- 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
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 Unless a different location were found, the offer would be withdrawn.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.