Henry Merritt Wriston (1889-1978)

At Wesleyan (1907-1925)

As Student

As Teacher

As Internationalist and Administrator


As Student

In fall 1907, Henry Merritt Wriston entered Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, a small New England liberal arts college of approximately 300 students with Methodist roots. Reminiscing about his choice to attend Wesleyan, Wriston explained that his brother George enrolled in 1904 and the college had strong Methodist overtones, so "my father thought, therefore, it would be a good safe college for his son to go to, and he received the shock of his life when he visited his eldest son...he found that the forces of liberalism were somewhat stronger."

Wriston's high school principal nominated him for the William Rice Scholarship which awarded him full tuition for his four years at Wesleyan. Along with this award, loans, gifts from his parents, and some summertime employment, Wriston financed his education at the New England college. Wriston explained later that upon entering Wesleyan, he was purely interested in the experience of college and had "no vocational objective and no deep concern about one. It was all new and I wanted all of it." [Academic Procession, New York: Columbia University Press, 1959.] Throughout his life, Wriston maintained this educational philosophy and promoted the importance of a liberal arts education that is so closely defined with his personal experience and education at Wesleyan. He was known as "Whole Man Wriston," as he imbued both the philosophy for which his alma mater strived and an energetic and ambitious spirit as an active student leader on campus.

As an undergraduate, Wriston participated heavily in writing and speaking opportunities on campus. According to reminiscences collected decades later by Harold E. Van Horn from classmates of Wriston: "...he was generally respected and looked up to as a man of great intellectual talent." [Humanist as Educator: The Public Life of Henry Merritt Wriston, Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Denver, Denver, Colorado, 1968.]

He was well-known on campus for his participation on the debate team and was the president of the Varsity Debating Team in his senior year. Wriston also received the honor of membership in Delta Sigma Rho, a national honorary forensic society in 1911. His graduation address, "A Plea for Conservativism," revealed his interest in politics and his opposition to fundamental Progressive concepts at the height of the Progressive era in 1911. The address won a prize and illustrated his tendency to mix scholarship and politics and speeches, a style he would return to again and again during his later careers.

He served as Associate Editor and Editor-in-Chief of the Wesleyan Argus Board for two semesters during his junior and senior years at Wesleyan. As a writer, he landed a part-time job writing for The Springfield Republican reporting on Wesleyan affairs. This position later led him to be the publicity director of Wesleyan, which earned him five dollars a week and his first look inside college administration. He was also president of the Press Club and a member of the fraternity Delta Tau Delta with his brother, for which he served as president his senior year. Wriston also received the honor of becoming a member of Phi Beta Kappa for his scholastic standing in his final year as a student at Wesleyan.

Wriston studied English literature and history as well as economics and German early in his career at Wesleyan. He planned to be an English Literature major, but went on to study History under the advisement of Professor George M. Dutcher of the History Department. Wriston's teachers had a great influence on his pursuit of an academic career. Dutcher advised Wriston to become a more serious student if he intended to go into teaching and with this thrust forward, Wriston transformed "from being a casual student [to become] an earnest one." [Academic Procession, New York: Columbia University Press, 1959.] In addition to having his academic pursuits solidly grounded in his experience at Wesleyan, Wriston is also said to have had his first aspirations of becoming a college president while being witness to the 1909 inauguration ceremonies of Wesleyan's ninth president, William Arnold Shanklin.

Wriston's ambition as an undergraduate enabled him to complete the requirements for both his Bachelor of Arts and his Master of Arts degrees during his four years at Wesleyan (1907-1911) and he was awarded his second degree from the University in 1912. His Master of Arts thesis, "Constitutional History of Democracy in the United States; 1776-1885," clearly describes American government from 1776 to 1885.
Wriston received an Austin Teaching Fellowship at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA (1912-1914) and studied there in preparation for his Ph.D. during those three years.

 

As Teacher

Following his Fellowship at Harvard, Wriston returned to Middletown as an instructor of history at Wesleyan in 1914. He chose to accept the position at his alma mater over invitations to teach at Columbia University, New York, NY or be a research assistant for a noted historian. The summer before he began teaching, Wriston married a woman he met in high school, Ruth Colton Bigelow, on June 6, 1914. She graduated from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY and went on to teach Physics and Chemistry at Springfield High School. The couple had two children in Middletown, Barbara Wriston (June 29, 1917) and Walter Bigelow Wriston (August 3, 1919 - January 19, 2005). Wriston quickly moved up the rungs in his tenure, achieving associate professor status in 1917 and was promoted to full professor in 1919.

In 1916, Wriston's great interest in diplomacy and debate led him to research and publish an article entitled "Presidential Special Agents in Diplomacy," that later became the framework for his doctoral dissertation, "Executive Agents in American Foreign Relations." In 1920 Wriston received a grant from the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace and took a leave of absence from Wesleyan (1920-1921) in order to continue his research in Washington in the archives of the U.S. Department of State. Wriston's extensive research, which some have described as encyclopedic, received positive reviews and he was awarded the Toppan Prize for the outstanding Political Science thesis completed each year at Harvard. Later, his dissertation became a standard text in the State Department.

Wriston was appointed the Albert Shaw Lecturer in diplomatic history at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland from 1923 to 1924. These lectures, based on his dissertation were published in 1929 as Executive Agents in American Foreign Relations [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press and London: H. Milford, Oxford University Press, 1929.] This 874-page book helped establish his reputation as a productive scholar in the field of American and international history.

Wriston reminisced about his demanding teaching career: "When I began teaching, the chairman of my department deliberately set out to make me teach, at least once, every course in the department. It seemed a cruel and inhuman performance, but after teaching a few years, I realized that if I survived, it would give me a grasp upon history that could be gained in no other way." ["The Requisites of Successful Teachers from an Administrator's Point of View" in The Preparation and In-service Training of College Teachers, edited by William S. Gray, Chicago, 1938.] Although Wriston never taught every single course in the department as his former teacher and mentor Professor George M. Dutcher may have hoped, he taught courses in American history and government along with one on the Napoleonic period and another on medieval history (See complete list of courses taught by HMW 1914-1925). To fulfill the required hours of teaching, Wriston also served as the reference librarian at Wesleyan. His experiences there affected his appreciation for college libraries both in his teaching career and beyond.

Wriston began receiving praise and a reputation as a dynamic speaker during his lectures at Wesleyan. His interesting and highly organized lectures were often written out completely before classes, "down to the last phrase." He believed that successful teaching had its roots in the personal qualities of the teacher and believed that a liberal education is not always attained through direct teacher-student learning, but also through unconscious means over time. Therefore, he believed good teachers must have both "intellectual and emotional power, and significant personal qualities." He regularly lectured in the annual course of Freshman Fundamentals and helped arrange the university's first Student Forum. He also aided in the establishment of the Annual Singing Contest for undergraduates. Several students credit Wriston as motivation for continuing their studies in government and history. He was voted most popular faculty member two years during his time at Wesleyan and the yearbook, Olla Podrida>, was dedicated to him the year he left to go to Lawrence in 1926.
Wriston was involved in the 1916 presidential campaign in support of Charles Evans Hughes and prepared a speech to advocate for the candidate. According to The Penny Press in Middletown, "His address was so clear and concise that it was easily the hit of the evening." ["Rally surpasses all expectations," The Penny Press, Middletown, Nov 4, 1916.]

 

As Internationalist and Administrator

Wriston held strong idealistic views for foreign policy in America. He believed the nation had a unique mission in the world and needed to assume a responsible role in international affairs. In 1917, Wriston wrote a letter to The New York Times that is considered the earliest public statement of his internationalism demanding a new American foreign policy. His speech "Washington's Foreign Policy as a Guide for Today," given to various civic and educational groups at least eight times (the money from which substantially helped him pay for a house), argued that the government's concern focused on the protection of new nations rather than on the isolation of the world's most powerful nation. In 1924, Wriston became a member of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, NY, for which he later served as director (1943-1950), vice president (1950-1951), president (1951-1964), and honorary president (1964-1978).

During World War I, Wriston served as the Assistant Manager of the Connecticut State Council of Defense in 1918. Within three months he completed a 157-page handbook, The Report on War Chest Practices, a compilation of fundraising techniques used by communities throughout the country that served as the principle discussion for community and charitable enterprises for many years. In 1919, Wriston continued on the Council as its assistant manager under Chairman Josef Alsop, Sr. and wrote: Report of Connecticut State Council of Defense.

Wriston demonstrated his administrative abilities through this task and built a newfound reputation as an expert in the field of fundraising. These qualities led President Shanklin to ask Wriston to serve as Executive secretary of the Wesleyan Endowment Fund Campaign of 1919. Wriston organized the university's efforts and is considered largely responsible for the success of the campaign to raise $3,000,000. This duty gave Wriston another behind-the-scenes look at college administration, and this time he became disillusioned with the fundraising responsibilities of college presidents. With these earlier ambitions weakened, Wriston prepared to bolster his teaching efforts, bought a house, and declined presidency of a small western college. He even contested: "College administration had lost its glamour; it would need very little to sour me on it completely." [Academic Procession, New York: Columbia University Press, 1959.]

After the war Wriston worked with the Institute of Politics during summer sessions from 1922-1925, pursuing his interests in foreign policy and diplomatic relations. Simultaneously, he brought contemporary political affairs to his classroom, teaching courses on contemporary international relations with The New York Times as the primary reading for the course and class discussion.

Wriston continued to be on lists of presidential prospects at colleges and in June 1925, the Board of Trustees at Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin unanimously offered Wriston the presidency. Although Wriston did not plan to accept the position at first, many colleagues and friends at Wesleyan urged him to consider the post more seriously and he eventually accepted the position. Although Wriston's experience with administrative duties both at Wesleyan and the Connecticut State Council of Defense surely made him a more attractive candidate for a college president, Wriston believed that his experience in teaching, research, scholarship and public speaking were among the most important attributes he brought to the position. His insistence upon quality teaching and scholarship became one of Wriston's hallmarks as a college president.