Secretary of War, Secretary of State, U.S. Senator. and Nobel Peace Prize Recipient, Elihu Root, Class of 1864, is arguably Hamilton’s most distinguished alumnus. After earning a reputation as one of the most respected corporate lawyers of his time, Root was named Secretary of War in 1899 by President McKinley. Root described the appointment as “the greatest of all our clients, the government of our country.” During his five-year tenure, he reorganized the Army, expanded West Point and established the Army War College.
His keen interest and concern for international affairs sparked his work as an advocate for the new territories acquired after the Spanish-American War. He worked on a plan to turn Cuba over to the Cubans, wrote a democratic charter for the Philippines and eliminated tariffs on goods imported to the U.S. from Puerto Rico.
Root returned to private practice for only a year before President Theodore Roosevelt called on him again — this time to serve as secretary of state. Dedicated to the cause of international arbitration, Root maintained the “open-door policy” in the Far East. On an unprecedented diplomatic tour of Latin America in 1906, he persuaded those governments to participate in the Hague Peace Conference. He negotiated a “gentlemen’s agreement” with Japan to address issues of emigration and worked with Great Britain in resolving disputes over the Alaska/Canada border.
In 1909 Root began a single term as a U.S. senator. He declined candidacy for reelection and a nomination by the Republican Party for the U.S. presidency. He served as the first president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace from 1910-25 when he helped create the Hague Academy of International Law in the Netherlands. In 1914 he was president of the New York State Constitutional Convention and during World War I headed a mission to Russia and later served as an advisor in establishing the Covenant of the League of Nations. He was recognized with the 1912 Nobel Peace Prize.
Root’s ties to Hamilton began long before he matriculated. He was born and raised on the Hill as the son of Nancy Buttrick and Oren Root, Class of 1833, a long-time professor of mathematics known fondly as “Cube.” His brother, Oren Root Jr., Class of 1856, followed in their father’s footsteps as a professor of mathematics and was appropriately nicknamed “Square.” Elihu Root’s contributions on the national and international scene never lessened his commitment to his alma mater. He served as chairman of the Hamilton board of trustees for more than 25 years and spent most of his time on campus after retiring from public service. He died in 1937. The Roots’ family ties to Hamilton extend to dozens of alumni, including Elihu’s sons, grandsons and great-grandchildren.
In 1893 Elihu Root purchased a house on campus as a family summer residence. Built in 1817 for Theodore Strong, Hamilton’s first professor of mathematics, the structure had served as the home of College presidents and faculty members. The building was occupied after 1937 by Root’s daughter Edith Root Grant and her husband Ulysses S. Grant III, grandson of the president. A National Historic Landmark, it was acquired by the College in 1979 and now houses the Admission and Financial Aid offices.