Butler was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey to Mary Murray Butler and manufacturing worker Henry Butler. He enrolled in Columbia College (later Columbia University) and earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1882 at the age of twenty, his master's degree in 1883, and his doctorate in 1884. Butler's academic and other achievements led Theodore Roosevelt to call him "Nicholas Miraculous." In 1885, Butler studied in Paris and Berlin and became a lifelong friend of future Secretary of State Elihu Root. Through Root he also met Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. In the fall of 1885, Butler joined the staff of Columbia's philosophy department.
In 1887, he co-founded, and became president of, the New York School for the Training of Teachers, which later affiliated with Columbia University and was renamed Teachers College, Columbia University. From 1890 to 1891, Butler was a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Throughout the 1890s Butler served on the New Jersey Board of Education and helped form the College Entrance Examination Board.
In 1901, Butler became acting president of Columbia University, and in 1902 formally became president. Among the many dignitaries in attendance at his investiture was President Roosevelt. Butler was president of Columbia for 43 years, the longest tenure in the university's history, retiring in 1945. As president, Butler carried out a major expansion of the campus, adding many new buildings, schools, and departments. These additions included Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, the first academic medical center in the world.
He also aroused controversy. Like many American intellectuals in the 1920s, he was an early admirer of Italian fascist Benito Mussolini and worked to forge cultural relations between Columbia and Italian institutions. The most visible example of this relationship was the Casa Italiana on 117th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, which still stands today.
Butler also forged links with universities in Nazi Germany. In 1933, Butler invited Hans Luther, the German ambassador the U.S., to speak at Columbia in defense of Hitler and the Nazis. Butler rejected student appeals to cancel the invitation, calling the request "illiberal" and citing the need for academic freedom. Later, when the Nazi threat became clearer, Butler vigorously supported the American war effort.
During his lifetime, Columbia named its philosophy library for him; after he died, its main academic library, previously known as South Hall, was rechristened Butler Library. A faculty apartment building on 119th Street and Morningside Drive was also renamed in Butler's honor, as was a major prize in philosophy.
Butler was a delegate to each Republican National Convention from 1888 to 1936. In 1912, when Vice President James S. Sherman died a few days before the presidential election, Butler was selected to replace him on the ticket.
Butler was the chair of the Lake Mohonk Conference on International Arbitration that met periodically from 1907 to 1912. In this time he was appointed president of the American branch of International Conciliation. Butler was also instrumental in persuading Andrew Carnegie to provide the initial $10 million funding for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Butler became head of international education and communication, founded the European branch of the Endowment headquartered in Paris, and was President of the Endowment from 1925 to 1945. For his work in this field, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for 1931 (shared with Jane Addams.
Butler was President of the elite Pilgrims Society, which promotes Anglo-American friendship. He served as President of the Pilgrims from 1928 to 1946. Butler was president of The American Academy of Arts and Letters from 1928 to 1941.
Butler married in 1887 and had one daughter from that marriage. His wife died in 1903 and he married again in 1907. In 1940, Butler completed his autobiography with the publication of the second volume of Across the Busy Years. When Butler became almost blind in 1945 at the age of eighty-three, he resigned from the posts he held and died two years later. Butler is buried at Cedar Lawn Cemetery, in Paterson, New Jersey
Despite Butler's accomplishments, many people regarded him as arrogant. In 1939, a former student of Butler's, Rolfe Humphries, was asked to contribute a piece to Poetry. He was given the title ("Draft Ode for a Phi Beta Kappa Occasion"), and asked to follow a format of blank verse and one classical reference per line. Following these provisos, Humphries penned this infamous acrostic:
Niobe's daughters yearn to the womb again,
Ionians bright and fair, to the chill stone;
Chaos in cry, Actaeon's angry pack,
Hounds of Molussus, shaggy wolves driven
Over Ampsanctus' vale and Pentheus' glade,
Laelaps and Ladon, Dromas, Canace,—
As these in fury harry brake and hill
So the great dogs of evil bay the world.
Memory, Mother of Muses, be resigned
Until King Saturn comes to rule again!
Remember now no more the golden day
Remember now no more the fading gold,
Astraea fled, Proserpina in hell;
You searchers of the earth be reconciled!
Because, through all the blight of human woe,
Under Robigo's rust, and Clotho's shears,
The mind of man still keeps its argosies,
Lacedaemonian Helen wakes her tower,
Echo replies, and lamentation loud
Reverberates from Thrace to Delos Isle;
Itylus grieves, for whom the nightingale
Sweetly as ever tunes her Daulian strain.
And over Tenedos the flagship burns.
How shall men loiter when the great moon shines
Opaque upon the sail, and Argive seas
Rear like blue dolphins their cerulean curves?
Samos is fallen, Lesbos streams with fire,
Etna in rage, Canopus cold in hate,
Summon the Orphic bard to stranger dreams.
And so for us who raise Athene's torch.
Sufficient to her message in this hour:
Sons of Columbia, awake, arise!
Upon discovery the "hidden" message, an irate Poetry editor ran the following editorial:
"Not being accustomed to hold manuscripts up to the mirror or to test them for cryptograms, the editors recently accepted and printed a poem containing a concealed scurrilous phrase aimed at a well-known person. This was not called to their attention until several weeks after the issue had been published. The phrase in question is puerile and uninteresting, and would not be referred to except that it is necessary to disclaim editorial responsibility. Apparently it is also necessary to state a principle which one would have thought obvious; namely, that any contributor who allows such matter to be printed without the editors' knowledge is guilty of a serious breach of confidence, and will automatically disbar himself from the magazine."
The ban was lifted in 1941, when three of Humphries' poems were published.
In More Misinformation by Tom Burnam (1979), Humphries is quoted as saying "They forgave me finally." Burnam comments, "Forty years have passed since the appearance of Mr. Humphries' 'Ode.' Perhaps the shade of Nicholas Miraculous will also forgive him now."
Butler wrote and spoke voluminously on all manner of subjects ranging from education to world peace. Although marked by erudition and great learning, his work tended toward the portentous and overblown. In The American Mercury, the critic Dorothy Dunbar Bromley referred to Butler's pronouncements as "those interminable miasmas of guff."
One notable critic of Butler was Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. While attending Columbia, Ginsberg scrawled the phrases "Butler Has No Balls" and "Fuck The Jews" in the grime on his dirty dorm window in Hartley Hall. (The dorm maid reported the graffiti to College dean Herbert Hawkes, who summoned Ginsberg and told him, "I hope you realize the enormity of what you've done." This incident was among the reasons that Ginsberg was suspended from Columbia.)
Though not a garden-variety anti-Semite, Butler had conflicted and complex feelings about Jews. On the one hand, Butler clearly supported policies at Columbia that discriminated against Jews, whether they were applicants for admission, students or potential members of the board of trustees. On the other hand, Butler had great respect for many Jewish individuals, especially in the upper reaches of the sciences, law, and academia. Thus, it was during his tenure that Lionel Trilling became the first tenured Jew in Columbia's English department. Butler was also repulsed by crude displays of anti-Semitism. When the University of Heidelberg protested Butler's selection of a Jewish delegate to represent Columbia at Heidelberg's 550th anniversary celebration, Butler indignantly replied that at Columbia, delegates were selected on the basis of merit, not race. (Many students were outraged that Butler had accepted Heidelberg's invitation at all. This resulted in a rally outside Butler's home that started with the protesters chanting "Castigate Butler!" and ending with them shouting "Castrate Butler!") As it was, however, Heidelberg had already purged its Jewish professors and adopted Nazi ideology in its curriculum.
Anti-Semitism was common in American education during Butler’s day, and it may be argued that his personal dislike of Jews, and discriminatory policies against them, were no worse than average for that time. Nonetheless, Butler often considered Jews as a whole to be aggressive and vulgar and for many years of his presidency, Columbia had a strict quota limiting the number of Jews who could attend. In 1928, the Board of Trustees authorized the creation of “Seth Low Junior College” in Brooklyn as a way to deal with the number of Jewish (and Italian) applicants. If Columbia College, the university’s prestigious undergraduate school, had already admitted its modest quota of Jews for the year, other Jewish applicants would be shunted to Seth Low. Among Seth Low's alumni were Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach and noted science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who wrote of how he ended up at Seth Low. When Seth Low folded in 1938, its remaining students were absorbed into Columbia's undergraduate population as students in the University Extension program (now the School of General Studies); as such, they were only eligible to earn a Bachelor of Science degree rather than a Bachelor of Arts. Asimov graduated in 1939 with a Bachelor of Science.
In 1928, the Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals (later U.S. Supreme Court Justice) Benjamin Cardozo (an alumnus of Columbia College and Columbia Law School) was appointed to Columbia’s Board of Trustees, the first Jew to serve on the board in 113 years. But when Cardozo resigned in 1932, Butler and the board prevented the election of Adolph S. Ochs, publisher of the “The New York Times,” to the board. Another Jew did not serve on the board until 1944, when Arthur Hays Sulzberger (Columbia College Class of 1913) was elected a Life Trustee.
Butler’s attempts to limit Jewish admissions to Columbia are discussed (among other places) in the book Nicholas Miraculous: The Amazing Career of the Redoubtable Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler by Columbia English professor Michael Rosenthal.