Tag Archives: Nicholas Murray Butler

A Tainted Gift: Why would an avowed fascist donate a letter from a Founding Father to Columbia?

Extract from the Trustees Minutes, October 3, 1927, Columbia University Archives

In 1927, an Italian medievalist and prominent Fascist named Piero Misciattelli gifted to the Columbia University Libraries an autograph letter written by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello in 1821.  Jefferson’s letter to Parisian booksellers DeBures Frères placing an order for his burgeoning library was, according to an extract from the Columbia Trustee Minutes of October 3, 1927, “hitherto unpublished and unknown.”

Such a remarkable gift prompts several questions: What was the connection between Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler and a Fascist university professor? How did this Italian scholar of medieval mysticism and literature acquire an American president’s epistle sent to Paris in the 19th century? Why would Misciattelli, a loyal Fascist, express open admiration for an American champion of democracy like Jefferson?

Though the letter’s provenance and its pathway to Misciattelli’s possession remain a mystery, the esteem for Jefferson and the relationship between Butler and Misciattelli hinges upon the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP). An international think tank founded by Andrew Carnegie in 1910, CEIP was, and remains, dedicated to the cause of advancing world peace. While also serving as Columbia’s President, Nicholas Murray Butler steered the CEIP for 20 years, 1925-1945, through the entire Fascist ventennio and the ravages of WWII.  Misciattelli, a member of the European Committee of the Division of Intercourse and Education of the CEIP and thus known to Butler, shared Mussolini’s ironic Fascist policy of peace through disarmament. In a New York Times article from October 1931 announcing Misciattelli’s visit to New York to lecture on Dante at Columbia’s new Casa Italiana, he is quoted parroting Mussolini’s rhetoric:

“Disarmament is the first condition of peace, wealth and real progress for the whole world. Of course, no country can have social peace without order and discipline and all of the other old Roman virtues. Mussolini believes, as does bold young Italy, that the spirit of Roman laws, of Roman civilization, is immortal. …Mussolini is a sincere advocate of international peace.”

The NYT article also includes Misciattelli’s thinly-veiled attempt to assert a long-standing amicable relationship between Italy and the United States by referencing an 1853 message sent by President Abraham Lincoln to famed Italian physicist Macedonio Melloni. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Misciattelli would have acquired the Jefferson letter and then gifted it to a prestigious American university such as Columbia, particularly since Misciattelli and Butler were supposedly proponents of the same peaceful ideology.

High-ranking Nazi and Fascist officials in Piazza Venezia, 1938. The red arrow indicates Misciattelli’s building while Palazzo Venezia (and its balcony) are in the center background. Courtesy of the Bundesarchiv

Despite his status as a professor at the University of Siena, Misciattelli, also a Marquis, lists his address on the letter to President Butler as Piazza Venezia 5, in Rome. Piazza Venezia was the literal heart of the Fascist regime, as the Palazzo Venezia’s infamous balcony (located at number 10), was the site of so many impassioned Mussolini orations to the Italian people. If Misciattelli’s base in Rome was located just steps from Mussolini’s office then we can safely surmise that he was in favor with Il Duce, perhaps because of the inroads he was making in spreading Fascist ideology through his lectures, his work on the CEIP, and his strategic gifts of friendship to universities like Columbia.

Exhibition | Remaking the World: Columbians and the 1919 Peace Conference

If you’re enjoying PBS’ Women, War and Peace series, stop in to the RBML for our current exhibit, Remaking the World. The exhibit explores Columbia University’s connections to the 1919 Peace Conference. To be specific, the exhibit explores the role of men deemed significant to The Paris Peace Conference, also known as the Versailles Peace Conference.

poster of versaille hall and illustration of weeping angel

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Newly available RBML collections – September 2018

Head Archivist Kevin Schlottmann shares collections newly opened by RBML archivists.

A large addition to the New York Clearinghouse records was processed,
and the finding aid substantially improved: “New York Clearing House Association (now The Clearing House Association) was founded in 1853 as the first banking clearing house
in the United States. The records include amicus briefs, constitutions
and amendments, letter books, meeting minutes, financial ledgers and
statements, photographs, publications, and reports. ”

The finding aid for the Nicholas Murray Butler papers has been
encoded, with over 33,000 names of correspondents listed.

Columbia University Cuneiform Collection
“The collection consists of 625 cuneiform tablets (dating from circa
3100-539 BCE), and some ancient clay objects. Accompanying these are
some twentieth century casts, and a collection of catalogs of the
collection, articles about various parts, especially Plimpton 322, and
correspondence about the tablets, including a number of letters,
mostly from Edgar J. Banks, to George A. Plimpton, and others about
tablets now in the Columbia collection.”

A. J. A. Symons papers
“A small group of materials, chiefly consisting of English writer and
bibliographer A. J. A. Symons’ correspondence and records related to
the First Edition Club, which Symons founded in 1922. Stuart B.
Schimmel collected the materials.”

Susan Orlean papers
“This collection documents Orlean’s career as a writer and a
journalist, and also includes some personal materials and school
papers. The collection includes address books, appointment books,
audio recordings, clippings, computer files, contracts,
correspondence, drafts, interviews, notes, notebooks, photographs,
proofs, publications, research materials, school records, and video
recordings. ” Continue reading

Now available | Photo album collections ready for researchers

The University Archives is working hard to bring more and more of its collections out of hiding and make them available to researchers. As part of that effort we recently published finding aids for three Columbia photograph album collections: two featuring scenes of the Morningside campus from the 1930s and 1940s and one from President Nicholas Murray Butler.

The Walter L. Bogert Photograph album, 1932-1943, captures views of Columbia campus and of Morningside Heights taken by alumnus W.L. Bogert (AB 1888, AM 1889, LLB 1934). He lived at 25 Claremont Avenue and produced a photographic record of his alma mater and neighborhood. Some of his campus building photographs were included in the 1940 Columbia University calendar. This album serves as a comprehensive source for campus views of this period and includes scenes of Student Army Training Corps (SATC) reviews.

Butler Library, 1939

Butler Library, 1939

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For an archivist, everyday is a potential journey to the center of the earth. Open a box—any box—and you are instantly transported to another place and time. In most cases the creator of those records did not intend for this to be the case. But every now and then you stumble across a voice from the past who intended for you to hear it.

Such was the case in 2008 when I received a call from the Office of the Treasurer. The office was in the midst of a move when an envelope was found in the vault. “Do not open until October 31, A.D. 2000.” As with ancient curses of all sorts, the staff called the University Archives. “It’s some kind of time capsule. We were kind of afraid to open it.”

The package, I learned, was a 40 page observation on Columbia and its history sealed by one Roger Howson who, in 1948, was the University Librarian. Born in Overton, North Wales, and educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, Howson came to Columbia in 1922 as assistant librarian. In 1926 he was named University Librarian and by the time he retired in 1948, Columbia was the third largest university library in the country with well over 1,450,000 volumes. He had witnessed plenty and had more than a few words to say about Columbia’s history.

In his treatise, Howson recalls with good humor college spirit and student hi-jinx. Of sports he noted Columbia’s less-than-stellar reputation on the football field describing the school as the “graveyard of football coaches.” He wrote of the expense of the city, how New York “was generally more expensive than had been anticipated” for graduate students. Well, some things don’t change in sixty years.

Howson was critical toward discrimination against Jews, Irish Catholics, Armenians, and “coloreds.” Yet his most critical words were saved for Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia from 1902-1945. “He was an intellectually illiterate man,” wrote Howson. “For him words were things out of which one made sentences, out of sentences one made speeches, and out of one’s speeches one compiled a career and a life.” Indeed, Howson asserted that the last thirty years of Butler’s administration was “one of the tragedies of American educational history.”

Roger Howson was, as Robert McCaughey described in his book Stand, Columbia, one of the least recognized historians of Columbia University history. His desire to capture the essence of time and place was deeply held and was, indeed, issued as a polite challenge in the closing paragraph of his letter to me, the University Archivist. “If I may make a suggestion it would be that you should follow my example and leave something similar for him who will follow you after fifty more years shall have passed.”

I am taking notes, Mr. Howson. I am taking notes.

Susan Hamson
Curator of Manuscripts and University Archivist