The Political Evolution of a College President

WRITING to the Marquis de Lafayette from Monticello in 1823, at the age of eighty years, — after ‘fifty years of trial and trouble in the various grades of my country’s service,’ as is said in another letter, — Thomas Jefferson set forth this differentiation: ‘For in truth, the parties of Whig and Tory are those of Nature. They exist in all countries, whether called by these names, or by those of Aristocrat and Democrat, Côté Droit and Côté Gauche, Ultras and Radicals, Serviles and Liberals. The sickly, weakly, timid man fears the people, and is a Tory by nature. The healthy, strong, and bold cherishes them, and is formed a Whig by nature.’

The essential truth of such a cleavage in the body politic is always to be seen, though at times the line of demarcation becomes blurred and indistinct. Party beliefs and practices shade into each other until distinctive qualities, representative of real differences, are hard to find. Not infrequently of late in the United States it has been remarked that it would take an expert to discover any really essential difference as to policies between the Republicans and the Democrats, so fast have the Republicans been taking up things that were yesterday termed the heresies of the radical democracy, led by William J. Bryan. ‘If the sickly, weakly, timid man fears the people,’and ‘the healthy, strong, and bold cherishes them ’ — then health and strength and bravery have become pretty well diffused through the body politic, and the general disposition to cherish the people is the surely not undesirable consequence.

It is to this pass that we have come in this country, a pass where the popular temper is insistent that the political parties shall legislate and direct, to the end that the welfare of every man shall be the chief consideration of those who exercise the power of government as it is applied through the legislative, the executive, and the judicial departments. In its last analysis, this is not something to be feared, but to be welcomed and directed with the largest measure of wisdom it is possible to command. It is evolution, and not revolution. In the view of those who believe that the cure for the evils of democracy is the injection of more democracy, we are facing an opportunity for better conservation of popular government. Such is the faith that has been moving over state after state, and affecting in a vital way the fortunes of parties and of men. Of course there is plent y of opportunity to challenge the methods that are being employed, and to fear the effect of too great a departure from representative government. It is true that a national temper such as we have described invites the activity of demagogues: we see that as a matter of fact; but the situation also appeals to the thoughtful sense of all who love the republic and would serve it to the full measure of the opportunity which their generation offers.

Such a sentiment among the people demands clear thinking. There is too much of vague emotion, a readiness to run hither and yon, with the best of intentions but to no purpose in the way of wise progress. A majority of us are in favor of the Ten Commandments, but. the sensible do not care to make of our reform purposes ‘an iridescent dream,’ a business disaster, or a bloody contention. The determination to command a larger recognition of democracy or republicanism, as you may choose to call it; to insist that those in power shall be not only honest and efficient, but regardful always of the public as against the special interest; that the average citizen shall not be forgotten, but remembered, and his rights safeguarded, ‘to the end that this shall be a government of the people, for the people, and by the people’ — this is the issue which to-day, whether clearly understood or not, is affecting the mass of American voters.

It has been the province of these recent years to focus popular feeling on this point. So a great step has been taken. In the absence of acute nat ional problems, such as slavery, the Civil War, and reconstruct ion, — internal ills that demanded diagnosis and treatment, to the exclusion of questions less commanding and urgent, — the individual units that compose our indestructible union of states have been thrown back upon problems of democracy of a vital and yet not spectacular sort. The questions that stir us belong still to our political household, but the demand is for the intelligent heroism of peace — for constructive statesmanship not set in the midst of the glamour that war yields. There is opportunity for fervor and devotion, but passion and ill-will need not attend. Animosities will be a handicap and not a help. In a spirit of soberness, in candor and high purpose, it remains to welcome the intensity of our popular awakening, and to consider how we can make the operations of government sure, just, and remedial, as the need calls for.

Judge Peter S. Grosscup of Chicago says that ‘the world, politically, is trying to catch up with the world’s radically changed economical conditions.’ To his mind, ‘the formative period is approaching. Next year’s presidential election will, I believe, be the last one on the old lines, and the settlement of the future will not come through the law, but through the court of public opinion.’ This means a demand for broad and well-considered political leadership. The ship of stale must not be permitted to drift, but it must be guided. There is call for the qualities of Seneca’s pilot. The two political parties are to a degree responsive to the existing political situation, and I have been asked to consider the relation which Woodrow Wilson may come to occupy toward these problems of the republic.

He offers a study of special, and indeed novel, interest: the spectacle of a teacher — a brilliant student and expounder of American history — and college president, thrown into the turmoil of politics, in the one state of the Union perhaps best calculated to test his leadership and to strain his theories. If ever any man were confronted with the bald realities of our existing political life, it has been the Governor of New Jersey. Complicated conditions, political and personal, confronted him. He has had to ‘play the game’ with men who have made politics their trade. The ends of government, whether good or bad, do not achieve themselves; and not even the advantage of a democracy is selfacting, like the ebb and flow of the tides. The easy assumption of some, that all right is on one side and all evil on the other, fails lamentably when first-hand knowledge of actual conditions has been achieved. Good men have need of a knowledge of the operation of political forces. Selfishness and the corrupt influences it can muster are alert to win advantage over the common interest, less vigilantly guarded, and ready to employ, now one party and then the other, if not both at once.

Governor Wilson has had something to learn, and it need not surprise those who understand politics that he has found some things to discard in discharging his immediate task. The sum of Governor Wilson’s achievements, and the extent and character of these modifications of once-cherished opinions, are important as bearing upon his possible future as a leader of the Democratic party. It is to be added that no set of men have been more interested observers of his advent and record than the practical politicians, — from the men who expect the prizes of politics to those who have been trained to help the other fellows get them, — the leaders and their followers, the generals and the army, under whichever party banner they have marched.

The depth and individuality of Woodrow Wilson’s democracy were strikingly shown in his effort to place Princeton University upon a new footing. After the president had recast the curriculum of study, and had introduced the more intimate method of instruct ion known as the preceptorial system, he found that the result, while showing notable improvement, fell short of what he wanted. He investigated and concluded that the social organization of college life was out of joint. At Princeton there are a dozen or more ‘upper-class clubs.’ Election to these clubs is by vote of the existing members. The clubs have handsome properties, and are much like the ordinary city club of a social character. As only about one half of the two upper classes can receive admission, elections to membership are coveted, especially to those clubs that are regarded as particularly desirable. Those juniors and seniors not elected to the clubs are in a way side-tracked, so far as the good things of the social life of college are concerned. As the freshmen and sophomores hope to ‘make’aclub eventually, they are apt to shape their college career with this end in view. There is thus a doubly disintegrating force at work, between those who have ‘arrived ’ and those who have not arrived, in the two upper classes; and horizontally between the upper and lower classes, the latter shunning all intimacy with the former for fear of incurring the odium of currying favor in the matter of club elections.

President Wilson put it in this way; There are two gates to the privileges and enjoyments that college confers. One gate the faculty controls, in requiring all candidates for admission to pass the entrance examinations. The other gate is privately and secretly controlled by the memberships of the two upper classes. What Dr. Wilson thought should be a common good was lodged in the control of private hands. He resolved upon the dissolution of the clubs, or their transformation into residential units (rather unhappily called ‘quads’), where all four classes in convenient numbers — say, eighty or one hundred in each group — should live and board upon an equality in externals (like West Point), but with no pressure otherwise exerted than by their own free choice.

This attempt to give the ancient College of New Jersey — whose commencement Washington and the Continental Congress attended in 1783 — a new baptism of democracy was suggestive and bold. The historic environment was in itself provocative of thought regarding the essentials of American democracy. That President Wilson’s effort eventually failed was because he did not give proper emphasis to two considerations — that he was appealing to a democratic spirit not to be fully aroused at the first challenge, and assailing with startling abruptness entrenched traditions and conditions; and that he was antagonizing vested interests certain to be quick to respond in opposition. Some associated with him as supporters of his programme believed that the impetuosity of attack might have been mitigated in favor of more deliberate and conciliatory methods of approach. There was need of a more extended process of education along the lines of his desire, and perhaps this had not been sufficiently considered, or else was not deliberately enough pursued. Other supporters of Dr. Wilson hold that the defeat of the plan was due far more to the private interests of the club alumni, who liked the type of college life which the club symbolized, rather than the one which seemed to them too strenuous. But the earnestness of the democracy involved in the movement, or its fundamental character, will not be denied.

The episode had its importance in helping to define Dr. Wilson to the people of New Jersey. Though of a purely educational character, by a natural transition the contention reached over into the field of politics, and helped to make him governor of New Jersey. It accredited him to those who had been seeking an effective democratic leadership, it won for him an enthusiastic following among the graduates of Princeton in the state campaign following, and contributed much to his hold upon popular favor. Doubtless it led to the deepening of his democratic leanings, and it taught him that an established order will not capitulate and consent to reorganization upon the first assault, however determined and brilliant that may be. Evidences of a disposition to weigh obstacles more thoroughly, and to deal with them with a better understanding of the inertia involved, have been sufficiently manifest during the administration of Governor Wilson to lend plausibility to the supposition that much was learned from that university experience. But there has been no diminution of his initiative in the new field of labor. He continues to puzzle and to disturb those to whom the old political order had been agreeable, and in cases subservient.

As a candidate for governor, Woodrow Wilson offered a new type of leadership and of oratory that will be understood by any who heard him speak at the inauguration of President Garfield of Williams College. He was the conspicuous man among the outside college presidents and other speakers on that occasion, not by power of assertion, — Governor Guild was in Williamstown at that time, — but because of intellectual dominance that seemed unconscious of itself. There was a natural mastery, singularly impressive, and leaving a lasting memory. His ability to present the issues of a campaign and to interpret them to the clear understanding of the common man was promptly established. His audiences were ready to be taught, and the dash, power, and certainty with which he handled them surprised the politicians and the public. He was at home on the stump from the start, and whatever fears his friends may have entertained lest he might be too academic, were set at rest. The training of the teacher was found to be not too refined for the hustings, —the first night exhibited him as politically a success.

It was, except for Wilson’s leadership, much the sort of campaign in the beginning that New Jersey had been accustomed to. James Smith, Jr., formerly United States Senator, who had hitherto spent money freely for election purposes, was active as of old, and no doubt as generous. His contribution has been placed by the newspapers at $50,000; but it is of significance in this connection that checks were sent to Woodrow Wilson, drawn by friends and admirers, whose total, running into four figures, he turned over to the state committee. Friends of Governor Wilson say that he asked before the nomination especially if Mr. Smith was to be a candidate for senator, and was assured that nothing of the kind was to be anticipated. At that time Mr. Smith deemed his health a doubtful factor. Men expert in the ways and wiles of politics are convinced that Mr. Smith did not expect to secure the Legislature last year, but thinking that Wilson might be elected governor, proposed to try for the United States senatorship in 1913. When the former Senator found that the Legislature had gone democratic, he told Governor Wilson that he had changed his mind about the Senate, that his health seemed firmer, and that he was ready for life in Washington. This is the point at which Governor Wilson is charged with ingratitude, — and it is also the place where his long-entertained conception of leadership found voice and point.

In an essay on “Democracy in the United States,’ Woodrow Wilson has written; ‘The only way we can preserve our nationality in its integrity and its old-time originative force in the face of growth and imported change is by concentrating it; by putting leaders forward, vested with abundant authority in the conception and execution of policy. There is plenty of the old vitality in our national character to tell, if we will but give it leave. Give it leave, and it will the more impress and mould those who come to us from abroad. I believe that we have not made enough of leadership.’ During the campaign, when Dr. Wilson was asked point-blank whom he should regard as party leader in case of success, he said, ‘Myself,’ and such position he assumed in standing by Martine, the choice of the party primary for senator. It does not undermine the broadly democratic quality of that decision that a veteran in the United States Senate has spoken of the man so selected as ‘a preposterous senator.’ Such as he is, the party had named him, and to ignore him would have been political perfidy. The choice was between Smith and the party’s pronouncement.

Governor Wilson’s assumption of leadership was not arbitrary, but deliberate, and indorsed by the people of his state. This ideal has inspired his executive work, and the sincerity of his purpose in employing it impresses New Jersey newspaper men of long experience, and so affords a certification that some public characters have lacked after observation at close range. He welcomed the fifty thousand majority which election night brought, as mandatory acceptance of the sentiment voiced in speeches delivered in every one of the twenty-one counties of the state: that if the people chose him governor he would take it to mean that he was also chosen their leader.

His policy had been outlined with an emphasis not to be mistaken. It was that legislation must be divorced from the control of interests which had for many years dictated the movements of the Legislature and the great majority of office-holders in New Jersey. In his inaugural address the Governor gave further and more positive utterance to his determination to stand by his platform pledges along this line. This brought him the antagonism of the political machines under control of the utility companies, and the encounter made the 1911 session of the Legislature of unprecedented interest. The Governor found it necessary to call for conferences of the members of the Senate and Assembly, detailing to them at length and with all the earnestness at his command his situation and the duty imposed upon him by that fifty thousand majority.

As a residt of this appeal he was enabled to push through the Legislature some comprehensive and effective laws affecting political and economic conditions in the state. Among these acts were the Public Utilities Commission bill, which meant something; the new Corrupt Practices act, with real teeth in it; the new Election law, which practically revolutionized the election and included the blanket ballot; an Employers’ Liability law, which provides something like proper compensation for injured and disabled working-men; and an act providing for the commission form of government in municipalities.

These were the essential features of the legislative session. They were not secured without a vast amount of effort, but Governor Wilson brought to the task prodigious energy, the trained intelligence of his scholarship, ability to handle men, and a ruthless disregard of old political conditions which had controlled the state. In the process of this achievement were sown seeds of an antagonism whose wide reach practical politicians will best understand. All this, after having routed James Smith, Jr., who previous to the autumn election of 1910 was the acknowledged head of the Democratic party. A longtime newspaper man, writing of these political changes in his state, comments: ‘In the nine months in which Woodrow Wilson has been governor of New Jersey, he has caused a practical revolution, not only in political and economic legislation, but in that great moving factor, public sentiment.’ It is evident that the political evolution of our college president moved rapidly while the Legislature was in session.

Then Governor Wilson was forced to renew his fight before the people in the effort to secure the election of a legislature pledged to the retention of the laws he managed to get through, and to the support of his further leadership along lines he deems to be for the popular advantage. The resulting vengeance of the defied James Smith, Jr., which enabled the Republicans to win seats in the Legislature in Essex county, and so to control the Legislature, constituted an incident striking enough to figure in the modern novel which deals so frequently with politics. It was a happening grateful to all the old-time regulars in party work, but they ignored the fact that the Governor did not speak for the ticket in that county because of a situation there that was manifest to the wayfaring man. It is idle to claim that the incident, illustrative as it is of the enemies Governor Wilson has made, brought about any change in the commission the people had given him to exercise leadership in their behalf, or that it in any wise operated to check him as a president ial possibility. The Democratic Governor promptly called on the Republicans in the incoming Legislature to makegood their platform pledges, and to coöperate ’in reforms planned in the interest of the whole state which we are all sworn to serve.’

It is impossible to gain even a cursory knowledge of the political situation in New Jersey without being made to feel that the realm of government and its control has been invaded by one intent on serious business. There has followed bewilderment among the politicians. In their view a worse than ‘Charles the Baptist’ — so the New York politicians called Governor Hughes — has arisen, who must be suppressed. Hitherto-powerful politicians would like to see Governor Wilson in some way dismissed as a figure quite out of place — a literary fellow engaged in disseminating impracticable and fantastic notions regarding public affairs and their oversight. They are sure he cannot last as a political force, and they insist that he is not to be trusted. In this light Governor Wilson’s own view of the work he has undertaken to do possesses an interest more than local. He says, —

‘Our representative institutions have lost their purity and their reality because of the intervention of political machines between the people and those who should be their representatives, an intervention which began to have its full sinister effect when great business interests began to make use of those machines to control legislation in their own behoof. Such an alliance was not particularly formidable until the business interests which made up one side of the partnership became themselves colossal, and began to throw the control of industry and commerce into a comparatively few hands. Formidable enough because of their mere size and resources, those interests became the most formidable power in modern society when they consummated that alliance. The long dominance of these interests in our economic life and in the control of our politics has, of course, produced results in our law and in our economic organization, in the development and control of our national resources and in many other ways, many of which are highly inimical to economic freedom and individual privilege. These results must be studied, and what is wrong about them must be rectified. My function is to put what brains I have at the service of the people, whose life these things dominate; to find out what is going on, to speak of what I find, clearly and without fear — if possible without passion or prejudice; and to coöperate in carrying out such remedies as may prove practicable.’

No scholar in politics ever invited a more stressful experience, or entered more boldly upon the practice of his doctrine, or seemed more ready to go whither it led. This apostle of leadership expounds a radicalism that is disturbing many in the East, but meets with a warm welcome in the West. Its purpose Governor Wilson defines: —

‘The main object of what we arc attempting, both in state and nation, is to establish a close connection, a very sensitive connection, between the people and their governments, both in the states and in the nation, in order that we may restore in such wise as will satisfy us the liberty and the opportunity in whose interests our governments were conceived.’

Excellent this in the way of general exposition, but what of definite policies? This is the point of decision where the country waits for more light and a clear pointing out of the way by which the bespoken restoration can be brought about. It begins to be apprehended that the ‘progressives’ in both of our political parties have been oratorical to a degree calculated soon to bring them under t he pressure of a general demand for more exact programmes of constructive statesmanship — for we are a practical people.

It will be seen that in facing the responsibilities of the plan of leadership which Governor Wilson laid down, he was forced to abandon the ancient theory that the duty of a governor is simply to recommend legislation, leaving it to the Legislature to carry it out. Governor Hughes took much the same road, and when he saw that things were at a deadlock, he went out to the public, aroused public opinion by an aggressive campaign, and directed such a force of public opinion upon the legislators that they were compelled to create the public-service commissions needed to carry out the will of the public. It is the policy that most forceful and reforming governors have had to follow to a greater or less extent.

Perhaps it was at this point that Governor Wilson began to take new views of the initiative, referendum, and recall. A good deal of his work might be classed under the head of emergency measures. He has been in the school of the actual, in contrast to his long attendance upon the school theoretical. He seems to be in search after fundamental doctrines in democracy. To an interviewer he has said, ‘Did not Jefferson and Adams, and, most, of all, Washington himself, exert, and intentionally exert, an immense influence on legislation? Is not that the true American ideal?’ One who is close to the Governor of New Jersey writes, ‘I understand that Woodrow Wilson regards the new methods as extraordinary — intended “to recover popular government ” when temporarily lost or obscured by machine machination, but not as a regular everyday substit ute for representative government.’ It will be remembered that he has pronounced against the recall for judges. It is also to be observed that he has never declared for the initiative and referendum as a part of the federal system of government. He has left it as a state measure, to be employed when the representative system seems to fail to supply the people with just the instrument needed to effect their purpose.

Such is the man, and such the extent of his departures from views of representative government long insisted on in the class-room. The people are this year to fix his place in handling the problems of the republic. Supreme opportunity for service ought not to be given to any merely ambitious disturber of an established order, come to be overladen with the weight, of privileges acquired by men selfishly vigilant at points where the mass of citizens have been inattentive to their birthright. The problems of our time are not different from those of all time. We need to consider what the catchwords of ‘the interests,’ the ‘progressives,’ and all the rest of the current cant of our politics — too often flung about by politicians in search of power — stand for, and not to permit them to become mere phrases embodying vague anathema. There ought to be a clearly-formulated vision of perfected democracy, and a leader with sound sense and the courage to follow it. He should be virile, and qualified as an administrator.

George Harvey acclaims Woodrow Wilson as ‘one who, if lie had lived in the days of Jefferson and Madison, would have rivaled the one as a champion of the people, and would have equaled the other in comprehensive and lucid expression of fundamental law.’ Henry Watterson ‘cannot think of Woodrow Wilson without recalling Samuel Tilden. How much alike they seem as doctrinaire Democrats; as faithful, courageous party leaders; as practical and preëminent officials; how much they think alike, and talk alike, and write alike.’

There is bossism and leadership. Leadership there must be, and when perverted it becomes bossism and is execrated. The two very often enter into a twilight zone where it is difficult for the people to tell one from the other. But the popular scent is keen enough in the long run to differentiate sensibly, so that the hue and cry that follows is less often mistaken than might be feared. Once the trail is taken, bossism is pretty certain to get its deserts, though the process may be protracted at times. The people just now are in pursuit of bosses and ‘predatory interests’ — and so on. This hunt is getting on the nerve of honest business during the winnowing process that Mr. Taft’s administration has undertaken, — which is temporarily disturbing, but likely to be productive of good in clarifying our financial situation and rectifying some of its abuses. The need for national leadership of the right sort — wide-visioned, persistent, dowered with patience as well as with courage — is growingly manifest.

Samuel J. Tilden had the sense of leadership — and he achieved it with a minimum of advertising. Less personal advantage came to him than is often the case, but he was gifted in patriotism and philosophy, and seemed content with the outcome. One whose first independent vote for president was cast for Mr. Tilden conceives that a brief summary of his achievements for the democracy and the country has particular pertinence to this period, and is worthy of the serious attention of Woodrow Wilson and of others. John Bigelow, Governor Tilden’s life-long friend, whose serene age invites envy in the midst of present fret and fever, has written, —

‘He planned the campaign, he secured the requisite legislation, he bore much the largest share of the expense, and, finally, he led the storming party which drove Tweed and his predatory associates to prison or into exile. He purified the judiciary of the city and state of New York by procuring the adoption of measures which resulted in the removal of one judge by impeachment and of two judges by resignation. He induced the Democratic convention of 1874 to declare, in no uncertain tone, for a sound currency, when not a single state convention of either party had yet ventured to take a stand against the financial delusions begotten of the war, which for years had been sapping the credit of the country. It was at his instance that the Democratic party of New York, in the same convention, pronounced against third-term presidents, and effectively strengthened the exposed entrenchments which the country, for eighty years and more, had been erecting against the insidious encroachments of dynasticism. During his career as governor, Mr. Tilden applied the principles of the political school in which he had been educated to the new questions which time, war, and national affluence had made paramount. He overthrew the Canal ring which had become ascendant in all departments of state government. He dispersed the lobby which infested the legislative bodies. He introduced a practical reform in the civil service, and elevated the standard of official morality.'

Mr. Tilden was strong in intellect, in poise, in the enlightenment of his democracy, and in the determined pursuit of reforms that were essential to sound popular government. He was surefooted, but not reactionary. He practiced wise leadership, and he clung to certain enduring principles. It will be a happy consummation if the Democratic party is led in 1912 to secure a candidate of the Tilden type and stature.