Hamilton’s rich historic legacy provides much of the 21st-century College’s strength and vision. It also comprises a wealth of fascinating stories that illuminate the College’s changing place in the region, the nation and the world. “The Hill in History” shares some of those stories in a regular column.

Elihu Root’s Nobel Prize: Peace pioneer in the face of war

By Charlotte Hough ’14

Portrait of Elihu RootHis likeness portrayed in life size in the foyer of Buttrick Hall, Elihu Root, Class of 1864, stands contemplative. A deep crease sits between two brown eyebrows, and his lips arc almost downward in a frown. One might wonder what he was thinking as the French artist Théobald Chartran rendered his portrait in 1903.

Root had yet to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, but was already building the extensive portfolio in international relations that would lead to the prize a few years later. As secretary of war under presidents McKinley and Roosevelt, he had created a plan to return Cuba to the Cubans, he had written a democratic charter for the governance of the Philippines, and he had directed far-reaching internal changes to the War Department and military education in the U.S.

Though awarded the 1912 Peace Prize, Root was not nominated for it and did not receive it until 1913, sharing the spotlight with the winner for that year — Belgian lawyer and internationalist Henri La Fontaine. Due to a decision on the part of the prize committee, none of the original 64 nominees for 1912 had been selected that year; the Nobel Foundation’s rules allow for such a deferred award if the committee does not think the nominations it receives are worthy. So Alfred Harmann Fried, who was a journalist as well as the founder of the German Peace Society, nominated Root for the 1912 prize in 1913, when it was up for consideration again.

The unusual circumstances surrounding Root’s Peace Prize didn’t stop there. After the award was belatedly bestowed upon Root, he was scheduled to give an acceptance speech in Oslo on Sept. 8, 1914. But the outbreak of World War I six weeks earlier prevented him from doing so. What might have become Root’s most dramatic platform from which to share his ideas about the pursuit of a world at peace was, ironically, undone by what would come to be known as the War to End All Wars.

Evolving stance on global law

Root’s award was the twelfth given since the Peace Prize’s inception in 1901, following the death of Alfred Nobel in 1896. Nobel had stipulated in his will that most of his great wealth should be used for five prizes, which included one for peace. It would be awarded yearly to the person who “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding of peace congresses.” A committee within the Norwegian Storting (Parliament) was to select the winner each year — a system different from that for the other Nobel prizes, which are awarded by specialized academies in Sweden — and it is unclear exactly why Nobel wanted it this way. Scholars believe that Nobel may have been familiar with the Storting’s and Norway’s strong interest in peaceful solutions to international disputes during the 1890s. 

Elihu Root Peace Prize CitationUntil his nomination, Root had led varied, successful careers: as a corporate lawyer, as President McKinley’s secretary of war, as President Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary of state and as a New York senator. It may have been a combination of his ideas on peace and the way he instituted them that convinced Fried that Root was worthy of the nomination, and the committee that he deserved the prize.

Root’s ideas about peace and how to achieve it, in turn, surely were shaped by his opinions on human nature. In the text for the Nobel speech that he never gave, he wrote that “civilization is a partial, incomplete, and, to a great extent, superficial modification of barbarism.” To achieve peace, Root was intent on discovering exactly what “urges nations to the point where the war passion seizes upon them.” In practical terms, he believed in developing an international court and international law, but none that would infringe too greatly upon the individual rights of nations.

Root served as the first president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, founded in 1910 by his close friend Andrew Carnegie — himself, coincidentally, a nominee for the belated 1912 Peace Prize — and the second president of the Carnegie Corporation. He also declined overtures to seek the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1916.

In 1918 — having both received his Peace Prize and been shaken by the devastation of World War I — Root revisited the idea of enforcing standards of peace across nations, writing to Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy advisor Colonel House on these principles. He still believed in creating “an agreement upon someone or some group whose duty it will be to speak for the whole community in calling upon any two nations who appear to be about to fight to submit their claims.” But he now also wondered “how far that agreement should go.” He concluded that over the past two years, the world had come closer to being willing to submit to a stronger and more binding agreement. At the creation of the League of Nations, Root fought and negotiated for U.S. ratification, which ultimately failed because the U.S. still deemed the international agreement too binding.

Root’s ideas about peace may not seem revolutionary today. Indeed, many figures in his own time had voiced similar positions. In his definitive biography of the statesman, Philip Jessup ’18 notes this, writing: “Root was not the originator of any new school of political or social philosophy, but he was wise in advice, skilled in advocacy and successful in administration.”

In a more general sense, Jessup argues that Root’s greatness in law and politics showed itself in his “wise adaptation of past experience,” adding that “he was a great conciliator and would have been an outstanding figure in the American Constitutional Convention of 1787, where vital compromises had to be thought out and carried to adoption.”

Training to become ‘a vital force’

To help spread ideals of peace within an international system, Root highlighted in his Nobel lecture the importance of instructing students in international law. This brings forth the question of what exactly in Root’s own life experiences prepared him for international politics. President McKinley said that he wanted Root for his secretary of war because he needed a lawyer for the job, and Root was one of the most successful lawyers of his day.

How well did Root’s education prepare him for international relations? Though Hamilton had no formal Government Department at the time, the College catalogue of 1861 suggests that Root could have taken courses in political economy, philosophy and modern history once he reached his junior and senior years, classes that surely would have helped prepare him for the careers ahead. Hamilton did have a Law Department that offered courses in the law of contracts and real estate. After finishing a regular course of study at the College, any student “of good moral character” could join the department for a year and graduate with a Bachelor of Laws.

But as T.F. Jessup, Class of 1864, a distant relative to biographer Philip Jessup, wrote in the Class of 1864’s Half-Century Annalist’s letter, there may have been other facets of Root’s education that prepared him for a life in government. With tongue perhaps half in cheek, the annalist recalled a German course with a tutor known to be “excessive in his demands in the classroom” and with a “manifest disregard for propriety.” A committee from the class was sent to negotiate with the offending tutor, and, that effort failing, with the full faculty — which, alas, remained “blind to the injustice and unbearableness of the situation.”

The class dreaded war.… A principle however was at stake, righteousness was in jeopardy, mild measures had failed, justice had been outraged, arbitration was out of the question and the faculty having rejected their ultimatum, the class rebelled!

Root, of course, played an important role in this “German Rebellion,” the annalist recalled, and it was surely a résumé booster for him later in life: “It seems that President McKinley … knew about the bravery, the strategy and perseverance displayed by Elihu Root in connection with the rebellion, and he naturally concluded that Root was just the man to be in his Cabinet.” What Jessup no doubt glossed over in the quest for a good laugh was the fact that Root’s commitment to negotiation and arbitration almost certainly would have led him to that option over any open rebellion.

Root also received more serious praise. On his performance as Secretary of War for President McKinley, Henry L. Stimson said that “no such intelligent, constructive and vital force” had occupied the position in American history. Later, Roosevelt reportedly called him “the greatest man that has arisen on either side of the Atlantic in my lifetime.” The statesman from the family that has helped build Hamilton College across so many generations was himself a builder on a grand scale, of the first international foundations for a world without war.

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