To historian John Milton Cooper ’61, the presidential election of 1912 had “something for everybody” – a Republican incumbent, William Howard Taft, who arguably created a limited government platform that has endured in the party; a former president, Theodore Roosevelt, who broke with his party to run on the Progressive ticket; a spirited campaign from Eugene V. Debs that was a high-water mark for America’s Socialist party; and, of course, the eventual winner, Democrat Woodrow Wilson 1879, a former Princeton president who brought his professorial oration to the campaign trail.
Roosevelt and Wilson emerged as frontrunners with contrasting styles but, in Cooper’s view, a common approach. “What you get between T.R. and Wilson is the closest thing we’ve ever gotten – and I think we will get – to a philosophical debate in a presidential election,” said Cooper, an emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin and author of Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (2009). “These two men were genuine intellectuals, and unashamed of it.”
Cooper and Thomas Knock *82, a professor at Southern Methodist University, are co-chairmen of a Sept. 14 symposium marking the centennial of the 1912 election, to be held in Wilson’s hometown, Staunton, Va., and sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library. Another Princetonian, historian Alan Brinkley ’71 of Columbia University, is slated to take part in the symposium.
The presidential library has a strong history of Princeton alumni support. Michael Dickens ’68 chairs the board of trustees, and six other alumni have supported the centennial festivities as current or recent board members: Tony Atkiss ’61, Richard Coleman ’60, Jerry Cox ’76, Robert Cullinane ’70, Mike Robbins ’55, and Ned Slaughter ’53. A series of library-sponsored events, drawing on key themes from Wilson’s presidency, will continue through 2021, the 100th anniversary of his departure from the White House.
Dickens, a pediatrician in Charlottesville, Va., said that Wilson’s Staunton birthplace has grown from a presidential museum to a “full-fledged research library and educational institution.” The organization continues to add to its collections, digitize material for research, and provide new educational opportunities through local outreach, rotating exhibits, and a popular history camp for children in the summer months.
Visitors to the museum and library may notice several Princeton artifacts, including a permanent exhibit devoted to his years at the University and Wilson’s Pierce Arrow limousine, which features orange stripes and a tiger hood ornament. Said Dickens, “What could be more Princeton than that?”
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