Princeton University and the Spanish American War

This post is part of a series on education and war related to our current exhibition, “Learning to Fight, Fighting to Learn: Education in Times of War,” on display through June 2018. Please stop by to learn more.

When the United States intervened on behalf of Cuba in 1898, the naval ship USS Maine sank in Havana Harbor. Though the cause remains unclear, popular belief was that Spain was responsible. Americans were outraged. Princeton University students, enthusiastic about the possibility of fighting for their country, agitated to enlist to fight in the Spanish-American War.

On April 2, 1898, students demonstrated their feelings in what the Chicago Daily Tribune called “an outburst of patriotism.” They cheered for U.S. President William McKinley, the American flag, and Cuba. They marched through town dragging the Spanish colors through the streets and carrying pro-American and pro-Cuban slogans, a dozen American flags, and one Cuban flag. Finding their way to the residence of former U.S. President Grover Cleveland on Bayard Avenue, they cheered for him as well. They then went on to the home of Princeton president Francis Landey Patton, who addressed the students with praise for McKinley. Patton’s words were met with more cheering. After this parade through town, the students returned to Cannon Green, where they burned Spain’s King Alfonso XIII in effigy, waved flags, joined hands, danced in circles around the cannon, and sang, “O me, O my; how we’ll make the Spaniards cry!”

Following this display, physical geography professor William Libbey encountered Patton and James Ormsbee Murray, Dean of the Faculty, looking deeply unsettled, “so much so that the gloom impressed me,” Libbey later wrote. Students were planning to enlist en masse, and Patton worried that this would be the end of Princeton University. “We are afraid that they are going to break up [the] College,” Patton told Libbey. Libbey said he had an idea: he could go to the enlistment meeting the students planned and organize military drills for them on campus, providing an outlet for their emotions while keeping them in school. Patton agreed to the plan.

William Libbey, undated. Historical Photograph Collection, Faculty Photographs Series (AC067), Box FAC59.

Continue reading