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Chapter 5

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.
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Chapter 7
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p65  Chapter VI
Educator and Lecturer

Began teaching politics in Bryn Mawr, a college for women — His heart's desire disclosed — Two years at Wesleyan — Returns to Princeton as professor and is chosen President — Popular, on the platform

"I have not read history without observing that the greatest forces in the world and the only permanent forces are the moral forces." — Wilson

Graduating at Johns Hopkins, which he entered in September, 1883, Wilson received the Ph. D. degree in June, 1886. His thesis was "Congressional Government." Impressed with the failure of congressional government because it lacked direction, responsibility and action, the remedy proposed was responsible cabinet government. Steeped in the study of parliamentary leaders during his Princeton days, Wilson had reached the conclusion that the British system had advantages over the American system in giving quick effect to the mandate of the people. But he did not go so far as to recommend the British system for this country. Rather he contrasted the points of advantage with the disadvantages, not so much of American government, as in the actual workings of congressional government, where in virtual secret session most of the important measures were shaped with no public debate.

Concurrent with securing his degree came his marriage and entry upon his career as educator and  p66 lecturer. Accepting the position of associate professor of history and political science at Bryn Mawr, lately founded to give broader education to women, he established a home in the suburbs of Philadelphia. The young women privileged to come under his instruction went into life better citizens, as well as better scholars, even if they could not then vote. Thirty-four years later he stood before the Senate urging the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, conferring suffrage upon women. Did his early association at Bryn Mawr have influence that contributed to his leader­ship for women's political rights?

In his third year at Bryn Mawr he accepted a lecture engagement at Johns Hopkins, lecturing there once a week for twenty-five weeks. At Bryn Mawr and at Johns Hopkins he taught and lectured on political science, adding classical history and history of the Renaissance in his Bryn Mawr classes. He loved his work, read prodigiously, and when he appeared before the classes, had a message. Neighbors observed that his student lamp burned far into the night, presaging the long hours and vigils in the White House. A number of his associates in the faculty at Bryn Mawr had been classmates at Johns Hopkins. Their comrade­ship was stimulating, the student body responding to the enthusiasm of the teacher, and a happy home life contributed to give the days fullness of content.

Professor Wilson entered upon his work at Bryn Mawr in the fall of 1885. Writing in November of that year to an old Princeton classmate, the late Charles A. Talcott, of Utica, N. Y., who was later Mayor and Congressman, Wilson disclosed what was his heart's desire. It revealed the spirit that actuated him as  p67 student, teacher, citizen, governor and president. He wrote:

"In the thinking and writing which I am trying to do, I constantly feel the disadvantage of the closet; I want to keep close to the practical and practicable in politics; my ambition is to add something to the statesman­ship of the country, if that something be only thought, and not the old achievement of which I used to dream when I hoped that I might enter practical politics.

"I seek, therefore, in the acquaintances I make, not other professors, not other book-politicians, but men who have direct touch of the world; in order that I may study affairs rather than doctrine. But the practical men I meet have not broad horizons; they are not students of affairs; they learn what they know rather by friction than by rational observation; they are at the opposite extreme from men of books who are all horizon, and the one extreme is as fatal to balanced thought as the other.

"Now you, Charlie, are both in affairs and studious of them; if ever I met a fellow with whose ways of thinking I could sympathize and from whom consequently, I could receive aid and comfort, thou art the man, and I need you. If you need me in any degree, the old compact between us is, therefore, ipso facto renewed.

"I believe, Charlie, that if a band of young fellows, say ten or twelve, could get together, and by getting together I mean getting their opinions together upon a common platform, and having gotten together on good solid planks with reference to the questions of the immediate future, should raise a united voice in such periodicals great and small, as they could gain access to,  p68 gradually working their way out by means of a real understanding of questions they handled, to a position of prominent and acknowledged authority in the public prints and so in the public mind, a long step would have been taken towards the formation of such a new political sentiment as the country stands in such pressing need of, and I am ambitious that we should have a hand in forming such a group."

He showed then the faith he never lost in the people. "All the country needs," he says, "is a new and sincere body of thought in politics, coherently, distinctly and boldly uttered by men who are sure of their ground," and he asked why should not men animated for high and helpful purpose in politics meet the need better "than either of the present moribund parties can give?"

After three years, in 1888, a call to the chair of history and political economy in the Wesleyan University was accepted and brought him two happy years of residence at Middletown, Connecticut, a charming setting for such an institution. Established as a Methodist institution, Wesleyan attracted serious-minded teachers and students from other creeds. Its curriculum was broad and its instruction thorough and the life healthy. Its students were not generally from the homes of the rich. Wholesome and plain living, high thinking and noble ambition for service were the rule. It planned to turn out preachers and judges and legislators and missionaries and business men who had a larger conception of business than mere accumulation. Into this atmosphere, bringing a larger vision of public service, Wilson breathed a new sense of the responsibility of educated youth to civic betterment.

 p69  During his stay at Wesleyan the plan he afterwards urged in public utterances was put in practice. "Every university should make the reading of English literature compulsory from entrance to graduation," he wrote, adding: "It offers the basis of a common American culture for college men. It gives imagination for affairs and the standard by which things invisible and of the spirit are to be measured." It was at Wesleyan he wrote "The State."

At Wesleyan he was called upon for assistance in some of the administrative work of the institution. Among these duties was member­ship of an Athletic Committee. He devised for the Red and Black a series of "rotation plays," as he called them, in which various sequences of plays followed one another without signal. Traditionally, the Wesleyan boys had been well satisfied if they could merely keep down the Yale score when they played that college. Professor Wilson's admonition was: "That's no ambition at all, go in and win; you can lick Yale as well as any other team. Go after their scalps. Don't admit for a moment that they can beat you." He even planned an offensive football play which carried Wesleyan to victory over Pennsylvania and paved the way for a score against Harvard — a notable achievement for a Wesleyan team. At a Thanksgiving Day game against Lehigh in 1889, when the Wesleyan defense was being hammered down, a figure in black rubber coat, rubber boots and umbrella left the side line and stood in front of the Wesleyan crowd. Closing the umbrella and using it as a baton, the tall figure beat the air until he had co‑ordinated the Wesleyan cheering into a mighty yell which so inspired the Wesleyan players that they swept down the field for a second touchdown,  p70 tying the score, which remained unbroken. It was Professor Wilson.

In 1890 the chair of jurisprudence in Princeton became vacant through the death of Dr. Alexander Johnson, and Wilson was chosen for the work at the place to which his friends believed he had been predestined. At any rate, agreeable as was his life at Wesleyan, the love and lure of his alma mater claimed him. From September, 1890, therefore, until he became Governor of New Jersey, he was professor and president of Princeton, and indeed lived in his own home until he took passage for the eight-year residence in the White House. He had an abiding love for Princeton, attested in his attempts to lift it to his ideals for a university. A university, he had said, was a place where men go "to hear the truth about the past and hold debate about the present with knowledge and without passion." He gave possibly his best expression of his feeling about the place when, in accepting the gift of a lake from Andrew Carnegie, he said: "I do not think that it is merely our doting love of the place that has led us to think of it as a place which those who love their country and like to dwell upon its honorable history would naturally be inclined to adorn with their gifts," giving vent to his devotion as he embraced all Princeton, when he added: "We could not but be patriotic here."

It was at Princeton in student days he had found the controlling impulse to his life work. Residence in the South in the seventies, where the people talked politics and government more than trade and industry, had awakened in him the sense of duty of a citizen. But it was at Old Nassau he was born again. In his student days he had heard the clear call to leader­ship in politics.  p71 He returned with the glow of enthusiasm and happiness of opportunity to open the door of service to those he was to teach. For twelve years he studied government, its history, its development, its laws, its limitations and its literature. And he applied all he learned and hoped and thought and dreamed as to how government could be made the instrument of equality and happiness to mankind.

The spirit of Witherspoon was upon him. Tradition of the noble days when devotion to liberty and independence by Princeton's president caused Fox to exclaim, "Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson" stirred within him. The simple dignity and love of learning that was incarnated in James McCosh held him in emulation. Every sacrifice and every noble tradition, as well as love of his calling, appealed to him as he returned to the old place. He had gone away to carry its best ideals. He had returned to live and to impart them. His lecture rooms were crowded with ambitious youths who followed him with a new understanding of what politics and citizen­ship meant to an educated American. He became at once easily Princeton's most popular professor. Students going into the world carried something of the compulsion of public service he stressed and imparted. The splendid diction and faultless structure and brilliant phrasing of his lectures were but the vehicle of the mighty political and social truths he was bent upon instilling. Then, as always, his ready flash of humor and wealth of illustration — from the classics and from the street — made the student body eager to hear his interpretation of the vital affairs of an increasingly complex system. They felt that he brought to them treasures new and old out of  p72 the reserves of a large storehouse of knowledge. He asked them to accept nothing upon his "say‑so" and never led them into a blind alley. He had none of the vanity of dignity. He always had a remedy for every political ailment, or he frankly told his students, "my mind is in debate" and when debate was ended, gave the conclusion.

The class-room, however, was not permitted to monopolize his thought or circumscribe his deep interest in what concerned his countrymen. He brought to his class freshness of treatment of public questions that many professors thought might involve something political or partisan. He never concealed his convictions and never spoke as blind partisan. But he rang clear where his principle was fixed. It was in his teaching days that Professor Wilson revealed himself. The things that he pondered in his heart then he afterwards practiced as the leader of the Republic.

It was while Professor at Princeton that the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the College of New Jersey occurred. Professor Wilson was chosen as the commemorative orator. The address made a profound impression. He warned young men, while alert for what was new in science, against giving up "old drill, the old memory of times gone by, the old schooling in precedent and tradition, the old keeping of the faith as a preparation for leader­ship in days of social change," and he declared, "We must make the old humanities human again." He was no foe to science but welcomed its instruction. He stood against its monopoly in college life. Science, he said, "has given us agnosticism in the realm of philosophy and scientific anarchy in the field of politics."

 p73  The promotion from the most popular professor to the presidency of Princeton was the natural and easy step. When President Francis Landey Patton, in 1902, resigned, the selection of Woodrow Wilson was hailed alike by faculty, trustees and alumni of Princeton as the logical succession. Mr. Wilson was not quite forty-four years of age. He had won the place of distinction by superior fitness. Coming to it by the merit system of promotion, he insisted upon it in others when called to the highest public station. Not only did "Nassau men" welcome his election, but the liberal and progressive thought of America shared in approval. The subject of his inaugural was "The Relation of the University to the State." Wilson's reputation had traveled far and educators and public men saw in him a dynamic force. Great things were expected of him. The prophecies came true. He needed no period of the novitiate. Student and professor, he had spent his best years at Princeton. Its fine traditions were in his blood. He knew where it was weak. The exhibition of executive ability in university president foreshadowed successful administration at Trenton and Washington. He resolved to graft upon the old institution the vital principles Witherspoon had helped to secure for America when the young republic was born. He later outlined his policy, or his conception of education, in an address in which he said:

"We are upon the eve of a period when we are going to set up standards," which followed his statement to a body of teachers in another commonwealth: "You know that the pupils in the colleges in the last several decades have not been educated. You know that with all of our teaching we train nobody.  p74 You know that with all our instructing, we educate nobody." If that statement had been made by one outside the teaching profession, it would have created a sensation. As it was, the teachers to whom he was speaking felt that he was making his declaration more to stir them up to better instruction than announcing a policy. He was doing both.

Wilson's term as President of Princeton was from 1902 until he was elected Governor of New Jersey in 1910. Life as head of the old institution, which had been his nourishing mother, gave promise of long years of happiness and usefulness, with time for study and summers abroad and lectures and addresses to his countrymen. These would have filled his full measure of happiness if the conditions at Princeton were such as his judgment approved. First, he must "set up new standards." And until "new standards" threatened to change social conditions and estrange rich donors, Wilson's incumbency as president was a continuation of his popular career as professor. If he had been content to insist upon the preceptorial changes, without his vigor in demanding democratization of university life, the days of stress and controversy might not have made the call to political office pleasing.

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Photo. Brown Bros.

An academic procession at Princeton

Woodrow Wilson in the center in cap and gown as president of the university. At his life is Andrew Carnegie, on whom the university conferred the degree of LL.D.

As professor and president, Wilson had become a prime favorite as a public speaker, often addressing gatherings of business men and public men, as well as educational bodies. His plain-speaking and dissection of evils, clear conception of remedies, and his original and clear-cut way of presenting his real views made him a leading figure among educators who felt the call to serve their country as well as their college. He had been speaking his mind since his graduation in his  p75 addresses, but the forum of President of Princeton gave him a national audience. Now the dramatic quality of his utterances, as well as his frank turning the light upon college problems, challenged public attention. He never spoke that he did not say something worth hearing, and something that he must say. He would not "sell the truth to serve the hour."

It was not a far cry from being President of the University, which gave Witherspoon as leader in forming the Republic, to becoming President of the United States in days of crisis and change.

The Schoolmaster in Politics outlined his policy in his inaugural as President of Princeton.

In Washington "The Relation of the University to the State" was translated from theory into practice.

He was on his way to Washington.

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Page updated: 16 Aug 08