Angell was a graduate of and professor of languages at Brown University, editor of The Providence Journal (1860–1866), and president of the University of Vermont (1866–1871). He served as U.S. Minister to China (1880–1881) and to Turkey (1897–1898). Several of his descendants also became well-known educators and academics. Many places in Michigan are named after Angell including neighborhoods in Ann Arbor and Muskegon.
James Angell was born January 7, 1829, in Scituate, Rhode Island, the eldest of eight children. The Angells had been a prominent family in and around Providence, Rhode Island since its founding in 1636 by Roger Williams and his companion Thomas Angell. Though scant, there is evidence suggesting Thomas Angell's ancestors were relations of Henry I of England. Thomas Angell's grandson, also named Thomas, had settled the farm where James was born in 1710, and also founded the Angell Tavern, where the leaders of Scituate held its town meetings after its incorporation in 1730 (both George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette are also said to have stayed there).
He started his schooling in the local school, but Angell's parents placed him at the age of eight with a Quaker tutor who taught him arithmetic and surveying. At twelve, he left home to attend a seminary in Seekonk, Massachusetts in order to study Latin, but after one term went to study at the Smithville Seminary, where he stayed until the age of fourteen. Unsure what career path to take, he had worked on the family farm for two summers, and also unsuccessfully attempted to find clerk jobs with Providence businesses. When his father informed him that he had the financial means to send James to college, he decided to attend Brown University. A year too young to enroll, he went first to University Grammar School in Providence, where one of his instructors was Henry S. Frieze, who himself would later serve as acting president of the University of Michigan while Angell was abroad on diplomatic assignments.
In 1845, Angell began studying at Brown, which at the time had a total of only seven instructors on the faculty. He graduated in 1849, and eventually obtained part-time jobs as an Assistant Librarian at the university and tutoring a boy whose eyesight prevented him from reading. In 1850, he came down with a cold and sore throat, but he refused to give his throat any rest from the daily exertion of reading aloud to his pupil. The resultant damage to his throat would last the rest of his life and make extended speaking difficult.
While James was recuperating, the father of his friend Rowland Hazard (an ancestor of the same Rowland Hazard who was instrumental in the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous) suggested that James accompany his son on an upcoming winter tour of the South, designed to alleviate Rowland's own lung ailment. The trip, which began on October 5, 1850, took Angell and Hazard throughout much of the South, including the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Lasting about seven and a half months, Angell details in his autobiography how it acquainted him with the realities of slavery.
Upon his return, Angell had planned to attend Andover Theological Seminary and take up a career as a minister. A throat specialist, however, advised him to avoid any work that would require extended public speaking, and he instead found work in the office of the city engineer of Boston. His brief tenure there ended when his friend Rowland Hazard, still suffering from lung ailments, invited him on another trip, this time to Europe. The pair traveled first to France, arriving just three weeks after Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte had staged a coup d'état, then later to Italy and Austria. While in Vienna, he received a letter from Francis Wayland, the president of Brown University, offering him a choice of jobs as chairman of either the Civil Engineering or Modern Language Department, with a year and a half of continued study in Europe. He chose the latter, and went to Paris for several months to study French, then to Braunschweig, Germany to study German, finally returning home in the summer of 1853.
When Angell began his tenure as chairman of the Modern Languages Department at Brown University, President Wayland was in the midst of reorganizing the university away from its traditional roots. Additional study was prescribed in areas such as modern languages and engineering, Angell's own areas of interest, and students were given greater freedom to choose elective courses. Extension classes were being initiated, to bring instruction to the wider community, and Angell himself gave lectures on his experiences in Europe and on the topic of education itself. Among his own students, Angell singled out as especially memorable two future U.S. Secretaries of State, Richard Olney and John Hay.
On November 26, 1855, Angell married Sarah Swoope Caswell. She was the daughter of Alexis Caswell, who was then a professor at Brown and would become president of the university in 1868. They had a son, Alexis Caswell Angell, on April 26, 1857.
After President Wayland grew frustrated with a lack of funding for his reforms and resigned as president in 1855, affairs reverted somewhat to their earlier state and the study of modern languages was de-emphasized, leaving Angell less satisfied with his teaching duties than before. He took on work writing articles for The Providence Journal, and when the editor and part-owner, Henry B. Anthony, was elected to the United States Senate in 1858, Anthony proposed that Angell replace him as the full-time editor. Angell took him up on the offer, resigning his professorship in 1860 to become the full-time editor of the paper.
As the largest newspaper in Rhode Island, and the state's leading voice for the new Republican Party (then only six years old), the editorship of the Journal put Angell in a powerful public position for the first time. His first foray into electoral politics came early on, as 1860 was an election year. He lent the paper's backing to the gubernatorial candidacy of abolitionist Republican nominee Seth Padelford, which failed when a coalition of various interests instead led to the election of fellow Republican William Sprague. In the presidential contest, Angell felt that Rhode Island's interests would be best served by the nomination of staunch abolitionist William H. Seward as the Republican candidate. But when the somewhat more moderate (and virtual unknown in Rhode Island) Abraham Lincoln was unexpectedly nominated, he put the power of the Journal behind Lincoln's candidacy, requesting favorable letters from his old pupil John Hay, who was working in Lincoln's law offices at the time, in order to generate enthusiasm for Lincoln. In the end, Lincoln won Rhode Island by a margin of 61.4% to 38.6%.
Angell ran the Journal for the entire Civil War, and briefly considered buying it to run as a non-partisan newspaper (an idea which Senator Anthony rejected), but the workload took its toll on his health. He and Sarah had a daughter, Lois, in 1863. In August 1866, when the University of Vermont requested that he come serve as its new president, he accepted the offer and moved to Burlington.
As he had at Brown, Angell arrived at the University of Vermont while it was in the midst of a major reorganization. The Morrill Act had been passed in 1862, marking the beginning of land-grant colleges in the United States. A State Agricultural College had been created in Vermont, and part of Angell's job was to oversee its integration with the existing university, effecting a change from a fully private university to a quasi-public one. Much of his effort at the university was related to fundraising, as the Civil War had depleted the school of both students and funds. He was elected an Associate Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1868.
On May 8, 1869, James and Sarah had another son, James Rowland Angell, who later served as president of Yale University. That same year, the University of Michigan offered Angell its presidency following the resignation of Erastus Haven. He visited Ann Arbor with his wife, but felt that he owed it to his supporters in Vermont to stay on with the University of Vermont. The offer was repeated in 1871, his former teacher Henry S. Frieze having served as acting president in the meantime. This time, Angell felt that the University of Vermont had made enough progress that he could leave it in good conscience, and he accepted the offer. He made a trip to Ann Arbor to deliver his inaugural address at Commencement on June 28, 1871, then returned to Vermont to finish out the academic term before moving his family to Ann Arbor for good in September of that year.
While President Haven was Angell's immediate predecessor, having spent six years in office as the second president of the university, the University of Michigan at the time of Angell's arrival was still largely a reflection of its first president, Henry Philip Tappan. Prior to a falling out with the Board of Regents that led to his dismissal and self-imposed exile to Europe in 1863, Tappan and then Haven had been among the leading American proponents of the "German model" of university curriculum, which emphasized research and laboratory work in a wide variety of disciplines over the "English model" of recitation in a core classical curriculum that typified most Eastern universities of the time and each left the University with continued resistance to the modernization. Under Angell, Michigan became a full-fledged realization of the type of university that Francis Wayland had been attempting to create at Brown during Angell's years there, and was viewed as the model for future public universities to follow (most notably, the University of California). Angell took on teaching duties in International Law, which he carried out during his entire term.
Angell's expressions of Christian piety, while not unusual at the New England Protestant institutions where he had previously served, caused him trouble early on at Michigan. Controversy surrounded two comments he had made. One was during his inaugural speech, when he stated that "the Christian spirit, which pervades the law, the customs, and the life of the State shall shape and color the life of the University, that a lofty, earnest, but catholic and unsectarian Christian tone shall characterize the culture which is here imparted." He had also stated an express desire to hire faculty who would prepare students for "their work in promoting our Christian civilization." A complaint was lodged in 1873 by Detroit resident Stephen B. McCracken, alleging that such Christian (and specifically Protestant) favoritism violated the state constitution. A Michigan State Senate committee was appointed to investigate, and interviewed Angell and others at the university. The committee ultimately cleared Angell and the university, concluding that "the teachings of the university are those of a liberal and enlightened Christianity, in the general, highest and best use of the term." In spite of such complaints, Angell took action early to make the university less sectarian, first by dropping compulsory chapel attendance, then by hiring its first Roman Catholic faculty member, Eugene W. Hilgard.
Angell served as president of the American Historical Association from 1892 to 1893.
During his tenure at Michigan, the faculty size grew from 35 to about 400; the student body from 1100 to over 5000; the annual budget from $104,000 to over $1,000,000. The following schools or colleges were founded during his tenure: Dentistry, Pharmacy, Music, Nursing, and Architecture & Urban Planning.
In 1902, Angell inspired the formation of an elite senior leadership society at Michigan. Known for most of its history as Michigamua, the organization renamed itself after Angell in 2007. The organization is now named "Order of Angell" and its mission is "to advance exceptional leadership through a lifelong loyalty to and engagement with the University of Michigan."
Angell's academic career was put on hold at several points so he could carry out a variety of diplomatic assignments.
In February 1880, Secretary of State William M. Evarts asked Angell to go to China as part of a two-member commission (to which Angell proposed the addition of a third member) with the goal of negotiating changes to the Burlingame Treaty that would reduce what was viewed as a flood of Chinese immigrants into the Pacific United States. Angell was nominated by President Hayes, confirmed by the Senate as Minister to China and chairman of the treaty commission on April 9, 1880, and left for Peking that June with fellow commissioners John F. Swift and William Henry Trescot. Henry S. Frieze was appointed acting president of the University of Michigan in his absence. The commission negotiated two treaties. The first, formally called the Treaty Regulating Immigration from China and dubbed by historians as the Angell Treaty of 1880, allowed the U.S. to regulate and limit the immigration of Chinese laborers, but not to prohibit it outright. The second was a trade treaty that outlawed the trade of opium and set tonnage dues and tariffs to be the same for both nations. The treaties, collectively, were signed on November 17, 1880, and the other commissioners returned home, leaving Angell in China to fulfill his duties as Minister. After a year, he decided to return to academia and left China on October 4, 1881, taking a trip through Europe and returning to Ann Arbor on February 24, 1882. Most of the protections for Chinese immigrants that the treaty had secured were reversed by Congress in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
In the fall of 1887, President Cleveland appointed Angell to the International Commission of Canadian Fisheries, along with William L. Putnam and Secretary of State Thomas F. Bayard, to negotiate with the British government regarding fishing rights off the coast of Canada, which had been a source of misunderstanding between Canada and the U.S. since they were first agreed to in the Treaty of 1818. A new treaty was signed on February 15, 1888, but subsequently failed ratification in the U.S. Senate, whose Republican majority had objected to the formation of the commission in the first place.
On November 4, 1895, President Cleveland appointed Angell to the Deep Waterways Commission, along with John E. Russell and Lyman E. Cooley. The commission, created by Congress, was to negotiate an agreement between the U.S. and Canada regarding the creation of a waterway to allow ocean-going traffic between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean. They undertook a feasibility study and forwarded proposals for further appropriations to Congress, but little was done, and it was not until 1959 that the St. Lawrence Seaway finally opened.
President McKinley appointed Angell Minister to Turkey in 1897, and Henry S. Frieze was again appointed acting president of the university. He served in the post until August 5, 1898.
Angell's wife, Sarah Caswell Angell, died on December 17, 1903. In 1905, Angell submitted his resignation to the Board of Regents, feeling that at his age, he may be losing the qualifications for his position, but the board refused to accept it. By 1909, he had been in office for 38 years, all of his predecessors had died, and Angell was the only man alive who had been president of the University of Michigan. He again submitted his resignation to the Regents, who this time accepted it, while at the same time designating him President Emeritus.
Angell died April 1, 1916, in Ann Arbor, and was buried in Forest Hill Cemetery.
A number of James Angell's descendents and near relatives rose to prominence in their respective fields, largely also in academia:Son James Rowland Angell, a psychologist at the University of Chicago and president of Yale University
Son Alexis Caswell Angell, Michigan Law School professor and U.S. District JudgeGrandson Robert Cooley Angell, chair of the sociology department at the University of Michigan and president of the American Sociological Association
Nephew Frank Angell, psychologist at Cornell University and Stanford University
Son-in-law Andrew McLaughlin (married daughter Lois Angell), Pulitzer Prize-winning historian
Granddaughter Constance Green, also a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian
Grandson James Angell MacLachlan, Harvard Law School professor and co-founder of the National Bankruptcy Conference
Angell Hall, one of the most prominent buildings on the University of Michigan campus, is named after him. Designed by Albert Kahn, it was completed in 1924 at a cost of $1 million, providing 152,000 square feet (14,100 m2) of classroom and office space.
In 1910 sculptor Karl Bitter produced a 7-foot-tall (2.1 m) bas relief depicting a seated Angell. It now resides in the lobby of Angell Hall.
A caricature of Angell by Ulysses Ricci's firm Ricci and Zari can be found carved on a corbel at the University of Michigan's Law Quadrangle.
Angell School, a kindergarten through fifth grade elementary school in the Ann Arbor Public Schools, is named after him.
The former University of Michigan honor society Michigamua renamed itself the Order of Angell in 2007. Angell inspired the organization's creation through his vision of uniting student leaders in the hopes of creating meaningful dialogue surrounding campus issues.
A street named after the Angell family runs by Brown University.
Sarah Caswell Angell Hall was a theater in Barbour Gymnasium (a women's gymnasium on the Michigan campus), named in honor of Angell's wife in 1905. The gymnasium was torn down in 1946.
Angell was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2008.
Elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1890.