Woodrow Wilson to Richard Heath Dabney




Woodrow Wilson tells his friend, Richard Heath Dabney, about his disappointment about graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University and his engagement to Ellen Louise Axson.




My dear Heath,

Your letter of July, after its notable wanderings, many and devious, reached me about two months ago. My impulse was to answer it at once; but, being here under the command of other people, duties have crowded out this pleasure until now. As you see, I am in Baltimore, at “the Hopkins”—not as a “fellow,” however, (that was denied me) but simply as a “graduate student.” I am sorry to say that I have been altogether disappointed in the department here. Neither the attainments nor the methods of the instructors are what I had a right to expect. Ely (a Heidelbuerg Ph.D.) is a hard-worker, a conscientious student, and chuck full of the exact data of his subject (like Schönberg's “Handbuch”, which is his economic bible); but he moves only by outside impulse and is not fitted for the highest duties of the teacher; whilst Adams, though shrewd and capable enough in every way, works little, save in the prosecution of schemes for his own advancement. By the way, in your letter you mix two Adamses: HC Adams (a PhD of this University) who was invited to Cornell, but is now at the University of Michigan—a very capable and learned economist, but much too independent to live while young with President Gilman—and HB Adams (a Heidelberg doctor) who was a pupil of Bluntschli's, as you say, but a disciple of Machiavelli, as he himself declares, and who, as President Gilman's chief diplomatic agent, is on the high road to preferment, even though his pupils starve, the while, on a very meagre diet of ill-served lectures. You may know that I speak soberly of this man, because I came here to admire and have remained to scoff. There's something very rotten in this state of Denmark, where honours are apt to be conferred by favour; but there can be no question about this being the best place in America to study, because of its freedom and its almost unrivalled facilities, and because one can from here, better than from anywhere else in the country, command an appointment to a professorship. The only choice is between this and Germany: and from the latter, alas! old fellow, I'm practically shut out by reason of my ignorance of German—else I might join you next year! What would I not give to see you again! We could fraternize now in dead earnest: in studies as in everything else! I suppose that it was inevitable that I should turn, sooner or later, to a systematic and professional cultivation of history and political science. I was born with that bent in me, and there was no use trying to force nature to unnatural uses. Nature would, indeed, bemost dutifully served if I could take a special line in my specialty and devote myself mainly to a study of the constitutional history of the United States and of their present actual constitutional system—as contradistinguised from the ideal Constitution of the books and of the lawyers' theories, which latter is only the Constitution of 1789 ornamented with many “wise saws and modern instances.” Of course such a study would have to be comparative, lighted by illustrations and parallels, as well as by constrasts, furnished by the present constitutions of Europe and of England. But I don't feel justified in specializing my work in such a way until I have prospect of a chair devoted exclusively to such exposition. Indeed, “there's the rub” all around. Where is a fellow to find a berth? Must he go and teach history, with an incongruous and intolerable mixture of a great many other things, in some college of the South or West? Such would seem to be our inevitable fate, unless we are to aspire so high as to a chair in some of the great institutions of the East, in which a youngster can hardly hope to find a place.But, besides turning to the study of history and political science, Heath, I've done something else quite as inevitable, and which makes this quesiton of obtaining a chair an exceedingly interesting one: I've fallen in love and become engaged. Yes, it's so: I'm bagged! Indeed, having been engaged already five months, I am beginning to feel quite staid and settled! It is wonderful how literally exact the saying is that one falls in love. I met a certain Miss Ellen Louise Axson, in Rome, Geo., in April, 1883 and by the middle of the following September I was engaged to her! That's decisive enough action for you! Of course it goes without the saying that I am the most complacently happy man in the “Yew-nighted States.” If you care to listen a moment, I will tell you what the unfortunate lady is like. She is the daughter of a Presbyterian minister—and the granddaughter of one too, for the matter of that—and grew up in that best of all schools—for manners, purity and cultivation—a country parsonage. She has devoted the greater part of her time to art—having relieved her father's slender salary of the burden of her own support by portrait drawing and painting which have given her quite a reputation amongst the best people of Georgia—but she is also devoted to reading of the best sort: so that, without any pretense to learning, and without the slightest tinge of pedantry, she has acquired a very remarkable acquaintance with the best literature. If you add to this, the fact that she is in her tastes the most domestic of maidens, you will see how well fitted she is to become a student's wife. But (as you will readily believe) I can't claim the wisdom of having fallen in love with Miss Axson because I was justified, after a philosophical and dispassionate consideration of her tastes and attainments, in concluding that she would be a proper help-meet for a professor. I fell in love with her for the same reasons that had made the samething easy to several other fellows who were not students: because of her beauty, and gentleness and intelligence; because she was irresistibly lovable. Why she fell in love with me must always remain an impenetrable mystery. I look upon my wonderful success as one of those apparently fortuitous and certainly inestimable blessings which one must content himself with being thankful for and trying to deserve expostfacto, as it were, without seeking to understand it—as something sent to strengthen and ennoble me. It makes me very anxious, you see, to get hold of a definite appointment to teach somewhere, at a salary on which two economical people can live comfortably. You can't in reason expect a fellow not to be impatient to possess such a prize.Is it so, not to change the subject too violently, that Harry Smith is in diplomatic employment in Berlin? So I was told by a student here (T.K. Worthington) who went over to Europe last Summer on the same steamer with the Venables and Miss Leilia Smith. If the dear old boy is over there, please give him my warmest love and a cordial ?? grip for me! I don't hear anything nowadays about any of the University (of Va.) boys, even indirectly. I dare say you hear more in Germany. I saw Lefevre, indeed, in Oct. last, on his way to study law under Dr. Minor—but ne'er another University acquaintance has come above my horizon. I don't know where Kent is, for instance, whether he is still teaching with Coleman in Charleston or not. Enlighten me, if you can. I hate to lose sight of the boys so.Write to me again as soon as you can, old fellow, and tell me everything that concerns yourself. In the mean time you may be sure of the love of

Your sincere friend
Woodrow Wilson

Original Format






Wilson, Woodrow, 1856-1924, “Woodrow Wilson to Richard Heath Dabney,” 1884 February 17, WWP20425, University of Virginia Woodrow Wilson Letters, Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum, Staunton, Virginia.