A view of Hamilton and Campbell Halls with other buildings in view in black and white.
Princeton University Historical Postcard Collection
If students organize in a forest, and no one listens…

Hello, seeker! Now, don’t feel alone here in the New Age, because there’s a seeker born every minute. — Dr. Harry Cox, Firesign Theater: Everything You Know is Wrong, 1974

Starting a new year here in the History Corner, it occurred to me that we might also try to tackle a fresh angle on our institutional history, that of debunking some stereotypes. Most of the interesting episodes we’ve dealt with to this point have either been obscura you’d never heard about or contextual information about the events and people who over centuries have made Princeton what it is, for better or worse. The idea that history may contain significant events that seem contrary to the flow is fascinating, but (let’s face it) messy. And, of course, if we were to examine a counterintuitive occurrence that eventually came to naught, the abiding question afterward is: Why bother?

Let’s revisit those devil-may-care Jazz Age Tigers of the Roaring Twenties (hardly the current decade, ya think?) to see if we can find a worthwhile answer to that. Having ventured through the 1920s on previous occasions, let’s recall the major themes and concerns that seemed preeminent in life at the University — a “university” then for only 25 years — pointing to an immediate future that was fated never to materialize.

  • Scott Fitzgerald 1917 — The atmosphere created in his books was a palpable undercurrent from the Street, where the clubs attempted to live it, to the math and science departments where it seemed a universe apart.
  • The Four-Course Plan — The academic dream of Woodrow Wilson 1879 fully implemented at last, it led to another tightening of academic standards just as admissions became competitive, leading to the ubiquitous senior thesis and little remaining room for a “gentleman’s C.” There was howling.
  • Xenophobia — The “Return to Normalcy” following the election of Warren G. Harding in 1920 included the defenestration of the League of Nations and a series of vicious and wildly bigoted American immigration policies that both reflected and fueled rampant disdain of “the other” by the power structure, even indirectly feeding the further ascension of Jim Crow. Students in 1924 preferred the reelection of “Silent Cal” Coolidge 2-to-1.
  • Frivolity — This took on many subtle guises beyond the societal aesthetic of the flapper and the flivver. The pitched battles over Princeton’s car rule were certainly a tell (so what if people kept getting killed?). The insolence directed to “The Christian Student” statue was another. In a sense, the decision to build a new $2 million Chapel and defer a desperately needed library expansion seemed more Park Avenue than Nassau Street.
  • Football — You may wish to lump this in with the frivolity, but the full social flowering of football, to the inclusion of large new rail yards below Blair Arch that were used but a few times per year, led 45,000 people to stream into Palmer Stadium. Following the undefeated Team of Destiny in 1922, undergrads, alums, and raccoon coat purveyors alike were besotted. 
  • Prohibition — How to accomplish the frivolity, football, and club life without booze? You either spend your time in the new Chapel, or you end-run the law. The pervasive increase in disrespect for the Volstead Act, the legal authorities more generally, and to the religious and social forces that backed it created holes in the social contract, which persist to this day. Not to mention the Tommy gun and The Godfather.

Anyway, there is very little hint in all the inward-fixated clamoring above to augur the birth and nurturing of a Great Progressive Idea at Princeton, of all places, smack in the middle of the Jazz Age. Beyond the occasional classroom, one of the few outposts of global thinking was the editorial board of the Daily Princetonian (including, for example, Adlai Stevenson 1922), which consistently held forth a world view that recalled the grave errors of international diplomacy of recent years, and argued for actively engaging to prevent a recurrence, i.e. precisely what the Republican administration avoided at any cost. This attempt to lead student opinion rather than reflect it must have seemed lonely at times. In April 1923, Lord Robert Cecil came to town in his tour across the country, soon after his election as the president of the League of Nations Union, the League’s primary nongovernmental publicity and support structure. There was huge buzz on campus, encouraged by the Prince and possibly in sympathy with the seriously ill Wilson, surrounding Cecil’s alarm regarding destabilization of European social structures following the War, and the need for a robust League of Nations to provide a sense of international order. But the U.S. government was so opposed to the League that local chatter quickly began to degrade toward perhaps focusing on the new World Court at The Hague instead, or whatever…. When classes reconvened in the fall, no inertia for the idea remained.

Except perhaps in the memories of some of the more headstrong members of the Class of 1926. As they began their senior year in October 1925, they gained control of the levers of student power. The Senior Council, at that point the principal student government body, announced it would invite a student delegate from every college in the country to a two-day series of meetings at Princeton, as the Prince put it, “to crystallize student sentiment on the question of the World Court and America’s admission to it, to awaken student interest in public affairs and to cause the influence of undergraduates to be felt on the public and political life of the country.” Nothing like it had been seen in the U.S. in years; that had been meetings of college student representatives in 1922 discussing arms limitations and macroeconomics; they had presented their findings to President Harding (who thanked and ignored them), then vanished.

The Princetonians in 1925, with that in mind, threw everything against the wall to see what would stick. They invited authorities to speak and sit in on group discussions, starting with former Secretary of War Henry Stimson. They convinced two sitting senators to debate the World Court issue in person. They urged each campus to have a preliminary plebiscite on the court — at Princeton it won by a surprising 8-to-1 margin. President John Grier Hibben 1882 *1893, a lifelong Republican who had flipped in 1924, got into a public scrape over the court with another senator. The organizers invited WJZ, the commercial radio station from New York, to cover the opening session. In the last couple of weeks prior to Dec. 11, this publicity fed on itself until the delegations increased from 100 to 245 from 35 states, becoming a truly national setting. Dorm rooms were dragooned by the dozen to accommodate the crowd.

This was an impressive effort just to this point, but using the lesson of previous conferences, the organizers were ready and waiting with an action plan. While they did indeed debate and pass a resolution 244-5 urging the United States to join the World Court immediately (spoilers: it never did, further undermining its absence from the League of Nations), they also enthusiastically created a mechanism to further define and extend the influence of student opinion and interests throughout the country. This was the National Federation of Students, which elected its board immediately (avoiding a crisis over one executive committee member from Howard University, who was Black; they simply doubled the membership on the committee) and committed to a follow-up conference the next year in Ann Arbor.

The organizers wanted to solidify the position of the new Federation at Princeton even as they extended the organization nationally. The two newly elected national officers were given four pages in PAW to inform the alumni of the new group’s purpose and goals. President Lewis Fox ’26 wrote an elegant statement laying out why this was important and why the conference had been successful. He mused on the frustration of studies being regarded as drudgery by both students and faculty, and how increasing ties to the problems of the real world would improve not only the effectiveness but the quality of college education across the country. This was miles from anything political and invoked the spirits of Wilson and Witherspoon in their roles improving higher education. Executive committee member Joe Prendergast ’27 then took over to lay out the nitty gritty. He was a four-time class president and star halfback, and he had his feet firmly on the ground. He flatly stated the real goal of the federation was world peace, but that it must have a tight program and agenda to have any impact at all. It would first focus on making European student exchange travel far more educational and far less Monte Carlo; it would begin to structure international fellowships for exchange study; and it would construct a limited list of pressing issues on American campuses (e.g. overemphasis on athletics, the role of fraternities) based on surveys to be conducted by each of the 250 participants, then hashed out in 1926. 

In fact, that’s exactly what happened, in contravention to just about any start-up you’ve ever encountered. The National Student Federation of America, given life almost solely by Princetonians in the teeth of the Jazz Age, went on for 16 years to run international programs as a member of the International Student Confederation and to raise issues with the government and college administrations. Its annual meeting made a triumphant return to Princeton in 1937. It supported civil liberties and student rights wherever they were under attack. Its yearning for world peace ran afoul of Realpolitik, and it expired in 1942 amid the chaos and carnage of yet another war. Whether that invalidates its creators and ideals is perhaps something for each of us to consider, compare to our own efforts and aspirations, and discuss another time.