From The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Volume 10, reprinted with the kind permission of the Princeton University Press.
A Commemorative Address(1) delivered on October 21, 1896
We pause to look back upon our past today, not as an old man grown reminiscent, but as a prudent man still in his youth and lusty prime and at the threshold of new tasks, who would remind himself of his origin and lineage, re call the pledges of his youth, assess as at a turning in his life the duties of his station.
We look back only a little way to our birth; but the brief space is quick with movement and incident enough to crowd a great tract of time. Turn back only one hundred and fifty years, and you are deep within quiet colony times, before the French and Indian war or thought of separation from England. But a great war is at hand. Forces long pent up and local presently spread themselves at large upon the continent, and the whole scene is altered. The brief plot runs with a strange force a nd haste:--First a quiet group of peaceful colonies, very placid and commonplace and dull, to all seeming, in their patient working out of a slow development; Then, of a sudden, a hot fire of revolution, a quick release of power, as if of forces long pent up, but set free at last in the generous heat of the new day; the mighty processes of a great migration, the vast spaces of a waiting continent filled almost suddenly with hosts bred to the spirit of conquest; a constant making and renewing of governm ents, a stupendous growth, a perilous expansion. Such days of youth and nation-making must surely count double the slower days of maturity and calculated change, as the Spring counts double the sober fruitage of the Summer.
Princeton was founded upon the very eve of the stirring changes which put the revolutionary drama on the stage, --not to breed politicians, but to give young men such training as, it might be hoped, would fit them handsomely for t he pulpit and for the grave duties of citizens and neighbours. A small group of Presbyterian ministers took the initiative in its foundation. They acted without ecclesiastical authority, as if under obligation to society rather than to the church. They ha d no more vision of what was to come upon the country than their fellow colonists had; they knew only that the pulpits of the middle and southern colonies lacked properly equipped men and all the youth in those parts ready means of access to the higher so rt of schooling. They thought the discipline at Yale a little less than liberal and the training offered as a substitute in some quarters a good deal less than thorough. They wanted "a seminary of true religion and good literature" which should be after t heir own model and among their own people.
It was not a sectarian school they wished. They were acting as citizens, not as clergymen, and the charter they obtained said never a word about creed or doctrine; but they gave religion the first place in their programe, which belong ed to it of right, and confided the formation of their college to the Rev. Jonathan Dickinson, one of their own number, a man of such mastery as they could trust. Their school was first of all merely a little group of students gathered about Mr. Dickin son in Elizabethtown. Its master died the very year his labours began; and it was necessary to induce the Rev. Aaron Burr, one of the trustees, to take the college under his own charge at Newark. It was the charm and power of that memorable young pastor a nd teacher which carried it forward to a final establishment. Within ten years many friends had been made, substantial sums of money secured, a new and more liberal charter obtained, and a permanent home found at Princeton. And then its second president d ied, while still in his prime, and the succession was handed on to other leader's of like quality.
It was the men, rather than their measures, as usual, that had made the college vital from the first and put it in a sure way to succeed. The charter was liberal and very broad ideas determined the policy of the young school. There we re laymen upon its board of trustees as well as clergymen, -not all Presbyterians, but all lovers of progress and men known in the colony: no one was more thoroughly the friend of the new venture than Governor Belcher the representative of the crown. But the life of the college was in the men who administered it and spoke in its class rooms, a notable line of thinkers and orators. There had not been many men more to be regarded in debate or in counsel in that day than Jonathan Dickinson; and Aaron Burr wa s such a man as others turn to and follow with an admiration and trust they might be at a loss to explain, so instinctive is it, and inevitable -a man with a touch of sweet majesty in his presence, and a grace and spirit in his manner which more than made amends for his small and slender figure; the unmistakable fire of eloquence in him when he spoke and the fine quality of sincerity. Piety seemed with him only a crowning grace.
For a few brief weeks after Burr was dead Jonathan Edwards,whom all the world knows, was president in his stead; but death came quickly and left the college only his name. Another orator succeeded him, Samuel Davies, brought out of Vi rginia, famous out of all proportion to his years, you might think, until you heard him speak and knew the charm, the utterance, and the character that made him great. He too was presently taken by the quick way of death, though the college had had him bu t a little while, and Samuel Finley had presided in his stead, with a wise sagacity and quiet gift of leadership, for all too short a time, and was gone, when John Witherspoon came to reign in the little academic kingdom for twenty six years. It was b y that time the year 1768. Mr. Dickinson had drawn that little group of students about him under the first charter only twenty-one years ago; the college had been firmly seated in Princeton only these twelve years in which it had seen Burr and Edwards and Davies and Finley die, and had found it not a little hard to live so long in the face of its losses and the uneasy movements of the time. It had been brought to Princeton in the very midst of the French and Indian war, when the country was in doubt who s hould possess the continent. The deep excitement of the Stamp Act agitation had come, with all its sinister threats of embroilment and disaffection, while yet it was in its infancy and first effort to live. It was impossible it should obtain proper endowm ent or any right and equable development in such a season. It ought by every ordinary rule of life, to have been quite snuffed out in the thick and troubled air of the time. New Jersey did not, like Virginia and Massachusetts, easily form her purpose in t hat day of anxious doubt. She was mixed of many warring elements, as New York also was, and suffered a turbulence of spirit that did not very kindly breed "true religion and good literature."
But your thorough Presbyterian is not subject to the ordinary laws of life, --is of too stubborn a fibre, too unrelaxing a purpose, to suffer mere inconvenience to bring defeat. Difficulty bred effort rather; and Doctor Witherspoon fo und an institution ready to his hand that had come already in that quickening time to a sort of crude maturity. It was no small proof of its self-possession and self-knowledge that those who watched over it had chosen that very time of crisis to put a man like John Witherspoon at the head of its administration, a man so compounded of statesman and scholar, Calvinist, Scotsman, and orator that it must ever be a sore puzzle where to place or rank him, -whether among great divines, great teachers, or great s tatesmen. He seems to be all these and to defy classification, so big is he, so various, so prodigal of gifts. His vitality entered like a tonic into the college, kept it alive in that time of peril, -made it as individual and inextinguishable a force as he himself was, alike in scholarship and in public affairs.
It has never been natural, it has seldom been possible, in this country for learning to seek a place apart and hold aloof from affairs. It is only when society is old, long settled to its ways, confident in habit, and without self-que stioning upon any vital point of conduct, that study can affect seclusion and despise the passing interests of the day. America has never yet had a season of leisured quiet in which students could seek a life apart without sharp rigours of conscience, or college instructors easily forget that they were training citizens as well as drilling pupils; and Princeton is not likely to forget that sharp schooling of her youth, when she first learned the lesson of public service. She shall not easily get John With erspoon out of her constitution.
It was a piece of providential good fortune that brought such a man to Princeton at such a time. He was a man of the sort other men follow and take counsel of gladly and as if they found in him the full expression of what is best in t hemselves. Not because he was always wise, but because he showed always so fine an ardour for whatever was worth while and of the better part of man's spirit; because he uttered his thought with an inevitable glow of eloquence; because of his irresistable charm and individual power. The lively wit of the man, besides, struck always upon the matter of his thought like a ray of light, compelling men to receive what he said or else seem themselves opaque and laughable. A certain straightforward vigour in his way of saying things gave his style an almost irresistable power of entering into men's convictions. A hearty honesty showed itself in all that he did and won men's allegiance upon the instant. They loved him even when they had the hardihood to disagree with him.
He came to the college in 1768, and ruled it till he died, in 1794. In the very middle of his term as head of the college the Revolution came, to draw men's minds imperatively off from everything but war and politics, and he turned wi th all the force and frankness of his nature to the public tasks of the great struggle, assisted in the making of a new constitution for the State; became her spokesman in the Continental Congress; would have pressed her on, if he could, to utter a declar ation of independence of her own before the Congress had acted; voted for and signed the great Declaration with hearty good will when it came; acted for the country in matters alike of war and of finance; stood forth in the sight of all the people a great advocate and orator, deeming himself forward in the service of God when most engaged in the service of men and of liberty. There were but broken sessions of the college meanwhile. Each army in its turn drove out the little group of students who clung to the place. The college building became now a military hospital and again a barracks for the troops, -for a little while, upon a memorable day in 1777, a sort of stronghold. New Jersey's open counties became for a time the revolutionary battleground and fi eld of manoeuvre. Swept through from end to end by the rush of armies, the State seemed the chief seat of the war; and Princeton a central point of strategy. The dramatic winter of 1776-77 no Princeton man could ever forget, lived he never so long, -that winter which saw a year of despair turned suddenly into a year of hope. In July there had been bonfires and boisterous rejoicings in the college yard and in the village street at the news of the Declaration of Independence, -for, though the rest of the co untry might doubt and stand timid for a little to see the bold thing done, Doctor Witherspoon's pupils were in spirits to know the fight was to be fought to a finish. Then suddenly the end had seemed to come. Before the year was out Washington was in the place, beaten and in full retreat, only three thousand men at his back, abandoned by his generals, deserted by his troops, hardly daring to stop till he had put the unbridged Delaware between himself and his enemy. The British came close at his heels and the town was theirs until Washington came back again, the third day of the new year, early in the morning, and gave his view halloo yonder upon the hill, as if he were in the hunting field again. Then there was fighting in the very streets, and cannon pla nted against the walls of Old North [Nassau Hall] herself. 'Twas not likely any Princeton man would forget those days when the whole face of the war was changed and New Jersey was shaken of the burden of the fighting. There was almost always something doi ng at the place when the soldiers were out, for the strenuous Scotsman who had the college at his heart never left it for long at a time, for all he was so intent upon the public business. It was haphazard and piece-meal work, no doubt, but there was the spirit and the resolution of the Revolution itself in what was done, -the spirit of Witherspoon. It was not as if someone else had been master. Doctor Witherspoon could have pupils at will. He was so much else besides schoolmaster and preceptor, was so gr eat a figure in the people's eye, went about so like an accepted leader, generously lending a general character to a great cause, that he could bid men act and know that they would heed him.
The time as well as his own genious enabled him to put a distinctive stamp upon his pupils. There was close contact between master and pupils in that day of beginnings. There were not often more than a hundred students in attendanc e at the college, and the President, for at any rate half their course, was himself their chief instructor. There were two or three tutors to whom the instruction of the lower classes was entrusted; Mr. Houston was professor of mathematics and natural phi losophy, and Dr. Smith professor of moral philosophy and divinity; but the President set the pace. It was he who gave range and spirit to the course of study. He lectured upon taste and style as well as upon abstract questions of philosophy, and upon politics as a science of government and of public duty as little to be forgotten as religion itself in any well considered plan of life. He had found the college ready to serve such purpose when he came, because of the stamp Burr and Davies and Finley had put upon it. They had one and all consciously set themselves to make the college a place where young men's minds should be rendered fit for affairs, for the public ministry of the bench and the senate as well as of the pulpit. It was in Finley's day, but just now gone by, that the college had sent out such men as William Paterson, Luther Martin, and Oliver Ellsworth. Witherspoon but gave quickened life to the old spirit and method of the place where there had been drill from the first in public speech an d public spirit.
And the Revolution, when it came, seemed but an object-lesson in his scheme of life. It was not simply fighting that was done at Princeton. The little town became for a season the centre of politics too; once and again the legislature of the State sat in the college Hall, and its revolutionary Council of Safety. Soldiers and public men whose names the war was making known to every man frequented the quiet place, and racy talk ran high in the jolly tavern where hung the sign of Hudibra s. Finally, the federal Congress itself sought the place and filled the college hall with a new scene, sitting a whole season there to do its business, -its President a trustee of the college. A commencement day came which saw both Washington and Withersp oon on the platform together, -the two men, it was said, who could not be matched for striking presence in all the country, -and the young salutatorian turned to the country's leader to say what it was in the hearts of all to utter. The sum of the town's excitement was made up when, upon that notable day of October in the year 1783 news of peace came to that secluded hall, to add a crowning touch of gladness to the gay and brilliant company met to receive with formal welcome the Minister Plenipotentiary b ut just come from the Netherlands, Washington moving amongst them the hero whom the news enthroned.
It was no single stamp or character that the college gave its pupils. James Madison, Philip Freneau, Aaron Burr, and Harry Lee had come from it almost at a single birth, between 1771 and 1773: -James Madison, the philosophical statesm an, subtly compounded of learning and practical sagacity; Philip Freneau, the careless poet and reckless pamphleteer of a party; Aaron Burr, with genius enough to have made him immortal and unschooled passion enough to have made him infamous; "Lighthorse Harry" Lee, a Rupert in battle, a boy in counsel, highstrung, audacious, wilful, lovable, a figure for romance. These men were types of the spirit of which the college was full: the spirit of free individual development which found its perfect expression in the president himself.
It has been said that Mr. Madison's style in writing is like Dr. Witherspoon's, albeit not so apt a weapon for the quick thrust and instant parry; and it is recalled that Madison returned to Princeton after his graduation and linge red yet another year in study with his master. But in fact his style is no more like Witherspoon's than Harry Lee's way of fighting was. No doubt there was the same firmness of touch, the same philosophical breadth, the same range of topic and finished fo rce of argument in Dr. Witherspoon's essays upon public questions that are to be found in Madison's papers in the Federalist; but Dr. Witherspoon fought, too, with the same overcoming dash that made men know Harry Lee in the field, albeit with diff erent weapons and upon another arena.
Whatever we may say of these matters, however, one thing is certain: Princeton sent upon the public stage an extraordinary number of men of notable quality in those days; became herself for a time in some visible sort the academic centre of the Revolution; fitted, among the rest, the man in whom the country was one day to recognize the chief author of the federal constitution. Princetonians are never tired of telling how many public men graduated from Princeton in Witherspoon's ti me[:] twenty Senators, twenty-three Representatives, thirteen Governors, three judges of the Supreme Court of the Union, one Vice President, and a President; all within a space of scarcely twenty years, and from a college which seldom had more than a hund red students. Nine Princeton men sat in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and, though but six of them were Witherspoon's pupils, there was no other college that had there so many as six, and the redoubtable Doctor might have claimed all nine as his in spirit and capacity. Madison guided the convention through the critical stages of its anxious work, with a tact, a gentle quietness, an art of leading without insisting, ruling without commanding,an authority, not of tone or emphasis, but of apt suggesti on, -such as Dr. Witherspoon could never have exercised. Princeton men fathered both the Virginia plan which was adopted, and the New Jersey plan which was rejected: and Princeton men advocated the compromises without which no plan could have won acceptan ce. The strenuous Scotsman's earnest desire and prayer to God to see a government set over the nation that should last was realized as even he might not have been bold enough to hope. No man had ever better right to rejoice in his pupils.
It would be absurd to pretend that we can distinguish Princeton's touch and method in the Revolution or her distinctive handiwork in the constitution of the Union. We can show nothing more of historical fact than that her own Presiden t took a great place of leadership in that time of change, and became one of the first figures of the age; that the college which he led and to which he gave his spirit contributed more than her share of public men to the making of the nation, outranked h er elder rivals in the roll-call of the constitutional convention, and seemed for a little a seminary of statesmen rather than a quiet seat of academic learning. What takes our admiration and engages our fancy in looking back to that time is the generous union then established in the college between the life of philosophy and the life of the state.
It moves her sons very deeply to find Princeton to have been from the first what they know her to have been in their own day: a school of duty. The revolutionary days are gone, and you shall not find upon her rolls another group of na mes given to public life that can equal her muster in the days of the Revolution and the formation of the government. But her rolls read since the old days, if you know but a little of the quiet life of scattered neighborhoods, like a roster of tru stees, a list of the silent men who carry the honorable burdens of business and of social obligation, -of such names as keep credit and confidence in heart. They suggest a soil full of the old seed and ready, should the air of the time move shrewdly upon it as in the old days, to spring once more into the old harvest. The various, boisterous strength of the young men of affairs who went out with Witherspoon's touch upon them, is obviously not of the average breed of any place, but the specia l fruitage of an exceptional time. Later generations inevitably reverted to the elder type of Patterson [Paterson] and Ellsworth, the type of sound learning and stout character, without bold impulse added or any uneasy hope to change the world. It has bee n Princeton's work, in all ordinary seasons, not to change but to strengthen society, to give, not yeast, but bread for the raising.
It is in this wise Princeton has come into our own hands; and today we stand as those who would count this force for the future. The men who made Princeton are dead; those who shall keep it and better it still live: they are even o urselves. Shall we not ask, ere we go forward, what gave the place its spirit and its air of duty? 'We are now men, and must accept in the highest spirit the same transcendent destiny; and not pinched in a corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but redeemers and benefactors, pious aspirants to be noble clay plastic under the Almighty effort, let us advance and advance on chaos and the dark!"(2)
No one who looks into the life of the Institution shall find it easy to say what gave it its spirit and kept it in its character the generations through; but some things lie obvious to the view in Princeton's case. She has always been a school of religion and no one of her sons, who has really lived her life, has escaped that steadying touch which has made her a school of duty. Religion, conceive it but liberally enough, is the true salt wherewith to keep both duty and learning sweet against the taint of time and change; and it is a noble thing to have conceived it thus liberally, as Princeton's founders did. Churches, among us, as all the world knows, are free and voluntary societies, separated to be nurseries of belief, not suffe red to become instruments of rule; and those who serve them can be free citizens, as well as faithful churchmen. The men who founded Princeton were pastors, not ecclesiastics. Their ideal was the service of congregations and communities, not the service o f a church. Duty with them was a practical thing, concerned with righteousness in this world, as well as with salvation in the next. There is nothing that gives such pith to public service as religion. A God of truth is no mean prompter to the enlight ened service of mankind; and character formed, as if in his eye, has always a fibre and sanction such as you shall not easily obtain for the ordinary man from the mild promptings of philosophy.
This, I cannot doubt, is the reason why Princeton formed practical men, whom the world could trust to do its daily work like men of honor. There were men in Dr. Witherspoon's day who doubted him the right preceptor for those who so ught the ministry of the church, seeing him "as high a son of liberty as any man in America," and turned agitator rather than preacher, and he drew about him, as troubles thickened, young politicians rather than candidates for the pulpit. But it is notewo rthy that observing men in far Virginia sent their sons to be with Dr. Witherspoon, because they saw intrigue and the taint of infidelity coming upon their own College of William and Mary, Mr. Madison among the rest; and that young Madison went home to re ad theology with earnest system ere he went out to the tasks of his life. He had no thought of becoming a minister, but his master at Princeton had taken possession of his mind and had enabled him to see what knowledge was profitable.
The world has long thought that it detected in the academic life some lack of sympathy with itself, some disdain of the homely tasks which make the gross globe inhabitable, -not a little proud aloofness and lofty superiority, as if ed ucation always softened the hands and alienated the heart. It must be admitted that books are a great relief from the haggling of the market, libraries a very welcome refuge from the strife of commerce. We feel no anxiety about ages that are passed ; old books draw us pleasantly off from responsibility, remind us nowhere of what there is to do. We can easily hold the service of mankind at arms length while we read and make scholars of ourselves, but we shall be very uneasy, the while, if the right mandates of religion are let in upon us and made part of our thought. The quiet scholar has his proper breeding and truth must be searched out and held aloft for men to see for its own sake by such as will not leave off their sacred task unti l death takes them away. But not many pupils of a College are to be investigators: they are to be citizens and the worlds servants in every field of practical endeavor, and in their instruction the College must use learning as a vehicle of spirit, interpr eting literature as the voice of humanity, -must enlighten, guide, and hearten its sons, that it may make men of them. If it give them no vision of the true God, it has given them no certain motive to practise the wise lessons they have learned.
It is noteworthy how often God-fearing men have been forward in those revolutions which have vindicated rights, and how seldom in those which have wrought a work of destruction. There was a spirit of practical piety in the revolut ionary doctrines which Dr. Witherspoon taught. No man, particularly no young man, who heard him could doubt his cause a righteous cause or deem religion aught but a prompter in it. Revolution was not to be distinguished from duty in Princeton. Duty become s the more noble when thus conceived the "stern daughter of the voice of God"; and that voice must ever seem near and in the midst of life if it be made to sound dominant from the first in all thought of men and the world. It has not been by accident, the refore, that Princeton men have been inclined to public life. A strong sense of duty is a fretful thing in confinement, and will not easily consent to be kept at home clapped up within a narrow round. The University in our day is no longer inclined to sta nd aloof from the practical world, and, surely, it ought never to have had the disposition to do so. It is the business of a University to impart to the rank and file of the men whom it trains the right thought of the world, the thought which it has teste d and established, the principles which have stood through the seasons and become at length part of the immemorial wisdom of the race. The object of education is not merely to draw out the powers of the individual mind: it is rather its right object to dr aw all minds to a proper adjustment to the physical and social world in which they are to have their life and their development: to enlighten, strengthen and make fit. The business of the world is not individual success, but its own betterment, strengthen ing, and growth in spiritual insight-- "So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom" is its right prayer and aspiration.
It was not a work of destruction which Princeton helped forward even in that day of storm which came at the revolution, but a work of preservation. The American revolution wrought a radical work of change in the world: it created a ne w nation and a new polity; but it was a work of conservation after all, as fundamentally conservative as the revolution of 1688 or the extortion of Magna Charta. A change of allegiance and the erection of a new nation in the West were its inevitable resul ts but not its objects. Its object was the preservation of a body of liberties, to keep the natural course of English development in America clear of impediment. It was meant, not in rebellion, but in self-defense. If it brought change, it was the change of maturity, the fulfilment of destiny, the appropriate fruitage of wholesome and steady growth. It was part of English liberty that America should be free. The thought of our Revolution was as quick and vital in the minds of Chatham and of Burke as in th e minds of Otis and Henry and Washington. There is nothing so conservative of life as growth: when that stops, decay sets in and the end comes on apace. Progress is life, for the body politic as for the body natural. To stand still is to court death.
Here, then, if you will but look, you have the law of conservatism disclosed: it is a law of progress. But not all change is progress, not all growth is the manifestation of life. Let one part of the body be in haste to outgrow the re st and you have malignant disease, the threat of death. The growth that is a manifestation of life is equable, draws its springs gently out of the old fountains of strength, builds upon old tissue, covets the old airs that have blown upon it time out of m ind in the past. Colleges ought surely to be the best nurseries of such life, the best schools of the progress which conserves. Unschooled men have only their habits to remind them of the past, only their desires and their instinctive judgments of what is right to guide them into the future: the College should serve the state as its organ of recollection, its seat of vital memory. It should give the country men who know the probabilities of failure and success, who can separate the tendencies which are pe rmanent from the tendencies which are of the moment merely, who can distinguish promises from threats, knowing the life men have lived, the hopes they have tested, and the principles they have proved.
This College gave the country at least a handful of such men, in its infancy, and its president for leader. The blood of John Knox ran in Witherspoon's veins. The great drift and movement of English liberty from Magna Charta down was in all his teachings; his pupils knew as well as Burke did that to argue the Americans out of their liberties would be to falsify their pedigree. "In order to prove that the Americans have no right to their liberties," Burke cried, "we are every day endea voring to subvert the maxims which preserve the whole spirit of our own"(3); the very antiquarians of the law stood ready with their proof that the Colonies could not be taxed by Parliament. This Revolution, at any rate, was a keeping of faith with the past. To stand for it was to be like Hampden, a champion of law though he withstood the king. It was to emulate the example of the very men who had founded the government then for a little while grown so tyrannous and forgetful of its great traditions. This was the compulsion of life, not of passion, and College Halls were a better school of revolution than Colonial assemblies.
Provided, of course, they were guided by such a spirit as Witherspoon's. Nothing is easier than to falsify the past. Lifeless instruction will do it. If you rob it of vitality, stiffen it with pedantry, sophisticate it with argument, chill it with unsympathetic comment, you render it as dead as any academic exercise. The safest way in all ordinary seasons is to let it speak for itself: resort to its records, listen to its poets and to its masters in the humbler art of prose. Your real and proper object, after all, is not to expound, but to realize it, consort with it, and make your spirit kin with it, so that you may never shake the sense of obligation off. In short, I believe that the catholic study of the world's literature as a rec ord of spirit is the right preparation for leadership in the world's affairs, if you undertake it like a man and not like a pedant
Age is marked in the case of every people just as it is marked in the case of every work of art, into which enters the example of the masters, the taste of long generations of men, the thought that has matured, the achievement that ha s come with assurance. The child's crude drawing shares the primitive youth of the first hieroglyphics; but a little reading, a few lessons from some modern master, a little time in the old world's galleries set the lad forward a thousand years and more, make his drawing as old as art itself. The art of thinking is as old, and it is the University's function to impart it in all its length: the stiff and difficult stuffs of fact and experience, of prejudice and affection, in which the hard art is to work i ts will, and the long and tedious combinations of cause and effect out of which it is to build up its results. How else will you avoid a ceaseless round of error? The world's memory must be kept alive, or we shall never see an end of its old mistakes. We are in danger to lose our identity and become infantile in every generation. That is the real menace under which we cower everywhere in this age of change. The old world trembles to see its proletariat in the saddle; we stand dismayed to find ourselves gr owing no older, always as young as the information of our most numerous voters. The danger does not lie in the fact that the masses whom we have enfranchised seek to work any iniquity upon us, for their aim, take it in the large, is to make a righteous po lity. The peril lies in this, that the past is discredited among them, because they played no choosing part in it. It was their enemy, they say, and they will not learn of it. They wish to break with it for ever: its lessons are tainted to their taste.
In America, especially, we run perpetually this risk of newness. Righteously enough, it is in part a consequence of boasting. To enhance our credit for originality we boasted for long that our Institutions were one and all our own inv entions; and the pleasing error was so got into the common air by persistent discharges of oratory, that every man's atmosphere became surcharged with it, and it seems now quite too late to dislodge it. Three thousand miles of sea, moreover, roll between us and the elder part of the world. We are isolated here. We cannot see other nations in detail, and looked at in the large, they do not seem like ourselves. Our problems, we say, are our own, and we will take our own way of solving them. Nothing seems au dacious among us, for our case seems to us to stand singular and without parallel. We run in a free field, without recollection of failure, without heed of example.
This danger is nearer to us now than it was in days of armed revolution. The men whom Madison led in the making of the Constitution were men who regarded the past. They had flung off from the mother country, not to get a new libert y, but to preserve an old, not to break a Constitution, but to keep it. It was the glory of the Convention of 1787 that it made choice in the making of the government of principles which Englishmen everywhere had tested, and of an organization of which in every part Americans themselves had somewhere made trial. In every essential part they built out of old stuffs whose grain and fibre they knew.
"'Tis not in battles that from youth we train
The Governor who must be wise and good,
And temper with the sternness of the brain
Thoughts motherly, and meek as womanhood.
Wisdom doth live with children round her knees:
Books, leisure, perfect freedom, and the talk
Man holds with week-day man in the hourly walk
Of the mind's business: these are the degrees
By which true Sway doth mount; this is the stalk
True Power does grow on; and her rights are these."(4)
The men who framed the government were not radicals. They trimmed old growths, and were not forgetful of the old principles of husbandry.
It is plain that it is the duty of an institution of learning set in the midst of a free population and amidst signs of social change, not merely to implant a sense of duty, but to illuminate duty by every lesson that can be drawn out of the past. It is not a dogmatic process. I know of no book in which the lessons of the past are set down. I do not know of any man whom the world could trust to write such a book. But it somehow comes about that the man who has travelled in the rea lms of thought brings lessons home with him which make him grave and wise beyond his fellows, and thoughtful with the thoughtfulness of a true man of the world.
He is not a true man of the world who knows only the present fashoin [fashion] of it. In good breeding there is always the fine savor of generations of gentlemen, a tradition of courtesy, the perfect knowledge of long practi ce. The world of affairs is so old, no man can know it who knows only that little last segment of it which we call the present. We have a special name for the man who observes only the present fashions of the world: and it is a less honorable name than th at which we use to designate the grave and thoughtful gentlemen who keep so steadily to the practises that have made the world wise and at ease these hundreds of years. We cannot pretend to have formed the world, and we are not destined to reform i t. We cannot even mend it and set it forward by the reasonable measure of a single generation's work if we forget the old processes or lose our mastery over them. We should have scant capital to trade on were we to throw away the wisdom we have inherited and seek our fortunes with the slender stock we have ourselves accumulated.
This, it seems to me, is the real, the prevalent argument for holding every man we can to the intimate study of the ancient classics. Latin and Greek no doubt have a grammatical and syntactical habit which challenges the mind t hat would master it to a severer exercise of analytical power than the easy-going synthesis of any modern tongue demands; but substitutes in kind may be found for that drill. What you cannot find a substitute for is the classics as literature; and there c an be no first-hand contact with that literature if you will not master the grammar and the syntax which convey its subtle power. Your enlightenment depends on the company you keep. You do not know the world until you know the men who have possessed it an d tried its ways before ever you were given your brief run upon it. And there is no sanity comparable with that which is schooled in the thoughts that will keep. It is such a schooling that we get from the world's literature. The books have disappeared wh ich were not genuine, -which spoke things which, if they were worth saying at all, were not worth hearing more than once, as well as the books which spoke permanent things clumsily and without the gift of interpretation. The kind air which blows from age to age has disposed of them like vagrant leaves. There was sap in them for a little, but now they are gone, we do not know where. All literature that has lasted has this claim upon us: that it is not dead; but we cannot be quite so sure of any as we a re of the ancient literature that still lives, because none has lived so long. It holds a sort of leadership in the aristocracy of natural selection.
Read it, moreover, and you shall find another proof of vitality in it, more significant still. You shall recognise its thoughts, and even its fancies, as your long-time familiars, -shall recognise them as the thoughts that have begott en a vast deal of your own literature. We read the classics and exclaim in our vanity: "How modern! it might have been written yesterday." Would it not be more true, as well as more instructive, to exclaim concerning our own ideas: "How ancient! they h ave been true these thousand years"? It is the general air of the world a man gets when he reads the classics, the thinking which depends upon no time but only upon human nature, which seems full of the voices of the human spirit, quick with the power which moves ever upon the face of affairs. "What Plato has thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel; what at any time has befallen any man, he can understand." There is the spirit of a race in Greek literature, the spirit of quite ano ther people in the books of Virgil and Horace and Tacitus, but in all a mirror of the world, the old passion of the soul, the old hope that keeps so new, the informing memory, the persistent forecast.
It has always seemed to me an odd thing, and a thing against nature, that the literary man, the man whose citizenship and freedom are of the world of thought, should ever have been deemed an unsafe man in affairs; and yet I suppose th ere is not always injustice in the judgment. It is a peculiarly pleasant and beguiling comradeship, the company of authors. Not many men when once they aye deep in it will leave its engaging talk of things gone by to find their practical duties in the pre sent. But you are not making an undergraduate a man of letters when you keep him four short years, at odd, or even at stated, hours in the company of authors. You shall have done much if you make him feel free among them.
This argument for enlightenment holds scarcely less good, of course, in behalf of the study of modern literature and especially the literature of your own race and country. You should not belittle culture by esteeming it a thing of or nament and accomplishment rather than a power. A cultured mind is a mind quit of its awkwardness, eased of all impediment and illusion, made quick and athletic in the acceptable exercise of power. It is a mind at once informed and just, -a mind habituated to choose its course with knowledge, and filled with full assurance, like one who knows the world and can live in it without either unreasonable hope or unwarrented fear. It cannot complain, it cannot trifle, it cannot despair. Leave pessimism to the unc ultured, who do not know reasonable hope; leave fantastic hopes to the uncultured, who do not know the reasonableness of failure. Show that your mind has lived in the world ere now; has taken council with the elder dead who still live, as well as with the ephemeral living who cannot pass their graves. Help men, but do not delude them.
I believe, of course, that there is another way of -preparing young men to be wise. I need not tell you that I believe in full, explicit instruction in history and in politics, in the experiences of peoples and the fortunes of gov ernments, in the whole story of what men have attempted and what they have accomplished through all the changes both of form and purpose in their organization of their common life. Many minds will receive and heed this systematic instruction which have no ears for the voice that is in the printed page of literature. But, just as it is one thing to sit here in republican America and hear a credible professor tell of the soil of allegiance in which the British monarchy grows, and quite another to live wh ere her Majesty is Queen and hear common men bless her with full confession and loyalty, so it is one thing to hear of systems of government in histories and treatises and quite another to feel them in the pulses of the poets and prose writers who have lived under them.
It used to be taken for granted-did it not?-that colleges would be found always on the conservative side in politics (except on the question of free trade) but in this latter day a great deal has taken place which goes far towards discrediting the presumption. The college in our day lives very near indeed to the affairs of the world. It is a place of the latest experiments; its laboratories are brisk with the spirit of discovery; its lecture rooms resound with the discussion of ne w theories of life and novel programs of reform. There is no radical like your learned radical, bred in the schools; and thoughts of revolution have in our times been harbored in Universities as naturally as they were once nourished among the Encyclopedis ts. It is the scientific spirit of the age that has wrought the change. I stand with my hat off at very mention of the great men who have made our age an age of knowledge. No man more heartily admires, more gladly welcomes, more approvingly reckons the ga in and the enlightenment that have come to the world through the extraordinary advances in physical science which this great age has witnessed. He would be a barbarian, and a lover of darkness who should grudge that great study any part of its triumph. Bu t I am a student of society and should deem myself unworthy of the comradeship of great men of science should I not speak the plain truth with regard to what I see happening under my own eyes I have no laboratory but the world of books and men in which I live; but I am much mistaken if the scientific spirit of the age is not doing us a great disservice, working in us a certain great degeneracy. Science has bred in us a spirit of experiment and a contempt for the past. It has made us credulous of quick imp rovement, hopeful of discovering panaceas, confident of success in every new thing.
I wish to be as explicit as carefully chosen words will enable me to be upon a matter so critical, so radical as this. I have no indictment against what science has done: I have only a warning to utter against the atmosphere which has stolen from laboratories into lecture rooms and into the general air of the world at large. Science, -our science, -is new. It is a child of the nineteenth century. It has transformed the world and owes little debt of obligation to any past age. It ha s driven mystery out of the Universe; it has made malleable stuff of the hard world, an laid it out in its elements upon the table of every class room. Its own masters have known its limitations: they have stopped short at the confines of the physical Uni verse, have declined to reckon with spirit or with the stuffs of the mind, have eschewed sense and confined themselves to sensation. But their work has been so stupendous that all other men of all other studies have been set staring at their methods, imit ating their ways of thought ogling their results. We look in our study of the classics now-a-days more at the phenomena of language than at the movement of spirit; we suppose the world which is invisible to be unreal we doubt the efficacy of feeling and e xaggerate the efficacy of knowledge; we speak of society as an organism, and believe that we can contrive for it a new environment which will change the very nature of its constituent parts; worst of all, we believe in the present and in the future more t han in the past, and deem the newest theory of society the likeliest. This is the disservice scientific study has done us: it has given us agnosticism in the realm of philosophy, scientific anarchism in the field of politics. It has made the legislator co nfident that he can create and the philosopher sure that God cannot. Past experience is discredited and the laws of matter are supposed to apply to spirit and makeup of society.
Let me say, this is not the fault of the scientist: he has done his work with an intelligence and success which cannot be too much admired. It is the work of the noxious, intoxicating gas which has somehow got into the lungs of th e rest of us from out die crevices of his workshop, -a gas, it would seem, which forms only in the outer air, and where men do not know the right use of their lungs. I should tremble to see social reform led by men who had breathed it: I should fear nothi ng better than utter destruction from a revolution conceived and led in the scientific spirit. Science has not changed the laws of social growth or betterment. Science has not changed the nature of society, has not made history a whit easier to underst and, or human nature a whit easier to reform. It has won for us a great liberty in the physical world, a liberty from superstitious fear and from disease, a freedom to use nature as a familiar servant; but it has not freed us from ourselves. It has not pu rged us of passion or disposed us to virtue. It has not made us less covetous or less ambitious or less self-indulgent. On the contrary, it may be suspected of having enhanced our passions by making wealth so quick to come, and so fickle to stay. It has w rought such instant, incredible improvement in all the physical setting of our life, that we have grown the more impatient of the unreformed condition of the part it has not touched or bettered, and we want to get at our spirits and reconstruct them in li ke radical fashoin [fashion] by like processes of experiment. We have broken with the past and have come into a new world.
Do you wonder, then, that I ask for the old drill, the old memory of times gone by, the old schooling in precedent and tradition, the old keeping of faith with the past, as a preparation for leadership in the days of social change ? We have not given science too big a place in our education; but we have made a perilous mistake in giving it too great a preponderance in method in every other branch of study. We must make the humanities human again; must recall what manner of men we a re; must turn back once more to the region of practicable ideals.
Of course, when all is said, it is not learning but the spirit of service that will give a college place in the public annals of the nation. It is indispensable, it seems to me, if it is to do its right service, that the air of affair s should be admitted to all its class rooms. I do not mean the air of party politics but the air of the world's transactions, the consciousness of the solidarity of the race, the sense of the duty of man towards man, of the presence of men in every proble m, of the significance of truth for guidance as well as for knowledge, of the potency of ideas, of the promise and the hope that shine in the face of all knowledge. There is laid upon us the compulsion of the national life. We dare not keep aloof and clos et ourselves while a nation comes to its maturity. The days of glad expansion are gone. Our life grows tense and difficult; our resource for the future lies in careful thought, providence, and a wise economy; and the school must be of the nation. I have h ad sight of the perfect place of learning in my thought: a free place, and a various, where no man could be and not know with how great a destiny knowledge had come into the world: -itself a little world; but not perplexed, living with a singleness of aim not known without: the home of sagacious men, hard-headed and with a will to know, debaters of the world's questions every day and used to the rough ways of democracy; and yet a place removed-calm Science seated there, recluse, ascetic, like a nun, not k nowing that the world passes, not caring, if the truth but come in answer to her prayer; and Literature, walking within her open doors in quiet chambers with men of olden time, storied walls about her, and calm voices infinitely sweet; here "magic casemen ts, opening on the foam of perilous seas, in fairy lands forlorn," to which you may withdraw and use your youth for pleasure; there windows open straight upon the street, where many stand and talk intent upon the world of men and business. A place where i deals are kept in heart in an air they can breathe; but no fool's paradise. A place where to hear the truth about the past and hold debate about the affairs of the present, with knowledge and without passion; like the world in having all men's life at hea rt, a place for men and all that concerns them; but unlike the world in its self-possession, its thorough way of talk, its care to know more than the moment brings to light; slow to take excitement, its air pure and wholesome with a breath of faith: every eye within it bright in the clear day and quick to look toward heaven for the confirmation of its hope. Who shall show us the way to this place?
WWT, WWhw, EAWhw, and T MS. (WC, NjP).
1 The text printed below is that of the only
extant manuscript of "Princeton in the Nation's Service." The manuscript vividly
reveals the difficulties under which Wilson worked at this time because of his small
stroke. Working perhaps from an earlier draft, Wilson began typing the address with his
left hand on his Hammond typewriter and completed eleven pages. He could type no more, and
the remainder of the manuscript (pages 12 - 32) was typed on a different machine,
undoubtedly by other hands. There are numerous handwritten emendations and insertions by
Wilson and his wife, including one paragraph written by Wilson with his left hand. The
manuscript also bears many linear markings. At some time before delivery, Wilson concluded
that his address was much too long and marked the sections which he would read. The
portions that he omitted are printed in italics.
It is possible that Wilson spoke from a printed copy made from his manuscript, for the latter bears the printer's instructions, "Don't set," at two of the sections that Wilson had denoted for deletion.
The text of "Princeton in the Nation's Service" as Wilson delivered it appeared in the New York Evening Post, October 21, 1896, and in the Daily Princetonian, October 22 and 23, 1896. The complete version of the address was first printe d, with a few changes in the text printed below, in the New York Forum, XXII (December 1896), 447-66. The address was reprinted many times.
2 From the third paragraph of Emerson's essay, "Self-Reliance," as it appeared in Essays (Boston, 1841), P. 39.
3 From Edmund -Burke, "Speech on Moving His Resolutions for Conciliation with the Colonies, March22, 1775," in The Works of the Right Honorable Edmund Burke, 5th edn. (12 vols., Boston, 1877), 11, 130.
4 From William Wordsworth, "I grieved for Buonaparte..."