From Cleveland to Clinton, looking back at 20th-century visits by American presidents

According to research from University Archivist Dan Linke, at least 26 American presidents have visited Princeton, including 12 of the 18 presidents who served in the 20th century. Below, read some of the highlights of presidential coverage in PAW since the magazine’s founding in 1900.

Grover Cleveland with Professor John Grier Hibben
PAW, Oct. 7, 1908
In March 1907, when undergraduates visited the nearby home of Grover Cleveland to present a loving cup in honor of his 70th birthday, the former president “made a very appreciative address of acceptance and shook hands with each of the students,” PAW wrote. Cleveland, the ex-president most connected to Princeton, delivered an address at the University’s sesquicentennial in 1896 and then moved to town following the second of his nonconsecutive terms in office. He became a University trustee in 1901, and a few years after his death in 1908, the tower at the Graduate College was dedicated in his name. Cleveland’s son, Richard, was a member of the Class of 1919. 

President William H. Taft with incoming Princeton president Hibben
PAW, May 15, 1912
President William H. Taft visited the campus in May 1912 for the inauguration of University president John Grier Hibben 1882. Taft and Chief Justice Edward Douglas White each received honorary degrees during the ceremonies. “I feel a deep gratitude to this grand old university for making me a Princeton man,” Taft said. “I feel further gratitude to her authorities for giving me an opportunity, for half a day at least, to enjoy the quiet and the inspiring atmosphere of these historic academic shades.”

President-elect Woodrow Wilson
PAW, March 5, 1913
When alumnus and former University president Woodrow Wilson 1879 won the nation’s highest office in November 1912, the news “was jubilantly celebrated in Princeton,” according to PAW. “President Hibben ordered the bell rung and the national flag raised on Nassau Hall, suspended the exercises of the University and made Wednesday a holiday…” Undergraduates marched to Wilson’s home on Cleveland Lane, where he greeted visitors on his front porch and made his first address as president-elect. Wilson was inaugurated March 4, 1913 — 100 years to the day after James Madison 1771’s second inaugural.

Former President Theodore Roosevelt with President Hibben
PAW Archives, Nov. 21, 1917
In November 1917, ex-president (and Army colonel) Theodore Roosevelt delivered the annual Stafford Little Lecture, speaking on the topic of “National Strength and International Duty.” As PAW reported, “The point which he drove home with vigorous insistence was the importance of national preparedness, especially before war, a policy which he has strongly advocated ever since he had been in public life. While he repeated his criticisms of past and present delays in preparation for war, he also urged whole-hearted support of the government in its efforts to meet the crisis.”

Princeton president Harold Dodds *1914 welcomes President Harry Truman
PAW, July 4, 1947
Three presidents — one past (Herbert Hoover), one present (Harry Truman), and one future (Dwight Eisenhower) — were on hand as Princeton marked the end of its bicentennial celebration in June 1947. Other guests of honor included Albert Einstein, Adm. Chester Nimitz, and two former first ladies, Edith Wilson and Frances Folsom Cleveland Preston. NBC Television broadcast the festivities on its New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., affiliates, setting up transmitting equipment on the top of Reunion Hall.

President Lyndon Johnson at the Wilson School dedication, 1966
PAW, May 31, 1966
President Lyndon Johnson helped Princeton dedicate the new home of the Woodrow Wilson School (now Robertson Hall) in May 1966. Johnson stressed the value of graduate education in his remarks and said that “to wear the scholar’s gown is to assume an obligation to seek truth without prejudice and without cliché, even when the results of the search are at variance with one’s own opinions.” He dedicated the building not just to the former president or to the Nation’s service, but “to learning in the service of all mankind.”

Jimmy Carter strolls around the campus with help from tour guide/reporter Kirk Petersen ’80, right.
Daily Princetonian Archives, University Archives, Princeton University Library
President Jimmy Carter was just two months removed from his time in the White House when he came to speak with Princeton students in March 1981. Sixty students met the former president in a question-and-answer session. PAW student columnist Todd Purdum ’82 explained that Carter’s “only public appearance was to be a brief ‘photo opportunity’ as he entered the building; there were no formal meetings with the press. … Carter’s staff was reluctant to have him speaking for the record so soon after his successor’s inauguration.” Carter was back on campus in December 2014, speaking about challenges to women’s rights in cultures around the world.

President George H.W. Bush was on campus at Princeton Reunions in 1948 as captain of the visiting Yale baseball team. His May 1991 return came with fanfare of a different sort. Dedicating the new Fisher/Bendheim social sciences building, Bush dominated the headlines. (He was appearing in public for the first time after a minor health scare a week earlier.) “Devotees of the building, designed by Princeton’s favorite architect, Robert Venturi ’47 *50, needn’t worry,” PAW wrote. “Nearby Robertson Hall, home to the Woodrow Wilson School, was similarly upstaged by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966, the last time a sitting president visited. But the Wilson School’s since made a name for itself.”

President Bill Clinton, in Nassau Hall faculty room, makes notes on his 1996 Commencement speech under the watchful eye of George Washington.
National Archives/White House Photographic Office

Continuing in the ceremonial footsteps of Cleveland and Truman, President Bill Clinton delivered a speech at Commencement in 1996 during Princeton’s bicenquinquagenary (250th anniversary). This time around, the president’s presence meant significant additions to security, including metal detectors at every entrance, but PAW wrote that “the inconveniences didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of students, parents, and faculty members.” Clinton took the opportunity to announce a new tax-credit proposal aimed at making college more affordable. “Our goal must be … to make the 13th and 14th years of education as universal to all Americans as the first 12 are today,” he said.