Photo by The Princeton Press
Therefore with shrewdness and dispatch, for which we beg to offer thanks on behalf of the admiring alumni, the board, being unanimous in their opinion as to the proper one to succeed President Patton, and he favoring the same man, proceeded forthwith to elect Prof. Wilson the new President of Princeton. No other name was proposed.

The resignation of president Patton at the Commencement meeting of the board of trustees, and the election of Prof. Woodrow Wilson ’79 as his successor, which took place within the same hour, were so very sudden that the unexpected news created amazement. Amazement occasions exclamation; exclamation cools off into curiosity and comment; these generally hatch out rumor – then comes trouble. Fortunately most of the newspaper gossip has been rather humorous in its incongruity, and of no particular consequence to the interests of Princeton, though certainly unfair and presumable unpleasant to the victims of it.

The reason for the number and variety of rumors was, as suggested above, the suddenness of the events. And the reason for this suddenness was simply the wisdom of the President and trustees. They had witnessed the unseemly results at other colleges, of allowing an interval of time to elapse between the resignation of one president and the election of another. Therefore with shrewdness and dispatch, for which we beg to offer thanks on behalf of the admiring alumni, the board, being unanimous in their opinion as to the proper one to succeed President Patton, and he favoring the same man, proceeded forthwith to elect Prof. Wilson the new President of Princeton. No other name was proposed. No other choice could have pleased every one, faculty, undergraduates and alumni, so well; that goes without saying. Dr. Patton was continued in his present professorial chair. The meeting adjourned; the announcement was made public, and the crowded campus became excited.

President Patton stated as his reason for resigning that he wished to relinquish his active and exacting duties as head of the university and have time to carry out certain long-cherished literary plans. But as, with characteristic forethought, he had told no one of his intention outside of the board, except his immediate family (and as the trustees with discretion quite uncharacteristic of most such bodies, had kept it secret), and as the board had united upon Prof. Wilson, so that it was not necessary to allow the usual interval of time to elapse between the resignation and the election, the new came “like a thunderbolt out of a clear sky,” as President-elect Wilson himself put it in his notable speech at the alumni luncheon next day. Consequently the public press, not being able to account for this sudden turn of affairs, has assigned all sorts of motives and published all sorts of stories in all parts of the country; and the alumni naturally ask, as our latest inquirer puts it, “What does it all mean any way?” This is as natural as the solicitude of any son for any mother.

Now, if Dr. Patton had never enjoyed the honor of being at the head of our university, it might indeed be a matter of some surprise if he did not care to accept that office. But having served an administration of an average term in length – and much more than an average term in success – it ought not to seem unaccountable or a matter for excitement, if after these fourteen years, in which Princeton has enjoyed greater prosperity than even the most enthusiastic prophets predicted at his inauguration, Dr. Patton, in his sixtieth year, should prefer to remain in Princeton, as ex-President instead of President, holding an honorable position on our honorable faculty and having the time and tranquility to write than work on Theism for which we have all been waiting and by which he may perform a greater service and win a larger and more lasting fame even than by remaining one of the presidents of one of our greatest American universities.

None of the newspapers, perhaps, would have gone out of its way to seek hidden motives, and plots and counter-plots – though to be sure, intrigue and the adroit foiling of it always make interesting reading – had not some cowardly person with a morbid imagination written an anonymous letter to the New York Sun assigning the recent debates in the faculty meetings as the reason for President Patton’s resignation – which, by the way, he had been contemplating, we learn, for some time. This started the Sun, and being the Sun, it naturally ran in the name of Dr. Henry van Dyke ’73 in one of its articles, and of Mr. Grover Cleveland in its second interesting theory of another plot, this time making Prof. Andrew Fleming West ’74 the aspirant to the throne, and the villain of the play.

To be sure, The Sun, always interesting and frequently accurate, has long since forfeited the respect of the public as a trustworthy source of information when dealing with men whom it delights to worry. But all the same, the articles were so well done, and the writer of them employed actual facts so adroitly for corroborating imaginary states of affairs – one theory one day and a totally different one the next – that the articles have been taken seriously, we understand, by many rather well informed persons. Even the sedate and self-righteous old Evening Post of New York was led astray and published an editorial on The Plot at Princeton, though we do not now recall which plot it was.

If any one is determined to believe that President Patton’s resignation was due to differences of opinion in the faculty, it would not be hard to trace down plenty of cases with which to fortify that determination. As at all universities, there have been debates in the Princeton faculty, many a debate and vigorous; and honest differences of opinion; ably defended. There always have been and there always will be in every faculty, and no Princeton man could respect a member of our faculty with its traditions of Witherspoon and McCosh who would not stand up for his opinions on important matters and fight for them if necessary. That’s what faculty meetings are for. Matters of education are determined by agitation, as President Schurman said the other day, being anticipated in this sentiment by Walter Bagehot, we believe.

Moreover, the important debate this spring on the matter of changing our curriculum was one of the most vigorous and interesting debates the faculty has enjoyed for some time. But to point to that as the reason for President Patton’s resignation this Commencement is as inaccurate and misleading as to say that he is retired and Prof. Wilson was elected in order to “foil a clique that was endeavoring to run in Dr. Henry van Dyke.” And those who heard of the faculty’s spontaneous outburst of applause on the Commencement stage when it was announced that President Patton was to remain at Princeton as a member of that body, applause that seemed as if it would never stop, need no other proof of the faculty’s personal regard for Dr. Patton. There is not a member of it who is not proud of him and who is not heartily glad he is to remain in Princeton. This includes those who have differed with him the most.

As for Dr. Van Dyke, if any one so desires he has a right to believe that this gentleman has lied in his statement which began “the report which connects my name with the presidency is absolutely and maliciously without truth,” though, to be sure, he is not given to lying, as even those opposed to the revision of the Westminster Confession will admit. But even so, it would still be necessary to explain how there was time to form a clique outside of the trustees when President Patton’s desire to resign was not known until it was accomplished. And within the trustees there could have been no such clique or it would have nominated Dr. van Dyke; but the trustees all agreed, and at once, upon the choice of Prof. Wilson, and when “any other nominations” were called for none was made. That is true unless they too have lied! In which case there would still be this difficulty with that particular plot theory, namely that as a writer in the Boston Transcript puts it, Dr. van Dyke “left the tumult and distractions of an active administrative position in order to carry our a life-long ambition to round out a full literary career, and it is easy to believe that he would rather write than be president.”

But of making many plots there is no end. It is easy and interesting work for those suited for it by temperament and training. As the van Dyke plot structure fell of its own weight, and as a new story would be more interesting anyhow, another clique was thought up the next day in the New York office and Prof. West was made the scapegoat. This had the added relish of offering an opportunity to get in a lick at Mr. Cleveland; “Clever idea,” said they, “we haven’t had a chance to bark at him for some time. West is a great friend of Cleveland’s – serve him right for being a friend of Cleveland’s.” So they wrote another story, dating it from Lawrenceville, and running in a lot of untrue history about Prof. West’s relations to the resignation of a former head-master there, whose son is a reporter on the Evening Sun.

It seems too bad that a member of our faculty who has done so much for the benefit of Princeton should be represented in the public prints as such a deep-dyed villain and self-seeking plotter, even when no one believes it. But Prof. West is a great organizer, has wonderful executive powers (witness the Sesquicentennial Celebration) and is famous in song and story for his ability to raise money for Princeton. Witness the new dormitories, for instance. Moreoever, it is well known that he and our distinguished President often differed on all sorts of questions. So Prof. West was as good as any one else to point the finger of suspicion at – and it made a fine story. Among other things, the trouble with this theory is that there was no clique among the trustees backing Prof. West for President, there was no faction in the faculty that was working to have him run in, and there was no expectation on Prof. West’s part of being backed or run in by either or both cliques or factions – though he has had the good sense not to allow the Sun to get a rise out of him by answering their unsubstantiated charges. The alleged clique among the trustees was made up of men who wanted Prof. Wilson for President, however warm friends they were and still are of Prof. West’s. The very men on the faculty to whom the Sun refers as his satellites are the greatest admirers of Prof. Wilson, are his warmest and closest friends and are more enthusiastic over the trustees’ choice of the successor to President Patton than any one else concerned – with the possible exception of Woodrow Wilson’s admiring and loyal classmates of the famous class of ’79.

So much time has been consumed (but it was necessary) to clear the atmosphere that there is hardly enough left to take a good look at our new leader, and to point out the significance of his election. Fortunately, however, we all know what manner of man he is, we can make a pretty good guess at what sort of leader he will prove; and the real significance of selecting a layman for President of Princeton is not at all what it seems to those who point to it as a revolution in our traditions. There is nothing revolutionary about it. The reason it seems so to outsiders is simply because they don’t know Princeton’s traditions, and possibly also because they do not know Prof. Wilson’s attitude toward religion. To be sure, Princeton’s former presidents have all be clergymen; Joseph Henry was the only other layman to whom the presidency was offered. But Princeton is not and never has been a sectarian institution, being, in fact, the only old college in the country whose original charter directly provides for freedom in religious matters. Princeton is and always will be religious. And as for Prof. Wilson, all who heard or have read his noble address at the Sesquicentennial Celebration known his views on the impossibility of separating true religion and true education. President Patton’s Commencement address reported in this number contains an estimate of our President-elect to which we can only add amen.

There were other things worth remembering about this Commencement, though there is not space to describe them in full. More graduates returned than ever before. The campus was full of them, by the way, on Monday afternoon when the Princeton history referred to above was made public – and Prof. Wilson was seized bodily by an enthusiastic mob and compelled to speak to them on the steps of Old North, where the class of ’92 was about to pose for its decennial photograph; in which, after his speech, he too was persuaded to appear. This class, it may be noted, which was back, 112 strong, for its ten-years-after celebration, was the first that took Prof. Wilson’s full two-years’ course, as it was also the first class to go through the entire four years under President Patton. They reminded the latter of this and of their regard for him, that same evening when they called upon him in a body, elected him an honorary member of the class and received his farewell blessing.

This was published in the June 14, 1902 issue of PAW.