Woodrow Wilson ’79 – As he looked at the time of his election to the presidency of Princeton
Princeton Alumni Weekly. March 4, 1927.

Princetonian Issues Extensive Memorial Edition in Honor of Nation’s War President

A Woodrow Wilson memorial edition of The Daily Princetonian was issued on Alumni Day in honor of the late President, who was managing editor of the campus newspaper during his undergraduate days at Princeton. Special articles were contributed to its pages by President John Grier Hibben ’82; George McLean Harper ’84, Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature; Robert Bridges ’79, editor of Scriber’s Magazine; Professor Edward Samuel Corwin, Chairman of the Politics Department; Dr. Henry van Dyke ’73, Ambassador to the Netherlands under President Wilson; Professor William Berryman Scott ’77; Dr. Theodore Whitefield Hunt ’65; and Dean Henry B. Fine ’80.

Speaking of President Wilson editorially the Princetonian said: “As the thirteenth President of Princeton, Mr. Wilson’s services to the University were manifold. Chief among his concrete contributions here may be mentioned the inauguration of the Preceptorial System, a remarkable and bold adventure into a new method of higher education in America; and, at the same time, he went far in building up a strong Faculty, the necessity of which he was acutely aware.

“Of greater and more lasting benefit to Princeton was the broad and human personality which Mr. Wilson brought to his work as its President. He imbued the University with a measure of his own firm courage, pointing a course straight into the wind, and setting by his fearless motivation an example of plain speaking and enlightened progress which future generations of Princetonian will do well to emulate.”

“In my judgment,” says Professor Scott, speaking of Wilson’s intellectual contributions, “his most important and lasting achievement was the complete revolution in spirit and atmosphere which he brought about and which, in turn, caused a great change in the esteem and respect in which Princeton was held by public opinion.”

Professor Harper declared that Wilson’s literary style, though traceable to Bacon and Browne, and undoubtedly influenced by other intervening writers, was as distinctively his own and as recognizable as such as were his voice and countenance. He said further, “President Wilson wrote with all his heart and all his mind and all his strength, in pain and passion, and yet in joy of achievement, as the best writers generally do, putting his whole personality into every sentence. His style is dignified, candid, careful, magisterial, even as his manner and conduct were; such was its natural and original character.”

Wrote President Hibben: “I have been asked by the Princetonian what were, in my opinion, Woodrow Wilson’s chief contributions to Princeton during his presidency here. I believe they were the reorganization of college discipline, the revision of the curriculum, the strengthening of the personnel of the Faculty, and, most important, the inauguration of the Preceptorial System. This latter undertaking was a bold adventure on the part of Princeton, and in it Mr. Wilson showed the courage and persistence which throughout his life so characterized his nature.”

After referring to Wilson as “a scholar practicing politics, and practicing them in a way that only a scholar could have done,” Professor Corwin went on to state, “that whether one accepts Mr. Wilson’s main objectives as wise or otherwise, one must in candor admit the vast political dexterity with which, in the first place, they were foisted upon one of the great historic parties of the country almost without the dotting of an ‘i’ or the crossing of a ‘t,’ and were then converted in no small measure into accepted governmental policy or law of the land. So long as he retained his health Mr. Wilson’s political hand never lost its cunning. And this cunning was based on the most thorough-going knowledge of the processes of government and of the requirements of successful political action under the American Constitution that has ever been brought to the Presidency. Yet that is not the thing most worthy of remark. This is that Mr. Wilson’s expertness as part chief and chief of state was not the result to any great extent of political experience, but of reading and of observation conducted in academic retreat. The thing is unparalleled. As well conceive a golf championship won not by days and months on the course, but in consequence of fireside communion with the lives of great golfers and the printed rules of the game!”

Professor Hunt, one of Wilson’s teachers at Princeton, described him as a “mature student deeply interested in current events.” His classmate and chum, Robert Bridges, gave the lie to biographers’ habitual reports of his aloofness, terming him “a warm-hearted Southern boy with enough Scotch in his blood to give him a crust when it was useful,” and explaining:

“Where I knew him best was in Witherspoon Hall, which was then a new dormitory, and what was known as The Gang met casually in the rooms of various members. Loafing was then a fine art, as it probably is today, and the things one remembers longest are associated with it. As long as he lived, Wilson liked to recall the remark of ‘Danl’ Webster in the midst of a Latin ‘conference’: - ‘Tommy, let us lean back.’ In the White House one night when the same crowd which included Webster, was waiting in a stately room to go down to a Class dinner, he suddenly exclaimed: ‘Danl, let us lean back.’ He had about sixty of the Class to that dinner, and the Witherspoon crowd spent the night in the White House. It was an arduous time in his Administration, but we lightened his labors with a touch of old-time fun and what he was so fond of calling ‘comradeship.’”

Numerous other items of interest concerning various phases of President Wilson’s life were touched upon by the Princetonian. It was pointed out that as an undergraduate he roomed in 7 West Witherspoon, then the “new dorm”; that at Davidson College, which he attended prior to his matriculation at Princeton, he was reputed to have held the college record for speed in dressing and getting to chapel; that he revised the constitution of Whig Hall, a document originally drawn up by James Madison, Princeton’s other delegate to the White House; that in 1889 he collaborated with the late Walter Camp in framing the first set of eligibility rules for intercollegiate athletics; that when at the theater he favored light comedies, and had no taste for grand opera; that the famous portrait of him by Stanley Middleton was painted without a sitting; the artist instead dogging his footsteps and observing him at his daily tasks; that even as President of Princeton he answered all fire alarms, and did his share in fighting the blazes; that he retired on the night of election as Governor of New Jersey before the result of the balloting had transpired; that he spent the afternoon at Princeton’s football practice when he had been for only twenty-four hours the nation’s president-elect; that he frequently returned to Princeton from Washington to vote at 10 Nassau Street; that his last message to Princeton, delivered to three undergraduate callers, was, “Give my love to the old College”; that a bibliography of his literary works would fill 150 pages of a fair-sized book; that twelve American and eight European universities awarded him honorary doctorates; that he derived keen enjoyment from the recital and composition of limericks, one of his favorite creations being:

For beauty I am not a star,

There are others more handsome by far,

But, my face, I don’t mind it,

For I am behind it,

It’s the people in front that I jar.

The Princetonian also lauded Wilson for his work in his college days as its own managing editor, a position in which he was succeeded at graduation by Dean H. B. Fine ’80. The periodical was then a fortnightly, in the third year of its existence, and its standards were materially raised through the efforts of Wilson and his colleagues. The future President took active interest in diverse matters of campus concern, commenting editorially on such subjects as the shortcomings and mismanagement of the baseball nine, with an analytical study of the reasons of its defeats at the hands of Yale and Harvard; the deplorable lack of any decent place in Princeton to give undergraduate dances; the progress and aims of debating as an undergraduate activity; the satisfactory development of the football team; and criticism of a musicale rendered by the Instrumental Club.

Attention was called to the fact that in the Princetonian’s issue of November 21, 1878, following a decisive defeat of Harvard on November 16 by the championship Tiger eleven of that year, Managing Editor Wilson saw fit to lampoon a Harvard publication as follows:

“Some time ago the Harvard Advocate expressed the opinion that the game between Yale and Harvard on November 23rd would be the great event of the football season. No doubt it will be a very interesting game indeed; but does the Advocate still adhere to its opinion concerning its relative importance in view of the events of November 16th?

“We cannot say that we were surprised at the results of last Saturday’s game. Our team has had constant and thorough practice and fairly won its success at Boston. Our superiority lay not so much in the individual excellence of the men as in the collective strength of the team and its thorough acquaintance with the nicer points of the game. We played a much more scientific game than our opponents did. We were overmatched in weight, they in skill.”

This was originally published in the March 4, 1927 issue of PAW.