James Burrill Angell had a remarkably diverse career– Brown University graduate, professor of languages, newspaper editor, university president, and diplomat. He is best known as the longest-serving president of the University of Michigan where he aspired to provide an ‘uncommon education for the common man.’
Born on January 7, 1829, in Scituate, Rhode Island, Angell was the eldest of eight
children of Amy and Andrew Angell, and a member of an old-line Rhode Island family that traced its lineage to Thomas Angell who came to Providence with Roger Williams.
Although reared on an outlying farm, Angell had an excellent early education including a
year at the University Grammar School under the instruction of Henry Frieze, a teacher who would spend many years as professor and interim president of the University of Michigan.
James B. Angell became a Brown graduate in the Class of 1849. Following graduation
he traveled with Rowland Hazard through the American South, and again with Hazard to France, Italy, and Austria. Upon his return he assumed the chairmanship of Brown’s Modern Language Department at the request of President Francis Wayland who was Angell’s mentor.
In 1855, Angell married Sarah Swope Caswell, whose father became president of Brown in 1868. The same year as Angell’s marriage, President Wayland left Brown, discouraged by the lack of funding for his educational reforms. James B. Angell’s interest in Brown similarly waned and he began writing articles for the Providence Journal. When the Journal’s editor, Henry Bowen Anthony, left the paper to take up the duties of United States senator in 1858, Anthony urged Angell to take the editor’s job, which he did in 1860, resigning his position from Brown.
In 1866, he was offered the presidency of the University of Vermont and moved his family to Burlington. Three years later Angell’s prep school mentor, Henry Frieze recruited Angell to become the third president of the University of Michigan. After initially turning the job down, Angell went to Ann Arbor in 1871 and spent the next thirty-eight years as Michigan’s educational leader. His first major task was to convince a recalcitrant state legislature that there was a public responsibility for funding higher education by arguing that it was not only for the rich and the well-born, but that it was ‘just and wise for the State to place the means of obtaining generous culture within the reach of the humblest and poorest child upon its soil.’
In his early years at Michigan, Angell taught courses in the history of diplomacy and wrote the diplomatic history essay in Justin Winsor’s Narrative and Critical History of America. During his presidential tenure, graduate schools of dentistry, pharmacy, music, nursing, architecture and urban planning joined the existing array of medicine, engineering and law. Angell was a founding member of the American Historical Association and an early president. He also became a Regent of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
His background in diplomatic studies led to appointments by Democratic and Republican presidents to negotiate treaties with China and Canada. In 1897 he became United States Minister to Turkey. During these absences Henry Frieze was interim University President.
Following the death of his wife Sarah in 1903, Angell began to look forward to retirement. He was persuaded to stay on a few more years and officially stepped down in 1909, but continued to occupy the president’s house on campus until his death on April 1, 1916.