- Historic Sites
The Training Of Woodrow Wilson
His career at Princeton prepared him for a larger role, but also showed his strange blend of strength and weakness
August 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 5
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.