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The Training Of Woodrow Wilson

June 2024
13min read

His career at Princeton prepared him for a larger role, but also showed his strange blend of strength and weakness


On March 4, 1910, Woodrow Wilson was completing his eighth year as president of Princeton University; he had never held, or even run for, any public othce; outside academic circles he was relatively unknown. Three years later he was President of the United States. Surely in all our history no American ever vaulted to political prominence with such spectacular rapidity. Even Theodore Roosevelt, who “rose like a rocket” in the political firmament, did not approach Wilson in the suddenness of his advancement. For while Roosevelt’s rise was last, he had always been a politician and had served a long apprenticeship in minor positions before late (and an assassin’s bullet) projected him into the White House. Wilson, on the other hand, had passed most of his adult life as a prolessor and university administrator.

But if the public was unprepared for Woodrow Wilson, Wilson was anything but unprepared for public life. To be a statesman had always been his ultimate ambition. As a Princeton undergraduate in the Seventies he had bought a stock of blank calling cards and written on them in his neat, precise hand: “Thomas Woodrow Wilson, Senator from Virginia.” He studied political theory avidly, and devoted countless hours to the development of his oratorical skills. During holidays he practiced endlessly in his preacher-father’s empty church. Once a classmate came upon him in the Princeton woods, declaiming Hnrke amid the timber; he even prepared a chart illustrating the classic oratorical gestures and rehearsed them in the privacy of his room.

Alter his graduation from Princeton in 1879, Wilson studied law. “The profession I (hose was politics,” he explained frankly. “The profession I entered was the law. I entered the one because I thought it would lead to the other.” Ky 1882 he was ready to hang out his shingle in Atlanta, full of high hopes. Hut less than a year’s experience convinced him that he was not cut otit to be a lawyer. The strong strain of idealism in his nature was outraged by the materialism and pettiness of everyday legal business. He was shocked by the sight of two talented advocates squabbling over a stolen chicken; political preferment seemed to descend upon men like young Moke Smith, already on the road to the United States Senate, whom Wilson considered a mere ambulance chaser.

So Wilson abandoned both the la\v and his hopes for political office. Instead he would be a professor of political science, content to operate as “an outside force” in government. Kut as he pursued his graduate studies at Johns Hopkins and then his distinguished teaching career at Kryn l\fawr, Wesleyan, and Princeton, “affairs” (by this he meant politics) were never far from his mind. Intellectually he was reconciled to a life of “secondary successes,” but in his heart his youthful ambitious lived on.

The long years of academic life, therefore, were years of waiting and of preparation. No bungling amateur took over the reins of government when Wilson was finally given his chance. Teaching and administration provided an excellent environment for the development of his talents as a speaker, executive, and leader of men. As Wilson liked to point out when critics suggested that he was only an impractical professor, college politics could be just as complicated and just as dirty as anything on the state or national levels. Indeed, looking back on his university record, one can see in it all the strengths and weaknesses of the President that was to be.

As President of the United States Wilson achieved his greatest effectiveness when working with large groups. Reading a state paper before the assembled Congress or delivering a powerful speech at a public meeting found him at his incomparable best; direct personal relationships with any but his most intimate friends were very difficult for him. This also characterized his teaching. In the lecture hall he was magnificent. He talked from behind his desk, his finger tips balanced on its Hat top except when he raised his right hand and pointed at his audience to emphasize a key phrase. He eschewed dramatics and wild gestures, but every sentence was perfect. His extemporaneous remarks read like polished essays. Usually he would begin with a summary of the work to be covered, dictating carefully a few general statements or key points, or perhaps offering an outline of his topic in capsule form. Then he would launch into the subject, elaborating, qualifying, illustrating, tempering proloundities with flashes of wit, drawing apt comparisons between points he was making and current affairs.

“His lectures were fascinating, and held me spellbound,” one student recalled. “Each was an almost perfect essay in itself, well rounded and with a distinct literary style.” One of Wilson’s colleagues at Princeton wrote: “It may be frankly stated here that, after experience with some very great teachers, I consider Wilson the greatest class-room lecturer I have ever heard. … This is my mature conviction after experience in my school, college, and university life.” His classes were constantly interrupted by spontaneous bursts of applause; students unable to register for them would wait outside the lecture hall until five minutes after the start of the session and then flock in to fill the seats of absentees; one bov even complained that he became so absorbed in Wilson’s talks that he could never remember to take notes.

But in the smaller, more advanced classes which most professors pri/e, Wilson was merely capable. Though the subject was always well organized and lucidly presented, there was no sparkle. And working individually with graduate students interested him not at all. He treated it as a chore, one more drain on his limited strength, not as an opportunity.

But this quirk of character did not hinder his professional advancement. A few years after completing liis graduate study he was a full professor at Princeton. Thereafter he was repeatedly voted the university’s most popular teacher, and soon he was also her highest paid. He was deluged with outside offers. But so highly prized was he at Princeton that, when further ordinary increases in salary became impossible, a small group of wealthy graduates agreed to supplement his income from their private purses in exchange for his promise not to leave. This compact was made in 1898, to run for five years. At the end of the fourth year it was dissolved as a result of Wilson’s election as president of Princeton.


This new position provided Wilson with an expanded field of operations, and his handling of the job oilers many insights into his later management of national office. As was to be the case when he entered politics, he had the great advantage of knowing exactly what he wanted to do, and he seized the opportunity eagerly. He inspired his friends and dazzled his opponents with the breadth and vision of his plans. In his stirring inaugural address he said: “The nation … needs efficient and enlightened men. The universities of the country must take their part in supplying them.” In his first report to the trustees he asked for $12,000,000 of new endowment (the total endowment at that time was only $4,000,000) and he outlined his exciting plans to make Princeton “a real university” so persuasively that the trustees endorsed his proposals almost without a murmur.

Soon the entire curriculum was being revised. The hoary classical program was much broadened, but instead of following the lead of Harvard, which had substituted the chaos of the elective system for the old rigidity, Wilson insisted that every student work out an integrated program that combined flexibility with logical organization. He also raised academic standards. No more would Princeton be a mere finishing school for young gentlemen. Entrance requirements were stiffened, and in the process a number of boys of high social standing but low academic records were turned away. When outraged parents complained, Wilson replied: “Pardon me, you do not understand. … Il the angel Gabriel applied lor admission to Princeton University and coidd not pass the entrance examinations, he would not be admitted.”


Wilson’s inflexibility, so noticeable when he became a politician, was clearly in evidence. Enrollment fell oil. Students grumbled. One disillusioned youngster wrote home to his lather: “Princeton is getting to be nothing but a damned educational institution.” The Tiger published a cartoon showing a cap-and-gowned Wilson seated forlornly on the steps of a deserted Nassau Hall. Below it was this caption, taken from the well-known whisky advertisement: “Wilson—That’s All.” But the president did not relent.

Instead he demanded still further changes. He got the trustees to provide for fifty new instructors so that the tutorial system could be established. Then by the sheer force of his personality and his magnificent enthusiasm, he persuaded the best young men he could find to join the staff. One such man, who was to become a distinguished professor of English and dean of the Princeton faculty, explained Wilson’s approach in these words: “My interview lasted some forty minutes. Mr. Wilson asked me no questions about myself, but spoke with winning eloquence about his plans lor Princeton. Before five minutes had passed I knew that I was in the presence of a very great man. … Before the talk was over my loyalties were entirely committed to him. Had Woodrow Wilson asked me to go with him … while he inaugurated a new university in Kamchatka or Senegambia I would have said ‘yes’ without further question.”

The success of these reforms made Wilson the hero of Princeton. Students, faculty, alumni, and trustees were united in his support, a rare thing in the academic world. “Wilson is Princeton’s most valuable asset,” became a local slogan. The campus seemed alive with a new spirit: students buckling down to work, young proi’essors pedaling furiously from one building to another to meet their classes, visiting alumni beaming proudly in the reflected glory of the school’s achievements.

Had Wilson been content to slow the pace of his reforms at this point he probably would have passed the rest of his life peacefully at Princeton. But he was brimful of additional ideas. In 1907 he introduced the quadrangle plan.

The proposal, briefly, was this: The entire student body was to be divided into groups which would live together in largely sell-governing sub-communities called quadrangles. These groups would cut across academic class lines, lower- and upperclassmen and unmarried members of the faculty sleeping, eating, and studying together in a single plant. Freshmen and sophomores would gain much from association with the older boys, and to these in turn the presence of faculty members would be a valuable extension of the tutorial idea.

At a board meeting on June 10, 11)07. Wilson presented the scheme formally to the trustees, who approved it in principle with only one dissenting vote. But when its nature became known, strong opposition developed among the faculty and alumni. There already existed at Princeton a number of upper-class eating clubs to which at least two thirds of the juniors and seniors belonged. The quadrangle plan would mean their destruction.

These clubs were rich and powerful organizations. Club men developed strong loyalties to Tiger Inn, Cap and Gown, Ivy, and the others—loyalties which persisted beyond graduation and stirred the hearts of many influential alumni when their clubs were attacked. Soon such men were showering the campus with criticism of a plan they felt would undermine college traditions and destroy school spirit. They were supported by certain practical-minded souls who were disturbed both by the probable cost of constructing the quadrangles and by Wilson’s blissful lack of interest in the details of what was bound to be a very complex alteration of the structure of Princeton. Throughout the summer of 1907 a bitter controversy raged.

Wilson simply refused to heed the arguments of those who objected to his proposal. The clubs, he said, were anti-intellectual in spirit and socially undemocratic. When some of the trustees began to waver he accused them of knuckling under to the clubs. When his (losest Princeton friend, Professor John G. Hibben, opposed the quadrangle plan in faculty meeting in order lo “save Woodrow i’roni himself,” Wilson was mortally oflended and broke oft their friendship. 11 he had been willing to compromise he could have converted the clubs into something very close to what he wanted the quadrangles to be, but he saw the issue as a struggle between good and evil, and would not yield an inch. His intransigence foreshadowed the stubbornness that characterized his battle with the Senate over the League of Nations, and it led to the same result. In April, 1908, the trustees, more in sorrow than in anger, gently but firmly wrote a quietus to the quadrangle plan by formally declaring their support of the club system.

Wilson emerged from the quadrangle fight with his reputation scarred but essentially intact. The strongest supporters of the clubs recogni/ed that his motives had been unexceptionable, and they were still wholeheartedly behind his administration. But the clash aggravated another Princeton problem that had been building up over the years. This concerned the expansion of the graduate school.

The club controversy had been largely impersonal; it arrayed groups against one another more than individuals. But the graduate school controversy was chiefly a battle between two men, Wilson and Andrew Fleming West. Superficially they had much in common. Both were sons of Presbyterian ministers, both Princetonians, both first-rate scholars who had taken the lead in the Nineties in the fight to modernize their alma mater. But underneath they were entirely different. West was bluff, hearty, hail-fellow-well-met. A big, hulking man, he was at his best in close personal relationships of the kind that Wilson could not handle. He had a way with the old grads, particularly with those possessed of large sums of loose cash that might somehow be transferred to Princeton’s coffers. He could spot a potential donor on the campus, accost him with a warm greeting and a friendly hand on the shoulder, “giving the impression that he had been longing for weeks to run across just this particular fellow.” It was quite natural that he should be an intimate of Princeton’s most distinguished trustee, former President Grover Cleveland, a man much like himself.

When Wilson became president of Princeton in 1902, West was dean of the graduate school, devoting all his fierce loyalties and extraordinary energies to its advancement. That summer, with $2,500 provided by the trustees, West visited the leading European universities to study their methods of housing graduate students. He returned deeply impressed, especially by Oxford, where he had been awarded an honorary degree, and wrote an elaborate report describing his plans to construct a new graduate school, the “crown” of Princeton’s educational system. Wilson, to his great chagrin later, provided this report with a preface in which he said: “The plans … which Professor West has conceived seem to me in every way admirable.”

In the controversy which developed, the ostensible cause of the trouble between Wilson and West was the location of the graduate school. West wished it to be off by itself, secluded from the distractions of undergraduate life, while Wilson, with his passion lor integration, demanded that it be placed in the heart of the campus. Actually, the real cause was personal. Wilson had never liked West, whom he considered bigoted and conspiratorial. Furthermore, while supporting its development in principle, Wilson was less interested in the graduate school than in his OAVII multifarious projects. And he resented West’s power, which rivaled his own.


Whatever the justification for Wilson’s attitude, he should have forced a showdown with West early in his administration. He had a perfect opportunity to do so in 1906, when West was offered the presidency of M.I.T. at a handsome salary. West, who well understood Wilson’s feelings, was ready to make the move. At a dramatic meeting of the trustees’ committee on the graduate school, he told Wilson plainly that he would not continue at Princeton unless lie could have his own way in working out the graduate program. “The trouble, President Wilson,” he stated 1'rankly, “is that I have not hit it off with you.”

But at this juncture Wilson exhibited one of his most curious weaknesses. He hated to base a decision on personal feelings; he could not i’ace West’s departure on such an issue. He therefore joined with the trustees in asking West to remain.

West, with his great affection for Princeton, accepted this as meeting his demands, and gave up the M.I.T. position. His anger when Wilson began to push the quadrangle plan a few months later was understandable. Princeton was already short of funds. It seemed clear that the quads and the graduate school coidd not be built at the same time, and that as a result the graduate school would be sidetracked. As though this were not enough. Wilson then persuaded the trustees to transfer most of the Dean’s power to a faculty committee dominated by Wilson’s supporters. When West protested this injustice, Wilson coolly remarked, “I wish to say to the Dean, somewhat grimly, that he must be digested in the processes of the University,” and when West brought up the promises made him in 1906, Wilson answered, “We must not lay too great stress on commitments.”

This conference took place on February 5, 1909. A lesser man might have been crushed, but West struck back. One of his closest friends was the soap king, William C. Procter, head of Procter and Gamble and a devoted Princeton alumnus. West explained the nature of his problems to Procter. Procter was sympathetic. In May, West was able to announce that the maker of Ivory Soap had offered Princeton half a million dollars to build a graduate college. There was but one stipulation. Procter had visited the campus, found it “not suitable.” Unless a different location were found, the offer would be withdrawn.

The battle raged furiously for more than a year. The trustees voted to accept the money and Wilson threatened to resign. The trustees then prepared to reverse themselves and Procter countered by withdrawing his offer. In the meantime Wilson appealed to the alumni in a series of unrestrained speeches in which he sought to identify an “integrated” graduate school with democracy and a “separated” one with aristocracy.

Tempers flared among the trustees as Wilson shifted his ground, tangling himself in inconsistencies and plain lies. At one hot committee meeting he stated the truth: the real issue was his own disagreement with West. The site, he admitted, was unimportant: “My faculty can make this school a success anywhere in Mercer County.” When a hostile trustee pounced upon this and asked him why then had he written his fulsome praise of West’s plan in his preface to the Dean’s report, he announced that he had not seen the report at the time he wrote the preface. This was an outright falsehood, for he had read and revised West’s manuscript.

The mutual antagonism and mistrust made Wilson’s resignation inevitable. However, the final blow came from a totally unexpected quarter. On May 22, 1910, Wilson received a telegram. A few minutes later his wife heard him laughing in his study. She found him holding the yellow slip in his hand. “We have beaten the living,” he said, “but we cannot fight the dead. The game is up.”

The telegram was from Dean West. Isaac C. Wyman of Salem, Massachusetts, had just passed away. He had left his estate, “at least two millions and may be more,” to Princeton’s graduate school. He had named as one of his executors Andrew Fleming West.

Commencement a few weeks later was devoted to the glorification of Wilson’s enemies. The victors waited with patience but determination for him to resign. Before the October meeting of the board a delegation called upon him to tell him that he must step down. Next day he faced the trustees, read his brief note of resignation, and left the meeting. The trustees then voted to accept his resignation, with “deep regret.”

It made a sad and ugly end to twenty years of his life. Fortunately, however, a new demand for his services had arisen. Already, as he left the trustees’ meeting, he was the Democratic candidate for governor of New Jersey.

A new career was to rise from the ashes of the old. Once more he was to achieve remarkable victories. But in the end he was again to see his most cherished hopes snuffed out. The formidable qualities that had made possible so much at Princeton—his superb mental equipment, his broad grasp of complicated issues, and his ability to inspire others with his fervent idealism—would bring him new triumphs. Again, however, he would fall victim to his own enthusiasms and imperious will.

Like so many zealots, Woodrow Wilson could never understand that men might oppose him and still be honest. Once he was shooting a game of pool with a professor from the Princeton Theological Seminary. They got into a discussion of some abstruse question, and when the argument showed signs of generating more heat than light, the professor tried to cool things off by reminding Wilson that there were two sides to every question. “Yes,” Wilson snapped. “A right side and a wrong side.”

This inflexibility was the tragic flaw in the character of a great and good man. It was to be Wilson’s fate to face the greatest crisis in the nation’s history since Abraham Lincoln did battle with the forces of slavery and secession. To him was granted a chance to change the course of world history. Like Lincoln he met the challenge with vision, courage, dedication, and determination; he failed because he lacked Lincoln’s greatest virtue—humility.

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