Skip to main content

Woodrow Wilson: Emerging National Spokesman

ISSUE:  Summer 1975
The Papers of Woodrow Wilson. Arthur S. Link, Editor. David W. Hirst and John E. Little, Associate Editors. John M. Mulder, Assistant Editor. Jean MacLachlan and Sylvia E. Fontijn, Contributing Editors. M. Halsey Thomas, Consulting Editor. Volume 16, 1905—1907. Volume 17, 1907—1008. Volume 18, 1908—1909. Princeton University Press. $22.50 the volume.

JUST under two thousand new pages of “The Papers of Woodrow Wilson,” Volumes 16, 17, and 18, as carefully edited and as handsomely presented as we have come to expect of the series, document the period of Wilson’s life from mid-February 1905 to mid-January 1909. These four years of a dizzying schedule of work, and of a major illness, see Wilson to the end of his formal career as a scholar, with the publication of his “Constitutional Government in the United States,” and well into his steadily increasing concern with national policy as a public speaker in wide demand.

In his final address included here, that of January 19, 1909, at the University of North Carolina, a birthday address on Robert E. Lee, Wilson was speaking as the President of Princeton. His resignation from the University to run as Governor of New Jersey was still in the future. But his emphasis here is significantly on Lee as a national rather than as a regional figure and within four years Wilson would be inaugurated as President of the United States.

Early in 1905 Wilson put into effect the preceptorial system at Princeton, which infused new vigor into its intellectual life. In a blitz of letter writing and interviewing, he recruited some fifty preceptors (with roughly the rank and pay of assistant professors) for the system which was designed, as Wilson wrote, “to give the undergraduate in a great university the advantage of the same sort of close and intimate contact and council with his instructors that the undergraduate of the small college enjoys.” The eloquence and enthusiasm of Wilson’s wide-ranging talent search brought to Princeton a remarkable group of young men from twenty-five other institutions.

Late in the following year Wilson formally proposed a second step for restructuring University life at Princeton (the first intimation of which in this documentary record is in his notes for a speech on “Princeton’s Future” to an alumni association on November 8, 1905), which was the radical regrouping of undergraduates into residential quadrangles, rather like the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, which would replace the existing exclusive Princeton eating clubs. In a long and confidential “Supplemental Report” to his annual report to the Board of Trustees in December, 1906, Wilson described what he saw as the pernicious influences of these clubs which prevented “the simplicity and naturalness of life which should belong to a university,” interfered “with the natural intercourse and comradeship of the undergraduates,” were “hostile to the spirit of study,” and were “incompatible with the principles of a true republic of letters and learning.”

The trustees authorized a committee, with Wilson as Chairman, to report back at a later meeting. Wilson was not alone in his concern about the undergraduate social hierarchies fostered by the clubs. David Benton Jones, a member of the committee, wrote Wilson on May 15, 1907, that the clubs would “strangle the university unless some radical modification is devised and applied” and when Wilson made his report to the trustees on June 10, 1907, it was a unanimous one for his committee. The trustees adopted the recommendation of the report, eloquently urged by Wilson, to accomplish “the reorganization and revitalization of the University as an academic body, whose objects are not primarily social but intellectual.” But the publication of the report touched off bitter opposition among many Princeton alumni, which led the trustees to withdraw their approval in October. The Quad Plan, as it became widely known, remained a matter of debate throughout Wilson’s remaining time at Princeton. He later quipped that he did not get the quads but he got the wrangles.

The Quad Plan attracted much attention beyond educational circles and Wilson’s national reputation was enhanced by his being perceived, sometimes in rather over-simplified terms, as a champion of educational democracy against entrenched privilege. Perhaps more significant, Wilson himself began to see the defeat of his plan for the University as an example of the dictation of wealth and one may sense from his letters a subtle shift in his attitude toward the University’s benefactors. He wrote on November 6, 1907, to Melancthon William Jacobus: “We shall really not be free to do what we deem best at Princeton until we are relieved from the dictation of the men who subscribe to the Committee of Fifty Fund and who can withhold our living from us if we displease them.”

Certainly Wilson was taking more seriously the recurring suggestions that he had qualities which were needed in a spokesman and a leader beyond the University. As early as 1906, George Harvey, editor of “Harper’s Weekly,” suggested Wilson for the Democratic Presidential nomination in an address to the Lotus Club in New York. In 1907, Harvey, joined by James Smith, Jr. , urged Wilson as the New Jersey Democratic Senatorial nominee. In a revealing letter in November, 1908, the day after William Howard Taft defeated William Jennings Bryan, in his third try for the presidency, and the Republican Party retained control of both houses of the Congress by large majorities, Wilson wrote to Mary Allen Hulbert Peck that Bryan had “devoted himself to creating and maintaining an immense personal influence, —and to nothing else, for “causes” with him have been means to an end, —for the last twelve years; and even now no one can supplant him who will not deliberately enter the lists against him and do the like, —with this immense difference, that he must devote himself to principles, to ideas, to definite programmes and not to personal preferment, —that he must be a man with a cause, not a candidacy.”

A lesson which each generation of Americans, at its peril, must learn anew is that important beyond all other considerations is the character of the leaders it elects. The qualities of the President, a Lincoln or a Harding, shape and color his administration and his time. As Wilson wrote in “Constitutional Government in the United States,” the office of the President “is anything he has the sagacity and force to make it.” The Wilson papers of these four years, toward the end of Wilson’s academic career and before his holding elective office, have limited interest for the general reader save for one thing. They provide an intimate and sustained view, valuable as history and as a test for future choices, of the character of a man who would be entrusted by his generation with national leadership.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading