- Series 13: Woodrow Wilson Records
Series 13: Woodrow Wilson Records
10 boxes (3 partial)
This collection is stored at Mudd Manuscript Library.
Requests will be delivered to Princeton University Archives, MUDD Reading Room
Collection Creator: Princeton University. Office of the President..
Extent: 10 boxes (3 partial)
Materials generated by the office of the president are closed for 40 years from
the date of their creation. Some records relating to personnel or students are
closed for longer periods of time.
Born December 29, 1856 in Staunton, Virginia, Woodrow Wilson was the son of
Joseph Ruggles Wilson, a Presbyterian minister trained at the Princeton
Theological Seminary. His father sympathized with the South during the Civil
War and was a leader in the Southern Presbyterian Church and a professor at
the Columbia Theological and Southwestern Theological Seminaries. Woodrow
was raised in Augusta, Georgia and Columbia, South Carolina. Born into a
religious family, he accompanied his father on pastoral calls and edited
minutes of the General Assembly. He attended Davidson College in his
freshman year (1873-1874), and then prepared for entrance to the College of
New Jersey, enrolling in 1875. An ambitious reading program offset his light
course load. He became known as a leader, and his classmates elected him
speaker of the American Whig Society, secretary of the Football Association,
president of the Baseball Association, and managing editor of The Daily Princetonian. He graduated in 1879 and
then studied law at the University of Virginia from 1879 to 1880 before
briefly practicing in Atlanta, Georgia. Wilson's graduate work, undertaken
between 1883 and 1886 in political science and history at Johns Hopkins
University, culminated in a doctoral dissertation entitled Congressional Government. Wilson married Ellen
Louise Axson of Rome, Georgia in 1885 and had three daughters. Ellen died in
1914, and he married Edith Bolling Galt in 1915.
After receiving his Ph.D. in 1886, Wilson taught political science and
constitutional law at Bryn Mawr College, and, from 1888 to 1890, he was
chair of history and political economy at Wesleyan University. In 1890 he
accepted the professorship of jurisprudence and political economy at the
College of New Jersey. He soon made his presence felt, unsuccessfully
encouraging Francis Landey Patton, the man he would succeed as president, to
raise money for a law school. Stymied, Wilson prepared the best pre-law
curriculum in the nation. An eloquent speaker, he was consistently voted the
most popular teacher, and some 400 students, representing most of the junior
and senior classes, attended his lectures. He delivered the keynote speech,
"Princeton in the Nation's Service," at Princeton University's
sesquicentennial celebrations in 1896. While serving on the faculty, Wilson
wrote four books: Division and Reunion, An Old Master, Mere
Literature, and George Washington.
In 1902 he was elected president of his alma mater.
As president, Wilson attempted to initiate three major programs: curricular
changes, the preceptorial method, and the quadrangle plan. The first two
programs were very successful, but he never received sufficient support for
the third. Wilson formed a committee on examination and standing to raise
standards, and students who failed exams were dismissed regardless of social
pull. He also tightened academic standards for entrance and performance, and
enrollment declined until 1907. Since Princeton University had no
administrative structure to speak of, he created departments according to
subjects, with deans reporting directly to the president. He also empowered
the faculty to make faculty nominations, taking that authority away from the
trustees' curriculum committee. In his curricular changes of 1904, Wilson
unified general studies during the freshman and sophomore years, while
concentrating study in one discipline and related fields during the junior
and senior years. This represented the emergence of the course format used
in most colleges and universities today, a format that enables a student to
acquire general knowledge and then focus on a major subject. Wilson did not
want students to prepare for a vocation; instead he wanted them to be
broadly educated for life. Another of his curricular changes was to take
Biblical instruction away from a fundamentalist and appoint a scholar in his
place. He effectively ended conservative Presbyterian control over the Board
of Trustees, and, in 1906, the University was declared a non-sectarian
institution. Shortly afterwards, Wilson appointed the first Roman Catholic
and first Jewish professor to the faculty.
In order to curb the influence of the conservative faculty, Wilson began the
preceptorial program, contracting 45 talented assistant professors to be
preceptors before the trustees had approved the plan. In 1905 the faculty
doubled with the influx of preceptors, who guided undergraduates in
mastering subjects instead of memorizing notes. The success of Wilson's
scheme, which continues to this day, is reflected in the Library's records,
which show an increase in undergraduate borrowing following the introduction
of precepts. The campus also grew in the course of Wilson's tenure,
including the construction of a gymnasium, McCosh Hall, Palmer Laboratory,
Guyot Hall, and four dormitories: Seventy-Nine, Patton, Campbell, and Holder
Halls. Lake Carnegie was also built, transforming the approaches to the
Unlike his other initiatives, Wilson's quadrangle plan ran into fierce
opposition. His plan reflected his belief that social life at Princeton
University was undemocratic and detrimental to the intellectual atmosphere
he envisioned. The social life of two-thirds of the upperclassmen centered
on a number of private eating clubs, which he felt encouraged snobbishness
and elitism, leaving one-third of the upperclassmen ostracized and
humiliated. Wilson believed that freshmen and sophomores should have
exposure to the upperclassmen, as well as to professors, outside the
classroom, and he proposed vertically dividing the University so that all
three groups could reside and eat in quadrangles. Membership in the
quadrangles would be determined by lot, and the eating clubs would
eventually be absorbed or abolished. The trustees initially approved the
plan, and Wilson announced it at Commencement exercises in June 1907.
However, alumni, mostly from New York and Philadelphia, vehemently opposed
his proposals, citing loss of class spirit and freedom of choice as reasons.
Moses Taylor Pyne, a wealthy trustee and donor, threatened to withdraw
support if Wilson pursued his plan. Opposition increased, and contributions
to the endowment fell, causing the trustees to withdraw their approval in
Wilson's final controversy pitted him against Andrew Fleming West, Dean of
the Graduate School. He and West agreed that Princeton University needed a
rigorous graduate program, but they disagreed on one important point: the
location of the college that would form the heart of graduate life. Wilson
wanted the graduate college located at the center of campus, preferably near
Prospect House. West had decided that a remote location would be preferable
in that students would not be distracted by undergraduate life, which he
described as "wild, unruly and obstreperous." The ensuing battle over the
graduate college's location divided the University, and by 1910 the
controversy had ballooned into a national issue. The death of Isaac C.
Wyman, Class of 1848, in May of that year brought the conflict to an end.
Wyman left his entire estate, initially estimated at over two million
dollars, for construction of West's graduate college, giving the latter the
leverage he needed. Wilson conceded the fight, stating, "The game is up.
We've beaten the living, but we can't fight the dead." Shortly thereafter,
the trustees forced him to resign, and Wilson exchanged academic
controversies for state and national politics as Governor of New Jersey,
beginning in 1911, and President of the United States, beginning in 1913. He
served two terms in the White House and died February 3, 1924. Fittingly,
the Woodrow Wilson Award is the highest honor Princeton University bestows
for distinguished public service.
The Wilson Records are divided into three subseries, Subject Files,
Correspondence, and General Materials, that document Wilson's life and his
successes and failures as president of Princeton University, though not as
fully as his importance warrants. A much more extensive documentary legacy
can be found in the 69-volume edition of The Papers of
Woodrow Wilson edited by Arthur S. Link, a copy of which is
located in the reference room of the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library.
No arrangement action taken or arrangement information not recorded at the time of processing.
Series 13: Woodrow Wilson Records; 1826-1985; Office of the President Records : Jonathan Dickinson to Harold W. Dodds
Subgroup, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.