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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,215


This is the grave of Charles Seymour.

Born in 1885 in New Haven, Seymour’s blood ran as blue as the Bush family would in the 20th century. This was pure Yale elite all the way, going back a long time. The worst kind, really, although how one compares the horrors that Yale, Harvard, and Princeton have launched on the world is beyond me. His director ancestor had been president of Yale in the freaking 1740s.

Anyway, Seymour actually started college at Cambridge, receiving a bachelor’s from Kings College in 1904 and then went to Yale for a second bachelor’s that he received in 1908. Then he stayed at Yale for his PhD, finished in 1911. Of course Yale hired him to teach history that year and he stayed there for almost his whole career. You can’t get more incestual than this in some stereotypical neo-gothic story about West Virginia.

Enough with the Yale snark I guess. Seymour became a leading historian of modern England, writing Electoral Reform in England and Wales: The Development and Operation of the Parliamentary Franchise, 1832-1885 in 1915. It is probably even more boring than it sounds. But his real interests quickly shifted to contemporary Europe. Being a Yalie, it was even enough for him to transfer his interests while maintaining his teaching at his home institution. As a leading Europeanist scholar, he was deeply involved in the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I. He responded to the start of the war by writing a book titled The Diplomatic Background of the War, 1870-1914 that he published in 1916. That made him one of America’s leading experts on the alliances that had caused the war. So Woodrow Wilson brought him over and he became one of the key figures in figuring out central Europe, which was a mess. Wilson appointed him as the head of the Austo-Hungarian part of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace in 1919, which consisted of leading Wilson advisors such as Edward House, leading businessmen, and leading scholars. He was also the U.S. delegate on the commissions to settle the boundaries of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Romania.

After this, Seymour was of the nation’s leading experts on modern Europe. Moreover, his scholarly interests shifted to the U.S. side of the war, where he became one of the first historians to take the Wilson administration seriously. He was a co-founder of the Council on Foreign Relations in 1919. He wrote a book on Wilson’s actions during the war that he published in 1921 and then he wrote a book on House in 1926. In fact, he and House cowrote a book in 1921 on Versailles. He wrote another book on American diplomacy during the war in 1934 and then a book on American neutrality in 1935, quite timely I imagine given the rise of the Nazis, though I don’t know how Seymour responded to this.

Seymour didn’t write much after this, as he became president of Yale in 1937 and stayed in that role until 1950. As president, he did something that one cannot imagine today–he invested heavily in the liberal arts and humanities, vastly increasing the faculty. McKinsey wouldn’t have liked that! He also refused to engage in any Red Scare loyalty oaths, rejecting McCarthyism entirely at his institution. To his credit as well, he welcome GI Bill recipients to Yale and that doubled the college’s enrollment in the years after the war. He claimed there were no communists at Yale (almost certainly not true) but also stated that academic freedom was way more important than whether there were commies at Yale. In other words, he took the liberal Cold War position that communism was bad but could be defeated by open inquiry and a redoubling of American freedoms. He also wanted Yale to become the nation’s leading institution of studying the Soviet Union so that Americans would know what they were talking about when discussing their new enemy.

Now, you might say that, wow, Seymour was a great guy. But he most definitely shared the easy prejudice of the rich white of the mid-twentieth century–anti-Semitism. Seymour did allow Jews into Yale, but he was a staunch defender of the Jewish quotas that limited them to a small percentage of total admissions. In 1944, he defended the quota by saying the college needed “some reasonable balance with the other elements of the student body.” OK Chuck. There’s a whole literature on anti-Semitism at America’s elite institutions and Seymour shows up in it, though not more than a lot of other leading figures of higher education at the time.

After his retirement from the president’s position, he worked in the Yale Library curating House’s papers. He eventually retired to a home in Massachusetts, where he died in 1963, at the age of 78. Just before his death, Seymour caused a bit of a scandal by revealing that House and Wilson had split at the end of the administration because House hated Edith Wilson so much.

Charles Seymour is in Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven, Connecticut.

If you would like this series to visit other members of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Edward House is in Houston and Charles Pelot Summerall is in Arlington. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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