TO: Stockbridge Students who have taken classes in French Hall
FROM: John M. Gerber, Professor of Sustainable Food & Farming
While you were studying horticultural plant pathology with Bess Dicklow, or sustainable agriculture with Katie Campbell-Nelson, or visiting your adviser Doug Cox or Susan Han, did you ever wonder who French Hall was named after? Probably not.
You have surely walked by the plaque near the front door commemorating Henry Flagg French, the first President of Massachusetts Agricultural College (Mass Aggie).
A native of New Hampshire and graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School, French loved agriculture but spent most of his career as a lawyer and a judge. He operated a farm, did his own agricultural research and was considered a leader in the emerging application of science to agriculture.
French held the post of president for two years, resigning in 1866 even before any students had arrived. According to Henry Bowker, a student who entered Mass Aggie with the first class in 1867, and remained connected as an alum and trustee for many years, “Judge” French “was a keen, sensitive man, with q good mind, highly trained and well informed, rather distant in manner, but kindly in nature.” Professor French was said to be well ahead of his time in his thinking on agriculture.
His short stay as President seems to have been because of an argument with the Board of Trustees (not an uncommon problem for college presidents then and today) over the proposed placement of new buildings. It seems that the original design for the campus was created by the famous architect who designed Central Park in N.Y. City, Frederick Law Olmsted. In 1866 the Trustees of Massachusetts Agricultural College requested that Olmsted, provide recommendations for the grounds of the newly formed institution.
Olmsted recommended that the college as a whole be modeled after a typical New England village. The Board of Trustees did not like the plan, fired Olmsted, and proceeded place buildings in a more expansive manner, spread farther apart among the fields. French seems have sided with Olmsted, and lost.
After leaving Mass Aggie, French moved to Washington D.C. and served as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury on the President’s Cabinet. He also authored a book titled “Farm Drainage” which described the way a particular type of drain was used called a “French Drain” which were probably invented in France but popularized by Professor French.
While here for only a few years, “Judge” French had a lasting impact on the policies and core values of the new college. The following was taken from a report he wrote: “Our college is to be established as part of the great scheme of public education…., not as a rival to our other excellent colleges, but as a co-worker with them in a common cause.”
Remember that prior to the Morrill Act of 1862, signed by President Lincoln, all of the colleges in the U.S. were private institutions offering education only to the wealthy. Levi Stockbridge himself, was frustrated because his father could only afford to send one of his son’s to Amherst College, and his older brother Henry was chosen. Nevertheless, Levi attended classes with his brother, and was mentored by Amherst College President Edward Hitchcock in chemistry. Public institutions, such as Mass Aggie which offered a free college education for many years to anyone qualified, was a radical departure from the elite colleges of the day.
Judge French has strongly held democratic tendencies and claimed that Mass Aggie should “… differ essentially from any college existing in the country controlled by an aristocracy.” Further, he wrote in one of the first reports ever coming from the nascent University of Massachusetts Amherst that “wealth and education, monopolized by any class in any country, will draw to that class the political control of the country.” Sounds like Judge French would have camped out with the protesters at the Occupy Wall Street site!
One of my favorite quotes from French is above. He believed that we must “recast society into a system of equality.” Indeed he fully understood the purpose of the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, which was passed “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”