Contents and Arrangement

Series 13: Woodrow Wilson Records, 1896-1985

11 boxes
Restrictions may apply. See Access Note.

Collection Overview

Collection Description & Creator Information

Scope and Contents

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 University.

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 October 1907.

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.

Collection History


No information on appraisal is available.


These papers were processed with the generous support of former Princeton University President Harold T. Shapiro, Charles Brothman '51, and the John Foster Dulles and Janet Avery Dulles Fund.

Processing Information

This collection was processed by Carol V. Burke and Stacey C. Peeples in 2002. Finding aid written by Carol V. Burke and Stacey C. Peeples in 2002.

Access & Use

Conditions Governing Access

Materials generated by the office of the president are closed for 30 years from the date of their creation. Some records relating to personnel or students are closed for longer periods of time.

Conditions Governing Use

Single copies may be made for research purposes. To cite or publish quotations that fall within Fair Use, as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission is required. The Trustees of Princeton University hold copyright to all materials generated by Princeton University employees in the course of their work. For instances beyond Fair Use, if copyright is held by Princeton University, researchers do not need to obtain permission, complete any forms, or receive a letter to move forward with use of materials from the Princeton University Archives.

For instances beyond Fair Use where the copyright is not held by the University, while permission from the Library is not required, it is the responsibility of the researcher to determine whether any permissions related to copyright, privacy, publicity, or any other rights are necessary for their intended use of the Library's materials, and to obtain all required permissions from any existing rights holders, if they have not already done so. Princeton University Library's Special Collections does not charge any permission or use fees for the publication of images of materials from our collections, nor does it require researchers to obtain its permission for said use. The department does request that its collections be properly cited and images credited. More detailed information can be found on the Copyright, Credit and Citations Guidelines page on our website. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us through the Ask Us! form.

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

For preservation reasons, original analog and digital media may not be read or played back in the reading room. Users may visually inspect physical media but may not remove it from its enclosure. All analog audiovisual media must be digitized to preservation-quality standards prior to use. Audiovisual digitization requests are processed by an approved third-party vendor. Please note, the transfer time required can be as little as several weeks to as long as several months and there may be financial costs associated with the process. Requests should be directed through the Ask Us Form.

Credit this material:

Series 13: Woodrow Wilson Records; Office of the President Records : Jonathan Dickinson to Harold W. Dodds Subgroup, AC117, Princeton University Archives, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library

Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library
Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library
65 Olden Street
Princeton, NJ 08540, USA
(609) 258-6345
Storage Note:
  • Mudd Manuscript Library (mudd): Boxes 258 to 259, 34, 34, 57, 64