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James Mills Peirce (May 1, 1834 – March 21, 1906) was an American mathematician and educator. He taught at Harvard University for almost 50 years.
He was the eldest son of Sarah Hunt Mills and Benjamin Peirce (1809–1880), a professor of astronomy and mathematics at Harvard University. The family was considered part of the Boston Brahmin elite class. Benjamin Peirce's father, also named Benjamin, was librarian at Harvard. James had four younger siblings; one brother was philosopher, logician and professor Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914). Another brother was Herbert Henry Davis Peirce (1849–1916) who was the First Secretary of the American Embassy in Saint Petersburg, Russia, at the end of the 19th century.
Peirce was fond of music and the theater. He was a member of the Hasty Pudding Club as a student, and later he seldom missed a Boston “first night”; he more than once visited Bayreuth for the Wagner festival, but Shakespeare was his passion, as he once said. As a mathematician, Peirce has been overshadowed by his father, Benjamin Peirce, and his brother, C. S. Peirce, but he had a reputation as an excellent teacher, and he contributed greatly to the development of the mathematical curriculum of Harvard University.
J. M. Peirce graduated from Harvard in 1853. He then spent a year in the Law School (1854), tutored mathematics, and later, in 1857, entered the university's School of Divinity. Graduating in 1859, he preached for two years in Unitarian churches in New Bedford, MA, and in Charleston, SC, but given a choice of continuing as a Unitarian minister or returning to the Mathematical Department of Harvard, where he had in the meantime been a tutor for 4 years, he accepted an appointment as assistant professor in 1861. He was full professor from 1869 and in 1885 was appointed Perkins Professor of Astronomy and Mathematics, succeeding his father, who died in 1880. He lived in the Harvard Yard among his students until 1880, when he was 46. He was the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences from 1895 to 1898.
James Mills Peirce published a textbook in analytic geometry, several pamphlets of mathematical tables, and some dozen articles, ranging from a study of the philosophy of Malebranche, through a biographical sketch of a friend who died in the Civil War, to con-tributions to his mathematical specialty, the theory of quatcrnions. We may now add to this list a forceful statement of his advanced view of homosexuality—a view that would not become current for another three-quarters of a century.
Among his publications are Mathematical Tables Chiefly to Four Figures (1896) and A Text-Book of Analytic Geometry; On the Basis of Professor Peirce’s Treatise (1857). He was considered a world authority on quaternions.
In 1863, 18 years old Thomas Sergeant Perry was a student in the math class of the 29 years old Peirce. Meeting in this pedagogical setting, the two became lifelong, devoted friends. On Peirce's part, at least, the feeling was more than friendly. Seven years after their meeting, on February 14, 1870, Peirce sent Perry a note addressed "To my dear Valentine." On May 17, 1872, Peirce responded to Perry's announcement that he had recently shed tears of joy: Lilla Cabot had accepted his marriage proposal. "I am so glad you are so happy," Peirce said. "It makes life seems less cruel to me, even if it has no mercy for me, that you have found its only joy." Peirce and Perry remained close after Perry's marriage, and, in the summer, Peirce often visited Perry and his wife, a painter, in an artists' colony in France. As a new member of the St Bodolph Club in 1892, Perry jokingly wrote his friend Leonard Opdycke that his family thought he had deserted them, since he spent so much time at the club with Peirce.
As secretary of the Academic Council from 1872 and dean of the newly organized Graduate School, 1890–1895, Peirce worked closely with his former classmate, President C. W. Eliot, in the development of the graduate program. Until his father’s death he kept rooms on campus, where his friends, even among the students, were welcome to visit. His affectionate friendship with the younger T. S. Perry (at the time of the “Valentine” letter Peirce was 36, Perry 25) continued after the latter’s marriage; as a new member of the St. Bodolph Club in 1892, Perry jokingly wrote his friend Leonard Opdycke that his family thought he had deserted them, since he spent so much time at the club with Peirce.
In 1889, James Mills Peirce traveled to Europe with "a bright young physicist," a "Mr. Clifford," probably Harry Ellsworth Clifford, who had graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1886 and who later joined the Harvard faculty.
In February 1891, John Addington Symonds sent Perry his newest essay, A Problem in Modern Ethics, which discussed the contemporary implications of sexual relations between men. Perry undoubtedly shared this with Peirce, who then composed a defense of "homosexual love" and sent it to Symonds. On May 21, 1891, Symonds informed his confidant, Henry Graham Dakyns, that he had "received a great abundance of interesting and valuable communications in consequence of sending out a few copies of that "Problem in Modern Ethics." A month later, on June 22, Symonds told his friend, the writer Edmund Gosse, of finding "a fierce & Quixotic ally, who goes far beyoinf my expectations in hopes of regenerating opinion on these topics," a Professor Pierce, of Cambridge, MA, a mathematician. Symonds clearly was referring to James Mills Pierce and his "acute partizanship for Urningthum." The following month, Peirce and Clifford again traveled to Europe. Peirce wrote to Perry that he had received a letter from Symonds, who had asked him to visit. Peirce hoped to do so.
Perhaps the strongest defense of homosexuality written by an American in the 19th century was in a letter to John Addington Symonds, published in the first English edition of Sexual Inversion, by Havelock Ellis and Symonds (1897). That the author of that letter, called only “Prof. X” there, was James Mills Peirce, at that time Perkins Professor of Astronomy and Mathematics at Harvard University, was first suggested by Jonathan Katz in 1976.
In Sexual Inversion the letter is introduced as follows: “Prof. X., in a letter to Symonds (who described him as ‘an American of eminence, who holds a scientific professorship in one of the first universities of the world’), has carried to the furthest extent the theory of the sexual indifference of the genital impulse, and the consequently normal nature of homosexuality”. Readers may judge for themselves the extent of his views, which, by rejecting the current theories that held homosexuality to be a fault, such as the “masculine body with a feminine soul” theory of Ulrichs and the “colour-blindness of the genital sense” theory of Symonds, surpass even those of Symonds himself, who has long been thought to be one of the strongest advocates of homosexuality in the 19th century. The letter follows:
I have considered and enquired into this question for many years; and it has long been my settled conviction that no breach of morality is involved in homosexual love; that, like every other passion, it tends, when duly understood and controlled by spiritual feeling, to the physical and moral health of the individual and the race, and that it is only its brutal perversions which are immoral. I have known many persons more or less the subjects of this passion, and I have found them a particularly high-minded, upright, re-fined, and (I must add)pure-minded class of men. In view of what everybody knows of the vile influence on society of the intersexual passion, as it actually exists in the world, mak-ing men and women sensual, low-minded, false, every way unprincipled and grossly self-ish, and this especially in those nations which self-righteously reject homosexual love, it seems a travesty of morality to invest the one with divine attributes and denounce the other as infamous and unnatural.
There is an error in the view that feminine love is that which is directed to a man, and masculine love that which is directed to a woman. That doctrine involves a begging of the whole question. It is a fatal concession to vulgar prejudice, and a contradiction to all you have so firmly adduced from Greek manners, and, indeed, I may say, to all the natural evolution of our race. Passion is in itself a blind thing. It is a furious pushing out, not with calculation or comprehension of its object, but to anything which strikes the imagination as fitted to its need. It is not characterised or differentiated by the nature of its object, but by its own nature. Its instinct is to a certain form of action or submission. But how that instinct is determined is largely accidental. Sexual passion is drawn by cer-tain qualities which appeal to it. It may see them, or think that it sees them, in a man or a woman. But it is in either case the same person. The controlling influence is a certain spiritual attraction, and that may lie in either. The two directions are equally natural to unperverted man, and the abnormal form of love is that which has lost the power of excit-ability in either the one or the other of these directions. It is unisexual love (a love for one sexuality) which is a perversion. The normal men love both.
It is true enough that in primitive society all passion must have been wholly or mainly animal, and spiritual progress must have been conditioned on subduing it. But there is no reason why this subjugation should have consisted in extirpating, or trying to extirpate, one of the two main forms of sexual passion, and cultivating the other. The ac10tual reasons were, I take it, two: (1) to reserve all sexual energy for the increase of the race; (2) to get the utmost merely fleshly pleasure out of the exercise of passion. Whether either of these reasons adds to the spiritual elevation of love may be doubted. Certainly not the second, which is now the moving influence in the matter. It is true enough that all passion needs to be unceasingly watched, because the worst evils for mankind lie hidden in its undisciplined indulgence. But this is quite as true of intersexual as of homosexual love. I clearly believe that the Greek morality on this subject was far higher than ours, and truer to the spiritual nature of man; that our civilisation suffers for want of the pure and noble sentiment which they thought so useful to the state; and that we ought to think and speak of homosexual love, not as “inverted” or “abnormal,” as a sort of colour-blindness of the genital sense, as a lamentable mark of inferior development, or as an unhappy fault, a “masculine body with a feminine soul,” but as being in itself a natural, pure and sound passion, as worthy of the reverence of all fine natures as the honourable devotion of husband and wife, or the ardour of bride and groom.
In addition to the maturity of its author, already indicted by his holding a professorship, we learn from the letter that he was apparently familiar with Symonds’ A Problem in Greek Ethics (1883) and with the theory of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, whose views he probably learned from Symonds’ A Problem in Modern Ethics (1891). If the original of this letter could be found, that would establish authorship, but it is not known to exist, and its existence is highly unlikely. If not destroyed earlier, it was almost certainly destroyed by Edmund Gosse, to whom Symonds’ papers had been left by Horatio Brown. Gosse told Symonds’ granddaughter, Janet Vaughan: “Hagburgh Wright & I had a bonfire in the garden and burnt them all, my dear Janet, all except his autobiography which we have deposited in the London Library not to be available or published for 50 years”.
Among the over 2,000 known letters of J. A. Symonds are letters to three Americans: Walt Whitman and his friend Horace Traubel, and Thomas Sergeant Perry. None of these could have been “Prof. X,” since Symonds knew that none of them held a scientific professorship. We may note, however, that T. S. Perry, with whom Symonds was personally acquainted, quite possibly shared the sentiments of that letter. At Perry’s request, Symonds had sent him a copy of A Problem in Greek Ethics. He later sent him a copy of A Problem in Modern Ethics, and (he had also sent a copy of John Beddoe, MD, FRS) he wrote to Edmund Gosse on February 23, 1891: “Both reply emphatically that they agree with my conclusion & suggestions on the legal point, but that they do not think it possible for the vulgar to accept them”. In the same letter, he said of Perry that he was “quite one of the most learned and clearest-headed men in the USA”.
In two of his letters Symonds mentioned another American with whom he corresponded on the subject of homosexuality. He wrote to Henry Graham Dakyns on May 20, 1891: “I have received a great abundance of interesting and valuable communications in consequence of sending out a few copies of that ‘Problem in Modern Ethics.’ People have handed it about. . . . The oddest information has come from 1) America, in the shape of sharply-defined acute partisanship for Urningthum, 2) London, in the shape of about twelve Ms confessions”. One month later Symonds wrote to Edmund Gosse, on June 22, 1891: “Here I composed an appendix to my ‘Problem,’ combining several new considerations brought home to me by the correspondence wh[ich] that sparely circulated essay has educed. I found a fierce & Quixotic ally, who goes far beyond my expectations in hopes of regenerating opinion on these topics, in a Prof. Pierce (?) of Cambridge Mass. He ought to be in Europe now. . . . If he crosses your path in London, look after him, & mention me. I hear he professes Mathematics”.
Now, these two letters surely refer to the same American correspondent (the spelling of whose name Symonds is apparently unsure of—the question mark is his), Symonds mentions no other such correspondent, and the descriptions admirably fit the “Prof. X” letter. Thus it is highly probable that “Prof. X’’ was “Prof. Pierce (?).”
Before Katz suggested that Symonds’ correspondent was J. M. Peirce, he had already been identified otherwise twice. In his biography of Henry James, Leon Edel (1969) identified Symonds’ “fierce and Quixotic ally” as “the American mathematician-philosopher, C. S. Peirce”, whereas the editors of Symonds’ Letters (1969) identified him as Benjamin Osgood Peirce, mathematician and physicist of Harvard University. But the first cannot be correct, since C. S. Peirce was not a professor in Cambridge and did not travel to Europe after 1883, and the editors of the Letters soon realized that J. M. Peirce was also professor of mathematics at Harvard, thus leaving the identification in doubt. (J. M. Peirce and C. S. Peirce were brothers. B. O. Peirce—the name is so spelled—was a distant cousin.) Katz notes that “a well-informed source says ‘The only possible identification’ for the individual in question is James Mills Peirce”. The choice of J. M. Peirce was probably based on his friendship with T. S. Perry. This choice has since been confirmed by a letter from J. M. Peirce to T. S. Perry, which shows that he and Symonds were indeed in correspondence. Writing from the Isle of Wight on July 13, 1891, shortly after his arrival in Europe, Peirce says: “I had a pleasant letter from Symonds just before sailing, asking me to go to see him. I mean to accomplish that, if possible. I have just been writing him.” The date of this letter nearly coincides with the time Symonds expected his “fierce & Quixotic ally” to be in Europe. In fact, Peirce mentions in the letter to Perry that he had been staying in Southamptom and had gone up to London for a day or 2. Thus, the “fierce & Quixotic ally” is undoubtedly James Mills Peirce. But there is further evidence linking J. M. Peirce with the letter in question.
The author of the “Prof. X” letter was apparently familiar, as mentioned above, with Symonds’ two essays: A Problem in Greek Ethics and A Problem in Modern Ethics. The first was printed in 1883 in only 10 copies; the second, in 1891 in 50 copies. But Symonds sent T. S. Perry a copy of each of these rare works. Thus “Prof. X” most probably saw Perry’s copies. J. M. Peirce was a close friend of Perry—a letter from Perry to Peirce on February 14, 1870, was addressed “To my dear Valentine!”—so Perry would surely have shown him the essays.
One more connection may be mentioned. After Symonds’ death in April 1893, Havelock Ellis obtained permission from Horatio Brown, Symonds’ literary executor, to use some of Symonds’ material in the book on which they had been collaborating. When it appeared that there would be difficulty finding an English publisher, the book was first published in German (1896). This was followed by the publication in English —both of these editions containing the “Prof. X” letter. According to Ellis, “It was never published in English, for at the last moment, when the English edition was already bound and on the eve of publication, the Symonds family seem to have taken alarm and Brown bought up the edition, though numerous copies nevertheless (not, of course, by my connivance nor to my benefit) succeeded in getting into circulation”. A second edition was published that same year, but with Symonds’ name missing from the title page. Thus the first English edition, with Symonds’ name on the title page, was extremely rare—yet, J. M. Peirce possessed a copy of that edition (sold at auction in 1909). Peirce's library it included also the 1860 edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (the first containing his Calamus poems.)
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