By Joe Hanneman
PROFESSOR RICHARD T. ELY WAS AN ANARCHIST. Ely was a socialist, an author of “utopian, impracticable and pernicious doctrines.” He was a pro-union rabblerouser who preferred “dirty, dissipated, unmarried, unreliable and unskilled” workers. He was a threat to the American way of life. So you might believe if you read the scathing charges leveled against the University of Wisconsin economics professor in a national magazine by the outspoken Wisconsin superintendent of public instruction.
The clash between Ely and school teacher Oliver E. Wells in 1894 led to a highly publicized trial. The professor was eventually cleared, but what was remembered for generations was the statement issued by the Board of Regents after the trial — words so powerful and timeless they were cast into bronze.
A ‘Magna Carta’
The words used to clear Ely — which the professor later called the “pronunciamento of academic freedom” and “part of the Wisconsin Magna Carta” — were ensconced on a large bronze tablet and eventually bolted to Bascom Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The plaque reads:
“Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great State University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth
can be found.”
Those words became more important for the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in 1998, when two duplicates of the famed plaques were freed from a 25-year dormancy in the basement archives, restored and prepared for installation on campus (see related story). The plaques are symbols not only linking the university to a proud tradition, but also a modern beacon defending the creation of knowledge that is at the heart of University of Wisconsin education.
“The principles of academic freedom have never found expression in language so beautiful, words so impressive, phrases so inspiring,” said UW President Charles Van Hise at the plaque’s dedication in June 1915. Theodore Herfurth, a member of the class of 1894 who later wrote a definitive history of the Sifting and Winnowing story, said the memorial plaque “stands as a sentinel” to guard the spirit of the university. “When time and the elements shall have effaced every resistive letter on the historic bronze tablet, its imperishable spirit shall still ring clear and true,” Herfurth wrote in 1948, just two years before his death. The Sifting and Winnowing story still rings across time. In December 1964, it was the subject of the short-lived Profiles in Courage television series, starring Daniel O’Herlihy as Ely and Edward Asner as Wells.
Ely probably couldn’t have imagined such an outcome when Wells, a teacher and former superintendent of schools in Waupaca County, attacked him in a 535-word letter to the editor of The Nation titled “The College Anarchist,” published in the July 12, 1894 issue. In his role as Wisconsin superintendent of public instruction (1891-95), Wells was an ex-officio member of the Board of Regents.
Ely, a distinguished political economist, had among his concerns the welfare of the working class and organized labor. He interacted with the labor movement, and wrote about socialism in his textbooks. A founder of the American Economic Association and the Christian Social Union, Ely helped develop the reform ideology that was central to the Progressive movement in America.
A Covert Socialist?
Wells’ frontal attack accused Ely of fomenting strikes at the Democratic Printing Company and the Tracy-Gibbs Printing Company in Madison, and of boycotting a non-union printing company. When Wells got no traction on those issues by complaining to UW President Adams and fellow Regents, he went public. Wells said Ely’s writings masked a covert socialism that constituted an “attack on life and property such as this country has already become too familiar with.” Herfurth described Wells’ letter as “scathing, excoriating and denunciatory,” making Wells Ely’s “antagonist and violent public accuser.”
The embarrassing national publicity that followed forced the Board of Regents to appoint a three-member trial panel to investigate Ely. The inquiry was chaired by Herbert W. Chynoweth, former Wisconsin assistant attorney general and a prominent Madison attorney. Other panel members included Dr. Harvey B. Dale, former four-term mayor of Oshkosh, and Milwaukee banker John Johnston. During a three-day hearing that began Aug. 20, 1894, Wells’ accusations began to unravel as exaggerations, half-truths and misrepresentation. Chynoweth made a key ruling on the second day of the hearing that the panel would not examine all of Ely’s writings, but would focus on specific allegations in Wells’ letter to The Nation.
Testimony showed that Ely did not coerce or direct strikers, boycott non-union shops or promote anarchy. In fact, Ely was hailed as one of America’s foremost minds on political economy. He voiced support for unionization of printing company employees, but was not involved in the ongoing labor disputes.
E. Benjamin Andrews, president of Brown University, wrote that to dismiss Ely would “be a great blow at freedom of university teaching.” UW President Charles Kendall Adams, after reviewing Ely’s writings, said not even “a paragraph or sentence…can be interpreted as an encouragement of lawlessness or disorder.” Albion Woodbury Small, founder of the sociology department at the University of Chicago, said “no man in the United States has done so much as he to bring economic thought down out of the clouds and into contact with actual human concerns. Nothing could be more grotesque than to accuse him of encouraging a spirit of lawlessness and violence.”
As the hearing entered its third day, Wells admitted that he could not prove his accusations. At this point, the panel dropped from trial mode into that of a fact-finder. Ely’s exoneration was secured. The panel’s report, issued to the Board of Regents on Sept. 18, 1894, went beyond exoneration. Regents unanimously adopted the document and its poetic language, sending a signal through the ages of its commitment to freedom of inquiry.
“We feel that we would unworthy of the position we hold if we did not believe in progress in all departments of knowledge,” read the report, believed to be written by UW President Adams. “In all lines of academic investigation, it is of the utmost importance that the investigator should be absolutely free to follow the indications of truth wherever they may lead.” There was later ongoing debate as to who coined the “Sifting and Winnowing” phrase. In June 1942, an aged Professor Ely insisted the credit belonged to Alfred T. Rogers, the son-in-law of Regent Chynoweth.
Yet Another Threat
While the poetic words made a memorable statement, they were not resurrected for nearly 20 years when yet another UW professor stood accused of impropriety. Sociology professor Edward Alsworth Ross was implicated for allegedly consorting with anarchist Emma Goldman and giving a speaking platform to sexual liberation proponent Parker Sercombe, a man said to promote immorality.
Regents were so incensed with the 1910 allegations against Ross that they approved a statement of censure. Suggestions were made that Ross be fired. UW President Van Hise led a vigorous defense of Ross against what again proved to be somewhat dubious allegations. Regents did not take action against Ross. The professor never attended Goldman’s talk in Madison, but when she paid a visit to his office, he gave her a tour of campus. “Promptly the newspapers shrieked that I was an anarchist,” Ross said. Van Hise privately told Ross that his real indiscretion was publishing Sin and Society: An Analysis of Latter-Day Iniquity. Some on the Board of Regents sought a pretext to oust Ross because of the book, Van Hise said.
Fearing that academic freedom was again in jeopardy, the Class of 1910 decided to have the famed Sifting and Winnowing statement cast into bronze and presented to the university as a gift. The idea for the memorial came from Lincoln Steffens, the “muckraking” journalist from American Magazine. Steffens discovered the 1894 Regents report while researching the University of Wisconsin and was deeply impressed by the Sifting and Winnowing statement. Steffens became a great admirer of Sen. Robert Marion La Follette, leader of the Progressive movement, while writing his 1909 article, “Sending a State to College.” Students at the time were largely unaware of Steffens’ involvement. Class leaders kept this fact close to the vest. However, conservative members of the Board of Regents were aware of it. Many of them were not fond of Steffens, whom they referred to with great derision as “Stinkin’ Leffins.”
Using scrap plywood and pattern maker’s letters, student Hugo H. Hering created the somewhat crude plaque pattern and had it cast at Madison Brass Works Inc. foundry for $25. “It was purely a hand-made job,” Hering said, “in which I used a three-ply wood veneer panel as a background. I bought white metal letters, such as used by Pattern Makers, and fastened these letters to the veneer back.” Hering carted the form to Madison Brass and Henry Vogts cast the tablet for the students.
Feeling the plaque was a political statement and a slap in the face, Regents rejected it in June 1910. The board at the time was dominated by Stalwart Republicans, at least some of whom believed the students were being used by Progressives to cast aspersions on conservative members of the Board of Regents. “It was the entire situation and spirit of it all that was resented,” Regent Charles P. Cary later said. “The spirit as Regents interpreted it was something like this: ‘There, dern ye, take that dose and swallow it. You don’t dare refuse it even if it gags you, and it probably will.’ ”
There was a public perception that the students were trying to dictate to the Regents. Indeed, student leaders had plans to erect the bronze tablet themselves near campus if Regents rejected it. Class President Francis Ryan Duffy petitioned the Board of Regents to place the plaque at any “suitable” campus location. Publicly, Regents said rejection of the tablet came from not wanting to set a precedent that could “mutilate” the facades of university buildings. According to the account by Herfurth, however, the real reason was they despised Lincoln Steffens.
After the kerfuffle, the plaque, as one newspaper put it, came to repose “in a dry goods box in the basement of the administration building.” Regents formally accepted the tablet in April 1912, but had no plans to affix it to a building. It wasn’t until 1915 when tempers had cooled (and the makeup of the Board of Regents had changed) that the plaque was rescued from storage, bolted to the door post of Bascom Hall and formally dedicated. President Van Hise had to broker a solution between zealous Class of 1910 alumni and Regents who were still stung at the suggestion they had harmed academic freedom in 1910.
The location of the plaque was more than mere symbolism. Bascom Hall “is the citadel of power of the University of Wisconsin,” Herfurth wrote in 1948. It was long the meeting place of the Board of Regents, a body Herfurth said has “the prerogative and the responsibility to establish, to defend and to preserve the spiritual, the ethical and the cultural values which comprise the essence of a great university.”
“It was one of the cases that defined academic freedom in this country,” said W. Lee Hansen, professor emeritus of economics at UW-Madison and editor of Academic Freedom on Trial: 100 Years of Sifting and Winnowing at the University of Wisconsin, a 1998 book about the plaque and the issues behind it. “I don’t know of any other schools that have statements that are that concise and expressive.”
Plaque Stolen in 1956
The plaque stood as a symbol of freedom for 41 years before pranksters removed it from its hallowed spot on Bascom Hall in 1956. Just as a fund was being established to recast it, police found the 255-pound plaque near a trail on campus. It was rededicated with great pomp and ceremony on February 15, 1957. More than 325 members of the Class of 1910 were honored at the event, attended by Wisconsin Gov. Vernon Thompson and former Gov. Oscar Rennebohm. Duffy, now chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago, was among the honored guests. Hering, who went on from his university days to become assistant Wisconsin state treasurer, died in 1946.
In 1964, Racine attorney Kenneth Greenquist, a member of the Board of Regents, sponsored a resolution to create duplicates of the plaque for the UW Center campuses around the state. Plaques were installed at the Racine and Kenosha campuses in 1965 and 1966 on what is now Gateway Technical College’s Lake Building and Bradford High School in Kenosha. UW-Parkside took possession of the plaques at its founding in 1968, and thus began their long residence in storage.
At the 1967 dedication of the Sifting and Winnowing plaque at the UW Center in Green Bay, Wisconsin Gov. Warren Knowles said the plaque contains a bold idea — and a challenge. “The idea embodied in the words of the plaque we will dedicate today is as old as the concept of freedom itself: the right of free inquiry, the right to dissent, the right of free speech, the right of minorities to be heard in the forums of public opinion,” Knowles said. “All of this and more is contained in the famous ‘Sifting and Winnowing’ statement of the 1894 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin. These are freedoms that must be fought for and won anew by each generation.” ♦
— A shorter version of this article appeared in the winter 1998-99 issue of Perspective magazine at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. Special thanks to the UW-Madison Archives for research assistance, materials and photos used in preparation of this article.
Richard T. Ely taught at the University of Wisconsin until 1925, when he left for Northwestern University. More than 70 years after his death, his writings continue to draw spirited debate. He died on October 4, 1943 in Connecticut. He was 89. He is buried at Forest Hill Cemetery in Madison.
Oliver E. Wells served as Wisconsin superintendent of public instruction from 1891 to 1895. He was previously a teacher in Appleton and the superintendent of Waupaca County schools. In September 1899, he became principal of Wisconsin’s first teacher training school, located at Wausau. He served in that role until 1915. Wells died on December 26, 1922 at age 69.
Charles Kendall Adams served as University of Wisconsin president from 1892 until 1901, when he resigned due to failing health. He was previously president of Cornell University from 1885 to 1892 and a professor at the University of Michigan. During the Civil War, he commanded Michigan’s Tappan Guards. He died on July 28, 1902 in Redlands, California. He was 67.
Herbert W. Chynoweth was a chief lieutenant and legal adviser to Robert M. La Follette. He served as assistant Wisconsin attorney general and later conducted a longstanding legal practice in Madison. He died on October 14, 1906 from arterial sclerosis. He was 58.
Charles R. Van Hise was the first University of Wisconsin alumnus to serve as is president. He was named successor to Charles Kendall Adams in 1903 and served until 1918. Under his leadership, the university sought to move beyond instruction to help improve the lives of everyone in the state. This led to the “Wisconsin Idea,” that the borders of the university are the borders of the state. Built in 1967, Van Hise Hall on the UW campus is named in his honor. Van Hise died on November 19, 1918 in Milwaukee.
Francis Ryan Duffy was U.S. senator from Wisconsin from 1933-1939 and later a federal judge. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 1910, Duffy earned his law degree at UW in 1912. He established a law practice, served in World War I, then returned to practicing law. After serving in the Senate, Duffy was appointed federal judge for the Eastern District of Wisconsin in June 1939. He was named an appeals court judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals (Seventh Circuit) in 1949. Duffy died on August 16, 1979.