Office of the VP for Communications – Keeping alumni and friends connected to U-M

Who was James Angell?


University rules in the mid-1800s required students to attend chapel first thing every morning. But by tradition, chapel was a melee. In the big auditorium of the Law Building, just north of where Angell Hall stands now, a thousand students, most of them farm boys, yelled, pounded their feet, and pelted each other with anything handy, usually apple cores and walnuts. This had been going on for 20 years, and no president had been able to do anything about it. Professors had quit attending out of disgust.

James Burrill Angell

James B. Angell (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.) View photos of Angell through the decades.

James Burrill Angell had heard about chapel at Michigan even before he got to Ann Arbor in the summer of 1871. He’d just left the presidency of the University of Vermont to take over at U-M, though only after he played hard-to-get for more than a year; he finally said yes when the Regents agreed to his demand for an annual salary of $4,500.

On the first day of the term, Wednesday, Sept. 24, Angell attended chapel and watched the usual small riot from the sidelines.

The next morning he came early, just as some sophomores were piling up ammo to throw at freshmen. Angell asked them—”kindly but firmly,” he said later—not to throw stuff. They looked at him—and dropped their nuts under their chairs.

The following day the new president conducted prayers himself and made a few general remarks about rowdiness in chapel. He did it with “a cherubic smile and an appeal to [the students’] sense of fair play.” And that was that. Rowdiness at chapel was over.

Why so easy?

People said there was just something about Angell.

“The kindliness of his manner and the gentleness of his words were sometimes mistaken for weakness and acquiescence,” said Martin D’Ooge, a professor of Greek who watched Angell in the presidency for many years. “Not until they felt the firm grip of the strong and determined will did the boys learn to know that his words, spoken ever so gently, could not be lightly disregarded.”

And he met people halfway, as students soon learned. Angell led the prayers at chapel every morning. But he made chapel voluntary.

“He met both teacher and student alike in such a way as to put them at once at ease,” Professor D’Ooge said, “and to make us feel that we were meeting not a superior but an equal and a friend.”

A man of conviction

Born in Scituate, R.I., in 1829, Angell was descended from a friend and fellow traveler of Roger Williams, the New England rebel who championed religious freedom against the Puritans. Angell was so brilliant as a student at Brown University that the faculty recruited him to join their ranks. He did for a while, then became editor of the Providence Journal, where he was a strong backer of Abraham Lincoln.

Once, a delegation of politicians who opposed Lincoln’s pro-Union policy made a bid to buy the Journal. Meeting with them, Angell detected their real interest was to change the paper’s editorial stance. He held up his quill pen and said: “Gentlemen, I presume you can buy the Journal, but you have not money enough to buy this quill.” That terminated the discussion.

When the Civil War ended Angell returned to academe. After several years at Vermont, he responded to the challenge of building up the still shaky public university in the West. He spoke with a Yankee twang, and it took him a while to set aside a belief in New England’s cultural primacy. But he made friends and allies immediately, and he got to work on the project of turning a great experiment—that is, the notion of a world-class university supported by public means—into a practical reality.

Angell’s mixture of good fellowship and a strong will made him the most influential of Michigan’s presidents. He served until 1909—38 years in which U-M expanded from three departments to seven; the faculty grew from 35 to some 250; and enrollment rose from about 1,000 students to more than 4,000. By the time he retired, Michigan was easily the leading public university in the country.

An open mind

Angell revolutionized the curriculum, replacing the old system by which every student took virtually the same course of study with a new system heavy on electives. That not only gave students freedom to study what they wanted; it also led to a spectacular diversification of course offerings. And that led, in turn, to a faculty of top-tier minds in many fields, from John Dewey in philosophy to Frederick Novy in bacteriology.

“The most striking feature of the University,” Harper’s Magazine said in 1887, “is the broad and liberal spirit in which it does its work. Students are allowed the widest freedom consistent with sound scholarship in pursuing the studies of their choice; they are held to no minute police regulations, but are treated as persons with high and definite aims, from which they are not to be easily diverted.”

For most of his tenure Angell wrote his own letters by hand; he personally registered every student enrolling in the Department of Literature, Science and the Arts; and he taught courses in international law. (U.S. presidents sent him on foreign missions; his tours of duty led to U-M’s special ties with China and the Philippines.) Michigan’s first women students started just when Angell became president. He supported them and became a strong advocate of co-education.

An uncommon education for the common man—and woman

In Angell’s time, college was widely seen as the elite sphere of the wealthy. He was determined to have Michigan break that mold. In the 1880s he did his own study to find that the fathers of nearly half of U-M students earned a living with their hands, and fewer than one in four had a college degree. He pitched Michigan on that basis, and thereby established U-M’s reputation as a democratic, egalitarian place offering “an uncommon education for the common man” and woman.

“Have an aristocracy of birth if you will,” he said, “or of riches if you wish, but give our plain boys from the log cabins a chance to develop their minds with the best learning and we fear nothing from your aristocracy.”

He also insisted that students who enjoyed the benefits of a public-supported education owed society something in return—and that their public service in turn justified public support. He would tell the story of a doctor trained at U-M who was called out in the middle of the night to save the child of a poor family. “Who is reaping the greatest benefit from the education he has gained here,” Angell asked, “the physician, with or without his scanty fee, or the anxious parents to whom he has restored the child from the jaws of death?”

In his final baccalaureate address in 1909, Angell told his last class of graduating seniors: “We have a right to ask, and we do ask, the University asks, the state asks of every one of you, that your life be shaped on a larger and fairer pattern because you have been here.”

Angell died in 1916 at 87. One of his sons became president of Yale; another became professor of law at Michigan; a grandson became U-M’s chair of sociology; and a granddaughter won the Pulitzer Prize in history.

What do you think about President Angell? Tell us about your experiences in Angell Hall.

Sources include Angell’s papers at the Bentley Historical Library; Kent Sagendorph, Michigan: The Story of the University (1948); Howard Peckham, edited and updated by Margaret L. Steneck and Nicholas L. Steneck, The Making of the University of Michigan 1817-1992 (1992); and The Reminiscences of James Burrill Angell (1912).


  1. Yu-Chiu Chao - 1986

    Angell Hall was where I took graduate courses offered by the math department in the 1980’s. I occasionally went to the math lounge to chat with people there. It also housed a few other LSA departments then. Little did I know the great story behind its namesake. It sort of makes sense, as Angell Hall in my mind was always associated with quiet brain power, not the assertive, aggressive type you might find in the law school, but that of the truly serene and enduring kind. It remains a distinct piece of my Michigan memory.


  2. Thomas McGowan III - 1969

    Dear Friends, what may not be known is that one of Pres. Angell’s descendants, my wife, attended the University of Michigan. Holly’s grandmother was an Angell in many more ways than just a name. She was Julia Gladys Ingersoll Angell, and was born in Connecticut not far away from President Angell’s birthplace.


  3. Scott Kashkin - 84

    Wonderful article. This man sounds like a giant, the perfect person for the role. And a role model he should be for the leaders of today.


  4. Panos Papalambros

    I was just named by the U-M Regents as the James B. Angell Distinguished University Professor. The choice of the name was mine and I picked Angell’s for some of the reasons mentioned in the article, but also because he had strong ties to engineering (my first discipline). He had been offered teaching jobs in civil engineering, architecture, modern languages, and international law — a true polymath that is hard to find these days among academics. The timing of this article was just perfect. I can send it to all the folk asking me, “Who is this Angell?”


  5. Karen James Malmsten - 1976

    I remember that Professor Angell (Grandson of President Angell) was my Sociology professor–and I was a lowly freshman taking Sociology in 1972-1973. I recall his lectures were lively and relevant even though he had to be in his 70s by then. I also recall that there was a theme of social responsibility throughout his lectures.


  6. Marc Schiller - 1974

    One must note that Angell presided over the formation of Michigamua in 1902, founded on the principals of leadership, diversity and quiet service to the university. Now known as the Order of Angell, this student organization was charged by Angell to ‘fight like hell for Michigan’ while calling no attention to itself or its members. It still does that today. How interesting that again he was far ahead of his time (and often misunderstood by modern critics).


  7. Stephen Qua - '55e

    I am surprised that one of your sources was not “James Burrill Angell: an American Influence” (1955) by Shirley W. Smith – my grandfather. I assume the book is out of print but available in the Clements Library.


  8. James Angell - 1986

    What fun to read about him. Thanks for the wonderful article.


  9. Lois Santalo - 1943

    I lived for the two semesters of my senior year with Mary Cooley, a cousin of Dr. James Angell (the sociologist) who used to come to dinner quite often. It was always a great moment for her, with cooking going on for two days in advance. I remember how she used to scramble to get sauterne for the occasion because that was his favorite. Mary was the secretary of the Hopwood Room in Angell Hall and used to make cookies for the Thursday literary teas, attended by all the literary people on campus. I was excited to be sharing the lives of such illustrious people as the Cooleys and Angells.


  10. Timothy Kovach

    Back in Angell’s Day, U.S. Ambasadors were aks “Ministers.” The article mentions that President Angell served over in Asia for the U.S. government but, more precisely, he was named Minister/Ambassador to China and another Asian nation. This all happened while he was serving as U-M president! He is believed to be the person who coined the famous phrase “Michigan Man” (and Woman), which denotes a person of high moral character, integrity, virtue, and leadership. President Angell was the longest-serving president in U.S. history and one of America’s greatest educators in history. Along with Mr. Tappan he is generally considered to be the greatest shaper of the University of Michigan and the famed “Michigan Model” that seemingly countless other universities and colleges around the nation and globe seek to emulate and implement in various salient ways. When U-M hired him in 1870, President Angell’s then high salary was not the only pre-condition to him deciding to leave the University of Vermont for Mighty Michigan. He insisted that the U-M President’s House (whom so many U-M alums insist is the so-called “Second most influential White House in American society…except when it is first!”) install –for him and his family–indoor plumbing! Indeed, the president’s white house on University Avenue(built in 1840) is reportedly the first house in Ann Arbor town to have acquired modern-day indoor plumbing! Angell–besides greatly expanding U-M’s size and substance–was one of American higher ed’s true pioneers in opening U.S. college doors to foreigners–this owing to his overseas diplomatic posts for several years while “de jure” remaining as U-M president. It was thus that President Angell spread the “Gospel of Michigan.” President Angell was also appointed to chair other important U.S. diplomatic committees, such as ones between Canada and the USA to settle matters and disputes re: the fishing rights, St Lawrence Seaway matters, etc. He was truly a great leader on several fronts, a man possessing great wisdom and intellect and was largely responsible for transforming U-M into what it is today; the greatest or one of the greatest universities on the planet “across the board.” The era encompassing his 39-year tenure as U-M president saw many changes to America and the world: the inventions of the telephone, electric lights, airplane flight, the automobile, the first Rose Bowl, the creation of our nation’s oldest league(The Big Ten), the hiring of the legendary coach Fielding H. Yost, the birth of the automobile assembly line, the movies/cinema, the Spanish/American War, and much, much more all happened during Angell’s presidency at Michigan. Angell actually tried to retire on more than one occasion. He was such a great leader and so beloved that the Board of Regents and some of U-M’s faculty had to go “all out” to get him to stay. His strong sense of duty and his love of Michigan caused him to grant their requests. By the turn of the century (1901) the 2 largest U.S. universities were arguably America’s greatest at the time: Michigan and Harvard U (located near Boston in Cambridge, Massachusetts). As the article pointed out, President Angell did not only greatly expand the course offerings, physical plant, and the faculty/student body while at U-M. He implemented many new disciplines but was able to attract and maintain other great faculty in addition to those greats mentioned in the fine article, above. The great jurist and law professor Thomas M Cooley, the economist Henry Adams, the inventor of the skyscraper over in the school of architecture (Jenner), the great archaeologist (Kelsey), and others helped seal U-M’s already outstanding, world-class reputation as a top-notch teaching and research entity. When President Angell finally passed away in his late 80s, the outpouring of grief for this fiant of U.S. education was great. A large turnout of students, admirers, townfolk, and the like attended the long funeral procession through the U-M campus(up State Street)before he was laid to rest. James Burrill Angell is a legend, of course and the Spirit of Michigan owes a great debt to the ghosts of Tappan, Yost, and especially President Angell because it is from such pathfinders and early Leaders and Best that Michigan is what Mighty Meeshigan is today; preeminent (with no apologies to Oxford) “across the board” in what the great (former) U-M coach Lloyd Carr hails as “The grreatest university in the world.” M Go Blue! Respectfully submitted, TEK(Mgoazul)


  11. Roger H. Williams III

    “fellow traveler of Roger Williams, the New England rebel who championed religious freedom against the Puritans…” When I think of my many-times-removed great, great…grandfather, I more commonly think of the separation of church and state. He had the good fortune/opportunity to exchange language lessons with John Milton. One of his descendants (grandson?) as a coincidence relative to Angell, became the 4th Rector of Yale.


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