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Frequently Asked Questions
Woodrow Wilson at Princeton

Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1856-1923) had a long and distinguished career at Princeton University as a student, professor, and as the institution's thirteenth president. Wilson came to Princeton from Wilmington, North Carolina, in the fall of 1875 after spending a year studying at Davidson College. Wilson, the son of a Presbyterian minister, was expected to study for the ministry, but at Davidson he developed an interest in politics. He carried this interest to Princeton, where he studied and read extensively in history and politics. Outside the classroom he engaged in debating and writing as an active member of the American Whig Society, the University's debating society. As a managing editor of The Daily Princetonian, he was responsible for its editorial page. His editorial topics included approval of the Football Association's fundraising, the need for an elective course in Anglo-Saxon history, disapproval of the gymnastic team's revealing uniforms, and a call for stricter college discipline. Wilson was also a contributor to the Nassau Literary Magazine.

After graduating from Princeton in 1879, Wilson returned to the south to attend law school at the University of Virginia; he passed the Georgia bar and practiced law in Atlanta for a short while. However, Wilson found the practice of law to be “antagonistic to the best interests of the intellectual life,” and he abandoned law practice in Georgia to pursue an advanced degree in 'historical and political science' at the Johns Hopkins University. By taking this path, Wilson believed he was giving up his political ambitions. He received his doctorate in two years and, after successive professorships at Bryn Mawr College (1885) and Wesleyan University (1888), joined the Princeton faculty in 1890 as Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Economy.

Wilson published four major works from 1893 to 1896: Division and Reunion, George Washington, Mere Literature and Other Essays, and An Old Master and Other Publications. A prolific writer, he was also highly regarded by the students. Between 1896 and 1903, each senior class chose him as their favorite professor. Booth Tarkington, novelist, dramatist, and member of the Class of 1893, described Wilson the professor this way:“I think we felt that Wilson understood us and understood us more favorably than any other man on the faculty. We had a feeling that we were being comprehended in a friendly way, that he'd be for us and that he'd be straight with us.”

Perhaps the most memorable event in Wilson's professorial career at Princeton occurred on the occasion of the Sesquicentennial Celebration (or 150th birthday) in 1896, when the College of New Jersey officially became Princeton University. At this celebration, Wilson delivered his famous speech, “Princeton in the Nation's Service,” in which he proposed the following ideal for the Princeton student: seek the education required to carry into the world a sense of duty and purpose for the nation.

Wilson was chosen president of Princeton in 1902. He immediately revised the academic structure of the University, dividing the faculty into four areas: Philosophy, Art and Archaeology, Languages and Literature, and Mathematics and Science. Wilson ended the free elective system and introduced the concept of departmental concentrations and prerequisite courses. Along with the new structure came Wilson's innovative preceptorial system. Preceptors augmented the lectures of the faculty by engaging small groups of students in discussion.

Unfortunately, the popularity Wilson gained among alumni by raising the academic standards of the University, diminished when he tried to abolish the eating clubs through his “Quadrangle Plan.” He proposed that undergraduates spend all four years within one residential college and that the colleges provide eating facilities, libraries, and other amenities that would enhance undergraduate education. He argued that the plan was a natural extension of preceptorials, with some faculty living among the students. The alumni, however, were not going let go of their cherished eating clubs, and the “Quadrangle Plan” was defeated. This conflict was followed by Wilson's battle with Dean Andrew Fleming West and the trustees in 1908 over the location of the new Graduate College. Wilson favored a central location for the school, but West favored its placement near the golf links. Wilson lost this fight, and the Graduate College was erected at its present site.

During the summer of 1910, Wilson accepted the Democratic nomination for Governor of New Jersey. He resigned as president of the University “with deep regret” on October 20, 1910. Wilson's vision for the University, and even his controversies, brought new life to the University and much of his work forms the basis of the modern Princeton.


Related Sources

Alumni and Faculty Offprint Collection, c. 1800-1975

Graduate School Records, 1870-1993. See Series 7, Graduate College Site Controversy Collection, 1896-1916.

Lecture Notes Collection, 1804-1956

Leitch, Alexander. A Princeton Companion. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1978). Also available online.

Office of the President: Jonathan Dickinson to Harold W. Dodds Subgroup, 1746-1999. See Woodrow Wilson Records, 1826-1985.

The Presidents of Princeton University: 1746 to the Present section on Woodrow Wilson.

Seligman, Scott D. "Woodrow Wilson and the Quadrangle Controversy at Princeton, 1906-1908." Seligman's senior thesis was submitted to the history department of Princeton University in 1973. This thesis can be viewed at the Mudd Manuscript Library. For information on how to request a photocopy of this thesis, please click here.

Sesquicentennial Celebration Records, c. 1887-1993

Stephens, Matthew J. "Woodrow Wilson and the Quadrangle Plan." Stephens' senior thesis (93 pages) was submitted to the history department at Princeton University in 2004. This thesis can be viewed on request at the Mudd Manuscript Library. For information on how to request a photocopy of this thesis, please click here.

For additional links and collections related to Woodrow Wilson, please see Woodrow Wilson: A Guide to Selected Resources in the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library.

A collection of images related to Wilson can be viewed at the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections Portfolio web site.


Published Works (selected)

Axson, Stockton. "Brother Woodrow": A Memoir of Woodrow Wilson. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993).

Baker, Ray Stannard. Woodrow Wilson: Life and Letters. (New York: Greenwood Press, 1968).

Link, Arthur S., editor. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1966).

Mulder, John M. Woodrow Wilson: The Years of Preparation. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1978).


Christine Kitto (2003)


Last modified: Tuesday, 24-Apr-2012 13:57:37 EDT