Nicholas Murray Butler

Nicholas Murray Butler
Nicholas Murray Butler
12th President of Columbia University
In office
Preceded by Seth Low
Succeeded by Frank D. Fackenthal (acting)
Personal details
Born April 2, 1862
Elizabeth, New Jersey
Died December 7, 1947
(aged 85)
New York City
Political party Republican
Profession Educator, diplomat, politician

Nicholas Murray Butler (April 2, 1862 – December 7, 1947) was an American philosopher, diplomat, and educator. Butler was president of Columbia University, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He became so well-known and respected that The New York Times printed his Christmas greeting to the nation every year.


Early life and education

Butler was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey to Mary Butler and manufacturing worker Henry Butler. He enrolled in Columbia College (later Columbia University) earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1882 at the age of twenty, his master's degree in 1883, and his doctorate in 1884. Butler's academic and other achievements led Theodore Roosevelt to call him "Nicholas Miraculous." In 1885, Butler studied in Paris and Berlin and became a lifelong friend of future Secretary of State Elihu Root. Through Root he also met Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. In the fall of 1885, Butler joined the staff of Columbia's philosophy department.

In 1887, he co-founded, and became president of, the New York School for the Training of Teachers, which later affiliated with Columbia University and was renamed Teachers College, Columbia University, and from which a co-educational experimental and developmental unit became Horace Mann School.[1] From 1890 to 1891, Butler was a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Throughout the 1890s Butler served on the New Jersey Board of Education and helped form the College Entrance Examination Board.

Presidency of Columbia University

In 1901, Butler became acting president of Columbia University, and in 1902 formally became president. Among the many dignitaries in attendance at his investiture was President Roosevelt. Butler was president of Columbia for 43 years, the longest tenure in the university's history, retiring in 1945. As president, Butler carried out a major expansion of the campus, adding many new buildings, schools, and departments. These additions included Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Centre, the first academic medical centre in the world.

He also aroused controversy. Like many American intellectuals in the 1920s, he was an early admirer of Italian fascist Benito Mussolini and worked to forge cultural relations between Columbia and Italian institutions. The most visible example of this relationship was the Casa Italiana on 117th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, which still stands today.

Butler also forged links with universities in Nazi Germany. In 1933, Butler invited Hans Luther, the German ambassador to the U.S., to speak at Columbia in defence of Hitler and the Nazis. Butler rejected student appeals to cancel the invitation, calling the request "illiberal" and citing the need for academic freedom.[2] Later, when the Nazi threat became clearer, Butler vigorously supported the American war effort.

In 1941, the Pulitzer Prize fiction jury selected Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. The Pulitzer Board initially agreed with that judgement, but Butler, ex-officio head of the Pulitzer board, found the novel offensive and persuaded the board to reverse its determination, so that no novel received the prize that year.[3]

During his lifetime, Columbia named its philosophy library for him; after he died, its main academic library, previously known as South Hall, was rechristened Butler Library. A faculty apartment building on 119th Street and Morningside Drive was also renamed in Butler's honour, as was a major prize in philosophy.

Political activity

Butler was a delegate to each Republican National Convention from 1888 to 1936. In 1912, when Vice President James S. Sherman died a few days before the presidential election, Butler was designated to receive the electoral votes that Sherman would have received. (The Taft-Sherman ticket won only 8 electoral votes, finishing third behind the Democrats and the Progressives.)

In 1916, Butler tried to secure the Republican presidential nomination for Elihu Root. Butler sought the nomination for himself in 1920 and 1928, without success; his 1920 campaign slogan was "Pick Nick as President for a Picnic in November".

Butler believed that Prohibition was a mistake, with negative effects on the country. He became active in the successful effort for Repeal in 1933.


Butler was the chair of the Lake Mohonk Conference on International Arbitration that met periodically from 1907 to 1912. In this time he was appointed president of the American branch of International Conciliation. Butler was also instrumental in persuading Andrew Carnegie to provide the initial $10 million funding for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Butler became head of international education and communication, founded the European branch of the Endowment headquartered in Paris, and was President of the Endowment from 1925 to 1945. For his work in this field, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for 1931 (shared with Jane Addams).

Butler was President of the elite Pilgrims Society, which promotes Anglo-American friendship. He served as President of the Pilgrims from 1928 to 1946. Butler was president of The American Academy of Arts and Letters from 1928 to 1941.

Personal life

Butler married in 1887 and had one daughter from that marriage. His wife died in 1903 and he married again in 1907. In 1940, Butler completed his autobiography with the publication of the second volume of Across the Busy Years. When Butler became almost blind in 1945 at the age of eighty-three, he resigned from the posts he held and died two years later. Butler is buried at Cedar Lawn Cemetery, in Paterson, New Jersey

Bust of Nicholas Murray Butler at Columbia University by Jo Davidson

Despite Butler's accomplishments, many people regarded him as arrogant. He autocratically dismissed faculty members who displeased him, such as the great classical scholar Harry Thurston Peck, and others who dared to question his dismissals, such as the civil rights pioneer Joel Elias Spingarn. In 1939, a former student of Butler's, Rolfe Humphries, was asked to contribute a piece to Poetry. He was given the title ("Draft Ode for a Phi Beta Kappa Occasion"), and asked to follow a format of blank verse and one classical reference per line. Following these provisos, Humphries penned an acrostic in which first letters of each line spelled out the message: "Nicholas Murray Butler is a horses [sic] ass." Upon discovering the "hidden" message, an irate Poetry editor ran an editorial apology.[4]

Butler wrote and spoke voluminously on all manner of subjects ranging from education to world peace. Although marked by erudition and great learning, his work tended toward the portentous and overblown. In The American Mercury, the critic Dorothy Dunbar Bromley referred to Butler's pronouncements as "those interminable miasmas of guff."

One notable critic of Butler was Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. While attending Columbia, Ginsberg scrawled the phrases "Butler Has No Balls" and "Fuck The Jews" in the grime on his dirty dorm window in Hartley Hall. (The dorm maid reported the graffiti to College dean Herbert Hawkes, who summoned Ginsberg and told him, "I hope you realize the enormity of what you've done." This incident was among the reasons that Ginsberg was suspended from Columbia.)[citation needed]

Butler and racism

Butler opposed statehood for the then-US territory of Hawaii, arguing that "In population, in language, and in economic life (Hawaii) is distinctly a foreign land. …(Its people) are not and could not be members of the United States of America in any true sense."[5]

Butler and anti-Semitism

Though not a garden-variety anti-Semite, Butler had conflicted and complex feelings about Jews. On the one hand, Butler clearly supported policies at Columbia that discriminated against Jews, whether they were applicants for admission, students or potential members of the board of trustees.[6] On the other hand, Butler had great respect for many Jewish individuals, especially in the upper reaches of the sciences, law, and academia. Thus, it was during his tenure that Lionel Trilling became the first tenured Jew in Columbia's English department. Butler was also repulsed by crude displays of anti-Semitism. When the University of Heidelberg protested Butler's selection of a Jewish delegate to represent Columbia at Heidelberg's 550th anniversary celebration, Butler indignantly replied that at Columbia, delegates were selected on the basis of merit, not race. (Many students were outraged that Butler had accepted Heidelberg's invitation at all. This resulted in a rally outside Butler's home that started with the protesters chanting "Castigate Butler!" and ending with them shouting "Castrate Butler!") As it was, however, Heidelberg had already purged its Jewish professors and adopted Nazi ideology in its curriculum.

Anti-Semitism was common in American education during Butler’s day, and it may be argued that his personal dislike of Jews, and discriminatory policies against them, were no worse than average for that time. Nonetheless, Butler often considered Jews as a whole to be aggressive and vulgar and for many years of his presidency, Columbia had a strict quota limiting the number of Jews who could attend. In 1928, the Board of Trustees authorized the creation of “Seth Low Junior College” in Brooklyn as a way to deal with the number of Jewish (and Italian) applicants. If Columbia College, the university’s prestigious undergraduate school, had already admitted its modest quota of Jews for the year, other Jewish applicants would be shunted to Seth Low. Among Seth Low's alumni were Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach and noted science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who wrote of how he ended up at Seth Low.[7] When Seth Low folded in 1938, its remaining students were absorbed into Columbia's undergraduate population as students in the University Extension program; as such, they were only eligible to earn a Bachelor of Science degree rather than a Bachelor of Arts. Asimov graduated in 1939 with a Bachelor of Science.

In 1928, the Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals (later U.S. Supreme Court Justice) Benjamin Cardozo (an alumnus of Columbia College and Columbia Law School) was appointed to Columbia’s Board of Trustees, the first Jew to serve on the board in 113 years. But when Cardozo resigned in 1932, Butler and the board prevented the election of Adolph S. Ochs, publisher of The New York Times, to the board. Another Jew did not serve on the board until 1944, when Arthur Hays Sulzberger (Columbia College Class of 1913) was elected a Life Trustee.[8]

Butler’s attempts to limit Jewish admissions to Columbia are discussed (among other places) in the book Nicholas Miraculous: The Amazing Career of the Redoubtable Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler by Columbia English professor Michael Rosenthal.


  • Between Two Worlds, 1934

See also



  1. ^ "History of Horace Mann School". Horace Mann School. Retrieved November 21, 2007. 
  2. ^ "DR. BUTLER REFUSES TO BAR NAZI ENVOY; Columbia Head Rejects Plea by Students to Cancel Dr. Luther's Address. CALLS REQUEST ILLIBERAL Stresses Need for Academic Freedom – Club Is Reported Planning Demonstration.", The New York Times, November 20, 1933. Accessed August 28, 2008.
  3. ^ McDowell, Edwin. "Publishing: Pulitzer Controversies." New York Times, May 11, 1984
  4. ^ [ Nicholas Murray Butler, Everything2, Retrieved September 3, 2011
  5. ^ TERRITORIES: Knock on the Door, TIME Magazine, December 22, 1947
  6. ^ Interview with Professor Michael Rosenthal, reported in “The Guy the Library’s Named After,” Blue and White Blog, entry of March 4, 2006, 11:17 pm,
  7. ^ Isaac Asimov, In Memory Yet Green, Doubleday, 1979
  8. ^ Robert A. McCaughey, Stand Columbia, Columbia University Press, 2003, Appendix “F”, “Topical Timelines #9,” “Columbia and the ‘Jewish Problem’”
  • Michael Rosenthal, Nicholas Miraculous: The Amazing Career of the Redoubtable Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler, Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2006, ISBN 0-374-29994-3

External links

Academic offices
Preceded by
Seth Low
President of Columbia University
Succeeded by
Frank D. Fackenthal
Party political offices
Preceded by
James S. Sherman(1)
Republican Party vice presidential candidate
1912 (lost)
Succeeded by
Charles W. Fairbanks
Notes and references
1. Butler replaced Sherman on the Republican ticket as the vice presidential candidate after Sherman's death.

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Nicholas Murray Butler — (1924) Nicholas Murray Butler (* 2. April 1862 in Elizabeth, New Jersey; † 7. Dezember 1947 in New York) war ein US amerikanischer Philosoph und Publizist. Er bekam 1931 gemeinsam mit Jane Addams den Friedensnobelpreis …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Nicholas Murray Butler — Nicholas Murray Butler …   Wikipedia Español

  • Nicholas Murray Butler — Nicholas Butler Nicholas Murray Butler en 1924 Nicholas Murray Butler, né à Elizabeth (New Jersey) le 2 avril 1862 et mort à New York le 7 décembre 1947, est co détenteur aux côtés de Jane A …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Nicholas Murray Butler — (n. Elizabeth, New Jersey, 2 de abril de 1862 † Nueva York, 7 de diciembre de 1947). Pedagogo y filósofo estadounidense. Estudió en el Columbia College, centro docente que adquiriría gracias a él categoría de Universidad de renombre y a cuyo… …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • Nicholas Murray Butler — (1862 1947) American educator, joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, president of Columbia college from 1902 1912 and Columbia University from 1912 1945 …   English contemporary dictionary

  • Friedensnobelpreis 1931: Jane Addams — Nicholas Murray Butler —   Jane Addams erhielt den Preis für ihre langjährige Arbeit in internationalen Friedensorganisationen, Butler für sein Wirken als Präsident der Carnegie Stiftung.    Biografien   Jane Addams, * Cedarville (Illinois) 6. 9. 1860, ✝ Chicago 21. 5.… …   Universal-Lexikon

  • Butler,Nicholas Murray — Butler, Nicholas Murray. 1862 1947. American educator who advocated peace through education. He shared the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize. * * * …   Universalium

  • Butler, Nicholas Murray — ▪ American educator born April 2, 1862, Elizabeth, N.J., U.S. died Dec. 7, 1947, New York, N.Y.  American educator, publicist, and political figure who (with Jane Addams (Addams, Jane)) shared the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1931 and served as… …   Universalium

  • Butler, Nicholas Murray — ► (1862 1947) Pedagogo y publicista estadounidense. Fue premio Nobel de la Paz en 1931, compartido con J. Addams …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • Butler — Butler, Nicholas Murray Butler, Samuel * * * (as used in expressions) Butler, Benjamin F(ranklin) Butler, Joseph Butler, Nicholas M(urray) Butler, R(ichard) A(usten), barón de Saffron Walden Butler, Samuel James Butler Hickok Leacock, Stephen… …   Enciclopedia Universal

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