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Landmarks of Tompkins County, New York

by John H. Selkreg, 1894; D. Mason & Co., Publisher


History of Cornell
Chapter V.
THE MANAGEMENT OF THE LAND GRANT.- MR. CORNELL'S SERVICES.

Mr. CORNELL's noble offer to the trustees of the State Agricultural College relieved them from the impending bankruptcy which hung over that institution, when they met in Rochester. The proposition received the hearty and grateful approval of the board. A committee of five was appointed to confer with the citizens of Ovid and obtain from them, if practicable, an approval of the transfer of the college property to Ithaca and their co-operation in procuring the necessary legislation to render Mr. CORNELL's offer effective, and to sell the present college farm and building to the State for a soldiers' home or for some other object of public benevolence.

At the meeting in Albany, to which a large number of the friends of education were invited, the sentiment of all present was opposed to any division of the land grant, and they decided to petition the Legislature to make a gift of the whole 990,000 acres of land to one institution, rather than to divide it among the separate colleges of the State.

In a letter to the Chancellor of the University of Missouri, to which reference has already been made, Mr. CORNELL described the change in his views of this question:

When the friends of the People's College at Havana and those of the State Agricultural College at Ovid were each striving to secure a grant of the New York "College Land Scrip" for their respective colleges, I advised a compromise of the question by a division of the fund between them, by which means I supposed each college would secure an endowment of a half million of dollars, a sum that I regarded at the time as ample for all purposes connected with a fully equipped college. My views, however, were wisely combated by other friends of education (among whom President WHITE was conspicuous), and the policy of concentration of resources was adopted by the Legislature, and the proceeds of the 990,000 acres allotted to New York were bestowed upon a single institution; conditioned upon the bestowal of half a million of dollars from other sources upon the same institution; and with such resources, more is required to enable the trustees to place the faculty of the institution in the possession of such facilities as the best interests of the students demand.

The experience of the past five years has proved the error of my views then, and nobly vindicated the wisdom of those who said, "Let us concentrate our resources and unite our efforts, and build up a university that shall be worthy of the name University, and worthy of the noble gift that Congress has bestowed upon the State in the aid of practical education."

I now say to you, my noble friend, as my friends then said to me, concentrate, concentrate; bring together all the resources the State can spare for a higher education, administer them wisely so as to produce the best results, and then what you lack, call on your rich men to give you, and go forward and build up such a University as the growing wants of your great State demand.

After the charter of Cornell University had been formally granted, the difficulty of realizing any sum commensurate with the magnificent amount of land received from the State, faced the trustees. It was then that the sagacity of Mr. CORNELL and his great devotion to the cause which he had espoused were fully manifested. He surrendered himself and all his powers during the nine years of his life which remained, to the one grand thought of realizing the highest possible proceeds from the sale of this land. During the year 1865, most of the Northern States received their land scrip, which was practically a certificate authorizing the selection of the amount of land specified in the scrip from any of the public lands of the United States not mineral, and not otherwise disposed of. The act of Congress provided that in no case should any State to which land scrip was issued be allowed to locate the same within the limits of any other State or of any territory of the United States, but that their assignees might thus locate said land scrip upon any of the unappropriated government lands which were subject to sale by private entry. Most of the States, in order to realize immediately the value of the national grant, sold the land scrip issued to them in great blocks to speculators. In consequence of this, the public lands, whose nominal value was $1.25, could be obtained for the price at which the scrip was sold. The amount realized from this sale was in some cases as low as forty-one cents per acre, and the entire amount of the national land grant to all the States, amounting to 9,597,840 acres, realized only $15,866,371.39, an average of $1.65 per acre; of all the States, only California, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Kansas, Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan and New York realized over $1.25 per acre. Had the vast grant bestowed upon the State of New York been thrown upon the market at once, embracing as it did one-tenth of the entire land grant, the sacrifice on the part of the various States, to which this legacy. had been entrusted by the national government for educational purposes, would have been far greater. Mr. CORNELL made a careful estimate of the amount of land acquired each year by actual settlers from the national government. He saw that if the States could retain their lands for the present until the demand for desirable government land had been exhausted, the price of the land must inevitably increase in value. With this object in view he prepared a circular letter, which he addressed to the various institutions which had received the grant, and. in certain cases to State authorities, urging them to withhold their scrip from the market.

In his report of 1864 the comptroller stated that he had received the land scrip of the State of New York, consisting of 6,187 pieces of 160 acres each, amounting to 999,000 acres of land. In 1865 he reported that, after consultation with the officers designated in the act of the Legislature, directing a sale of the scrip, the price was fixed at eighty-five cents per acre, and the scrip advertised for sale. In the course of a few months sales were made to the extent of 475 pieces, equal to 76,000 acres, at the rate of eighty-five cents per acre, except upon the first parcel of fifty pieces sold. A rebate of two cents per acre was allowed in consideration of certain advantages offered in the matter of advertising in the Northwestern States. The total amount received on all the sales was $64,440. He reported that the sales of the scrip had recently almost entirely ceased, in consequence of other States reducing the price to a much lower rate than that at which it was held by this State. Therefore it became an important question whether the price should also be reduced here and a sacrifice made to induce sales, or the land be held as the best security for the fund until the sales could be made at fair rates. The comptroller himself favored the latter course. Mr. CORNELL said: "After the passage of the act chartering Cornell University, finding 5,712 pieces of scrip in the possession of the comptroller, representing 913,920 acres of land, I turned my attention to the question of converting this scrip into the largest sum of money practicable in a reasonable time. My investigation of the subject led to the conviction that the best policy was for me to purchase the scrip of the State, and locate the land and sell the same as opportunity offered, for the interest of the university." In 1866 the comptroller reported upon the college land scrip: "No sales were made during the year ending September 30, 1865. Since that date, with the concurrence of all the officers named in the act providing for the sale, except the chancellor of the university, who is absent from the country, a sale of 100,000 acres has been made to the Hon. Ezra CORNELL for $50,000, for which sum he gave his bond properly secured, upon the condition that all the profits which should accrue from the sales of the land should be paid to Corneal University, which he had so munificently endowed." His contract for this purchase was dated November 24, 1865. Of the 625 pieces of scrip thus purchased, twenty-five pieces were located in Kansas, fifty pieces in Minnesota, and the balance in Wisconsin, all, or nearly all, on good farming lands.

On April 10, 1866, the Legislature passed an act to authorize and facilitate the early disposition by the comptroller of the land scrip donated to this State by the United States. Mr. CORNELL thereupon opened negotiations with commissioners of the Land Office for the purchase of the balance of the scrip remaining in the possession of the comptroller, amounting to 5,087 pieces in July, 1866, which resulted in an agreement dated the 4th of August, 1866.

In order that the gift to New York should not be wasted, Mr. CORNELL made a contract with the people of the State of New York through their commissioners of the Land Office, which was sanctioned by the Legislature, by which he agreed to purchase all of the agricultural land scrip then in the possession of the State of New York, consisting of 5,087 certificates, each representing 160 acres, for which he promised to pay thirty cents per acre, and to deposit stocks or bonds for an amount equal to an additional thirty cents per acre, the estimated market value of the land scrip at that time. Mr. CORNELL also entered into obligation at the same time and by the same instrument, with ample security, to locate the lands with the scrip thus purchased, in his own name, and to pay the taxes and all expenses of such location, and to sell the land in twenty years and to pay all the net proceeds over and above the expenses and the sixty cents an acre above referred to, into the treasury of the State of New York. The amount originally received for the land scrip was to constitute the College Land Scrip Fund, and the amount realized from the sale of lands, over and above sixty cents per acre and the expenses, was to constitute a separate fund to be called the Cornell Endowment Fund, the income of which should be devoted forever to Cornell University. Mr. CORNELL offered to purchase at once 100, 000 acres of land at the highest market price at that time, and to give bonds for the faithful execution of his trust and for the payment to the university of every dollar which, in the future, he might be able to obtain from the sale of the land.

Mr. CORNELL sought to induce other wealthy men to purchase 100,000 acres of land at five dollars per acre for this benevolent purpose, and to wait for a return of their money until at some time in the future, when the lands would bring more than five dollars. This would have been a generous advance, with the land as security, and would have secured an immediate fund of half a million dollars for the university. He also organized and had incorporated the New York Lumber, Manufacturing and Improvement Company, the purpose of which was to purchase the most valuable unoccupied water power in the west, and a town site of a thousand acres, with a view to manufacture lumber, the sole object of which should be to enrich his beloved university. The proposed town was to be located at Brunett's Falls, the great water power of the Chippewa River in Wisconsin.

When this arrangement was reached, by which Mr. CORNELL assumed the vast task of locating the lands, the proceeds of which would constitute the future capital of the university, he felt a sense of relief that he was permitted by the State to carry out the views which commended themselves to his judgment, and which he fondly believed would secure forever the prosperity of the university that he loved. On the evening of that day he wrote: "I now feel for the first time that the destiny of the university is fixed, and that its ultimate endowment will be ample for the vast field of labor it embraces, and, if properly organized, for the development of truth, industry and frugality. It will become a power in the land, which will control and mould the future of this great State, and carry it onward and upward in its industrial development and support of civil and religious liberty, and its guarantee of equal rights and equal laws to all men." The man who saw in the realization of his hopes no personal gain or glory, but only a contribution to truth and knowledge, and the support of civil and religious liberty and equal rights, had certainly a noble and prophetic vision of the highest ideals which society can reach .In a letter of tender reminiscence written a few years later, in which, serene in the consciousness of the future, he surveyed the struggles through which he had attained success, he said :"The trials and privations are past, and yet they are pleasant and profitable to look upon. Honors cheaply won are lightly estimated. Our honors were the price of long years of toil patient persistence, scanty means, long absence from home and each other's society, anxious cares and perplexities, such as swamp many stout hearts and send them wrecked down the stream of time to the ocean of oblivion. Happily we have reached a nobler goal."

At this time, his highest estimate of the proceeds of the national land grant was less than three million of dollars, even assuming a large success in carrying out his plans. He proceeded with the location of the land, 4,000 acres of which were located in Kansas, 8,000 acres in Minnesota, and the balance, about 513,920 acres, in Wisconsin. Of the amount located in Wisconsin, about 400,000 acres were selected as fine timber lands. The labor incurred in this vast undertaking for the good of the university which he had at heart, cannot be overestimated. It was necessary for him to spend a whole summer in the wilderness; to employ skillful and experienced assistants; to encounter great exposure and fatigue; and to spend large portions of his private fortune in surveying, locating and paying taxes upon these lands during a long series of years. The work was done as systematically as though the resultant gain were to be his own private possession.

Mr. CORNELL's faith would have led him to proceed further in the location of lands, and in enlarging his personal responsibility, for the cost of retaining them until they could be profitably disposed of. The trustees of the university, however, realized that Mr. CORNELL's fortune, large as it was, would be inadequate to meet the demands of the task which he had undertaken. The act of Congress permitted the location of only one million acres of government land in any one State. The entries of land based upon the college scrip had been filled in three great States, which afforded the promise of most immediate returns, viz., in Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota. The balance of the scrip could not, therefore, be located in these States and it would be necessary to select lands further west or in the southwest. Such a division of the university domain would render its efficient management difficult, and make it impossible to concentrate attention upon the administration of the lands which had already been located. College land scrip had been selling in the two preceding years for less than sixty cents per acre. In view of these facts, the trustees united in a request to the State Commissioners of the Land Office to authorize Mr. CORNELL to sell the balance of the college scrip at not less than seventy-five cents per acre, or to locate it as he might deem best.This petition was signed December 1, 1867, and Mr. CORNELL's agreement with the State was modified in accordance therewith on the 18th of the same month. Mr. CORNELL succeeded in inducing one of the largest dealers in college land scrip to co-operate with him in withholding the scrip from the market, and to dispose of it to customers only so fast as it should be needed for location. In this manner Mr. CORNELL was enabled to dispose advantageously of 625 pieces of scrip, representing 100,000 acres of land at ninety cents per acre, and 1,125 pieces or 180,000 acres of land at one dollar per acre, on April 13, 1868. On December 15, 1869, the remaining 637 pieces, representing 101,920 acres of land, were sold at eighty-six cents per acre.1 Mr. CORNELL was thus enabled to dispose of all the remaining land scrip for $357,651, realizing about ninety four cents per acre. For all his services in effecting these sales, he received no compensation, and was content to see these profits placed to the credit of the university. Minor sales were made at the earnest entreaty of all the trustees of the university, Mr. CORNELL remaining inflexible in his opinion that the retention of the land would add still further to its value. But the trustees, realizing that the cost of maintaining the university, even upon the limited scale on which it was inaugurated, exceeded its income, expressed the belief that a moderate addition to the resources of the university at that time would be of greater utility than a much larger addition at a later period; that it would enable the institution to grow in departments where immediate growth was extremely desirable; and that there would remain after such sale, if reasonable expectations were fulfilled, an ample endowment from the profits of the land unsold, for all the future needs and requirements of the university. In this request the high officers of the State, who were ex-officio trustees, including the governor and comptroller, joined. About this time an article appeared in a leading paper in a city in the central part of the State, charging Mr. CORNELL with a vast land speculation, in securing control of the university lands. His acquisition of the lands was said to be made with the prospect of acquiring from their sale from twenty-five to thirty millions of dollars. Mr. CORNELL's statement was quoted, that the university will probably receive two millions of dollars from these lands, and the question asked what becomes of the twenty-three millions and over of the balance, which will be realized. An unwarranted item in a local newspaper, stating that the value of these lands was sixty dollars per acre, was the basis of this extraordinary estimate of profits to Mr. CORNELL. Mr. CORNELL's purpose in incorporating a company, the object of which was to administer these lands, with special facilities for manufacturing lumber, was stated to be to dispose of them to the company for a limited sum, and secure for his family the profits, amounting to twenty-three millions of dollars. Mr. CORNELL's gift of half a million of dollars to endow the university was in effect fraudulent, as he had never paid the sum, but only deposited stock of the Western Union Telegraph Company to guarantee such payment. This effort to secure, by a permanent article in the Constitution of the State, a provision which would render sacred these funds which the State had received from the national government, and which it had solemnly pledged itself to maintain at their par value, making up all losses which might arise in its administration, was stated to be one of the most stupendous jobs ever originated against the rights of the agricultural and mechanical population of the State. Mr. CORNELL, in a dignified letter, reviewed the charge and vindicated the nobility and purity of his motives, as well as his generosity. He showed that every negotiation for the sale of the land had been undertaken in the interests of the university, and that the sale had yielded for the university far more than it otherwise, would have done; that these sales had been authorized by the Land Office of the State, and all returns had been paid over to the State, in many cases without passing through his hands; that all the land scrip had been sold or accounted for; and that, instead of making a charge against the State for locating the lands payable out of this fund, he had incurred an expense of more than $200,000, in selecting lands, fees for entering the same, taxes, interest, and the various expenses that were involved in such undertaking, and that the State was in no wise responsible for what he had expended. If repayment were ever made to him, it would come from the increased profits upon the sale of the land, but the actual market value of the land when donated to Cornell University was secured to the State by his bond. "Feeling a deep interest in the question of practical education in agriculture and the mechanic arts, for which this fund was voted by Congress, I volunteered to undertake to create a fund three or four times as large as that which the State could produce for the same object that Congress intended, and at my own request and expense, without charging a single dime to anybody for my services. And this I undertook for the Cornell University only after the friends and founders of other colleges declined to join a united effort, in which I proposed to be responsible for one-tenth of the risk and expense of creating this larger sum for the endowment of those colleges. This is all there is of it; this is the sum total of my offending. Whether it will realize as much or more than I anticipated, whether it is three millions or thirty millions, it will be all paid over to the comptroller of the State of New York for the purposes specified in the agreement, and the State of New York will appropriate the proceeds of the fund as stipulated in the bond, whether the fund is protected by the organic law of the Constitution or not." Misconceptions of his motives and ingratitude for the services which he had rendered the State did not induce Mr. CORNELL to swerve from his generous and self-sacrificing purpose. Of Mr. CORNELL's answer to this charge, the Hon. William KELLY wrote: "I cannot refrain from expressing my gratification with the style and matter of your letter to the Rochester Union. It is so simple in style, so direct, so able, so conclusive, as to fully meet my hopes. I am delighted with it. No sensible man will again assail you as to your management of the finances of the university or your motives of action. Your vindication from the slanderous charges is complete and final."

The unselfishness of Mr. CORNELL's services in behalf of the university had not attained a final vindication with this letter. In 1873 a bill was presented in the Legislature to facilitate a settlement between Ezra CORNELL and the State with reference to the college land grant. Charges were made in the debate, by a political opponent of Mr. CORNELL, of breach of trust in the execution of his contract with the State, of using the power entrusted to him to add to his own wealth, of not depositing with the State Comptroller adequate bonds and securities, and that the university as administered did not comply with the conditions of the law under which it was established. Mr. CORNELL requested promptly that a committee be authorized by the Legislature, and appointed by the governor, the Hon. John A. DIX, a majority of which should consist of members of the party opposed to him in politics, to investigate the whole question: whether the laws for the sale and disposition of the college lands had been complied with, whether the securities received for its sale were adequate, what contracts had been made and upon what terms, the value of the lands held by Mr. CORNELL in behalf of the university, what charges had been made for his services, whether the law of Congress had been complied with by the university, and to report upon the present condition of the same. A commission of the highest character was appointed to conduct this inquiry, consisting of the Hon. Horatio SEYMOUR, former governor of the State, the Hon. William A. WHEELER, later vice-president of the United States, and the Hon. John D. VAN BUREN. The report of. this commission, which was presented after a most thorough and comprehensive investigation, was a noble tribute to Mr. CORNELL's integrity, his lofty purpose, his almost unparalleled generosity and sacrifice in behalf of the university, as well as to the sagacity which had reserved this part of the national land grant and made it possible to realize, as no other State had done, the objects of the law. Changes in detail of the form of the financial relations of the university to the State were suggested, with the view of the absolute protection of the land grant fund, and, at the same time, securing facility of administration in the sale of the land by Mr. CORNELL. The commission was divided upon the question whether the State or the university was the owner of the proceeds of the sales of lands above the sum, at which it had been purchased by Mr. CORNELL. The Hon. Horatio SEYMOUR, the minority of the commission, held that all such proceeds constituted a personal gift of Mr. CORNELL to the university, and were not subject to the conditions of the act of Congress, a view afterward sustained by the United States Supreme Court.

Mr. CORNELL's adherence to his conviction of the final value of the land to the university was often not received kindly by members of the Board of Trustees who desired to realize at once the whole of the endowment and did not share Mr. CORNELL's faith. Even the president of the university wrote, December 5, 1872: "Better a million added to our endowment now than three millions five or ten years hence. The only way is to go on developing rapidly, showing that we are strong and progressive and do not ask favors before the favors come. Then men think it an honor to give. We must go ahead promptly. We must show that we are not standing still; that we are not looking forward vaguely; but that we know what we want and are marching straight toward it. Then gifts will come. Then it will be worthy of any man's ambition to aid in developing our plans. To push on vigorously now is to conquer. To work slowly until our active men get sleepy and easy-going is not what we ought to do. I want to see the Cornell University the foremost in the land during our lifetime; it can be so, but only by prompt, vigorous strengthening and extension. Most earnestly, I say, if you can lop off the lands at a million and a half or even less, I think it wise policy to do it. The simple reason why we do not call TYNDALL and other distinguished non-resident professors, is because we cannot afford it. Our other necessities have forced us to cut off to a large extent that part of our original scheme. Now is the time to go on promptly with our policy. Hope deferred maketh the heartsick. Cure us by allowing us to spring ahead and to go on vigorously and promptly and let our university soon stand beside the greatest universities of the world, and for the conflict in which we shall triumph." Mr. CORNELL possessed that quality of mind that could wait for results, having faith that the future would realize his far-seeing plans.

1 Senate documents of the State of New York No.103, January, 1874.

History of Cornell - Chapter VI

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