- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 21, 2008

Princeton to the Presidency (Yale, $30, 392 pages, illus.).

The campus to which Wilson came as a lecturer in history in 1890 was an intellectually stagnant charm school for scions of the rich, a fact that was virtually acknowledged by its president, Francis Patton, who once defended his regimen with the observation, “It is better to have come [here] and loafed, than never to have come at all.”

But Patton became an embarrassment, and in 1902 the trustees engineered his retirement. They then chose as his successor Woodrow Wilson, whose history lectures were immensely popular and who was known to have ambitious plans for his alma mater.

Wilson hit the ground running. He instituted an honor system and revised the curriculum. He vastly increased the faculty, bringing in young instructors to teach small groups of students. He tightened academic standards so stringently that the size of the student body shrank. One student was heard to complain, “Princeton is becoming nothing but a damned educational institution.”

Wilson’s reforms gained him a reputation beyond the campus, but in time things began to go wrong. The social life of about two-thirds of Princeton students centered on fraternity like eating clubs, which Wilson viewed as clannish and undemocratic. He attempted to replace them with residential halls modeled after those at Oxford, but the alumni created such an uproar that the proposal was defeated. So, too, were Wilson’s plans for a graduate college.

Wilson’s objectives were usually commendable, but as university president he was dogmatic, inflexible and rarely willing work toward a consensus on controversial issues. In Mr. Maynard’s words, Wilson “was one of the most noble and generous of people to those for whom he felt sympathy … yet he could be callous and even cruel to anyone he thought was on the wrong side of a virtuous cause.” A faculty member remembered Wilson as “so cold as to be almost repellent.”

Wilson’s primary antagonist in many a faculty feud was Andrew West, dean of the university. In Mr. Maynard’s judgment, “West’s vision catered especially to elites, to true gentlemen, because he considered them endangered.” West had his own power base among faculty and trustees from where he rallied Wilson’s enemies.

In May 1906, shortly after his unsuccessful campaign against the clubs, Wilson suffered a small stroke that left him with impaired vision in one eye. The author believes that Wilson also suffered from high blood pressure, for which little treatment was then available.

Wilson’s final four years at Princeton were marked by discord and frustration. To the public, however, his image was that of a scholar with a democratic vision. Elected governor of New Jersey in 1910, he was soon being talked of for the presidency. When the Republican Party split in 1912, Wilson, already a sick man, was elected president.

In the White House, Wilson’s domestic reforms were overwhelmed by World War I. When, after the war, the president’s vision for an American-led League of Nations foundered on Republican opposition, Wilson refused to compromise. His losing battle for U.S. adherence to the League was the Battle of Princeton redux, with Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge playing the role of Dean West.

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Some subjects make life easy for their aspiring biographers. Politicians and writers leave an extensive paper trail. Far more challenging is the person who is noted for only one important action or one decisive moment. For instance, we have relatively little evidence with which to piece together the shadowy life of Lee Harvey Oswald.

Nathan Hale was certainly no Oswald, but he poses some of the same challenges to the biographer. He died at an early age (21) and left few papers. His life and his death became the subject of myths. But Connecticut journalist M. William Phelps has partially overcome these obstacles in his meticulously researched biography (St. Martin’s, $24.95, 306 pages).

Nathan was born into a pious Connecticut family in 1755. Along with his older brother, Enoch, he attended Yale College where he graduated with honors in 1773. Then he taught school, first in East Haddam, Conn., and later in New London. A handsome six-footer, Hale was linked at times with several young ladies, but never appears to have been engaged.

In July 1775, after war had broken out, Hale accepted a commission as a lieutenant in the Connecticut militia. He wrote his father in explanation, “A sense of duty urged me to sacrifice everything for my country.” Hale appears to have enjoyed soldiering and was soon a company commander. He and his men accompanied Washington’s army to New York City, but Hale saw no action, a fact that seems to have frustrated the young patriot.

In September 1776, at a time when the British occupied Long Island, Hale was transferred to an elite group of rangers under the command of Lt. Thomas Knowlton. Lacking information on British intentions, Knowlton asked Hale to go to Long Island, disguised as a Dutch schoolteacher, to see what he could find out about enemy movements. Hale could have declined the mission - spying was not for gentlemen - but he was eager to serve.

The mission was ill-conceived from the start. The erect, handsome Hale, with flash burns on his face from having fired weapons, looked like anything but a schoolteacher. And he carried with him his Yale diploma, made out to the non-Dutch name of Hale. He fell under suspicion in New York City, where, thinking that he was talking to a fellow patriot, he outlined his mission in detail to a disguised British officer.

Hale was quickly tried and sentenced to death by hanging. The few witnesses to the execution all appeared impressed by the quiet dignity with which he met his fate. His final words - blessedly abbreviated over time - appear to have been, “I am so satisfied with the cause in which I have engaged that my only regret is that I have not more lives than one to offer in its service.”

A brave man had been sacrificed to a futile mission.

c John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.

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