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What Princeton Really Needed

April 2024
4min read

When Andrew Carnegie was applying the same vigor to giving away money as he had devoted to making it, Woodrow Wilson, the president of Princeton University, invited him to visit the school. Wilson had grandiose plans for Princeton, and he hoped that the steel-magnate-turned-philanthropist would co-operate. But what Carnegie decided to bestow is related in this excerpt from Joseph Frailer Wall’s biography Andrew Carnegie , which will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.

Elected president of the university in June, 1902, Woodrow Wilson almost at once began a campaign to capture Andrew Carnegie. It would be a most impressive feat with which to inaugurate his presidency if he could succeed where such old hands in the presidential game of fund-raising as Butler, White, Gilman, and Eliot had failed. Early in the spring of his first year in office he wrote Carnegie a long letter about Princeton and its needs. He laid great stress upon Princeton’s “Scottish connections” from President John Witherspoon on, although he was wise enough not to stress Princeton’s Presbyterian heritage. “She has been largely made by Scotsmen, being myself of pure Scots blood, it heartens me to emphasize the fact.” Having, he hoped, established the right ancestral connections, Wilson outlined the areas of need for Princeton in which Carnegie’s money could be put to good use. He suggested a graduate-college residence system, a school of science, the introduction of the tutorial system, and a school of jurisprudence and government, which he outlined as follows:

My idea would be to make it a school of law, but not in any narrow or technical sense: a school, rather, in which law and institutions would be interpreted as instruments of peace, of freedom, and of the advancement of civilization: international law as the means and guarantee of cordial understandings between the nations of the world, private law as the accommodation of otherwise hostile interests, government as the means of progress. No doubt it would be wise, too, as immediately collateral matter, to expound the part which commerce and industry have played and must increasingly play, in making for international as well as national peace and for the promotion of all the common interests of mankind. [Wilson apparently believed that if a salmon was too cautious to catch with a lure, use a net. Almost every Carnegie cliché of the last twenty years was woven into that mesh.]

He then urged Carnegie to come down to Princeton, look the school over, and talk further with him on all of these points.

After much further cajoling, Wilson finally got Carnegie down to Princeton in 1904. Accompanied by trustee Grover Cleveland, who had on his own been doing a little soliciting of Carnegie in behalf of the Princeton graduate school, Wilson gave Carnegie the grand tour of Old Nassau, pointing out the inadequate library and science facilities, going over plans for new graduateschool facilities, introducing him to deans, professors, and bright young Princeton scholars. Carnegie was most amiable, most interested in everything that was shown him. Wilson should have been forewarned of trouble, however, when Carnegie seemed to give undue attention to the physical-education facilities, particularly those used by the varsity football team. Such questions as How many boys play football, How many casualties do you have in a year, etc., were not, if asked by Carnegie, mere efforts at small talk. They were instead related to Carnegie’s latest fancy regarding higher education, a crusade to end the playing of football on college campuses—an idea which most American college alumni would find far more heretical than his earlier attacks upon the classics. One strong bond between Carnegie and President Charles William Eliot of Harvard was their common aversion to football. “I should like very much to have the paragraph in which you sum up the faults ofthat bloody game,” Carnegie had written Eliot. “It begins by stating that the maimed and the killed are not the worst feature, it is the trickery, fraud, etc., the plot to concentrate and disable certain players on the other side, etc., that make the game so objectionable.” A favorite poetic line, taking care of both Britain and the United States, which Carnegie delighted in quoting was: “The flanelled fools at the wicket/The muddied Oafs at the goal.” Wilson would have been well advised to have steered Carnegie far away from the playing fields of Princeton. At the conclusion of the long day, when Carnegie was at last ready to board that quaint vehicle posing as a train to take Princeton visitors back to the main line to New York and Philadelphia, he turned to Wilson and thanked him for a most instructive day. As the story would later be told by generations of delighted Princeton fans, Carnegie then said, “I know exactly what Princeton needs and I intend to give it to her.” His momentarily ecstatic host, who had visions of libraries, laboratories, and law schools dancing in his head, eagerly asked, “What?”

“It’s a lake. Princeton should have a rowing crew to compete with Harvard, Yale, and Columbia. That will take young men’s minds off football.”

Carnegie was as good as his word. Construction was begun that spring by the Hudson Engineering Company to build Lake Carnegie by damming up Stony Brook, east of the campus. Howard Russell Butler, Princeton class of ’72 and an avid rowing enthusiast, served as general manager of the project. Two and a half years later, at a cost of $400,000, the lake, three and one half miles long, four hundred to one thousand feet wide, was completed and officially opened at elaborate ceremonies attended by Carnegie on December 5, 1906. President Wilson gave a long speech of welcome to Carnegie, concluding with an account of how Carnegie had visited Princeton and had “seen exactly what Princeton needed—a lake.” That Wilson could say this with a perfectly straight face was a tribute to his Calvinist upbringing and an indication of how adept college presidents must become in dealing with the eccentricities of wealthy patrons. Carnegie also gave a speech at this momentous occasion in the history of Princeton. He said he had been happy to give the lake in the hope that it would be used for aquatic sports to the discouragement of football. “I have never seen a football game, but I have glanced at pictures of such games, and to me the spectacle of educated young men rolling over one another in the dirt was—well, not gentlemanly.”

According to the newspaper reporters who were present, “Mr. Carnegie’s remarks were received with murmurs of dissent from the undergraduates.” Carnegie, however, was very much pleased with both his gift and speech. He wrote to Charles Eliot, “I did what I could at Princeton to stand by your side in regard to football, and I am happy to say that everybody, from President Cleveland down, thanked me for speaking the needed word.” President Eliot, in a rather neat bit of one-upmanship over his Ivy League competitor, promptly replied, “It is odd that your note of yesterday should reach me the day after Harvard won from Yale in debating. Six years ago when I was in Bermuda you congratulated me in winning in debate when we lost in football. The same thing has been repeated this year. We also won in chess.”

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