I found the July/August issue’s eye-opening review of Civil War Princeton initially distressing. But Allen Guelzo has performed a signal service in reminding us of how the objects of campus patriotism have ebbed and flowed. He shows us how popular opinions and even firm judgments can shift and modulate over time. The detailed glimpse of 1860s Princeton forces us to recognize the originally motivating power of a range of loyalties we have learned over time to reject. Well, we can at least celebrate the decision in 1920 to use the Princeton Memorial Atrium to list all participants in the War, irrespective of side. That’s a delayed sign of what we now consider progress, though it took more than half a century for our community to certify it.
We cannot deny the numbers the article cites. A look at several classes of that era shows an undeniable and deeply regional split both in the contemporary undergraduates’ sympathies and even those of subsequent alumni. That’s a painful fact we modern, enlightened and self-assured alumni have first to admit and, to the extent we can, respect.
One undergrad in particular, John C. Breckinridge 1835 deserves special attention. Though elected by the whole American people as James Buchanan’s vice president in 1856, he later swore allegiance to the Confederacy. Here let me try out a rather controversial (and admittedly provincial) claim: Can’t we honestly applaud the man for both those enthusiasms? Each of them, after all, sprang from a devotion to what a later president, indeed a Doctor of Law, would celebrate as a commitment to “the nation’s service.” Buchanan’s second choice of nation, of course, is not to our liking, but his serial devotion to both is genuinely Wilsonian.