You will recall the comment of a Princeton graduate contemplating the changes wrought by the preceptorial system, “If Wilson carries out his preceptorial system he’ll convert Princeton into a damned educational institution!” And he did.

With sorrow and yet with joy I approach the task you have set me. With sorrow, because of the loss that is ours; with joy, because you have chosen me to perform an act of friendship.

To recall the Princeton days is to live over again one of the happiest period of my life – a period inseparably linked up with Woodrow Wilson. He does not stand alone in the picture. Many of you here present belong there also; but some, like our leader of those days, have passed beyond mortal vision. Of one especially I would speak whose life was peculiarly close to that of Mr. Wilson. Like his death, the taking off of Henry Burchard Fine was a tragedy. In one of his earliest letters to me Mr. Wilson said of him, “He’s an old chum of mine and as fine a fellow as is made.”

One does not make chums in later life. Chums are made of the stuff of boyhood but the friendships of mature years are no less abiding. As the sun draws upward the waters of the sea, separating the sweet from the bitter – distilling out the brine – so friendship purifies the waters of life, distilling out the tears.

We shall see them again. Of that I am sure, though when or how and in what relation to the eternal order of things we do not know. Of these things we know no more than the unborn babe knows of the sentient life of this world; but as the members are formed for a purpose unknown and unknowable while they are forming, so the spirit of man is preparing for a life unknown to us here and of which not even the Master ventured to speak. But we shall see them, and the friendships begun here will be instinct with the ineffable life of the spirit.

“As I Knew Him”

I have spoken of this as a task and so it is for I fell my inadequacy. To present to you Woodrow Wilson as I knew him in the Princeton days and in days of the great War should call for the subtle skill of the artist, and something of the vision of him whom we are here to honor.

At the end of a weary day in June 1903 I found upon my desk a letter from Mr. Wilson. The law was then my vocation and municipal affairs my avocation. We had never met but that made no difference to his mind. It was characteristic of him, as I came later to know, to strike out fearlessly for the thing that seemed to him desirable. Having reached the conclusion that a certain kind of man with a certain kind of experience was needed for a particular task, he sought him out. It is not necessary to assume that his desires were well founded. That is not the point I am making. Friendship played very little part in the choices made by him. This is not to the liking of self-seekers either in politics or academic life, but it was Mr. Wilson’s way.

Some things he said in that letter of the eleventh of June 1903 are worthy of quotation – things that reveal the mind of the man, the way he was thinking about academic problems. The Chair of Politics had been vacated. John Huston Finley, its first occupant, had been called to the Presidency of the College of the City of New York. “I selected him for the position,” wrote Mr. Wilson, “because he seemed to me to afford a delightful combination of man of the world and man of letters.”

Deeply interested and trained in academic life, Mr. Wilson nevertheless perceived the danger of what the public vaguely describes as the academic way of dealing with practical questions. “I am myself very much averse,” he wrote further, “from systematical theories in matter of politics and from all teaching derived exclusively from books. Politics, whether on its institutional or on its active side, seems to me so essentially a matter of life and experience that I should hesitate to trust teaching in such fields to men wholly academic in their training and point of view.” … “I myself,” he continues, “lecture on the theory of politics, and yet I hope do not make that theory too theoretical.”

The Eyes of the Seer

Mr. Wilson was a practical idealist. His political opponents, who liked to refer to him as the schoolmaster, would do well to ponder the wisdom of his statements concerning theoretical and practical politics. Another quotation. This time from a letter from Paris under date of September 1, 1903. He as on his vacation with Mrs. Wilson but his mind was keenly alive to academic problems. Again it shows his mind with reference to the practical and the theoretical in politics. Referring to a proposed course he said: “It will, I am sure, prove just the right introduction to what I most desire for the men: a course in practical politics which is yet based on ideals, - and all the more practical because it takes hold on the spirit. The only ideal politics, to my mind, is that which is real, - which takes men as it finds them, and finds them spirit as well as matter, and so discovers the best men both to themselves and to the world.”

“Spirit as well as matter.” So spoke the man in the days when his own spirit was mounting as on eagle’s wings – and so he spoken when disappointed hopes and thwarted purposes seemed to bear him down. Never was the pressure so great that he lost courage; and courage is of the spirit. His was indeed the character of the Happy Warrior.

Mr. Wilson had the eyes of the seer. Where most men grope their way painfully, he saw clearly. It was not so much a matter of superior intellectual power as it was that which the Scotch call canny, and he possessed it by right of inheritance.

With Conviction’s Courage

And he had the courage of his convictions. Convictions are dangerous things and some there be who, reaching a conclusion, cling to it with bulldog determination – merely because what is written is written. Mr. Wilson was not obstinate. Obstinacy is a defense thrown out to conceal little minds fearful of conflict with superior intellects. Having reached a conclusion with deliberate care, having hears, as it were, all the evidence in the case, he proceeded to act and because he did not give ear to every late comer who thought himself entitled to a hearing, or to every opponent who, if he could not persuade, might at least postpone action, Mr. Wilson was charged with taking nobody’s counsel but his own. He did not, like Mark Hanna, believe in “conciliation with an axe,” but certainly his determination to carry through his well thought out conclusions had a cutting edge. He was impatient with mushy thinking, or of the superficial mind that, like the babbling brook, flows on but turns no wheel of power. Many illustrations of these characteristics of Mr. Wilson must occur to you – to you who knew him here, who will recall many a comment in this hall, on the campus, in the faculty meetings. They give abundant evidence of his keen perception – his ability to think things through and his courage in action.

Most notable perhaps of the changes wrought under his leadership here, was the introduction of the preceptorial system. Many of you had a hand in working out the details. All of us were proud of the achievement and the academic world recognized at once its value. Fortunately the introduction of the preceptorial system did not call for the acquiescence of alumni except the choice few who furnished ways and means for the experiment. The idea was discussed in small round-table groups. He foresaw the difficulties and forestalled them. The preceptors were not to be mere assistants to the professors in charge of a course. If any of us had visions of relief from weary hours of reading examination papers, Mr. Wilson made it plain that under no circumstances should the reading of papers be imposed upon preceptors. Like the Oxford tutors they were to suggest, guide, stimulate, the reading and discussion of their students. It must be plain to anyone who has had experience of that system that the evolution of pro-seminars and especially of honor work is directly traceable to the Princeton preceptorial experiment. The introduction of that system did more to raise Princeton in the eyes of the academic world, and indeed of the practical world of affairs, than anything else accomplished during Mr. Wilson’s presidency. You will recall the comment of a Princeton graduate contemplating the changes wrought by the preceptorial system, “If Wilson carries out his preceptorial system he’ll convert Princeton into a damned educational institution!” And he did.

The ”Arrested Development” of Alumni

Sorrowful to relate, Mr. Wilson did not live to see all of his visions come true. The greatest prophets would have to live many centuries to see their prophecies fulfilled. Most of the troubles of a college president come from the alumni. I speak with confidence because for eighteen years after my graduation from college, I was merely an alumnus and I know how they feel and act. Unless an alumnus is brought into immediate and responsible contact with his college, his state of mind with reference to its affairs is pitiable. He may be a leader in his community, a progressive thinker in his profession, but so far as his alma mater is concerned, the diagnosis must be arrested development. Of course troubles arise with faculties and students and occasionally with trustees, but they would be easily straightened out were it not for the prejudiced interference of those alumni who feel that anything that in any wise differs from what it was in their undergraduate days is wrong, a menace to the institution. Of course this state of mind – and it is very static – affects the attitude of trustees and faculty and sometimes of the undergraduates. Like the recent crash in Wall Street on business, it is chiefly psychological. But it produces practical effects also and for the time blocks the wheels of progress. In such times your president suffers, as Mr. Wilson suffered in the period preceding his resignation.

May I read you a part of a letter written to me after my election to the presidency of Williams. It tells the story better than many words. Mr. Wilson wrote on July 16, 1907: “It is very delightful to serve one’s alma mater with all one’s powers, but I believe there is no one in the country who can realize more vividly or more fully what you are sacrificing and what exceeding burdens you are assuming than I can. I often long for my old quiet life as student and professor with an intensity that makes me very unhappy. But I am sure that you are answering a call of duty as I did; and I hope that, with your disposition, you will not suffer as much as I have suffered under the burden of painful tasks and misunderstandings, - struggles with one’s friends, and a sort of isolation of responsibility the extent of which I had not at all anticipated. I pray with deep affection that you may be blessed in every part of your work, and that some good fortune may often give us touch of one another’s mind and heart. We must make diligent use of the year of comradeship that remains to us.”

Wilson and His Friends

During the years that followed, until the Washington days brought us together once more, a good many letters passed between us, though I saw Mr. Wilson but seldom. Some people thought Mr. Wilson cold, unapproachable even. I never found him so. A letter from him in June 1910 expressed what he found it difficult to say in words. By his own hand he wrote: “Your little note of the 10th came to me in the midst of the Commencement rush – like what it was, the welcome voice of a dear friends amidst a medley of strangers’ voices, and made me deeply content – with a sense of real sympathy and understanding and affection.” These are not the words of a cold and unapproachable man.

Finally came the Washington days and an evidence of the longing of the man for touch with his friends was illustrated by an invitation which brough Mrs. Garfield and me to the White House as guests with the Dean and Mrs. Fine. Sitting in the library upstairs, the oval room, with its bay window looking toward the Potomac, we renewed the Princeton days. The President was in joyous mood. He would permit none of the customs surrounding his high office to come between us. We talked of Princeton over the tea cups and in response to an inquiry whether he felt the burdens of his office came the quick reply – whimsically spoken: “They are as nothing compared with difficulties for an academic presidency.” How little it seemed possible then that his eight years in office would impose more serious tasks and heavier burdens than any of his predecessors had to bear.

In Time of War

It is unnecessary to speak of the anxious days preceding our entrance into the World War, and it is appropriate that his attitude should be judged by the official act and documents which in due time will be open to the world. We are here discussing things more personal and intimate. I saw the President occasionally after going to Washington in the last days of June 1917, and frequently after the Industrial Cabinet, so-called, began holding its weekly meetings with the President in his study in the White House. He always kept separate and apart the meetings of his official family and those of the Industrial Cabinet. The former met in the cabinet room in the White House offices; we in the old cabinet room – his study on the second floor of the White House proper. We met each Wednesday at three-thirty in the afternoon.

The President desired, as he expressed it, to look down the line of the emergency administrations charged with the responsibility of supplying munitions of war to the forces at the front and things necessary for the civil population at home. Of the discussions at those meetings it is inappropriate to speak, but of the President’s methods I may say a word. The President sat at his desk near the window, - we in a semicircle opposite. There were eight of us. Mr. Baker and Mr. Daniels were there not as Secretaries of War and the Navy, but as Chiefs of Departments supplying munitions of war. Mr. McAdoo was also a member – not as Secretary of the Treasure but as Director of Railroads.

These three, with the five chiefs of the emergency administrations, - Food, Fuel, War Trade, War Industries, and Shipping – composed the Industrial Cabinet. Each was called upon in turn by the President to report on conditions and needs in his Department and when conflicts occurred the President was the final arbiter to adjust them. He was always a patient listener and expressed his own views briefly and with marvelous clearness. It was truly a round-table conference. The way in which he dispatched business with his callers will tell even more of his methods.


Appointments with his advisers were as exact as clock-work. They were carefully and accurately timed. If a fifteen-minute appointment was set for two-thirty, the President’s caller must be there punctually on the minute. Exactly at two-thirty the President was announced, the business in hand was discussed without comment upon any other matter, and as the clock point to two-forty-five a secretary appeared at the door announcing the next caller, who awaited the President in an adjoining room. No word was devoted to mere personal exchanges. The President listened with an interested look upon his face indicative of careful attention; without interrupting he listened to the speaker and by his reply showed himself complete master of the points made, and then came his answer – clear, explicit, and when occasion required it, courageous.

Occasionally he threw in a whimsical comment. When, for instance, the Administrators of Food and Fuel called together to ask for a modest few millions for the construction of additional office space, the President, as he entered the room, remarked with a smile evidencing a suspicion of some unusual request, “I see you are hunting in pairs.” But the need being made clear, the few millions were promptly granted.

“The Cyclone Cellar”

An example of his courage in saving a situation may be illustrated by a call made upon him by the Secretary of War and Navy and the Fuel Administrator in the winter of 1918. It had become obvious that drastic action must be taken to relieve the congested condition of the railroads. The seventeenth of January order was under consideration, the Fuel Administration having satisfied itself that the railroads could resume normal operations if, for a brief period, shipments were confined to absolutely necessary munitions of war, and then only for shipments that could be brought to port. The President’s advice and consent were sought. It was important that no inkling of the proposed order become public. An appointment was made directly with the President, not even his private secretary being informed, and at five o’clock on the afternoon of January 16, the two Secretaries and the Fuel Administrator met the President at the White House.

The President listened to the proposal, asked a few questions, made a few suggestions, and then without hesitation approved the issuance of the order. He appreciated the storm of protest that must inevitably follow, but having satisfied himself of the need of instant action, gave his approval firmly and without flinching. His courage was magnificent. Not until nearly a month had passed was it feasible to explain to the public the reasons which made the order imperative. Meanwhile, as the President is reported to have said, “there was nothing to do but retire to the cyclone cellar.”

A Curious Reversal

Brave as a lion in facing a multitude, the President disliked intensely personal encounters. It distressed him when men displayed temper in discussing differences of opinion in his presence. It was a curious reversal of the usual way among men, due, I believe, in his case, to a sense of pained surprise that intelligent people should use other than the processes of reason in arriving at conclusions. In other words, he did not approach questions of public policy emotionally. The Constitution was to be regarded in the same light between opponents as between friends, and so with lesser laws.

My last meeting with the President was on the eve of his departure from the White House. Learning that Mrs. Garfield and I were in Washington, a gracious note came from Mrs. Wilson asking us in for tea. There were just the four of us. The President, like a wounded veteran, came in. My heart bled for him, but he desired neither pitying regard nor commiseration. I cannot say that he was cheerful. Life was pressing too severely upon him to permit of that, but still the Happy Warrior.

“Whom neither shape of danger can dismay,

Nor thought of tender happiness betray;

Who not consent that former worth stand fast,

Looks forward, persevering to the last.”

My last letter from him was under date of November 14, 1923. He wrote: “My dear friend, I am heartily glad that you liked my little speech of Saturday night, and must say that it was a relief once more to speak my mind: and God knows that that much, and more, too, sadly needs to be said.” The weakened hand moved wearily but it was his signature – the signature of Woodrow Wilson, one of the great souls of history, one whom Princeton and Whig Hall must ever delight to honor.

This was originally published in the January 10, 1930 issue of PAW.