

where boys and men could live together, work together, and play together in

friendly fashion with friction rare."87

For most twenty-five-year-old men, such a vision might be a

distant dream, but Endicott Peabody was no ordinary young man. Tall, broad-

shouldered, blue-eyed, and fair-haired, he was a striking presence whose

enthusiasm, energy, and obvious decency left a strong impression. More

than personal presence was needed, of course; founding a school, especially

a boarding school on the British model, would require considerable

resources. Cotty's family, fortunately, was at the center of a network of some

of the wealthiest and most powerful patricians in the United States, so

resources would prove no obstacle. Starting with his relative James

Lawrence, who (along with his brother) donated ninety scenic acres of

farmland for the school, Peabody put together a board of trustees that

included J. P. Morgan, James and William Lawrence, Phillips Brooks, and

his father, Samuel Endicott Peabody. Its site was approved by no less a

figure than Frederick Law Olmsted, the renowned landscape architect. The

Groton School opened its doors in the fall of 1884.88

Groton was the second of seven elite boarding schools — the

others were Lawrenceville (1883), Hotchkiss (1892), Choate (1896), St.

George's (1896), Middlesex (1901), and Kent (1906) — founded between

1883 and 1906.89 It was a period of tremendous social change in America,

and many of the transformations were deeply disturbing to the old Protestant

upper class. Mass immigration and rapid urbanization, in particular, created a

sense among patricians that they were losing control of the country,

especially its cities. Increasingly, they withdrew to their own clubs and

summer resorts.

The transformed urban environment of the late nineteenth century

presented a distinctive set of problems for the rearing of upper-class children;

whereas in previous years the elite had relied on private day schools and

tutors to educate their offspring, they believed that the city had become an

unhealthy place for children to grow up. One solution could be to send them

to an undefiled rural or small-town setting in which Christian educators of

solid character could be entrusted with their children's moral development.90

The official announcement of the opening of "a School for Boys in

Groton, Massachusetts" made a direct appeal to these sentiments: "Every

endeavor will be made to cultivate manly, Christian character, having regard

to moral and physical as well as intellectual development . . . A farm of

ninety acres, in a healthy and attractive situation near the town of Groton, 34

miles from Boston and in direct communication with New York, has been

given the school, and upon this estate will be erected during the coming

season a building with classrooms and dormitory." In a preface to the

announcement, the trustees described the idea of Groton as "an attempt to

found a boys' school in this country somewhat after the manner of the Public

Schools of England"; they noted that the headmaster was a graduate of

Cambridge University who had spent five years at Cheltenham. Like its

British counterparts, which were "under the influence of the Church of

England," Groton would be "under the influence of the Protestant Episcopal

Church" and its headmaster, an Episcopalian clergyman.91

The tiny Groton School was an almost immediate success.

Within five years of its founding, Theodore Roosevelt, who had declined

Peabody's invitation to become one of the school's first teachers, wrote to

the headmaster, telling him that he was "doing a most genuine service to

America" and that "it has been a great comfort to me to think of small Ted

[then ten years old] at your school."92 In 1889, Peabody was asked to apply

for the presidency of Columbia University (he declined), and in 1890, the

prominent diplomat and future secretary of state John Hay asked Peabody to

place his two sons on the list of students wishing to attend Groton. To

support his request, he offered a list of references that included Oliver

Wendell Holmes, Henry Adams, and Phillips Brooks. (In the end, Peabody

placed the boys on the wrong waiting list, and they were forced to attend

other schools.) Even Emily Post entered one son's name at birth for

admission to Groton and the other's at age two.93 By 1900, a veritable

Who's Who of the American ruling class — Whitneys, Biddles, Adams,

Saltonstalls, du Ponts, and Roosevelts — had entrusted their sons to

Endicott Peabody and Groton.94

Social distinction was at the very center of Groton's magnetic

appeal to the Protestant upper class. Peabody himself — with his patrician

appearance, his gentlemanly demeanor, and his ardent commitment to the

boys' cultivation of impeccable manners — attracted the scions of leading

families. The men of wealth and power who entrusted their sons to him were

well aware of his unique social position. To be sure, many other boarding

school headmasters shared his background (if not his British education). But

none of them could match his personal location at the crossroads of

America's two most important investment banking firms of the era — the

House of Morgan and Lee, Higginson and Company — in New York and

Boston, the nation's two greatest financial centers.95 To the Protestant elite,

a Groton education meant, not only the inculcation of the right values, but

also the fostering of intimate ties to "the right people." One of the principal

motivations to send boys to Groton and like institutions seems to have been

their parents' desire to rescue them from the life of luxury and self-indulgence

that they feared the children were destined to lead unless vigorous

countermeasures were taken. "Early Groton parents," wrote Peabody's

biographer (and Groton alumnus) Frank Ashburn, were privately disgusted

with the bringing up of well-to-do American boys of the period, "whom they

considered 'spoiled ladies' men tied to women's apron strings."96 Affluence,

they believed, was rendering their sons soft and effeminate.

In response to these concerns, the "St. Grottlesex" schools

imposed a regime of Spartan deprivation on their charges. At Groton, the

students lived in small, barren cubicles almost totally lacking in privacy.

Showers were cold, and weekly allowances were limited to a quarter, a nickel

of which was to be donated at Sunday church services. Deprivation, Peabody

firmly believed, was salutary; otherwise, the parental "tendency to overindulge

their children" would lead to a "lack [of] intellectual and moral and physical


What did not loom large among these parents was a commitment

to intellect. "For scholarship as such," Ashburn observed, "many parents

never gave a hang"; indeed, many of the most eminent among them had

never attended college themselves.98 What they correctly saw in Peabody

was a man who considered character far more important than intellect. In

hiring teachers, the rector (as everyone called him) valued intelligence, but he

believed that "there were things distinctly more important" such as "fine

character," a "lively manner," and a love of boys.99

At the core of Peabody's vision of Groton was the ideal of "manly,

Christian character." Though the WASP elite was not particularly religious

(Ashburn notes, "Some of the early fathers do not seem to have cared

tuppence for religion, except as a thing to be generally encouraged and

strengthened"), it found this vision congenial.100 Especially appealing was

the emphasis on "manly" character, for the elite (and not only the elite) was

deeply worried that American men were losing their "manliness." A variety of

forces were behind this fear — the closing of the frontier, the rise of white-

collar employment, the decline of family farms and businesses, the paucity of

opportunities in the decades after the Civil War to express valor on the

battlefield, and the expanding role of women.101 What Peabody implicitly

promised was to turn their often fragile and overindulged sons into the kind

of "manly" men fit to run the affairs of a great nation.

The idea of "manly Christian character" was a British import that

may be traced back to the writings of Charles Kingsley (1819–1875), an

Anglican clergyman, novelist, and Cambridge professor who exerted a

profound influence on the young Peabody.102 A passionate advocate of what

came to be known as "muscular Christianity," Kingsley was a devoted

English patriot and a stout defender of British imperialism. A proponent of a

reformist strand of "Christian socialism," he believed that committed

Christians were warriors on behalf of goodness whose responsibilities both at

home and abroad could not be met without great "strength and

hardihood."103 Kingsley was a firm champion of vigorous athletics, for sports

would instill the sturdy character and shape the strong body that permitted

Christians to do God's work. Athletics, he believed, would offer England's

privileged classes "that experience of pain and endurance necessary to bring

out the masculine qualities."104

Kingsley was near the height of his influence when Peabody was

a student at Cheltenham and Cambridge. Early in his college career, the

young American read the Life of Charles Kingsley, which first gave him the

idea of becoming a minister. Kingsley's biographer, Peabody later

recalled, "set forth his subject's enthusiasm in connection with social

problems" and "introduced me to a man of vigorous, virile, enthusiastic

character; a gentle, sympathetic, and unafraid example of muscular

Christianity, a 'very' gentil Knight."105

Kingsley's distinctive version of muscular Christianity exerted an

enduring impact on Peabody as well as on the headmasters of many other

leading American boarding schools.106

As at the British public schools, Groton's vehicle for the

development of manly Christian character was athletics. Competing in sports,

Peabody believed, helped develop in students a multiplicity of virtues: loyalty,

courage, cooperation, and masculine strength. By teaching young men to

exert themselves to the fullest while playing within the rules, athletics would

teach self-control and a sense of decency and fair play.

Though quite attached to crew and "fives" (a kind of squash

imported from Eton), Peabody reserved his greatest enthusiasm for football.

All boys, however physically slight or personally uninterested, had to

play.107 Football was, in Peabody's view, a deeply moral enterprise Writing

to a friend in 1909, he articulated his views: "In my work at Groton I am

convinced that foot ball [sic] is of profound importance for the moral even

more than the physical development of the boys. In these days of exceeding

comfort, the boys need an opportunity to endure hardness and, it may be,

suffering. Foot ball has in it the element which goes to make a soldier."108

For Peabody, as for many of his contemporaries in the British and American

upper classes, life was a ruthless Darwinian struggle between good and evil

in which the morally superior — those who represented "civilization"

against "barbarism" — would sometimes need physical force to impose moral


With athletes occupying the apex of the student pecking order,

both Christianity and character tended to be overshadowed

by "manliness."110

Ranking lower still was intellect — a quality that was viewed with

suspicion as oriented to the self rather than the community. "I'm not sure I

like boys who think too much," Peabody once said. "A lot of people think of

things we could do without."111

In such an atmosphere, the boy of bookish or artistic inclination

who lacked interest in — or talent for — manly sports was relegated to the

lower ranks and sometimes despised. Remembering his years at Groton,

Ellery Sedgwick, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly who later became a

trustee, recalled "but a single instance of a boy who became the

acknowledged head of the school wholly innocent of athletic supremacy and

merely gifted with character and superlative intelligence." In a school in

which "organized sport is the personification of manliness" and the belief

widespread that "moral courage is a by-product of the physical struggle,"

Sedgwick observed, "the boy who seeks another path to his development

presents to the master a picture of a shirker and not infrequently a poltroon

as well."112

There was little room at Groton for the boy of artistic or intellectual

inclination; as his biographer admits, Peabody "distrusted artists as a

genus," believing them to be "a folk who have unreliable relationships with the

world, the flesh, and the devil, with a consequent weakening of moral

fiber."113 Nor was there much room for the independent spirit; in a letter to

the parents of a boy whom Peabody suggested "would get more from a

different school," the young man, whose offenses were admittedly "very

slight," seems to have been guilty of the crime of being "an individualist who

has little in common with his surroundings."114

Peabody was fond of saying that a headmaster has "to be a bit of

a bully"

and needs to have the capacity to inflict pain.115 But in Groton's

system of authority and social control, it was often the students who used

the harshest means to enforce conformity and to punish classmates judged

deviant. For students deemed to be in violation of the school's rigid and

sometimes mysterious code of etiquette or who were felt to be lacking the

right "tone" (often by showing insufficient deference to upperclassmen), the

punishment could be brutal.

George Biddle, of the Class of 1904, describes what would

happen when a student was judged to run afoul of school norms:

The heaviest of the fourth-formers — perhaps a dozen of them — grabbed the

offender, jerked him off the ground, and ran him down the cellar-stairway to

the lavatories in approved football rush . . . A first offender was given only

about ten seconds. The water came from the open spigot with tremendous

force and the stream could be concentrated in violence by thumb and fore-

finger. Besides the culprit was winded and frightened and held upside down

during the pumping. He was being forcibly drowned for eight or ten seconds.

Then he was jerked to his feet, coughing, choking, retching . . . If he hadn't

had enough the first time he was put under again for ten seconds.116

Employed until the 1920s, "pumping" was carried out with the approval of the

senior prefect (the school's highest-ranking student authority, appointed by

the headmaster) and the knowledge of the rector himself. Among those

students pumped in the early years at Groton were Teddy Roosevelt Jr. (who

was judged "fresh and swell-headed"), the future secretary of state Dean

Acheson ("cheeky"), and Peabody's own son, Malcolm ("bad tone").117

The harsh atmosphere was part of a larger system of socialization

that imposed on the children of the privileged a willful regime of austerity and

deprivation. These schools were hardening the sons of the elite for a life of

command in which subordinates — whether inferior classes, ethnic or racial

groups, or colonial "natives" — would often be disinclined to obey and would

sometimes mount resistance. The system of power and control at the elite

boarding schools was devised to expose the young men who went through

them to the experience of both obedience and command, often under trying

conditions. Having survived institutionalized bullying, the graduates would

have the necessary toughness to succeed in their future leadership


The Groton ethos, like that of the leading British public schools,

was an uneasy admixture of two seemingly contradictory systems of belief:

gentility and social Darwinism.119 On the one side, men such as Peabody

were deeply committed to the nurturance of Christian gentlemen: men whose

devotion to such virtues as honesty, integrity, loyalty, modesty, decency,

courtesy, and compassion would constitute a living embodiment of

Protestant ideals.120 But on the other side, life was viewed as a struggle in

which the battle went to the strong, and those individuals and nations not

manly enough to participate would be left remorselessly behind in a world in

which only the fittest survived. The Christian gentleman thus had no choice

but to be aggressive and even ruthless in order to win.121

Peabody's most important ally in promulgating this ideology was

Theodore Roosevelt, who had been preaching the virtues of "the strenuous

life" since the 1890s. A close friend of Peabody's and the father of a

student, TR was a frequent visitor at Groton, where he unfailingly preached

the virtues of a life of gentlemanly service to the public. In a speech on

Groton's twentieth anniversary, in 1904, President Roosevelt told the

students: "You are not entitled, either in college or life, to an ounce of

privilege because you have been to Groton — not an ounce, but we are

entitled to hold you to exceptionable accountability because you have been

to Groton. Much has been given you, therefore we have a right to expect

much of you."122

Adherence to the philosophy of "the strenuous life," Roosevelt

believed, implied a "duty toward the people living in barbarism to see that

they are freed from their chains, and we can free them only by destroying

barbarism itself."123 The Christian gentleman, then, was impelled on both

moral and practical grounds to take up what some have called

the "gentleman's burden": the responsibility, in the wake of the Spanish-

American War, to "fulfill duties to the nation and . . . to the race" and to "do

our share of the world's work by bringing order out of chaos in the great, fair

tropic islands from which the valor of our soldiers has driven the Spanish


Peabody, whose beloved Cheltenham had sent many of its

graduates into the imperial civil service in India, shared Roosevelt's

enthusiasm for America's fledgling empire. Indeed, even before the Spanish-

American War ended, he wrote to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, offering

Groton as a source of the officials who would be needed to administer the

empire.125 Yet Peabody was not, as the historian James McLachlan has

rightly noted, "a howling imperialist; he simply believed that if America was to

have an empire, it should be a Progressive empire — honestly administered

by well-educated gentlemen, pure, clean, and Christian."126

Peabody's proposal to Lodge was an expression of his abiding

commitment to public service. Inscribed in the school's motto — Cui Servire

Est Regnare, "To serve is to reign"127 — the emphasis on service was at

once a noble and altruistic ideal and an expression of a deeply embedded

assumption that the type of young men who went to Groton would (and

should) rule America. "In season and out," recalled Ellery Sedgwick, "public

service was held up to every boy as a shining goal."128 Yet the rector's

dedication to public service was not purely disinterested, for public service is

also a form of public power.129 And to the extent that the power exercised

by a small group was perceived as serving the public good, it would enjoy the

legitimacy that was the condition of its survival.

Despite Peabody's constant exhortations, most Grotonians

rejected the call to public service, choosing instead to pursue lucrative

careers in the private sector. While the rector was urging his boys to "keep

away from Wall Street," the financial centers of New York City held a special

allure for "Grotties."130 According to a study carried out by Groton, the

majority of alumni worked in business, with a particularly heavy concentration

in "finances, stocks, bonds, etc."; according to another study, Grotonians

were especially well represented in finance and banking, with a striking

presence in J. P. Morgan and Company and Lee, Higginson and

Company.131 A Groton alumnus from the Class of 1906 captured the depth

of resistance to Peabody's efforts: "When he urged the boys to be true to

themselves and drop out of their parents' income class, they simply did not

hear him. They were going to make money enough to be able to send their

sons to Groton."132 Two students of the American establishment have put it

well: for most Groton graduates, "service to God and Country was

overshadowed by service to Mammon."133

Yet for a small but influential group, Peabody's call to service

struck a chord. The Boston wing of the Social Gospel movement, the

historian Arthur Mann has argued, could be divided into two main groups: "the

moderates, who wished to Christianize capitalism; and the radicals, who

wished to socialize Christianity."134 No radical, Peabody clearly belonged to

the first group, but he was sincere — as was TR — in his desire to soften the

rough edges of a system too often dominated by greed. Inspired by the

rector's quest for ameliorating reforms, a number of Groton alumni — among

them, Averell Harriman, Dean Acheson, and Sumner Welles — dedicated

their lives to public service.135

One young Grotonian who took Peabody seriously was Franklin

Delano Roosevelt. Registered by his parents at Groton in 1883, before

construction of the school had even begun (and when he was just a year old),

FDR came from a family committed to the same ideal of manly Christian

character as Peabody.136 His father, James Roosevelt, so respected the

rector that he wrote to him a few years before his son was scheduled to enter

the school, asking if he could recommend "a New England man," if

possible "a gentleman . . . with the culture and training of Englishmen,

combined with the standard character of the American gentleman" to serve

as a tutor.137 Though Peabody's reply has been lost, a clearer statement of

the social and cultural ideals the two men shared would be hard to find.

Like many of his classmates, young Franklin felt respect

bordering on awe toward Peabody. But unlike many of his peers, he

genuinely shared the rector's deeply felt religious beliefs. To FDR, as to

Peabody, the essence of Episcopalian faith was "a pure, simple,

unquestioning and unquestioned belief in God as a loving Father and in the

consequent ultimate beneficence of universal processes."138 According to

Eleanor Roosevelt, her husband's deep religious faith — which she described

as "simple," but "unwavering and direct" — was an important source of his

self-confidence, his faith in his own judgment, and his belief that he and the

people he represented would ultimately prevail.139

As a student, Roosevelt was active in the Groton Missionary

Society, frequently visiting an eighty-four-year-old black woman who was the

widow of a Civil War drummer and twiceserving as a counselor in a two-week

summer camp that Groton held for children from the slums of Boston and

New York.140 These activities reflected his devotion to Peabody's ethic, and

they were the first step in a life devoted to public service. Yet Roosevelt's

commitment to being of service to others was not entirely innocent of self-

interest; in a paper written during his second year at Harvard, trying to

explain why some of the great old Dutch families of New Amsterdam, but not

the Roosevelts, had gone into decline, he suggested that their fall had

occurred because "they lack progressiveness and the true democratic spirit."

The Roosevelts, on the other hand, had retained great "virility" as a family

because "they have felt that being born in a good position, there was no

excuse for them if they did not do their duty by the community."141

Though Roosevelt was energetic and intelligent, he never gained

Peabody's full approval while at Groton. True, the rector had written a

generous note to his parents on his graduation, describing him as "a

thoroughly faithful scholar and a most satisfactory member of the school

throughout his course" from whom he would part "with reluctance."

Nevertheless, Peabody had denied him the school's highest honor — being

named a senior prefect.142 More than three decades later, the rector

offered his candid assessment of Roosevelt as a student: "He was a quiet,

satisfactory boy of more than ordinary intelligence, taking a good position in

his Form but not brilliant. Athletically, he was rather too slight for success.

We all liked him."143

Yet Roosevelt remained one of his most loyal "boys," asking him

to officiate at his wedding, sending all four of his sons to Groton, and saving

every single one of the birthday cards that the rector sent him (as he did all

Groton alumni) annually.144 In 1932, when FDR ran for president, Peabody

voted for Hoover, judging him an "abler man" even though he had been "very

fond of" Franklin "ever since he was a small boy." Nevertheless, his position

was to separate politics from personal sentiment: "I do not," he wrote to

Ellery Sedgwick, "consider personal relationships when I am casting my vote

for a Government official."145 Perhaps to soften the blow to Roosevelt — that

a man whom he so admired would fail to support him at the climactic

moment of his political career — Mrs. Peabody sent him a letter of


Yet Peabody was proud of Franklin's ascension to the

presidency, describing it as "very much in the tradition of the Groton

School."147 FDR, in turn, maintained a reverential attitude toward the rector,

whom he invited to preside over religious services at St. John's Episcopal

Church on inauguration day in March 1933. There Roosevelt sang hymns with

the rector, who had asked for "Thy blessing upon thy servant, Franklin."148

Roosevelt's public display of religiosity met with Peabody's strong approval,

and the rector later wrote to him that "it is a great thing for our country to

have before it the leadership of a man who cares primarily for spiritual things.

At a time when the minds of men are distraught and their faith unsteady, a

spiritual leader at the head of the nation brings fresh power to the individual

and to the cause of Christ and His Church." "To us in this School," he

added, "it is a great thing to be able to point to a Groton graduate, now in the

highest position in the country, believing in the Church and devoted to its


Throughout his years in the White House, FDR and Peabody

maintained a lively correspondence, with the president always beginning "My

Dear Mr. Peabody" and the rector responding with "My Dear Franklin." As the

New Deal unfolded, it became increasingly clear to Peabody that FDR was

trying to introduce changes that embodied the moderate strand of Social

Gospel reformism to which the rector adhered. In 1935 Peabody wrote to the

president, praising him as a man with "one supreme purpose in mind, the

guidance of this country in such a way that all its citizens who are minded to

do honest work shall have a chance to secure a living free from anxiety and

with an opportunity for the development of which they are capable." The rector

singled out for praise the Social Security Act and the Civilian Conservation

Corps, but it was FDR's larger vision — "that there should be throughout the

land a greater emphasis laid upon the duty of the citizen to the community

and this even among those who were formerly considering only their own

interests" — that caused him to "most heartily rejoice."150

Though Peabody did not agree with all of Roosevelt's policies and

rhetoric ("I do wish that Franklin had not denounced big business men as a

class"), he defended him stoutly against his enemies, especially those who

accused him of insincerity and a lack of integrity.151 Having known him so

long, the rector was secure in his evaluation: "While Roosevelt is not in my

judgment a particularly aggressive person, I believe that when he is convinced

that a thing should be done he has [the] courage to put it through."152

Roosevelt was, in short, a man of sound character, and that was good

enough for the rector.

Peabody's enthusiasm was not shared by the vast majority of

Groton graduates. At a dinner at the Union Club in New York City given in

honor of the rector as he was approaching his eighty-first birthday, he

addressed the anti-Roosevelt mania among Groton graduates, telling the

assembled: "Something has troubled me a good deal lately. Personally I

don't pretend to know much about politics or economics. But in national

crises like the present one, we get pretty excited and perhaps we give vent to

expressions that later on we are sorry for. I believe Franklin Roosevelt to be a

gallant and courageous gentleman. I am happy to count him as a friend."153

Silence greeted his remarks — a fitting response, perhaps, for a group in

which the sentiment was widespread that FDR was a "traitor to his class."

But in Peabody's view, Roosevelt was rather its savior. In a context in

which "change of a drastic nature was called for," the president's

reforms "secured this country from the serious attacks made upon it by

extreme radicals."154

By 1940, with the Nazis occupying France and poised to overrun

Britain, the United States faced the greatest threat to its survival since the

Civil War. Realizing the nation was in peril, Peabody and Roosevelt drew

even closer, affirming the basic values they had long held in common. On

April 25, 1940, FDR wrote to Peabody: "More than forty years ago you said,

in a sermon in the old Chapel, something about not losing boyhood ideals in

later life. Those were Groton ideals — taught by you — I try not to forget —

and your words are still with me and with hundreds of others of 'us boys.'"155

Less than six weeks later, with Paris about to fall to the Germans, Roosevelt

wrote to the rector once again, assuring him that he was "deeply conscious

of the great responsibilities resting on this country in the present dark hour of

the world's history" and firmly "convinced that the people of the United States

will not fail in upholding, and, if necessary in defending, the ideals which have

made their nation great." Peabody responded immediately, praising the "high

wisdom and magnificent courage" with which the president was confronting

the "grave problems" facing the nation.156

Roosevelt was disappointed that Peabody, then eighty-three, was

unable to preside over religious services at the start of his third term, in

January 1941, but his response was magnanimous: "I count it among the

blessings of my life that it was given to me in formative years to have the

privilege of your guiding hand and the benefit of your inspiring example."157

They remained in contact, exchanging notes in the immediate aftermath of

the attack on Pearl Harbor and visiting in 1942. Although Peabody was

twenty-five years his senior, Roosevelt apparently found it difficult to conceive

that the sturdy headmaster was mortal, for when he wrote the directions for

his funeral service, he requested that the rector preside. When the end finally

came for Peabody, in November 1944, the person with him at his sudden

death reported that they had been chatting pleasantly and that his last words

were: "Franklin Roosevelt is a very religious man."158

Gravely ill himself, Roosevelt was shaken by Peabody's death and

sent this wire: "The whole tone of things is going to be a bit different from now

on, for I have leaned on the Rector all these many years far more than most

people know."159 Soon after, in his 1945 inaugural address, the president

harkened back to something that "my old schoolmaster had said":

that "things in life will not always run smoothly . . . [but that] the great fact to

remember is that the trend of civilization itself is forever upward; that a line

drawn through the middle of the peaks and valleys of the centuries always

has an upward trend."160 Remarkably, these words reprised the rector's

sermon that FDR had heard almost forty-five years earlier, at the dedication

of Groton's new chapel on October 15, 1900.161 Things came full circle:

three months after his own address, Roosevelt too was dead of a cerebral


Though Roosevelt had been Peabody's most renowned student,

the rector's standing in the larger community had been established long

before FDR became a public figure. In 1904, with President Theodore

Roosevelt delivering the keynote address and Franklin (recently graduated

from Harvard) in attendance, Peabody presided at a festive celebration of

Groton's twentieth anniversary. Prominent old Grotonians poured in from

distant quarters, but the most visible sign of the school's remarkable

success came from the presence of representatives from Harvard and Yale,

both of which conferred honorary degrees on the rector. In granting Peabody

a master of arts, Yale attached the citation: "What strength is to weakness,

what experience is to ignorance or blind confidence, what light and faith are

to darkness and doubt, what courage is to trembling fear, what the spiritual

potter is to the pliant clay of youthful character, what Paul was to Timothy —

that, all that, is the Head Master of Groton School to the young manhood

blessed with his devoted instruction and companionship." Harvard, still the

destination of most Groton graduates, did Yale one better, conferring on the

rector a doctorate of sacred theology. Its citation read: "Endicott Peabody,

graduate of the English Cambridge, clergyman, headmaster of a school for

boys that stands for purity, manliness, and helpfulness."162

In two short decades, Groton had established itself as the nation's

most prestigious boarding school, exerting an influence that went far beyond

the small social group in which it originated.163 Yet Groton and comparable

schools rarely spoke in public of cultivating "Christian gentlemen"; instead,

they called for building "character" — a way of freeing the values embodied in

the notion of a gentleman from their association with a particular social

class.164 By conferring honorary degrees on Endicott Peabody — the

quintessential Christian gentleman — Harvard and Yale were consecrating

the educational and cultural ideals that he and his school represented.

Implicit in these ideals was a particular definition of "merit" — one that

considered "character," "manliness," and athletic accomplishment as

important as academic excellence. Less than two decades later, when

Harvard, Yale, and Princeton adopted selective admissions policies and for

the first time imposed a limit on the size of the freshman class, it was this

definition that profoundly shaped the admissions criteria — and the social

composition — of the Big Three.

Copyright © 2005 by Jerome Karabel. Reprinted by permission of Houghton

Mifflin Company.'

Product Details

The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton
Mariner Books
Karabel, Jerome
Philosophy & Social Aspects
Universities and colleges
Edition Description:
Trade Cloth
Publication Date:
October 2005
Electronic book text in proprietary or open standard format
Grade Level:
16 pages of b/w photos
9.0 x 6.0 in

Related Subjects

Education » Higher Education

The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton
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$ In Stock
Product details 736 pages Houghton Mifflin Company - English 9780618574582 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "The emphasis in college applications on balancing grades and extracurricular activities appears benignly positive at first glance. Yet, as Karabel explains, the top Ivy League schools created this formula in the 1920s because they were uncomfortable with the number of Jewish students accepted when applicants were judged solely on their grades. The search for prospective freshmen with 'character' was, with varying explicitness, an effort to maintain the slowly declining Protestant establishment. At one point, Karabel says in this stimulating study of admissions policies, Harvard codified a policy of accepting applicants with weak academic credentials who could better appreciate the school's social opportunities, while Princeton promised to accept any alumnus's son with even the faintest hope of graduation. Karabel, a sociologist who once served on UC-Berkeley's admissions committee, extensively covers the 'Jewish problem' at the Big Three colleges, but also tackles the cultural shifts that lowered the barriers for African-American students and ultimately led to the admission of women. The detailed analysis of the role of university presidents and other campus administrators in first stifling, then abetting ethnic diversity in the student body is so comprehensive, however, that his final remarks on the remaining lack of socioeconomic diversity feel like tacked on." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Synopsis" by ,
A landmark work of social and cultural history, The Chosen vividly reveals the changing dynamics of power and privilege in America over the past century. Full of colorful characters (including Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, James Bryant Conant, and Kingman Brewster), it shows how the ferocious battles over admissions at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton shaped the American elite and bequeathed to us the peculiar system of college admissions that we have today. From the bitter anti-Semitism of the 1920s to the rise of the and#147;meritocracyand#8221; at midcentury to the debate over affirmative action today, Jerome Karabel sheds surprising new light on the main events and social movements of the twentieth century. No one who reads this remarkable book will ever think about college admissions — or America — in the same way again.
"Synopsis" by , Drawing on decades of research, Karabel shines a light on the ever-changing definition of "merit" in college admissions, showing how it shaped--and was shaped by--the country at large.
"Synopsis" by ,
A landmark, revelatory history of admissions from 1900 to todayand#8212;and how it shaped a nation

The competition for a spot in the Ivy Leagueand#8212;widely considered the ticket to successand#8212;is fierce and getting fiercer. But the admissions policies of elite universities have long been both tightly controlled and shrouded in secrecy. In The Chosen, the Berkeley sociologist Jerome Karabel lifts the veil on a century of admission and exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. How did the policies of our elite schools evolve? Whom have they let in and why? And what do those policies say about America?

A grand narrative brimming with insights, The Chosen provides a lens through which to examine some of the main events and movements of America in the twentieth centuryand#8212;from immigration restriction and the Great Depression to the dropping of the atomic bomb and the launching of Sputnik, from the Cold War to the triumph of the market ethos.

Many of Karabeland#8217;s findings are astonishing: the admission of blacks into the Ivy League wasnand#8217;t an idealistic response to the civil rights movement but a fearful reaction to inner-city riots; Yale and Princeton decided to accept women only after realizing that they were losing men to colleges (such as Harvard and Stanford) that had begun accepting and#8220;the second sexand#8221;; Harvard had a systematic quota on and#8220;intellectualsand#8221; until quite recently; and discrimination against Asian Americans in the 1980s mirrored the treatment of Jews earlier in the century.

Drawing on decades of meticulous research, Karabel shines a light on the ever-changing definition of and#8220;meritand#8221; in college admissions, showing how it shapedand#8212;and was shaped byand#8212;the country at large. Full of colorful characters, from FDR and Woodrow Wilson to Kingman Brewster and Archibald Cox, The Chosen charts the century-long battle over opportunityand#8212;and offers a new and deeply original perspective on American history.

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