Woodrow Wilson ’79
Harris & Ewing. February 13, 1924.
It is interesting to note that in the year 1878-9, as a Senior, he could be seen on the Princeton campus with a bright-eyed Freshman in the person of President Hibben, so that idealism and pragmatism were in company.

Doctor Theodore W. Hunt ’65, Professor-emeritus of English and the senior member of the University Faculty, to which he was first appointed in 1868 (fifty-six years ago), is the only surviving member of the Faculty who taught President Wilson as an undergraduate. On the day of the late President’s death, Dr. Hunt was besieged by reporters for his recollections of his distinguished student and life-long friend. These recollections and impressions Dr. Hunt has now put in more finished form, with some additions, for publication in The Weekly, as follows:

It has been my privilege to have known President Wilson from his undergraduate days in Princeton in the years 1875-79. In recalling the impression he made upon me as he sat before me in the college classroom, it was that of an exceptionally mature student deeply interested in current events, often devoting to general reading the hours that others were giving to the regular academic schedule, willingly surrendering high academic standing to the attractions of general literature, of history and political writing.

It is interesting to note that in the year 1878-9, as a Senior, he could be seen on the Princeton campus with a bright-eyed Freshman in the person of President Hibben, so that idealism and pragmatism were in company.

His undergraduate life and study were thus in a true sense a premonition of what he was to be and do and an evident preparation for it. After graduation he studied law in 1879-80 at the University of Virginia. His practicing law in 1882-3, in Atlanta, Georgia, clearly indicated the decided bent of his mind to juristic study and its close relation to American politics.

In his mental constitution and habit he had the elements that would have made him a great jurist, a second Rufus Choate at the American Bar. The reception of a doctorate in philosophy at Johns Hopkins in 1886 served, however, to direct his thought to educational study and occupation, so that we find him at length as a professor at Bryn Mawr and at Wesleyan University, from which institution he came to Princeton in 1890 as Professor of Jurisprudence and Politics, achieving marked distinction in the classroom as an interpreter of these vital subjects until in 1902 he succeeded Dr. Patton as President of Princeton. During the eight years of his presidency he maintained and deepened that distinctive intellectual stimulus which marked the two preceding administrations of Patton and McCosh. Of his administration at Princeton it is not my purpose to write, further than to say that its main feature lay in the line of educational method as expressed in the preceptorial system, now an established part of the Princeton regime. President Wilson’s forte, if I may be so bold as to say it, in so far as it is expressed in the sphere of education, was professorial, rather than administrative or executive. It was in the classroom that he was at his best – a real educator.

Now, however, his innate political bias began to be more and more pronounced. His first and best book, “Congressional Government,” evinced this trend. His inaugural address in 1902 on “The Relation of the University to the State” evinced it and at length he passed through a rapid and remarkable series of official functions andto the governorship of New Jersey and the Presidency of the United States of America.

Not infrequently, as we talked together informally from time to time, this political bias would manifest itself. I clearly recall his delight when receiving the nomination for Governor of New Jersey and his unbounded joy as he entered his first term as President. I have often wondered whether even. He himself was then fully aware in what particular sphere his best ability lay – I n law, education or politics – and in which of these vocations his supremist happiness would lie.

Living as his next-door neighbor for a series of years, it gives me unfeigned pleasure to emphasize the attractiveness of his home life, as son and husband and father. It was a home in which the tenderest expressions of household affection prevailed, and which was marked by that generous hospitality which is such a dominant characteristic in all families of southern lineage.

It was from his venerable father that he inherited his fund of humor, as it was from his father and his distinguished uncle, Doctor Woodrow, that he inherited his theological views.

President Wilson was a great writer. He had by inheritance and cultivation a masterly English style, clear, concise, convincing, cogent and always in good taste. He had a vocabulary of idiomatic English rarely equaled, - his unwillingness ever to learn to speak a foreign language being due, as he often said to me, to his governing desire to preserve a pure English idiom.

In reviewing Mr. Wilson’s career it is quite possible to say that in the province of state and national politics he was, in the main, a practical guide and leader. This was especially true in his constructive policy when Governor. In the sphere of international politics, however, he was a pronounced idealist, many of his most devoted admirers often wishing that he could have accepted more frequently than he did the judgment of others in settling the great problems that confronted him.

In public address his forensic style was marked by conciseness and vigor, always interesting, instructive and, in the main, convincing, and always marked by a high degree of literary excellence, making a direct and solemn appeal to the judgment and conscience of his hearers, though seldom crossing the line into the province of dynamic and thrilling address. Alike as a writer and speaker, his style was academic, enlightening and dispassionate rather than impassioned and inspiring.

The historians of the future will have in hand a task of no slight difficulty – when they attempt to interpret aright the life and work of this singular and complex character. President Wilson’s personality will perplex them. He has been called unsympathetic and unapproachable. As a neighbor of his for many years and thoroughly familiar with the everyday expression of his character and spirit, I never failed to find in his nature a marked degree of cordiality and a quick response to every generous impulse of friendship and affection. And yet this is to be said, that there was a section of his composite personality which he always kept under lock and key, into which no one outside of his family circle and that of a few of his closest friends could safely venture to intrude. To the mere passing acquaintance or the official colleague or the formal friend, this door was bolted and barred. At Washington and elsewhere when an attempt was made to open this door, there was a protest that could not be ignored. To explain this seclusion of spirit and yet maintain the possession of that large and generous nature which made him such a genial comrade with those who knew him well, - this will puzzle the biographers. In his public official career he will also perplex the historians. He illustrated the scope and the limitations of greatness, the successes and failures of greatness, the privileges and perils of greatness, the rewards and penalties of greatness. Great beyond doubt, as he was, his greatness must be accepted with reservations.

Though his ruling passion was in the sphere of world politics and his absorbing project was in the province of international relations, the part he played therein was purely idealistic, and he wore his heart out in the attempt to compass it. The programme that he outlined in his imagination was so vast and complex that he himself stood bewildered in the presence of it, and the students of his work must compare and, if possible, reconcile these conflicting states of mind.

On the page of history, however, President Wilson will be a commanding figure, partly because of his commanding official position in American politics, partly because of the distinctive services he rendered in the sphere of American education, but mainly because he lived and labored, suffered and died, for an ideal which has already lifted the life and hope of the modern world to a higher level, and which in some substantive form will yet prevail and prove a benediction to this weary world. This, therefore, is his highest distinction and glory, - that when he failed to realize his aims, he failed with his hands outstretched to heaven and his face toward the light. In the closing years of his life he was, I must believe, the happiest and the saddest figure in contemporary American history. May we not think of him dying in the gladness of his cherished ideal, rather than in the sorrow of its apparent failure. Possibly his last vision on earth was the vision, however, dim, of universal justice and universal peace.

The closing stanza of one of William Watson’s memorial poems aptly expresses the tragedy and triumph of President Wilson’s last years.

“Great is the facile conqueror,

Yet haply he, who, wounded sore,

Breathless, unhorsed, all covered o’er

With blood and sweat,

Sinks filed and fighting evermore,

Is greater yet.”

This was originally published in the February 13, 1924 issue of PAW.