It Happened at Michigan — College Republicans and their U-M roots


In mid-May of 1892, hundreds of students from universities around the country gathered on the University of Michigan campus. They filed into Newberry Hall and then on to the massive auditorium of University Hall for a series of speeches by leading Republicans of the day, including Ohio Gov. William McKinley.

When the students departed late that evening, it was as the newly christened American Republican College League, a national political group that continues today as the College Republicans.

A photo of William McKinley
When Ohio Gov. William McKinley appeared at U-M, he was considered a presidential contender. (Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jefferson R. Burdick Collection)

“This will be a memorable occasion for one thing if for no other that it is the first. I hope it may be memorable for another and more important reason, that it will be the seed planting of practical political thought which shall continue to grow and find root in every educational institution in the country,” said McKinley, who would become president in 1897.  

Students came from more than 30 universities stretching from Maine to California. While plenty of college campuses had Republican clubs, U-M’s was the largest in the country, with more than 1,500 students. Leading the U-M organization was 24-year-old law student James F. Burke, who was just weeks away from graduation. He was the unanimous choice for president of the new national group.

“If young men in college, representing the best blood in the land, will take up work such as the young men in the University of Michigan have taken up, we shall receive our full share of the young blood and gain the best possible allies,” said James S. Clarkson, chairman of the Republican National Committee.

A photo of James F. Burke
James F. Burke (Wikimedia)

Burke also had the backing of President Benjamin Harrison.

“The wonder is that the necessity and promise of this work was not sooner appreciated by all of us,” Harrison said. “It has a disseminating power that no other political work has.”

A Pennsylvania native, Burke was elected to Congress in 1904 and served five terms representing a district of Pittsburgh. He later worked as general counsel for the Republican National Committee.

“James Francis Burke was generally regarded as one of the shrewdest political observers in Republican councils,” The New York Times wrote following Burke’s unexpected death on Aug. 8, 1932, in Washington. Burke had been at a White House meeting with President Herbert Hoover earlier in the day.


Leave a comment

Please read our comment guidelines.