Wilson delivers sesquicentennial address.
Princeton Alumni Weekly. December 15, 1970.

The title of Woodrow Wilson’s famous address, Princeton in the Nation’s Service, has become a second motto for the university. Over the past 75 years it has been quoted to support many causes, most recently, the retention of military training (ROTC) on the campus.

Next spring, the address will be included in Vol. X of The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, published by Princeton University Press. It will be printed in full, in fact 30% more than full because it will include all the parts Wilson deleted before delivering it in Alexander Hall on October 21, 1896.

On that day, Wilson was the featured orator in our sesquicentennial celebration, that great “coming out” party when the College of New Jersey became Princeton University.

It must have been quite a party. In the University Archives in the library, there are seven scrapbooks filled with newspaper accounts of it. Notables came from around the world. The torchlight P-rade of 2000 alumni was reviewed by no less a personage than the President of the United States, Grover Cleveland.

But, as the official sesqui-historian remembers it: “The centre for all eyes, like the chief figure in a drama, was the long, massive, and yet graceful pile of Nassau Hall, shining dark in changeless ivy amid the brief flow of autumnal splendor. The students had decorated the walls of their dormitories with banners and broad bands of bright cloth. It was the general remark that nature herself had donner Princeton colors.” Even the horses in the streets wore orange ribbons in their manes.

In the P-rade, Wilson marched with ’79 – preceded by alumni from classes as far back as 1832. He was followed by younger alumni carrying the usual signs and dressed outlandishly. One ’94 sign read:


The undergraduates appeared somewhat lost in all the glad commotion. According to the New York World, “Alumni from the Class of ’32 to the Class of ’96 showed the youngsters what real enthusiasm is and how it is expressed in a hurrah time.”

As the head of the P-rade approached the reviewing stand, President Cleveland pressed a button which ignited a string of “’orange-tinted electric fire” completely outlining the whole roof of Nassau Hall and going up to the top of the belfry. “The front campus was a bright as day…a fitting theatre for some gorgeous midsummer night’s dream.”

This was the mood when Wilson spoke. The university was exultant. They packed Alexander Hall to hear him. People stood six-deep outside the doors. Professor Wilson was a favorite among the students, and his name had spread beyond the campus. One New York reporter, hearing him for the first time, was struck by the thrust of his jaw. “He looks like he could go through a stone wall ten feet thick if he thought it necessary.” Afterwards, the same reporter called the address “a masterpiece of composition and delivery.”

Wilson gave an historic address, reviewing Princeton’s past – with many sallies on the present – ending with a dream of the future. He began with a reference to the birth of the college amid the “stirring changes’ which presaged the American Revolution. He praised Witherspoon who served God best “when most engaged in the service of men and liberty.” He continually emphasized our tradition of public service – never in terms of the military specifically but rather in training “the silent men who carry the honorable burdens of business and social obligation.”

The object of education is “to enlighten, strengthen and make fit” the future citizens of American and the servants of the world in every field of practical endeavor.

He admitted the job is getting harder. “The days of glad expansion are gone. Our life grows tense and difficult; our resource for the future lies in careful thought, providence, and a wise economy.” But we should not be afraid of change and growth. “There is nothing so conservative of life as growth: when that stops, decay sets in and the end comes on apace.”

Many years before Martin Luther King “had a dream…”, Woodrow Wilson concluded his address with the same, a dream of the heavenly university:

“I have had sight of the perfect place of learning in my thought: a free place, and a various, where no man could be and not know with how great a destiny knowledge had come into the world: - itself a little world; but not perplexed, living with a singleness of aim not known without: the home of sagacious men, hard-headed and with a will to know, debaters of the world’s questions every day and used to the rough ways of democracy; and yet a place removed and calm. Science seated there, recluse, ascetic, like a nun, not knowing that the world passes, not caring, if the truth but come in answer to her prayer; and Literature, walking with her open doors in quiet chambers with men of olden time, storied walls about her, and calm voices infinitely sweet; here ‘magic casements, opening on the foam of perilous seas, in fairy lands forlorn,’ to which you may withdraw and use your youth for pleasure; there windows open straight upon the street, where many stand and talk intent upon the world of men and business. A place where ideals are kept in heart in an air they can breathe; but no fool’s paradise. A place where to hear the truth about the past and hold debate about the affairs of the present, with knowledge and without passion; like the world in having all men’s life at heart, a place for men and all that concerns them; but unlike the world in its self-possession, its thorough way of talk, its care to know more than the moment brings to light; slow to take excitement, its air pure and wholesome with a breath of faith: every eye within it bright in the clear day and quick to look towards heaven for the confirmation of its hope. Who shall show us the way to this place.”

Why, Woodrow Wilson, of course. And many before and after him have kept us on the course.

This was originally published in the December 15, 1970 issue of PAW.