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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 3

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Life of Woodrow Wilson

Josephus Daniels

in the
Greenwood Press edition,
New York, 1971

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 5

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p46  Chapter IV
At Old Nassau

Received stimulus in study of politics and government — Excelled in debate — Editor Princetonian — "Knew exactly what he wanted" — Estimate of teacher and classmate — "A fund of humor inside" — Wouldn't speak in favor of protective tariff — A product of Old Nassau training — "No one ever disliked him"

"The college should seek to make the men whom it receives something more than excellent servants of a trade or skilled practitioners of a profession." — Wilson

"You know nothing whatever about it."

These words, spoken with feeling by Thomas W. Wilson shortly after he matriculated at Princeton, showed his classmates how the tragedy of war and reconstruction had burned itself into his memory. They were talking about the trials that follow war. His classmates had never known the dire poverty that befell the South. Wilson had grown up in its shadow. So, without stopping to explain the intensity of his utterance, he made this brief assertion, and left the little gathering. That was all. "It was years afterwards," said one of his classmates, "as I was reading the tribute to General Lee in Wilson's 'History of the American People', that I understood what overmastered him that day."

Woodrow Wilson was one of twenty young men from the South to matriculate at Princeton in September, 1875. His father had found leading and learning at Princeton when he was preparing to teach and to preach. His  p47 scholar-son should have the opportunity which had meant so much toward his own scholar­ship. In the early days of the Republic, many Southern youths had been attracted to Princeton — Madison, the most distinguished, and Macon, called by Jefferson "the last of the Romans", among the number. The Witherspoon tradition attracted patriotic youths long after the passing of the great Signer. Wilson grew up with Witherspoon as a hero, and of his addresses, that on Witherspoon, upon the occasion of the unveiling of the statue opposite the Church of the Covenant in Washington, D. C., ranks among the best. Did the young "Tar Heel," as he entered Princeton, think the mantle of Witherspoon would one day fall on his shoulders?

Princeton gave Wilson what he had come after — fellow­ship with serious men preparing to do real work in life, instruction by professors who were happy to share what they had learned with young fellows on fire for knowledge, and companion­ship with young fellows who were later to make the class more or less famous. He was not in college long before his measure was taken and he was accepted as an upstanding youth of superior mental equipment, who was chiefly concerned with big questions. He even then spoke with the distinction of culture. "Tommy Wilson, upon his arrival at Princeton, rushed to the library and took out Kant's 'Critique of Pure Reason'." That was what "Pete" Goodwin wrote of him in the history of the class of '79. It was what the historian of the class thought of Wilson's zeal for knowledge. Only it was not Kant. Wilson's mind was toward politics — political economy, perhaps the presidency even then. He plunged into reading "Men and Manner in Parliament" in the Gentlemen's Magazine. It was what he wanted. The  p48 picture of the great leaders of Parliament in the days when there were giants appealed to young Wilson's imagination. Parliamentary history, followed by English history, gave him such knowledge of the way things were done in England that he turned with avidity to a study of how government is carried on in the United States. The result was that in 1879 the International Review carried an article on that subject by Thomas W. Wilson. The key to the paper was "Congress should legislate in the presence of the whole country, in open and free debate."

Wilson was not a "star" student. He ranked 41 in a graduating class of 122. He specialized in English, the Science of Government, and kindred subjects. His training under his father had made him accurate in his scholar­ship and felicitous in composition. The humanities appealed to him more than the sciences. He delved into treatises on Government, mastered the history of how free governments had been won in the past, and on class was soon the authority upon subjects in which he was deeply interested. He exercised himself in the literary society, and wrote and wrote and wrote on government, always how governments should respond to the popular demands and promote the welfare of the people.

Two years after entering college, Wilson became one of the editors of the Princetonian, the college newspaper, and in 1878 became its managing editor. He sang in the glee club, took some part in pranks; he had passive interest in athletics, being President of the Athletic Committee in '78‑79, and again of the Baseball Association. But the library was his attraction, debate his recreation, and association was mostly with men of similar tastes. He was regarded as "high-brow" but had the regard and respect of his classmates, had perfect courtesy, and made  p49 deep friendships that were never broken. That was the way he had — a few friends without capitulation. "Though born in Virginia he was essentially a product of Princeton" is the opinion of his alma mater. "Whatever of tenderness there was in his nature was developed in the soft twilights of the campus." One of his schoolmates, Robert Bridges, truly said of him when he was chosen President of Princeton: "His education and training were cosmopolitan and he was the product of no section — he was a representative American." With Ohio-born parents, a native of Virginia, his boyhood spent in Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, his mature life from the day he entered Princeton was all spent in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and New Jersey, the latter state making the deepest impression upon him and giving him its highest honors. "Wilson knew exactly what he wanted," said Mr. Bridges, "and he had very definite ideas as to what part of the curriculum would help it him to do it." We are told that he worked hard at the thing he wanted and let the rest go. His rank in class did not bother him. He practiced the elective system in his own career ten years before Princeton had much of it in the curriculum.

What he was driving at was this — "to study government and write about it." His aim was to make "public affairs his life study, and in order to do so he must not only be a good writer but also a good speaker." His favorite authors were Bagehot and Burke. It was Wilson's habit often to go into the woods about Princeton, according to Mr. Bridges, to read aloud the writings of Burke, Brougham, Bagehot or Chatham. The newspaper reporters who followed his political campaigns frequently marveled at the endurance of his voice. Rarely, if ever,  p50 did he become hoarse. He spoke in an even tone, without inflexion, and therefore without great strain on his vocal cords. The man might become tired, but not the voice. And his speech was the more effective for its evenness. The early training he gave himself told afterwards.

Mr. Bridges recalled that in his student days at Princeton young Wilson was ever ready for a debate and he gathered around him a body of young men who were interested in public questions. But he would never argue in the set debates on a side in which he did not believe. In one of the greatest debates of the course he drew the side of Protection. He did not believe in it and promptly withdrew from the competition. "He was easily the best debater we had," records Bridges, "and it was giving up a certainty, but he never hesitated. He did not believe — and that was enough." Mental integrity of that kind characterized his whole political career.

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Photo. from Western Newspaper Union

Photo by Pacific & Atlantic Photos

as President of Princeton

as Senior at Princeton

Interesting photographs of the President's early days as student and educator

A few days after Wilson's funeral, Dr. E. P. Davis, of Philadelphia, classmate and close friend and consulting physician, who spent a day with him in January, 1923, talking to a friend about Wilson's college days, said:

"In University days Woodrow Wilson was known as Tommy Wilson. His features were very plain, his dress simple, his living economical, his associates men of intellectual and moral worth. He abounded in humor, good fellow­ship, and was universally beloved. He was democratic by nature and absolutely uninfluenced by money or social position. He was on the editorial staff of college publications and fond of humorous writing. He excelled in debating and writing upon political economy, the history of the United States, the theory of government in general, and the interpretation of the Constitution of the United States.

 p51  "During his University days he wrote his book on Congressional Government which remains an authority and a classic upon the subject. He also contributed articles of similar nature to English periodicals. At that time his bent and bias in life were already pronounced. A democrat, he was devoted to the study of the development of his country. He cared nothing for the grades of college marks, and while he might easily have taken very high grades, he was a respectable student and desired to be nothing more. He did not take part in athletic sports, although he could have done so.

"His diversions were those of friendship, talking and walking with his friends, reading and studying the literature of the subjects to which he was devoted. His yearly expenditures would form one of the smallest items in the yearly allowances of the average young man in an expensive modern university. It cannot be remembered that anyone ever disliked him.

"He was formidable in argument. At a reunion after his first nomination, a leading Republican lawyer and politician of New Jersey asked him if he remembered sitting up all night in his Freshman year arguing concerning the causes of the War of 1861. He closed his question with the remark made to the class: 'Fellows, how homely he was.' "

Princeton had made his mark on him. He had left his mark on Princeton. The day was to come when the two names most illustrious in Princeton history were to be John Witherspoon and Woodrow Wilson — the first to lead for American Independence and to sign the Declaration; the second to give inspiration and leader­ship in the World War and to World Peace.

The only professor now living who taught at Princeton  p52 when Wilson was a student, Dr. Theodore Whitefield Hunt, of the English Department, said: "The impression he made upon me as he sat before me in the college classroom was that of an exceptionally mature student deeply interested in current events, often devoting to general reading hours that others were giving to regular academic schedules, willingly surrendering his academics to the attractions of general literature, history, and political writings." Books to him were his servants. He dominated them and was not ruled by them. He states that he often strolled about the campus with a bright-eyed freshman "in the person of President Hibben, idealism and pragmatism thus in company." Dr. Hunt added that his "undergraduate life and study were thus in a true sense a premonition of what he was to be and an evident preparation for it."

"He was always reading," he said.

Had Professor Hunt any notion that a future President sat before him?

"Not the slightest," he said, "there were two university Presidents before me in those days — Hibben, a freshman, and Wilson, a senior. My, my! if I'd only known! Why, I would have said: 'Look here, pardon me.' "

The old scholar shook his head contemplatively.

"History's a puzzling thing."

The young Woodrow Wilson was sober, he said; but later he admitted that his gravity was largely external. "He had a fund of humor inside."

"He has been called unsympathetic and even cynical, inclosed within the confines of his own thought and life," added Professor Hunt. "This is not true, for as a neighbor of his for years and familiar as few others have been with  p53 the everyday experiences of his home life, I never failed to find in his nature a marked degree of cordiality, of affectionate friendship, and a quick response to every generous impulse. And yet it must be confessed that there was a section of his composite being which he kept under lock and key, and into which sanctum no one outside of his family was ever allowed to enter."

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© Underwood & Underwood

Woodrow Wilson and his family in the early days

The family group at Columbia, S. C. Left to right: Top row,​a Woodrow Wilson; his sister Mrs. Howe; his father, Rev. Dr. Joseph R. Wilson; Mrs. Joseph R. Wilson, Jr.; Mr. Joseph R. Wilson, Jr.; bottom row: Dr. Howe and his four children

It was this reserve, according to the men in the faculty who knew him well, that puzzled many people. Professor Hunt and Professor Christian Gauss have both remarked upon the oddity of seeing him so often walking through the campus under the elms alone. "People would frequently stop and talk with him," said Professor Gauss, "but invariably he would walk on alone, they turning off another way or staying behind."

"Living as his next door neighbor for a series of years," says Dr. Hunt, "it gives me unfeigned pleasure to emphasize the attractiveness of his home life, as son, husband, and father. It was a home in which the tenderest experience of household affection prevailed and which was marked by that generous characteristic in all families of Southern lineage. It was from his venerable father that he inherited his fund of humor, as it was from his father and distinguished uncle, Doctor Woodrow, that he inherited his theological views."

Nassau's mark was upon him.

Thayer's Note:

a Typically for the period, the servants (who really are on the "top row", ran the house, and very likely had a significant influence on the young Woodrow Wilson) are treated by Daniels as non-people, although we can notice that, by including them in the family photo, the Wilsons themselves did not. If you have any information about the unnamed servants, I would be happy to hear from you.

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Page updated: 20 Jun 10