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Princeton in the Nation's Service

"Princeton in the Nation's Service" is the title of an oration Woodrow Wilson delivered at the Sesquicentennial celebration, when Princeton looked back to its founding in 1746. For his inaugural address as president of the University in 1902, when he outlined a program for Princeton's future, he used almost the same title: "Princeton for the Nation's Service" (italics ours). But the 1896 oration is more memorable and its title the one so frequently quoted.

Wilson began with a brief sketch of Princeton's first twenty years, under its five earliest presidents, and then devoted the major part of his address to the administration of Princeton's sixth president, John Witherspoon, divine, scholar, and statesman, whose "vitality entered like a tonic into the college, kept it alive in . . . time of peril -- made it as individual and inextinguishable a force as he himself was, alike in scholarship and in public affairs."

He then told how Witherspoon, who came from Scotland in 1768 and was president of the College until he died in 1794, helped make a new constitution for New Jersey, became her spokesman in the Continental Congress, and voted for and signed the Declaration of Independence. He "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."

Wilson went on to describe dramatically the events that took place in Princeton during the Revolution, how Nassau Hall became a military hospital, then a barracks, and finally on January 3, 1777, a stronghold that changed hands three times. On that memorable day, there was fighting in the streets and cannon fire against Nassau Hall, as Washington, who only a few days before had been beaten and in full retreat, after crossing the Delaware, defeated the British and changed "the whole face of the war."

Princeton, Wilson pointed out, became as much a center of politics as it was of fighting: the state legislature and its revolutionary Council of Safety sat in Nassau Hall on occasion, and the Continental Congress (to which news of peace came in October) met there in 1783. The Commencement audience that year saw Washington and Witherspoon on the platform together, "the two men, it was said, who could not be matched for striking presence in all the country."

Under Witherspoon, Princeton "became herself for a time . . . the academic center of the Revolution" and sent into public life an extraordinary number of notable statesmen: twenty-one senators, thirty-nine representatives, twelve governors, three Supreme Court justices, one vice-president, and a president, all within a period of about twenty-five years, and from a college that seldom had more than a hundred students. Nine Princeton men were delegates at the Constitutional Convention, and five of these were Witherspoon's students.*

It would be absurd, Wilson said, to pretend that one could single out a distinctive Princeton mark in the Revolution or the Constitution: "We can show nothing more of historical fact than that her own president 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 her 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."

Coming down to the present, Wilson declared it the duty of institutions of learning in a democracy not merely to inculcate a sense of duty, "but to illuminate duty by every lesson that can be drawn out of the past." He then spoke of the contributions various disciplines could make to this purpose. Toward the end of his address he urged that the College identify itself with the needs of the nation -- in a passage often quoted, which was an essential idea in the founding, in 1930, of the School of Public and International Affairs, later named for Wilson: "It is indispensable, it seems to me, if [a college] is to do its right service, that the air of affairs should be admitted to all its classrooms. 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 toward man, of the presence of men in every problem, of the significance of truth for guidance as well as for knowledge. . . . We dare not keep aloof and closet 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."

*In this paragraph, the numbers President Wilson used have been amended in light of later research.

Source: Leitch p. 385 ff