He was born on November 7, 1832 in Homer, New York, to Clara (née Dickson) and Horace White. Clara was the daughter of Andrew Dickson, a New York State Assemblyman in 1832 and his wife; and Horace was the son of Asa White, a farmer from Massachusetts, and his wife. Their once-successful farm was ruined by a fire when Horace was 13.
Despite little formal education and struggles with poverty after his family lost its farm, Horace White became a businessman and wealthy merchant. In 1839 he opened what became a successful bank in Syracuse. Horace and Clara White had two children: Andrew Dickson and his brother. Andrew was baptized in 1835 at the Calvary Episcopal Church on the town green in Homer.
He married twice. He married first, on September 27, 1857, Mary Amanda Outwater (February 10, 1836 – June 8, 1887), daughter of Peter Outwater and Lucia M. Phillips of Syracuse. Mary's maternal grandmother Amanda Danforth, daughter of Asa Danforth, Jr. and wife of Elijah Phillips, Jr., was the first white child born in what would become Onondaga County, New York. Her great-grandfathers included General Asa Danforth, an early pioneer of upstate New York and leader of the State Militia, as well as Elijah Philips, Sr., who had responded to the alarm to Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1775 and later served as the High Sheriff of Onondaga County.
Andrew and Mary had three children together: Frederick Davies White, who committed suicide in his forties in 1901 after a prolonged series of illnesses; Clara (White) Newbury, who died before her father; and Ruth (White) Ferry. After his wife died in 1887, White went on a lecture tour and traveled in Europe with his close friend, Daniel Willard Fiske, librarian at Cornell.
After two years as a widower, in 1890, White married Helen Magill, the daughter of Edward Magill, Swarthmore College's second president. She was the first woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D. Like her husband, Helen was a social scientist and educator; the two met at a conference where she was presenting a paper. Together, Helen and Andrew had one daughter, Karin White.
One of Andrew's cousins was Edwin White, who became an artist of the Luminism/Hudson River schools. His nephew was Horace White, governor of New York.
Beginning in the fall of 1849, White enrolled as an undergraduate at Geneva College (known today as Hobart and William Smith Colleges) at the insistence of his father. He was inducted as member of Sigma Phi. In his autobiography, he recalled that he had felt that his time at Geneva was "wasted" by being at the small Episcopalian school, instead of at "one of the larger New England universities". Rather than continue "wasting" his time, White dropped out in 1850. After a period of estrangement, White persuaded his father to let him transfer to Yale College.
At Yale, White was a classmate of Daniel Coit Gilman, who would later serve as first president of Johns Hopkins University. The two were members of the Skull and Bones secret society and would remain close friends. They traveled together in Europe after graduation and served together on the Venezuela Boundary Commission (1895–96). His roommate was Thomas Frederick Davies, Sr., who later became the third bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan, 1889–1905. Other members of White's graduating year included Edmund Clarence Stedman, the poet and essayist; Wayne MacVeagh, Attorney General of the United States and U.S. Ambassador to Italy; and Hiram Bingham II, the missionary, collectively comprising the so-called "famous class of '53." According to White, he was deeply influenced in his academic career and life by Professor Noah Porter (later, Yale's president), who personally instructed him in rhetoric and remained a close personal friend until Porter's death.
Alpha Sigma Phi inducted White as a member in 1850 and he served as editor of the fraternity's publication, The Tomahawk. White remained active in the fraternity for the rest of his life, founding the Cornell chapter and serving as the national president from 1913 to 1915. He also served as an editor of The Lit., known today as the Yale Literary Magazine. He belonged to Linonia, a literary and debating society. As a junior, White won the Yale literary prize for the best essay, writing on the topic "The Greater Distinctions in Statesmanship;" this was a surprise as traditionally a senior was chosen for the winning essay. Also as a junior, White joined the junior society Psi Upsilon. In his senior year, White won the Clark Prize for English disputation and the De Forest prize for public oratory, speaking on the topic "The Diplomatic History of Modern Times". Valued at $100, the De Forest prize was then the largest prize of its kind at any educational institution, American or otherwise. In addition to academic pursuits, White was on the Yale crew team, and competed in the first Harvard–Yale Regatta in 1852.
After graduation, White traveled and studied in Europe with his classmate Daniel Coit Gilman. Between 1853 and 1854, he studied at the Sorbonne, the Collège de France, and the University of Berlin. He also served as the translator for Thomas H. Seymour, the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, following Gilman's term as translator, although he had not studied French (the language of diplomacy and the Russian royal court) prior to his studies in Europe. After he returned the United States, White enrolled at Yale to earn an M.A. in History and be inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in 1856.
In October 1858, White accepted a position as a Professor of History and English literature at the University of Michigan, where he remained on faculty until 1863. White made his lasting mark on the grounds of the university by enrolling students to plant elms along the walkways on The Diag. Between 1862 and 1863, he traveled to Europe to lobby France and England to assist the United States in the American Civil War or at least not come to the aid of the Confederate States.
In 1863, White returned to reside in Syracuse for business reasons. In November, he was elected to the New York State Senate, running on the Union Party ticket. In the senate, White met fellow upstate senator Ezra Cornell, a self-taught Quaker farmer from Ithaca who had made a modest fortune in the telegraph industry. Around this time, the senators were called on to decide how best to use the higher education funding provided by the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act, which allocated timber land in the Midwest, which states could sell as they saw fit. Through effective management by Cornell, New York generated about $2.5 million (equivalent to $49 million in today dollars) from its allotted scrip, a greater yield per acre than any state, except, perhaps, California. The senators initially wanted to divvy the funds among the numerous small state colleges of their districts. White fervently argued that the money would be more effectively used if it endowed only one university. Ezra Cornell agreed, telling White, "I have about half a million dollars more than my family will need: what is the best thing I can do with it for the State?" To which, White immediately replied "The best thing you can do with it is to establish or strengthen some institution of higher learning". The two thus combined their efforts to form a new university.
White pressed for the university to be located on the hill in Syracuse (the current location of Syracuse University) due to the city's transportation hub. This could help attract faculty, students, and other persons of note. However, as a young carpenter working in Syracuse, Cornell had been robbed of his wages, and insisted that the university be located in his hometown of Ithaca; he proposed to donate land on his large farm on East Hill, overlooking the town and Cayuga Lake. White convinced Cornell to give his name to the university "in accordance with [the] time-honored American usage" of naming universities after their largest initial benefactors. On February 7, 1865, White introduced a bill "to establish the Cornell University" and, on April 27, 1865, after months of debate, Governor Reuben E. Fenton signed into law the bill endowing Cornell University as the state's land-grant institution.
White became the school's first president and served as a professor in the Department of History. He commissioned Cornell's first architecture student, William Henry Miller, to build his president's mansion on campus.
White was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1884.
In 1891, Leland and Jane Stanford asked White to serve as the first president of Stanford University, which they had founded in Palo Alto, California. Although he refused, he recommended his former student David Starr Jordan.
While at Cornell, in 1871, he took leave to serve as a Commissioner to Santo Domingo, along with Benjamin Wade and Samuel Howe, at the request of President Grant in order to determine the feasibility of a United States annexation of the Dominican Republic. Their report (available here) supported the annexation, but Grant was unable to gain sufficient political support to take further action.
Later, White was appointed as the US Ambassador to Germany (1879–1881). After returning to the United States, he was elected as first president of the American Historical Association (1884–1886). Upstate New York Republicans nominated him for governor in 1876 and for Congress in 1886, but he did not win either primary.
Following his resignation in 1885 as Cornell's president, White served as Minister to Russia (1892–1894), President of the American delegation to The Hague Peace Conference (1899), and again as Ambassador to Germany (1897–1902). In 1904, White published his Autobiography, which he had written during a period of time relaxing in Italy following his retirement from the Department of State with the change in administrations. Cornell's third president, Jacob Gould Schurman, was appointed as ambassador to Germany from 1925 to 1929.
At the onset of World War I, White supported the German cause within Europe, because he had strong professional and emotional ties to Germany. By the summer of 1915, he retreated from this position, refraining from offering any support, either publicly or privately. In the fall of 1916, President Woodrow Wilson appointed White to a peace commission to prepare a treaty with China. As of December 1916, White had reduced some of his obligations, resigning from the Smithsonian Board of Regents and the trustees of the Carnegie Institution.
Over the course of his career, White amassed a sizable book collection. His library was probably best known for its extensive section on architecture; it was then the largest architecture library in the United States. He donated all 4000 books to the Cornell University Library for the purpose of teaching architecture as well as the remainder of his 30,000-book collection.
In 1879, White enlisted George Lincoln Burr, a former undergraduate assistant for one of his seminars, to manage the rare books collection. Though Burr would later hold other positions at the university, such as Professor of History, he remained White's collaborator and head of this collection until 1922 by traveling over Europe, locating and amassing books that White wanted. In particular, he built the collections on the Reformation, witchcraft, and the French Revolution. Today, White's collection is housed primarily in the Cornell Archives and in the Andrew Dickson White Reading Room (formally known as the "President White Library of History and Political Science") at Uris Library on the Ithaca Campus. The A.D. White Reading Room was designed by William Henry Miller, who had also designed White's mansion on campus.
While serving in Russia, White made the acquaintance of author Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy's fascination with Mormonism sparked a similar interest in White, who had previously regarded the Latter-Day Saints (LDS) as a dangerous cult. Upon his return to the United States, White took advantage of Cornell's proximity to the religion's birthplace in Palmyra to amass a collection of LDS memorabilia (including many original copies of the Book of Mormon); it is unmatched by any other institution outside the church itself and its flagship Brigham Young University.
On October 26, 1918, White suffered a slight paralytic stroke following a severe illness of several days. On the morning of Monday, November 4, White died at home in Ithaca. Three days later, on November 7, on what would have been White's 86th birthday, White was interred at Sage Chapel on the Cornell campus. The chapel was filled to capacity by faculty, trustees, and other well-wishers.
White's body resides in a sarcophagus in the Memorial Room with those of other persons deemed influential in the founding and early years of the university, including co-founder Ezra Cornell and benefactor Jennie McGraw-Fiske. His marble sarcophagus was designed in the popular Art Nouveau style. If features crests of countries and institutions that played important roles in White's life. For example, the picture on the right shows the crests of the two countries where White was an ambassador; the coat of arms of Imperial Germany is on left and Saint George, a variation on the coat of arms of Moscow, representing Russia, is on the right.
The sarcophagus was completed in 1926 by sculptor Lee Oskar Lawrie (1877–1963), who also created sculptures adorning Myron Taylor Hall at Cornell. Lawrie is perhaps best known for his Atlas statue at Rockefeller Center in New York City.
In his will, White left $500,000 (over $7 million in 2008 dollars) to Cornell University. White had already donated considerable sums to Cornell earlier in his life.
At the time of Cornell's founding, White announced that it would be "an asylum for Science—where truth shall be sought for truth's sake, not stretched or cut exactly to fit Revealed Religion." Until then, most of America's private universities had been founded as religious institutions and generally were focused on the liberal arts and religious training. (By the later 19th century, most were not explicitly antagonistic to science).
In 1869, White gave a lecture on "The Battle-Fields of Science", arguing that history showed the negative outcomes resulting from any attempt on the part of religion to interfere with the progress of science. Over the next 30 years he refined his analysis, expanding his case studies to include nearly every field of science over the entire history of Christianity but also narrowing his target from "religion" through "ecclesiasticism" to "dogmatic theology."
The final result was the two-volume A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) in which he asserted the conflict thesis of science with dogmatic theology. Initially less popular than John William Draper's History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874), White's book became an extremely influential text on the relationship between religion and science. In it,he argued that "the great majority of the early fathers of the Church, and especially Lactantius, had sought to crush it beneath the utterances attributed to Isaiah, David, and St. Paul." White's conflict thesis has been widely disputed among contemporary historians of science. The warfare depiction remains a popular view among critics of religion and the general public.
Until at least the mid-20th century, Cornell undergraduates with the surname 'White' were traditionally given the nickname 'Andy,' in reference to White. Notably, E.B. White, author of the world-famous children's book Charlotte's Web, continued to go by the nickname 'Andy' for the rest of his life after his undergraduate years at Cornell.
White was awarded numerous honorary degrees:University of Michigan - LL.D. (1867)
Cornell - LL.D. (1886)
Yale - LL.D. (1887)
Columbia - L.H.D. (1887)
University of Jena - Ph.D. (1889)
St. Andrew's - LL.D. (1902)
Johns Hopkins - LL.D. (1902)
Oxford - D.C.L. (1902)
Dartmouth - LL.D. (1906)