The Woodrow Wilson Plaque – Commemorative of the 160th anniversary of Whig Hall’s founding and the 50th anniversary of President Wilson’s graduation from Princeton, this bronze was designed by the eminent sculptor, Vincent Schoefield Wickham, and casts of it were distributed at the campus celebration on December 11.
Princeton Alumni Weekly. December 13, 1929.
But the time has come for Princeton men everywhere to forget these things and to honor Woodrow Wilson for what he actually did, not alone for Princeton, but for all education in general. The reforms which he instituted, the abuses which he corrected, the intensity to which he quickened intellectual life, here and wherever thinking men were congregated, belong to history and form a topic too vast even to be touched on here.

Last Wednesday Whig Hall, forum of undergraduate debate since the days when New Jersey was a Royal Province, celebrated the one hundred and sixtieth anniversary of its founding. Interesting as it was, the immediate aspect paled before the fact that the proceedings took on the nature of a tribute to the memory of Woodrow Wilson, of the Class of 1879. For the first time since the memorial services a few weeks after his death, which were necessarily of a formal nature, Princeton men gathered on the campus to do him honor. On this occasion they came together, not so much in honor of the great dead as in recognition of the living influence which Woodrow Wilson exerts still in the University. Since the delay was so great, it was fitting that their tribute should come in this way, as they recalled the history of the old society of which he was once a member, which, numbering James Madison among its founders, has endured through stirring years of American history; echoing the passions of the Revolution, recording the birth of the Nation and its rebirth from the throes of Civil War, and so down to the present time been mute witness of the years which have made the Republic great.

Princeton has given two Presidents to the Nation. Of Madison, it is easy to speak; he has long since taken up his place in the hall of fame: his record is now sober history, and is open to all. May we honor him ever! Of his successor in modern times, it has been more difficult to find words which would both convey the sense of Princeton’s indebtedness to him and at the same time take account of circumstances which are still too recent to be ignored. Let us own frankly that Princeton men, when contemplating this problem, have found themselves divided. The very name of Woodrow Wilson has fallen into their midst like a sharp sword, separating opponent from adherent, and rarely, if ever, the twain have met. That this condition might in all fairness be applied to the rest of the country, is not to the present point. That does not concern Princeton men in their capacity as Princetonians. What does concern Princeton men is that both parties, after these years, should lay aside their predilections and prejudices and meet simply on the common ground of what Woodrow Wilson did for Princeton. That territory is broad enough to contain them all, and it is high time they should recognize it.

For this reason it was both refreshing and heart-warming to witness the ceremonies at Whig Hall last Wednesday; to hear the generous words there spoken; to find ancient friend and ancient foe embracing, - somewhat awkwardly, perhaps, as after a long separation, but each determined to forget the regrettable features of the past and remember only the lasting profit.

That Woodrow Wilson was one of the great educators of modern times, if not of all time, is now generally admitted by all save the most fanatical of his opponents. As President of Princeton he laid down reforms which placed this university at the head and front of American educational institutions; he established precedents which have been epoch-making in scope, fruitful in practice, and far-reaching in result. Nevertheless, it is chiefly as a prophet that Woodrow Wilson must be remembered. An executive of force and uncommon vigor, he was yet more of an astrologer than an engineer. Of another great Princetonian by adoption Wilson once wrote, “His mind works in the concrete; lies close always to the practical life of the world, which he understands by virtue of lifelong contact with it. He was no prophet of novelties, but a man of affairs; had no theories, but strove always to have knowledge of fact.” Of Wilson himself it may be said that the exact opposite was the case.

The impartial investigator, seeking to obtain a just measure of his character, is confronted at once by clouds of prejudice and passion which linger still, like smoke over a battle-field. Surely his friends have made this task quite as difficult as his enemies. Mr. Wilson’s extreme supporters have sought at all times to invest him with infallibility and omniscience. This is no service to his memory and will not in the least affect the final judgment of history. Greater by far is Woodrow Wilson than the fatuous idolators who survive him.

It is not, after all, difficult to understand why his opponents felt so strongly. That he displayed a certain intellectual arrogance in dealing with men who disagreed with him, whether here or elsewhere, seems to be the considered judgment of those who knew him. Mr. Wilson was not a humble man. To the student of history who never saw him there is an unescapable sense of a lack of sympathy with the feelings of others, a woeful absence of that kindly consideration which is the more to be expected of a gentleman because there is no will save his own to enforce it.

What those who resented his conduct of affairs here and felt the sting of his bitter words perhaps did not realize, was how essentially physical much of it was. Here was a man, descended from a long line of scholars and divines; men of plain living and high thinking, but men of the closet rather than of the field; who bequeathed to him a magnificent intellectual heritage and a moral tradition of incomparable value, but at the same time something less than the vitality and nervous force with which most of us are naturally blesses and which we accept, consequently, as a matter of course. Its absence is one of the cruelest ills that flesh is heir to, and can never be appreciated by those more fortunately endowed. Wilson came into the world a delicate, highly-strung organism. Never at any time robust, he, year after year, “through long days of labor and nights devoid of ease,” drove the frail body remorselessly on, and the toll he eventually paid for such intemperance forms one of the saddest pages of history. What a footnote to humanity could be written by the pen of Aesculapius!

This, surely, is the tragedy of mortal man: the spirit, indeed, would soar, but the bonds of the flesh remain, and when we most would rise we are pulled down by the poor clay which enthralls us.

But, of course, it was not all physical. The race of prophets is not habitually soft-spoken. They see their message blazoned on the heavens: there may be two sides of a question, or many, but only one right side, and he who is not for them is against them. This we instinctively recognize and make allowance for. Thus, we do not expect polite gestures from Jeremiah; we do not look for Sir Roger de Coverley in Isaiah. We know that men of this sort stand for something more important than the amenities of the moment; that they are not concerned with men as individuals but the with race of men as a whole, and that if they speak with terrible plainness it is because they speak for the good of the whole. This is generally understood and accepted, by posterity if not by contemporaries. Else wherefore do we honor the prophets?

Here, if anywhere, is the explanation of Mr. Wilson’s character and here is the key to all that he did and to all that he said as an educator. For him, things were writ large: there was so much to do, and so little time in which to do it!

With this went the defects of his qualities. It must be confessed that Mr. Wilson betrayed at times an indifference to the question of the actual execution of his plans which not infrequently left those who were by instinct his warmest supporters struggling in perplexity. It was one of his favorite arguments that if the principle of a matter were accepted the practical details would settle themselves. This was all very well at the start, but a reckoning had to be faced some time, and, with a. rapidly mounting deficit and no visible income to meet it, those legally responsible for the financial welfare of the University finally began to hold back, nor can they even now, in all honesty, be blamed for their hesitation. To add to the difficulty, Mr. Wilson appeared not only unable to find a compromise but quite as unwilling to look for it. Thus was precipitated an impasse which has found its way into history; which is still acrimoniously disputed, and which reflects no great credit upon either side.

But the time has come for Princeton men everywhere to forget these things and to honor Woodrow Wilson for what he actually did, not alone for Princeton, but for all education in general. The reforms which he instituted, the abuses which he corrected, the intensity to which he quickened intellectual life, here and wherever thinking men were congregated, belong to history and form a topic too vast even to be touched on here. Woodrow Wilson led the average many p onto a high mountain and there showed him the fair kingdoms of the mind. An individual once vouchsafed that experience could never be the same man again. No one, thus enlightened, could turn away and find contentment in the old, shabby pastures of half-way and compromise. He must press forward, whatever the toil and however arduous the way, because he had been given a glimpse of better things and he knew that a great reward would be his, even though after many days.

Woodrow Wilson did more than this. With his knowledge of history and his understanding of human nature, he looked about him and perceived the danger which threatened the Nation in general and the American intellectual community in particular – a danger more dire than poverty and more to be shunned than all the darkness of ignorance, - the hideous blight of materialism which, like leprosy, penetrates the vital organs and eats its way into the very marrow of an institution. The university is the seat of learning; hence the very eye of the body politic. But if the light of the body be darkness, how great is that darkness!

When Woodrow Wilson commenced his memorable program of social reform, the United States was facing a crisis in its history, - a crisis which, perhaps, is not yet definitely passed. Roosevelt, in the White House, was sounding the call to battle against the trusts and the great money powers who were insolently defying the interests of the people and setting aside the course of justice in their own favor. Upon this corrupt stratum was rising a class consciousness of a peculiarly iniquitous kind, based not upon achievement in intellectual, humanitarian, or political fields; owing nothing to honest toil; a stranger even to the old reverence for hereditary distinction; recognizing nothing but money, money, money; money, moreover, gained in contravention to every element of that fair play and equal opportunity which they had been the peculiar pride of Americans and which they were pleased to regard as their especial birthright. This money, this wealth gained through many devious ways, was beginning to make itself felt with a heavy hand. It was coming to set the pace, not only for ease and comfort and the ordinary refinements of life, but it was beginning to reach out to corrupt for its own purposes the very sciences themselves. Rampant everywhere, it was beginning to appear to justify itself by its very triumph, and a younger generation, unconscious of the nobler traditions of the Republic, was its obvious victim. All over this country youth was beginning to feel that money could, indeed, buy anything, and the colleges themselves were commencing to reflect this attitude. Consequently, the son of a rich man was placed in a favored position from the start, and from this point reasoning was elementary. Let no one suppose that a campus knows no social distinctions! Wilson, by whatever route of reflection or intuition, arrived at a sense of all this when it was still somewhat scandalous to state it: he not only stated it, he drove it home, - up to the hilt; ruthlessly, persistently, remorselessly, until his opponents cried for mercy.

The Princeton Mr. Wilson knew has grown in numbers and magnificence, so that the picture of the campus in his day looks almost primitive when compared with the superb structures which now meet the eye and stretch away on every hand to noble prospects. But a true university does not consist merely of beautiful buildings, no, nor even of learned preceptors. It is composed of something fundamentally more spiritual than this, and if it lacks that one essential element to quicken it into vigor, it becomes, instead of a living, vital being, a mere dead, inanimate thing. Athens had its beauty, and Athens lies in ruins; Alexander had his Aristotle, and his empire vanished in the hour of his death. Rome itself proved no stronger than the flesh it exalted, and as Rome went so will other nations go who follow in its course. For the things which are of Caesar are temporal, but the things which are of the spirit are eternal. The people of the United States will rue the day when they lose their grasp of the ideals which have made and preserved them a nation. It is primarily for the university, the seat of the arts, sciences, and humanities, of whatsoever things are true, lovely and of good report, to keep alive the flame which warms the soul of the people and prompts them to follow ever after nobler things.

To bring this home, to proclaim the means whereby that previous flame might be safeguarded, was the great mission of Woodrow Wilson, and it is thus that Princeton men must remember him. The path he shoe was not easy; it was beset with thorns and obstacles which, so far as he personally was concerned, were too great to be overcome at one time. But since we are not perfect, a true victory in this world must never be regarded as encompassed, so to speak, within the limits of a single achievement: true victory lives on, ripens with the years, and by holding up what has thus far been accomplished, inspires succeeding generations to press onward to that fair guerdon which beckons in the distance.

So the sowing accomplished with much labor and travail brings forth its fruits in due season, and thus does man put on immortality.

This was originally published in the December 13, 1929 issue of PAW.