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Woodrow Wilson: the Academic Man

ISSUE:  Winter 1982

No academic career in American history, possibly in all history, has attracted as much attention as Woodrow Wilson’s. Two reasons account for such extensive interest. First, during 25 years as a professor, writer about politics and history, and president of Princeton University, Wilson became the leading academic political scientist of his time and left his mark on the development of American higher education. Second and more important, Wilson’s academic career served as preparation for his entrance into politics in 1910, which led swiftly to the governorship of New Jersey and the presidency of the United States. Yet those reasons for such extensive interest have distorted views of Wilson’s academic years. Assessments of his significance to higher education have tended to cast his university leadership in a misleading light and to overlook its major thrust. The overweening concern with his political preparation has occasioned jerking his writings and opinions as a political scientist out of context, while his earlier life, particularly the Princeton experience, has served as the vehicle for adducing psychological patterns which supposedly determined his conduct on the national and world stage. Wilson’s academic career needs a fresh view, from different perspectives.


Woodrow Wilson entered and left academic life by the same route—through politics. In October 1883, when he was 26 and in his first term of graduate study at Johns Hopkins University, he explained his choice in a letter to his fiancée. “The profession I chose was politics; the profession I entered was law,” he stated in a memorable remark. But because he lacked private income, he explained, law would have unfitted himself for political service through years of narrow, grinding toil. “A professorship was the only feasible place for me,” Wilson had concluded after a few unhappy months at the bar. Moreover, he yearned to write. “Indeed I knew very well that a man without independent fortune must in any event content himself with becoming an outside force in politics, and I was well enough satisfied with the prospect of having whatever influence I might be able to exercise make itself felt through literary and nonpartisan agencies. . . .” Wilson had not abandoned politics when he entered Johns Hopkins. Instead, like other men of literary bent with a taste for public affairs before and since, he was seeking a parapolitical career.

A professorship appealed to Wilson primarily as a means to earn a living and enjoy leisure for writing and secondarily as an opportunity to exercise his oratorical skills. The spirit of scientific investigation, modeled on German scholarship, which inspired Johns Hopkins, left Wilson cold; never in his academic career did he show much interest in training graduate students or directing research in his field. Even in his own scholarship Wilson rarely betrayed passions for discovering new information or exploring uncharted areas of research. The departmental colleague at Princeton who knew him best recalled that he disdained accumulation of facts and made his way as a scholar “rather by direct intuitive insight than through any process of laborious induction.” That preference may have had a simple, physical source. Wilson may have suffered as a child from dyslexia—a congenital difficulty in learning to read. If that was the case, his choice of an academic career savors of the heroic.

Wilson’s shortcomings did not prevent him from becoming one of the most successful scholar-teachers of his time. His 17 years of teaching from 1885 to 1902, first at the newly opened Bryn Mawr College and at Wesleyan University and after 1890 at his undergraduate alma mater, Princeton, witnessed his emergence among the country’s most celebrated college lecturers. His oratorical skills, which he had cultivated since adolescence, served him well, but probably more important was an uncommon gift for clear explication, which later stood him in good stead in politics. Wilson’s excellence as a teacher varied inversely with the level of instruction. Introductory lecture courses, which he organized largely according to his own interests, were his forte. In advanced undergraduate and graduate lecture courses, where covering bodies of material was required, he performed with competence but far less sparkle. Wilson never led a graduate seminar of his own and directed few theses or dissertations. His one real failure as a teacher came at Bryn Mawr when he was supposed to guide two or three graduate students in history and politics but instead gave extended monologues, which filled one of the auditors—Lucy M. Salmon, later a distinguished historian— with a lifelong distaste for him.

Wilson’s scholarship resembled his teaching in both success and unevenness. He gained quick eminence as a political scientist by publishing Congressional Government at age 28. By near universal agreement, Congressional Government was Wilson’s best work, a classic of American political science. A textbook, The State, published in 1889, contained fresh thinking but suffered, like his advanced courses, from having to cover uncongenial material. During his academic career Wilson published six more books, two histories, a biography, two collections of essays, and a set of lectures delivered after he became president of Princeton. The histories varied between a well-wrought interpretive synthesis of the period in the United States from 1829 to 1889, Division and Reunion, and the profusely illustrated, five-volume History of the American People, which Wilson himself later admitted was a high-class potboiler. The biography, George Washington, was a warm-up for the glossy effort of the History. The essay collections, which brought together pieces previously published in non-scholarly magazines on political and literary topics, belonged to the class of writing that later generations would call “middlebrow.” The lectures, published in 1908 and entitled Constitutional Government in the United States, offered a resurvey of the terrain of Congressional Government some 20 years later.

Circumstances accounted in part for Wilson’s failure to repeat the feat of his first book. Much of his subsequent writing was commissioned, often for handsome fees. The Wilsons attained the genteel style of life expected of professorial families in the 1890’s because the breadwinner consistently more than doubled his academic salary, one of the highest in the country, through writing and off-campus lecturing. But Wilson was not simply moonlighting to raise his family’s living standard. In keeping with his desire for political and literary influence, he preferred to reach broader audiences than his fellow academic specialists. Nor did he forsake scholarly goals. By the end of the 1890’s Wilson was planning to write a major work on the nature of political life, which he called the “Philosophy of Politics” or “P.O.P.” Election to the presidency of Princeton in 1902 forced him to shelve the work.

Fundamentally, however, the isolated achievement of Congressional Government stemmed from Wilson’s gifts and limitations as a scholar. He contributed to the study of politics chiefly through inspired insight. Unfortunately, he had just two periods of profound scholarly insight. The first occurred around 1878, during his junior or senior year at Princeton, when he discovered the work of Walter Bagehot. From Bagehot Wilson acquired the then-revolutionary approach of examining political institutions as they actually operated, particularly of locating where power really, rather than formally, resided. Wilson speedily applied this insight to the American system. Before graduation from Princeton, he wrote a magazine article which contained the germ of his argument in Congressional Government. Over the next six years Wilson elaborated his ideas in mostly unpublished writings. Although Congressional Government appeared to herald the explosion of a prodigy, the book had unfolded after long germination.

Wilson’s second great insight came in the 1890’s, when he grasped Edmund Burke’s vision of anti-ideological politics. Uncannily foreshadowing mid-20th-century proclamations of the “end of ideology,” he lauded Burke in 1893 as the philosopher of a politics which “has never been speculative; it is profoundly practical and utilitarian. Speculative politics treats men and situations as they are supposed to be; practical politics treats them (upon no general plan but in detail) as they are found to be at the moment of actual contact.” Burke’s thought hewed, Wilson added in 1898, “to the slow pace of inevitable change and invents nothing” yet held “the power of life in it, —and, if the power of life, the power of growth.” This was the insight on which Wilson planned to build his “Philosophy of Politics.” Wilson struck a few gleanings from his Burkean vision in Constitutional Government. Rejecting “the Whig theory of political dynamics,” he avowed that “government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life.” If Wilson had developed that insight, “P.O.P.” might well have displaced Congressional Government as his masterwork.

Neither Wilson’s achievements nor his unfulfilled promise as a political scientist should be overrated. He recognized his limitations, once telling a department colleague “that his mind was not philosophical—that as soon as he felt that, in pursuing a thought[, ] his mind was leaving the solid basis of fact, he at once “shied off,” as he expressed it.” Wilson was right. He always remained an observer rather than a theorist or philosopher of politics, and he could have profitably augmented his insights with curiosity and digging. Nor were his insights original. In addition to borrowing from Bagehot and Burke, he leaned on the works of Gamaliel Bradford in Congressional Government and Henry Jones Ford in Constitutional Government. Yet those limitations detract little from Wilson’s scholarly stature. More often than not, significant advances in most disciplines, even the natural sciences, have resulted from inspired hunches, and most fields of inquiry have benefited at least as much from creative borrowing as from totally original thinking. Among contemporary scholars Wilson most closely resembled his friend, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who likewise made his greatest contributions through a pair of inspired but by no means totally original insights,

Wilson’s studies could not help serving as a prelude to his later political involvement. But the utility of academic political science to his public career was not so simple or direct as has usually been thought. Besides looking for origins of specific policies, most interpreters have sought to account for Wilson’s emergence as a reform leader after an apparent conservatism as a professor and university president. Such inquiries have been largely beside the point. Wilson’s career as a political scientist turned out differently than he had planned. Instead of making his professorship a convenient perch from which to influence the passing scene, he became more of an academic commentator. Most of his writing and lecturing about politics followed in the vein of Congressional Government, treating government’s actual operations rather than offering advice to citizens and statesmen. Wilson did not devour newspapers and magazines in an effort to keep abreast of current events, and his correspondence during the 1880’s and ‘90’s seldom betrayed concern or detailed knowledge about such major issues as the tariff, currency, and business regulation. The one exception to this relative uninterest was his ardent imperialism after the Spanish-American War—an example of discontinuity with his later foreign policy.

Wilson’s detachment from public affairs went deeper than removal to an academic ivory tower. From his first expressions of political consciousness while still in college, nothing characterized his thinking more strongly than an uncompromising intellectuality. The young Wilson was hardly a rebel against his post-Civil War Southern Presbyterian back-ground, but when he formulated his political views he gave little weight to any personal loyalties, whether religious, partisan, or sectional. He occupied his mind with how power could be used, not how it should be used. In The State in 1889, he divided government’s legitimate role into “constituent” and “ministrant” functions, the first being necessary to preserve the state’s existence, the second being activities to promote public welfare, to be pursued or rejected on grounds of “expediency.” Strong central government held no terrors for him. On the day The State was published, Wilson explained to the editor of his next book, Division and Reunion, “Ever since I have had independent judgments of my own I have been a Federalist (!) It is this mixture of elements in me—full identification with the South, non-Southern blood, and Federalist principles—that makes me hope that a detachment of my affectionate, reminiscent sympathies from my historical judgments is not beyond hoping for.”

Wilson succeeded even better in detaching his political judgments. Although he was no radical during his academic career, he did not swing to the political right during the 1890’s, as some have concluded from his attraction to Burke. Wilson’s Burkean conservatism owed little to American issues of the time. “Burke is the apostle of the great English gospel of Expediency,” he wrote in 1893. In Burke’s thought he found in 1898 “visions of the future in it, as well as of the past, —and the future is bright with the hope of healing change.” After citing Burke again in Constitutional Government, Wilson declared, “Government is a part of life, and, with life, it must change, alike in its objects and in its practices; only this principle must remain unaltered, —the principle of liberty, that there must be the freest right and opportunity of adjustment.” In short, Wilson gained from his reflections on Burke and from all his academic studies not so much views on specific political concerns as a broad, dynamic viewpoint toward the purposes and methods of politics.

Wilson was not totally detached from his times. Both his studies and his belief in responsible citizenship required him to pay some heed to current affairs. True to his Southern birth and upbringing, he remained a Democrat throughout his academic career, despite a repugnance for William Jennings Bryan and free silver. Yet far from joining the standpat ranks in the 1890’s, Wilson approved of various reform efforts, particularly at the municipal level. Even after he became president of Princeton, he voiced some sympathies for agrarian discontent and supported the foreign policy of Republican President Theodore Roosevelt. Indeed, Wilson seemed so pleased at first with Roosevelt, whom he knew personally, and his combination of moderate reform at home and imperialism abroad that his brother-in-law believed he contemplated switching parties. Much of that changed around 1904, when Wilson began not only to praise big business and call for limited government but also to take public swipes at Bryan and Roosevelt and their reform ideas. That conservative phase lasted about four years, until around the time that Constitutional Government was published. Thereafter, he moved decorously but decisively to the left, so that he could run as something of a reformer for governor of New Jersey in 1910.

Wilson’s conservative fling fitted part of his political view-point, inasmuch as expediency prompted him to lean to the right. The Princeton presidency had brought greater visibility as a public figure, while his Democratic allegiance made him attractive to party conservatives who sought saviors from Bryanism, Mainly because Wilson’s first political opportunity arose from the right, he tried to adapt to that environment. But the mantle of the conservative Democracy never fitted him too comfortably. The hallmark of their political persuasion was the dogma of governmental limitation hallowed by obeisance to a selective memory of Thomas Jefferson. Those notions collided with Wilson’s political viewpoint in ways that sometimes produced bizarre effects. For example, when he addressed a Jefferson Day dinner in New York in 1906, he gave the press a written statement which contained a lukewarm appraisal of Jefferson, whose thought he had never admired, but in his spoken remarks he expatiated on states’ rights and individual initiative to his conservative audience. Constitutional Government suffered from split mindedness as he expounded his faith in dynamic expediency and at the same time castigated new governmental initiatives.

In the end, his academic calling helped save Wilson from an unfortunate entanglement. His younger Princeton colleague, Edward S. Corwin, who also became a distinguished political scientist, believed that he had weaned Wilson from conservatism when they debated Roosevelt’s policies at a departmental gathering in May 1908. When he condemned Roosevelt, in Wilson’s words, “. . .a young man named Corwin got up and wiped the floor with me.” Corwin recalled “the evident pleasure that Mr. Wilson was taking in my performance.” Actually, Wilson seldom relished a challenge to something he really believed in. He was already breaking off his affair with the right, as he had begun to show in speeches and writings during the spring of 1908. Thanks in large measure to his scholarly viewpoint, he was ready for a proper entry into politics.


Woodrow Wilson did not go straight from the classroom to the campaign trial. Between the professor and the politician fell the university president. Wilson’s eight years as Princeton’s chief executive formed more of a break in his life than has often been recognized. Shortly after his selection as president in 1902, Wilson confessed to his wife, “Fortunately, I never worked out the argument on liberal studies, which is the theme of my inaugural, before, never before having treated myself as a professional “educator”. . . .” He exaggerated a bit. His graduate studies had disgusted him with the German university model, and 17 years of college teaching had hardly left him innocent of educational views, particularly about training young men for public service. Some of those views he had expressed in magazine articles and in a famous address in 1896 at his college’s sesquicentennial celebration, “Princeton in the Nation’s Service.” In general, Wilson disdained “scientific” research and favored “liberal studies,” often with old-fashioned overtones of prescribed courses and cultural indoctrination. In his 1896 address, for example, he lauded “the old schooling in precedent and tradition” and castigated science for having “too great a preponderance in method in every other branch of study.”

Such expressions have caused Wilson to be depicted as the leader of a counterreformation in higher eduction. He allegedly championed “liberal culture” in opposition to both the research university ideal of Johns Hopkins and the free elective system for undergraduate studies instituted at Harvard by President Charles W. Eliot. That view is wrong in several ways. Wilson’s policies at Princeton were hardly premeditated. He was basically correct when he confessed that eductional questions had seldom occupied his mind before 1902. Wilson’s selection as Princeton’s president came after several years of faculty debates over curriculum, aspirations to university status, and establishment of a graduate school. Ironically, the man who stood out as a critic in those debates and made himself renowned as an exponent of “liberal culture” was not Wilson but his later antagonist, Andrew F. West. Though Wilson took part in those debates, he remained most concerned with his writing.

Picturing him at the head of an educational counterreformation casts his Princeton presidency in a false light. Wilson took the academic world by storm with three bold departures. First, he revamped Princeton’s undergraduate curriculum to mediate between required breadth and elective specialization. Next, he proposed a new form of instruction, to be conducted by a special faculty called “preceptors,” who would guide the studies of small groups of upperclassmen. In a single year, Wilson raised money and recruited 50 outstanding young instructors to inaugurate the “preceptorial system” in the fall of 1905. Finally, in June 1907 he announced the institution of a novel plan for undergraduate living, in which students and faculty would reside together in “quadrangles,” along the lines of Oxford and Cambridge colleges, and thereby extend the university’s intellectual life beyond the classroom. Wilson extolled his institution as the vanguard of a wave of consolidation and system in collegiate studies. He took special delight when he received an honorary degree at Harvard just after unveiling the “quad plan” and twitted his hosts with hints that the torch of university leadership was passing from them to Princeton and himself.

Yet Wilson’s educational leadership was neither visionary nor deeply programmatic. None of his three departures arose solely from his own mind or as part of a grand scheme of “liberal culture.” In adopting Princeton’s new curriculum, Wilson simply removed his predecessor’s restraining hand and let the final product appear to grow as a matter of consensus. The preceptorial system was his answer to the much bruited qustion of how to combine small college intimacy with university standards and stimulation. His contribution lay less in an original idea than in persuasive implementation, both by converting the trustees to immediate action and by selecting and inspiring the preceptors. Only with the quad plan did Wilson seem to act like either an educational crusader or, as critics of his political leadership repeatedly arraign him, an idealist unable to adjust to reality. He evidently formulated the scheme during the summer of 1906 while recuperating in England from a minor stroke. He disclosed it to only a few people before he won over the trustees with eloquent pleas and then sprang the matter on uninformed students, faculty, and alumni as an accomplished fact in June 1907. The whole business came unstuck when protests by influential alumni prompted the trustees to rescind their approval the following fall. Wilson had apparently given a textbook demonstration of strategic blunders, and the failure of the quad plan marked a setback from which his position at Princeton never fully recovered.

His strength and weakness as an educational leader sprang from a common source, which had little to do with visions or programs. Wilson presided over Princeton and made his way as an educational reformer in response to concrete conditions, relying mainly on what he regarded as proper in the political arena—expediency. The greatest impact of his university presidency on his subsequent political career, aside from simple practical experience, lay in his opportunity to test his model of leadership through expediency. When Wilson was clicking, the model combined with his driving, self-confident temperament to produce educational triumphs. But when things went wrong, he could stumble badly. Two factors seem to have played the largest part in undoing the quad plan. One was Wilson’s health. According to views of both intimates and scholars, the pair of minor strokes that Wilson suffered in 1896 and 1906 tended to harden certain personality traits at least temporarily, making him less patient, less open to advice and criticism, and more determined to press forward. The other factor in his failure was perhaps an unavoidable price of previous success. With the quad plan, Wilson attempted to duplicate his accomplishment with the preceptorial system, which had likewise received little prior discussion and been instituted through bold moves. For a moment the strategy worked. Unfortunately, however, Wilson did not always adapt quickly to new situations, and his slowness may have hurt more because he believed in principled expediency rather than steadfast crusading.

Neither the quad plan’s failure nor Wilson’s subsequent defeat over the Graduate College made his Princeton presidency less than a resounding success. His trio of departures were subordinate to his greater accomplishment of transforming Princeton from a prestigious but somnolent college into a major university. Wilson remade Princeton, moreover, without greatly expanding the undergraduate body, adding professional schools, or capitalizing on an urban location. The 1896 sesquicentennial had occasioned the renaming of the College of New Jersey as “Princeton University,” and four years later a graduate school had been established with West as dean. But Princeton had remained in the same league with Amherst, Dartmouth, and Williams. Wilson’s greatest feat lay in filling the formal and mainly empty shell of “Princeton University” with an institution that could compete with Harvard, Columbia, and Chicago. Putting Princeton at the forefront of American universities was the major thrust of his presidency, which has been overlooked by those who have depicted him as a semireactionary educational crusader.

Wilson aimed for the top. He was not joking about displacing Harvard as the leading American university. He pushed his departures so urgently because he wanted to sustain Princeton’s upward momentum. The quad plan’s failure came as a bitter blow because he believed the crown lay almost within his grasp. An equally heavy blow soon followed, when the controversy erupted over where to locate the Graduate College, the new residential establishment for graduate students, on which West had been working for several years. The fight appeared to many at the time and afterward as a teapot tempest, and neither Wilson nor West always showed himself to advantage. The main issue was whether to build the Graduate College near the center of the campus or at a more removed location. A collateral issue concerned whether the establishment should be a spartan facility for less pecunious students or something more sumptuous for gentlemen scholars. Wilson favored the central, simpler place, West the more distant and elegant one. The controversy consumed much of the last two years of Wilson’s Princeton presidency, and at times it seemed to degenerate into a power struggle between him and West as the surrogate of the trustees’ chairman and kingpin, M. Taylor Pyne. Wilson lost in the end, through bad luck, West’s skill as a fund raiser, and Pyne’s talent for intrigue.

Wilson believed that Princeton’s hard-won place among front-rank universities was at stake in the Graduate College fight. One of the reasons he dug in his heels against West was because distinguished scholars whom he had attracted to Princeton, like the classicist Edward Capps and the biologist Edwin Grant Conklin, claimed that the* dean’s plan for the Graduate College would repel the mature, dedicated graduate students whom the university needed to attract. At a critical moment in the controversy, one of Princeton’s best scientists, the physicist James Hopwood Jeans, resigned because of the lack of first-rate graduate students, and at another point Conklin appeared in danger of being lured away for the same reason. Because Wilson believed he had been defeated in being what Thorstein Veblen called a “captain of erudition,” losing the Graduate College fight would have impelled him to resign sooner or later even if the Democratic nomination for the New Jersey governorship had not fallen in his lap during the summer of 1910. “I am not interested in simply administering a club,” he remarked privately. “Unless I can develop something I cannot get thoroughly interested.

Doubts still exist whether nearly as much was at stake as Wilson thought or whether he blew the controversies out of proportion through his own personality. Starting with Edmund Wilson in 1927, a parade of writers has maintained that the Princeton experience revealed psychological patterns that would surface again in Wilson’s presidency. Parallels can be seen between his two careers. Boldness and momentum characterized his performance in all his offices, academic and political. His principled expediency would persist in being confused with idealistic crusading. The effects of a stroke would hurt him again and far more deeply in 1919 in the League of Nations conflict than in the quad plan controversy. Wilson would run afoul of a resourceful intriguer in Henry Cabot Lodge, his principal antagonist over the League, as he had earlier in Pyne. In trying to secure permanent peace through the League of Nations he seems to have tackled a task that was ultimately impossible, just as when he tried to make Princeton the nation’s top university. Yet when all those parallels have been noted, they scarcely comprise patterns that set the course of his future career. Wilson also learned from his academic experiences and did many things differently as governor and president.

The biggest effect of Wilson’s Princeton presidency on his political career was outward. That office opened the door to public office that he thought he had closed upon entering academic life. Fittingly, his conservative plunge came when he was a university president rather than a professor and was his first real stab at the kind of parapolitical role he had originally envisioned. In that way, the university presidency served as a bridge from academic to political life. Public visibility also cut both ways, If the Princeton presidency enhanced Wilson’s political opportunities, politics affected his educational leadership. Because adoption of the quad plan would have weakened Princeton’s exclusive undergraduate social clubs, Wilson was pictured in the press as a battler for democracy against snobbery. In the Graduate College controversy, because West garnered a big private benefaction, Wilson was seen as combatting the influence of wealth. Some interpreters have maintained that such publicity helped wean Wilson from conservatism and nudged him to the left by giving him a reputation as a reformer to live up to.

Wilson later adapted himself to a liberal environment in the same way and with much greater success than he had to a conservative one. But inferences about a political spillover from his educational controversies are basically incorrect. Despite clear temptations, Wilson emphasized the intellectual purpose of the quad plan to the nearly total exclusion of its social effect. Except on one occasion, he stressed university standards in the Graduate College fight rather than the influence of money. As during his dalliance with political conservatism, Wilson’s academic calling kept his values straight. His highest aim at Princeton was intellectual, not social or political. That aim animated him when he pushed the quad plan, tried to break West’s power, and fought to plant the Graduate College at the heart of the university. In all those efforts, he sought, on the one hand, to make Princeton America’s top university and, on the other, to quash the student ideal of quasi-rebellious hedonism that already held sway in Princeton’s clubs and was making rapid headway in colleges across the country. His symbolic antagonist was a boy who would not enter Princeton until three years after Wilson left—F. Scott Fitzgerald. If Wilson had won, he would not have stopped the spread of the “beautiful and damned” spirit among the nation’s youth any more than he would have knocked Harvard off the summit of the university world. But Princeton would almost certainly have become a different and better place, and Woodrow Wilson would probably have remained an academic man.


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