I teach at Williams College. One of the things I teach is ancient Chinese philosophy, including Confucianism (The Analects, Mencius, Xun Zi). Yesterday, in a conversation with a colleague, it came to my attention that an interest in Confucianism is something that has existed here, in this little corner of Massachusetts, for a hundred years at least. Here's the story.
Harry Garfield was president of Williams from 1908-1934. Before he came back (he was an alumnus from the class of 1885; and, yes, a son of US president James Garfield) he had encountered Confucius, at least The Analects, somewhere in his intellectual development. He quoted what sounds like passage 2.15 in his presidential induction speech at Williams in 1908:
The Ames translation of the whole passage reads:
I don't know if he encountered The Analects here. I'll have to dig around in our archives to see if any of my predecessors was teaching that text then.
Garfield's interest in Confucius continued while he was at Williams. My colleague James McAllister has given me a letter, dated 1928, in which Garfield invites Chen Huan-Chang to come to Williamstown (I am adding a link to the letter at the end of this post). Chen's magnum opus, The Economic Principles of Confucius and his School, was published in 1911, and Garfield writes that he read the book "immediately upon its publication" and that it "...told me more of Confucius and his day than I had known and made a deep impression upon me." He also says that he met a descendant of Confucius himself in Williamstown(!) and had "Dr. Kung" sign the first volume of Chen's book.
Needless to say, I ran to our library to find Chen's book to see if the signature was there. Alas, even though an original edition of Chen's text (acquired by the Williams College library in 1912) is now sitting here on my desk, it does not have "Dr Kung's" signature. That must have been in Garfield's personal copy.
It turns out that Chen's book had a fair amount of influence. Henry Wallace, who came to Williamstown to participate in Garfield's Institute of Politics, and who later became Secretary of Agriculture and, eventually, Vice President, read and admired The Economic Principles of Confucius and His School (search for "Chen" in the document and scroll down) and used ideas he gleaned from that book, especially the "ever normal granary," in his policy making. I can imagine conversations here in Williamstown between Garfield and Wallace, working through passages from Mencius brought to them through Chen's book. I don't know if Chen himself ever made it here.
Chen took his Confucianism seriously. While writing his dissertation, which ultimately became The Economic Principles, at Columbia, he was active in the New York Chinese community, even writing a song about Confucius for a New Year's celebration in 1910 (scroll down to third item). In 1913 the New York Times reported that he was in China working at the highest political levels with Yuan Shih-kai to make Confucianism the "state religion" of China. That didn't work out so well. I imagine that by 1928, when he was in the US and received Garfield's invitation to travel to Williamstown, he must have been despairing of the civil war that was then developing in his homeland.
So I feel like I am carrying on a well established Williamstown endeavor: bringing ancient Chinese thought into modern American life. I have not yet risen to Garfield's accomplishment of bringing a descendant of Confucius here, but I now know what I should strive for....
Here's Garfield's letter: