To many, Ezra Cornell is just another vague historical figure with a lot of money who said something about “any person” and “any study.” Oh, and he had a goofy looking beard too. Sadly, the average Cornell student knows little about our founder beyond his craggy appearance.
The year-long celebration of Ezra Cornell’s 200th birthday kicked off on Jan. 11 with a small ceremony in Olin Library, complete with a cake-cutting by Trustee Ezra Cornell IV ’70. Back when classes were actually in session in early January, the campus would annually pay tribute on the 11th with a Founder’s Day celebration. Unfortunately, that campus tradition died out years ago, and students find fewer and fewer opportunities to honor and reflect on the accomplishments of the original Ezra.
Although Ezra was often seen as a bit on the curmudgeonly side, it was generally in a good-natured, well-meaning way. When a young Cornell freshman visited his home one evening in 1873 to request an autograph, Ezra grudgingly wrote and signed, “I don’t like to be bothered when I am at meals.” His life was filled with similar anecdotes that illustrated his combination of gruff stubbornness and shrewd humor.
I suspect that many Cornell students would find that they have much in common with Ezra — despite the age difference. Perhaps best described as a nineteenth century rebel, Ezra wasn’t opposed to loudly voicing his opinions, often frustrating others by his plain “tell-it-like-it-is” attitude. He also wasn’t afraid to take on “the establishment,” whether it was organized religion, state government, federal politicians or the accepted education system.
At the first Founder’s Day celebration in 1869, a festive reception was held at Cascadilla Hall for professors, students and community members. As the night wore on, music provided by a single pianist induced many of the young guests to begin dancing, a practice that horrified the local clergymen in attendance. The religious officials suggested that Cornell’s faculty and trustees not permit such immoral behavior, and a series of letters in The Ithaca Journal debated the subject. When the University officially ignored the matter, it strengthened the school’s reputation as a “godless institution.” But Ezra made his feelings on the matter clear, hiring a full dance band to play at his next birthday party. This was neither the first nor last time that Ezra would clash with others regarding his views on the restrictions of religion.
Ezra’s rebellious tendencies were present at an early age. In 1831, he defied his Quaker upbringing and married Mary Ann Wood, an Episcopalian. Within a year, Ezra received notice from the Society of Friends that he had been formally excommunicated.
When an emissary from the group visited Ezra and told him that a simple expression of regret for his decision would lead to his reinstatement in the faith, Ezra tersely responded that his marriage was the best decision he made in his life. Needless to say, the Quakers never took him back.
Beyond his opinions on some aspects of religion, Ezra often expressed unpopular views on current events. In the modern era of international conflict, it’s likely that many Cornellians share Ezra’s firm stance on peace and warfare. In a letter to his son written in 1845, Ezra advised, “It is wrong to fight in any way … and nine-tenths of the fighting between nations is wrong.” He asked his son not to become “an agent in the hands of the government for taking the lives of his fellow beings.” A year later, he complained about being “thoroughly disgusted with the whole of this miserable Mexican War … I don’t believe that our Constitution authorizes the waging of a war of invasion.” However, Ezra took a personal interest in supporting the Union troops during the American Civil War, traveling miles on foot to deliver supplies to army regiments containing men from Ithaca and personally witnessing the first Battle of Bull Run. Although he would have preferred a peaceful solution to the war over “the curse of slavery,” as he called it, Ezra was not above doing his part for a cause in which he believed.
On a less serious note, Ezra even shared the passion of Cornell hockey fans. Much like modern Cornellians, he too despised Harvard University, as documented by Andrew Dickson White. During the bitter fight in the New York Legislature over whether a school would be founded with Ezra’s money, he allegedly turned to White and said, “I am not sure, but that it would be a good thing for me to give half a million to old Harvard College to educate the descendants of the men who hanged my Quaker forefathers.” Even in the midst of personal attacks, Ezra’s dry wit was present. (Ironically, John Harvard celebrates his 400th birthday this upcoming November.)
Unlike some of the founders of our sister Ivy League institutions, Ezra Cornell invested more than just his wealth into Cornell University. He combined his beliefs, his intellect, his physical labor and his soul into the founding of our alma mater.
Despite the unpopularity of his radical ideas for a nonsectarian, coeducational institution, Ezra passionately defended his convictions and achieved his goals. Take time to celebrate his bicentennial this year by following his example and continuing the Cornell tradition, however you may perceive it.
Corey Earle is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Walking Backwards appears alternate Wednesdays.