Letters sent to PAW over the years provide glimpses of Princeton graduates and their views on a variety of topics: manners, culture, racial integration, coeducation, sports, politics, and much more. Below, read a sampling of historical letters selected by the editors.
Princeton Independence, Oct. 9, 1907
(A critique of then-University President Woodrow Wilson 1879’s Quad Plan and its impact on the clubs.)
Whether you kill the clubs or not, you must deal with Princeton spirit and Princeton independence. You may make all the laws you please, but you can never prevent young men of kindred tastes and feelings from combining in some form and in their own way to maintain their college friendships and associations. You may abolish clubs but you will never be able to abolish human nature.
Adrian H. Joline 1870
A Grad’s Complaint, March 15, 1911
Don’t you know that it makes an “Old Grad” feel “kinder bad” and gives him a “pang” at the heart to come back to his old College and see things uprooted and changed, and old landmarks wiped off the face of the earth? I remember how badly I felt the first time I came back and saw the old “Bulletin Tree” no longer standing in the old place, the old tree with its million tacks or more sticking in the bark; likewise the Old Chapel and East College—why, it seemed as if I had lost an old friend, like “Old Jim” the apple man, who seemed to live forever.
Between 1877 and 1881, the life of our class at College, the Dome on the Halsted Observatory was always a blue color, “sky blue” you might call it, and for many years thereafter it still remained a blue color, a conspicuous landmark on the campus, and painted a color in keeping for a building devoted to the study of the sky. Then, on one of my visits to Old Nassau I saw that the old Blue Dome was gone and a plain, grim, unsentimental gray had taken its place, and it did not look or seem like the old Observatory at all.
W. A. Courson 1881
The Old-Time Cane-Spree, Dec. 8, 1920
Your Undergraduate Editor’s description in the last issue of The Weekly of the annual cane-spree and the lack of interest shown in the contest recalls this event as the writer remembers it in the late seventies and early eighties. At that time it was one of the chief features of the first few weeks of the college year and was participated in by nearly every member of the two lower classes, the physically unfit and the confirmed pollers alone excepted. The present survival, a contest between three selected representatives from each class, was at that time know as the “preliminary cane-spree” and took place a few nights prior to the real event.
The battle ground used to be the open space between Reunion and the old Gym, the space where Alexander Hall now stands, a large space free from trees which might interfere with the fighters or obstruct the moonlight, and on the night of the spree it was crowded with contestants and spectators, thirty or forty fights going on at the same time. A Junior and Senior acted as second for each Freshman and Sophomore respectively, both during the spree and previously in arranging the match and training their principals in the fine points of the game.
It seems rather a pity that this good old custom has been allowed to lapse into the lifeless exhibition that it now is. It was a harmless but interesting way to help settle the perennial question as to which was the better of the two lower classes, particularly so as it seems to have been a distinctively Princeton custom and was deemed worthy of a half-page illustration in an article on Princeton published in Scribner’s Magazine for March, 1877.
But like other good old customs, it was a part of the Old Princeton and has gone the way of the Drawback and Go-to-Hell Hat so graphically described by “Billy” Sutphen in your columns a year or two ago.
The Smoothie Uproar, Dec. 4, 1931
(With the football team struggling to a 1-7 record, alumni and newspaper columnists blamed Princeton’s status as a school for “smoothies,” polished young men who lacked grit.)
In the midst of the “smoothie” uproar you have, in your issue of November 2, sounded a clear and courageous note in stating that “the alumni want touchdowns,” but I think the charge is a little too general. Doubtless there are many — and they are of the more vocal sort — who, the moment their little sons’ umbilical cords are cut, begin to dream of the touchdowns with which these red and wrinkled babies whom they have, in a minor capacity, helped to bring into the world, will one day gladden their fathers’ declining years. Others, some of them likewise fathers of sons, see, even in the tragedy of such a football season as the present one, a hopeful sign of restoration of equilibrium in a truly great educational institution.
Charles Yeomans 1900
Plea to Admit Negroes, March 29, 1940
Many Princeton men will bear me out in testifying that it is rather painful for loyal Princetonians to hear the distorted impressions of our alma mater widely prevalent in America.
I have had considerable contact with American colleges and universities, and with good conscience I can meet most of the criticisms. Academic standards are higher than average, boys can work their way wholly or in part through Princeton and be the more respected for it, etc. etc. I can’t defend the club system and bicker week, but I can say that that system is better, not worse, than the average fraternity system, and that there is more of a conscience, even if an ineffective conscience, about it among us than against similar or worse evils in other institutions.
But at one point I can present no defense. “Princeton,” we proudly say “is for the nation’s service.” It is dedicated to “democracy,” to “the search for truth,” to “the liberal spirit” — in complete opposition to fascist standards. Yet Princeton maintains a racial intolerance almost worthy of Hitler, and wholly alien to any ideal of a university or even a college in a democracy.
I refer, of course, to our complete exclusion of any and all representatives of the Negroes who form one-tenth of our population. So far as I can learn, but one Negro even went to Princeton and that long before the Civil War. That the exclusion is by custom and unwritten law rather than by regulation, if anything makes matters worse. A race which is furnishing an increasing number of artists, musicians, scientists, can send no man be he as versatile as Paul Robeson (whose family, I think, lived at Princeton) to the fourth oldest American institution of learning. Negroes may go to, and make good in, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Chicago — indeed all leading American colleges and universities except Princeton. Even in the South there is more awareness of, and sympathetic interest in, the Negro problem at the University of North Carolina than in Princeton.
Probably the publication of this letter will raise much protest among Princetonians. I could write down now what will be said and probably written. It is all relevant to a deep-seated prejudice, but not to democracy; to a social club, perhaps, but not to a university. If generation after generation of Princetonians is to support a custom which would make Princeton hell for the best qualified Negro, let us speak more respectfully of Hitler’s barbarous pseudo science of race. Not only is our attitude wrong in itself; it is a symbol of something which, if continued, will keep Princeton from fulfilling its own proud boasts of service. It is the negative of the spirit which is the inspiration of a true university.
Norman Thomas 1905
Plea for Coeducation, November 26, 1948
The fact that I am the father of three daughters has led me to think seriously of Princeton’s future and my part in it. I desire to have more than just the interest of an alumnus in the University, so for personal reasons, I recommend that the University be made co-educational. This will allow me to have the same sort of hope that my children can go to Princeton as the father of sons has today. I am sure that I speak for many Princeton fathers of daughters when I make this suggestion.
There are much more powerful reasons for making Princeton coed than my personal desires. Princeton is a privately endowed University. Yet economists teach us that most of the capital of the country is owned by women. If we want to keep our collections at a high level it seems that we must get more women interested in Princeton. The best way to do that is to accept some of them as students.
Women are taking a greater and greater share of business and public life. Princeton has a slogan “Princeton in the nation’s service.” With the trend toward a matriarchy in the United States, the slogan will soon become a hollow mockery unless we accept girls into the University. With our reputation, we could select the best girls in the country for those educated at Princeton, and thus keep real meaning in our slogan.
Finally, the social life of a student in a one-sex college is not normal, and seems to be one reason for the very poor showing which college graduates make in getting married and in creating successful marriages. I believe that Princeton would better prepare its graduates for life if there were some girls on the campus regularly instead of weekends only.
I suggest that Holder Hall quadrangle be turned over to the girls beginning with the fall of 1950. This is a unit by itself, convenient to the dining halls and well suited for such a purpose.
Robert A. Winters ’35
Alger Hiss on Campus, April 27, 1956
The report that an invitation has been extended to Alger Hiss to participate in a debate on the Princeton campus is certainly astounding.
The announced subject “Geneva Conference,” coupled with his name, gives rise to serious question as to the judgment or motives of the faculty direction. To believe that person internationally notorious as a convicted perjurer in a question of disloyalty, is a suitable choice to participate in any Princeton discussion of the Nation’s best interests in foreign affairs, insults even low-level intelligence.
If free speech were in question, he might be invited to speak on “The Appeal of Communism,” or “Why I see No Future in Public Service,” or “Me and Dreyfus” or “Typewriters I Have Known.” But to drag him in to debate with honest citizens over foreign policy is a public offense to accepted standards among honorable men.
Can this be reconciled with alumni support at the 70% level in Annual Giving? Will we be treated to an explanation that any connection between Whig-Clio and Princeton University is “purely coincidental”? Is Wilson’s “Princeton in the Nation’s Service” being subverted into “Princeton against the Nation’s Service”?
Is the rehabilitation of Benedict Arnold next on the schedule — in a debate “West Point” perhaps?
In case I am obscure — Frankly, it stinks.
C.E. Whitehouse 1915
Coed Princeton, Jan. 26, 1965
(Two letters to the editor, for and against co-education. The reference in the first sentence of the second letter refers to the Critical Languages Program, which allowed undergraduate women from other schools to study temporarily at Princeton.)
The “On The Campus” column of PAW suggests that there are frequent rumors about plans for coeducation at Princeton. Although that subject has been reviewed in your publication before, I sincerely hope that the sole purpose of raising the issue is only to lighten up the editorial content. Certainly, the University is not seriously considering turning its back on more than 200 years of educational excellence in the name of “social life.”
As a dedicated Princetonian, I can assure you that my continued support of the University is premised upon its continued pursuit of academic excellence “in the Nation’s Service.” If the ancillary interests of human existence, including the “mating game” should hereafter pre-empt the short time that students have at Princeton, it would be a significant loss to our civilization Should that happen, I am certain a great number of us could not support just another “coed” college.
Arthur S. Langlie ’52
Hurrah for Critical Languages! Let us all hope they will prove to be less so through the efforts of our first women undergraduates, but not before the latter have vanquished for good the anomaly of a campus inhabited but by men and elms.
E. G. Leigh ’62 makes a reasoned case in the same issue against a gradual expansion of University enrollment over the next decade, but if expansion there must be, and I believe there must, why not accommodate ourselves to the inevitable now and admit young women (dear me, not females) as entering freshmen to the extent that each class is to be increased. Of course the ideal long range solution remains an independent college but no doubt for that we must await the millennium.
Peter W. Watkins ’54
Coed Alarms, Sept. 19, 1967
I notice in your June 6 issue that President Goheen is quoted as believing that co-education is inevitable at Princeton. I am very sorry to hear it, but at my present age of 95 probably will not be alive then.
I cannot see the necessity of women students at Princeton than for male students to go to Vassar, Wellesley and other good women’s colleges.
I belong to the old Princeton of the Golden Nineties. We lacked many of the pleasures and advantages of today, but seemed to get along comfortably without constant female society, and appreciated it more when going home on visits. Most unmarried young men of those days were ignorant of how an unclothed female looked above high-shoe tops and retained all their illusions in consequence.
David B. Helm 1896
Inalienable Right, Oct. 22, 1968
I was struck by the report on making Princeton co-ed, especially by its ingenuousness. Hadn’t it occurred to the Committee that the main reason, however disguised, that undergraduates want coeducation is to have someone handy? Is not the Committee aware that the current young generations regard sexual intercourse as an inalienable right, like free speech, and as a medical necessity, like breathing?
This is not to say that I am against coeducation. Under proper circumstances I am all for it. What I consider to be a first proper circumstance, and one which would combine both social and sexual solutions, is promptly to abolish the Clubs and then house the girls in them. That should take care of the first 400-500 without great additional expense.
Ferdinand H. Davis ’24
Generation Gap, Dec. 9, 1969
I am the daughter of an alumnus, the sister of an alumnus, the wife of an alumnus. But I am most interested in Princeton today and tomorrow, for I am the mother of a Princetonian of the Class of ’73. And I was deeply troubled by the booing at the Princeton and Yale bands during the half-time exercises on November 15.
Unfortunately, many of the booers were alumni. In their booing, they said something about Princeton I didn’t want to hear.
The Princeton band had formed a circle, into which the Yale band marched and formed the familiar “Peace” symbol. (A few boos upon recognition, a few cheers.) Banners were unfurled on either side of the field which said “Make Peace—Not Politics.” (More boos.) The PA system announcer said something about the many people participating in the Moratorium in Washington and other cities. (A lot of boos.) And then the combined bands played “Eternal Father Strong to Save.” (Pretty hard to boo that, but some did.)
The bands were dignified, restrained, apt. However one feels about the war, marches, and moratoria, it was hard to question their taste and timing. They very much wanted the football crowd to share something of their concern, which I believe is deeply held by virtually all young people. And they were booed.
What does booing say to the young people in Palmer Stadium? What does it say about respect, something that we on the far side of the generation gap expect from our children? And what does it say about understanding the other person’s point of view — which is what Princeton is all about?
Susan Alling Miller s’47
Band Display, Nov. 2, 1981
On a magnificent fall day in Palmer Stadium we were treated to an inspiring, spectacular display by the University of Delaware marching band. In contrast the Princeton band appeared in such disarray that it seemed to be a studied disrespect for the colors of Old Nassau. With the accompaniment of this band we were entertained by a dissertation on copulation narrated by a voice having the degenerative quality of a character in “Cabaret.”
If this seems appropriate to the university (administration, faculty, and students), we may all be in deep trouble. If it isn’t representative of campus taste for halftime activity, let’s do away with the band.
Hopefully someday another group will give everyone a chance to celebrate and be proud of Old Nassau.
John A. Cissel ’38
Clinton’s Visit, September 11, 1996
(One of many letters concerning the University’s granting of an honorary degree to President Clinton at Commencement.)
I didn’t believe it was possible for the university to alienate completely an alumnus whose ancestor, Nathaniel FitzRandolph, donated the land it is built on, whose great-grandfather was valedictorian of the Class of 1839, and whose grandfather, uncle, and father were graduates of the Classes of 1879, 1904, and 1914, respectively.
But by God, it’s done it!
Having invited a common criminal, an adulterer and womanizer, a draft-dodger, and the world’s most accomplished liar, who also happens to be President of the United States, to visit the campus is bad enough! But to give him an honorary degree? This is beyond credulity. You may cancel my subscription to PAW — I never want to see it again.
I also intend to ask the University Archives to return the diploma and hand-written valedictory address of my great-grandfather, Morris Robeson Hamilton.
Lawrence Harrison Rogers II ’43
Clinton Redux, October 23, 1996
(In response to the anti-Clinton letters in the September 11th issue.)
The letters expressing outrage at President Clinton’s speaking at Commencement were reminiscent of the bile that was spilled in the 1930s over “that man in the White House” and his wife — and in the early 1950s about “that haberdasher” firing General MacArthur. O tempora! O mores!
Luther Bridgman ’41