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“A Princeton Student’s Letter to His Father” and the Election of 1912

With Father’s Day coming up this weekend and the United States in the midst of a particularly contentious election season, this seemed like perfect timing to highlight a 1912 pamphlet found in the Princeton University Publications Collection (AC364), “A Princeton Student’s Letter to His Father and His Father’s Reply” (Box 2).


In October 1912, “Jim” faced a dilemma, as he wrote to his father. He had just turned 21 (then the legal voting age) and would soon vote for the very first time. America’s national elections were especially divisive that year, with an unusual four-way race (which most viewed as a three-way race, given that the fourth candidate was gaining little traction). Princeton University’s former president and New Jersey’s then-governor, Democrat Woodrow Wilson (Class of 1879), was seeking the U.S. presidency. Republican Theodore Roosevelt hoped to be elected to a then-unprecedented third term, but his party declined to nominate him, instead choosing to re-nominate then-president William Howard Taft. Roosevelt, not willing to accept defeat, decided he would start his own political party, the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party, and ran as its candidate. Meanwhile, the Socialist Party offered their own nominee, Eugene V. Debs. “So I find myself at a loss to know what to do—how to vote on Election day. I wish to be true to my alma mater, but I wish also to be guided in voting by the highest and truest duties of citizenship. Won’t you please help me out?”


“Jim’s” father was willing to oblige. The 11 pages of his reply explain why a Princetonian need not vote for Wilson and why he thinks “Jim” should not vote for him, pointing out that Princeton’s then-current president, John Grier Hibben, “is a staunch Republican and an ardent supporter of President Taft.” Wilson, “Jim’s” father went on, had a tendency to go “beyond his executive prerogative” and to subordinate “the high duties of his office to his selfish political ambitions…”

The pamphlet then goes on to quote “Jim’s” father regarding Taft: “Don’t you admire Taft? I do. He is so fine and square and unassuming… There is nothing picturesque or spectacular about him, nothing sensational or theatrical, but he is the kind that wears and the kind that can be depended on in a crisis.” As for Roosevelt, “well I hardly know how to express myself about him. … The Republican party was good enough for Roosevelt up to the minute Taft was re-nominated at Chicago. Upon whom do his subsequent actions reflect discredit, the party or himself? There can be but one answer.”


Ultimately, Wilson won in 1912 with a huge electoral college majority despite only securing 42% of the popular vote (Roosevelt 27%, Taft 23%, Debs 6%). This pamphlet is a reminder that Wilson’s victory not only occurred in a deeply divided America, but his candidacy also caused significant divisions among Princetonians.



Daily Princetonian

Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112)

Princeton University Publications Collection (AC364)


For further reading:

“‘In the Nation’s Service?’ Woodrow Wilson Revisited.” (2016)

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