Woodrow Wilson Princeton Baccalaureate Address


Woodrow Wilson Princeton Baccalaureate Address


Wilson, Woodrow, 1856-1924




1909 June 13


Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum


Princeton University


Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum staff





“We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do”. Luke XVII, 10.

     Gentlemen: You are now at last full-fledged Princeton men. The four years of your novitiate are over. You have received all that the undergraduate years of the University can give you and will henceforth look upon yourselves as formed upon the Princeton model, of which we are all wont to be proud, and of which men young and old bred in our school of life and learning speak with eager praise.
     Princeton is a place, we say, of liberal training. We mean that it is not a vocational school. Students do not crowd here to make their way quickly to professions or to the business callings by which they are to support themselves and advance their material fortunes in the world, but in order to get, first, a general training of the mind and of its perceptions which will make their several occupations more significant to them when at last they have entered them, give the world a more various and comprehensible aspect to their eyes, and quicken their appreciation of its opportunities and its duties.
     Not many can draw apart into such a place of vision and general reckoning with the forces of the world. Most young men, most lads who have not yet grown to be men, must hurry to put their hands to the actual work by which they are to earn their bread and help support those who are too young or too feeble, too delicate or too witless, to support themselves. The world must have workers by the multitude, and they must hasten to their work. Most schools must fit those who resort to them for immediate labour, and many, very many, must labour without the help of schools. Only a few have the leisure or the opportunity or the irresistible instinct to take this slower way of preparation and inquiry and pore upon the map of life and thought a certain while before they traverse it. They seek and obtain a special privilege.
     We are not to think of ourselves as in any way essentially distinguished or superior or aristocratic because we have had the privilege of going this special way of preparation and enlightenment. It would be absurd to plume ourselves upon what we have had. It was open and accessible to almost any one who happened to covet it and who had the energy and the persistency to take it. That some of us got it without effort and used it as a matter of course without giving any particular thought to its value or significance merely shows that we were a little duller than the rest and did not know what we were about. It is the use we shall make of what we got out of it that will bring us distinction or else prove us mere negligible items in the great inventory of life and opportunity. If there is any aristocracy of class to be got out of the interesting business, it lies ahead of us, not behind us, in what we shall do, not in what we have done.
     The way is longer for us than for others, and beset by greater perils of disgrace and failure. The truth is that this college training we have had has made us in some special sense citizens of a spiritual world in which men are expected to do more than make a living; in which they are expected to enrich the day they live in with something done without thought of pay or material reward of any kind, without calculation of interest,-- something given freely from their special store of knowledge and of instructed principle for the service of their neighbors and their communities and for the enlightenment of mankind.
     It is a very serious matter to have such opportunites,-- an exceedingly serious matter to have had them and neglected them,-- perhaps as serious a matter to have had them and profited by them. If they have enlarged the field of our responsibilities, they have increased the field of our duty. We have more to think about, more to strive for, more to do, if we would not be put out of countenance, now that we are Princeton men, than we would have had if we had passed the college by on the other side, gone the usual road, and known no better. The Princeton model is a very gracious model if we live up to it; but, like every other standard, it serves only as a rebuke to us if we do not. Therefore we will. We cannot afford to do anything else. We will set our minds to think the obligation out, and, having determined what it is, will fulfil it to the utmost as strength may be vouchsafed us.
     The day and the hour, the immemorial tradition of this service, force the rôle of preacher upon me, and it is not difficult to find a text for my theme. The suitable words are in the tenth verse of the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke. “We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do”. Deeply interesting words they are. Like so many other sentences of the extraordinary volume from which they are taken, their meaning strikes beneath the surface of ordinary thought and is hidden from us upon a casual reading, but discloses itself readily enough when once we perceive that we are to look for it deeper than it is our wont to search. Not many servants, of whatever rank or station, do their duty: it is a profitable thing, as the world goes, to have those who will do so much as that; and no doubt the average man who does his duty thinks himself sufficiently serviceable. But there is, nevertheless, a mere judgment of the world itself here in these words of candid Scripture, and no recondite judgment of a spiritual seer. It is the judgment of all the world of affairs that the servant who does only the task set him and no more, volunteers nothing, not so much as an extra minute by the clock, renders the precise service for which he was hired, stops with it and plans nothing more, earning his wages but giving nothing he is not paid for, is in truth a very unprofitable servant, a tool merely, and an indifferent tool at that. He need look for no promotion. He barely earns his present wages.
     “Duty” is a very handsome word,-- is a very handsome thing,-- but let every man look to it that he comprehend what it really means. It conveys an obligation from within, not merely from without. We have not done our duty, we have not even earned our wages, when we have done merely that which was commanded us: we have done our duty only when we have done that which we know completes the service, when we have put the best that was in us into the task, our hearts into the bargain.
     You know what the usual standard of the employee is in our day. It is to give as little as he may for his wages. Labour is standardized by the trades unions, and this is the standard to which it is made to conform. No one is suffered to do more than the average workman can do: in some trades and handicrafts no one is suffered to do more than the least skilful of his fellows can do within the hours allotted to a day’s labour, and no one may work out of hours at all or volunteer anything beyond the minimum. I need not point out how economically disastrous such a regulation of labour is. It is so unprofitable to the employer that in some trades it will presently not be worth his while to attempt anything at all. He had better stop altogether than operate at an inevitable and invariable loss. The labour of America is rapidly becoming unprofitable under its present regulation by those who have determined to reduce it to a minimum. Our economic supremacy may be lost because the country grows more and more full of unprofitable servants.
     But we do not need to turn to the trades unions to illustrate our disregard for the true meaning of duty. You know how some men cheapen their college diplomas by getting them for as little work as possible, and you know that the diplomas they receive mean nothing. I hope that very few of you have that bitter realization today. There are no employers at college in the work of study, but a great many undergraduates assume the attitude of employees and give as little as possible for what they get. They cheat nobody but themselves. The service of study is meant for nobody but themselves. They impoverish their lives and impair their own efficiency by their neglect. They are very unprofitable servants to themselves: they have skimped their services fifty per cent. and make their future associates in business receivers of their bankruptcy, reorganizers of their energy. They will not deceive themselves later about their profit and loss account.
     Today, therefore, we look our standards frankly in the face and plan our programme of regeneration. Intimate domestic life lies ahead of us, exacting professional life, and the wide life of society, in which we may lose or establish an influence, in which we shall win places of honour or fall into obscurity or disrepute. If we are unprofitable servants in any one of these, by a too narrow view of our duty, we shall fall short of both fame and happiness. This, therefore, is our programme: In our domestic relations we will do more than our duty. We will not skimp or calculate or seek to reckon what is the least we are obliged to do, the most we may insist upon receiving. It will be our pleasure,-- an increasing pleasure, we shall find it,-- to see how much we can give, and to give it with largess of affection. The profit will be ease of heart and the intimate, trusting love of those we serve. Homes are falling to pieces nowadays because men and women, and even children, ask only how much is due them, and not what love and self-sacrifice call upon them to give. Calculations of personal right and of the duty of others eat marriage bonds away like acid and dissolve society.
     In our professional and business relations we will measure what we can give by what we have received and will make our thoughts and all our strength, whether of natural gifts or of acquired knowledge, part of our enterprise, will be partners with our employers at heart long before we are partners at law. I know that there are very few partnerships nowadays. We serve corporations, are swallowed up in vast organizations, become the instruments of men we never see and have not access to. I can understand how that might well daunt and confuse an uneducated man, without a comprehending imagination. But we are university men, trained, unless we have cheated ourselves by neglect, to comprehend complex wholes. The very complexity of the thing we are to deal with should challenge us to render corporations the service they most need, the service of men who can understand their organization in all its parts and relations and shape it in operation to the economy, integrity, and success of the whole. Corporations will fall to pieces when they come to consist too entirely of employees rather than of intelligent partners. We will be profitable servants by volunteering an intelligent service not required of us in the bond.
     In our social relations we will remember the loyalty and affection we owe our loved ones at home, and the watchful and thoughtful service we owe our partners in business and all who have honoured us with their confidence, but we will add to these things which manifestly bind us the service which no law can exact of us. We will be thoughtful citizens, not for the protection of our families or the benefit of our business, but for the benefit of our neighbors and of the country which nourishes and sustains us all. Here is our field of final and supreme test, in which it will inevitably appear whether we have been bred to the true spirit of our alma mater or not. She has meant us to be men of such kind: we will remember her in all that we do.
     There is here a whole philosophy of life. The object, the standard, you set yourself works by a strange alchemy upon the whole spirit of your life. Set out to fulfil obligations, to do what you must and to exact of others what they owe you, and all your days alike will end in weariness of spirit. The road of life will be long and very dreary. There will be no zest in the movement of the day, no refreshment when the night comes and sleep lies heavy upon you. There is no pleasure to be had from the fulfilment of obligations, from yielding to compulsions, from doing what you know you ought to do. Nothing but what you volunteer has the essence of life, the springs of pleasure in it. These are the things you do because you want to do them, the things your spirit has chosen for its satisfaction. They are done with the free spirit of the adventurer. They are the inviting by-paths of life into which you go for discovery, to get off the dusty road of mere duty into cool meadows and shadowed glades where the scene is changed and the air seems full of the tonic of freedom. Your first volunteer service will be your first discovery of yourself, your first intimation of what your spirit is for. It will be your introduction alike into the world of pleasure and into the world of power.
     I beg you to look very carefully and very curiously at the world you are about to enter before you enter it, and mark some of its characteristics. I mean the world of business and of the professions here in America. A great deal more light shines upon it now than shone upon it when you entered college. The air has been cleared for you that you might see. An almost unprecedented storm of accusation and inquiry has passed over it, and as the storm draws off it draws many vapours with it; the air grows very sharp and clear. Things stand out about us in very definite outline and evident proportion.
     And this is what we see. We have just passed through an era in which men kept their legal obligations as well as usual and yet came near ruining the country, piled up wealth and forgot how to use it honourably, built up business and came near to debauching a nation. It is a very remarkable thing, and should be very interesting to the author of the text I am commenting upon. I need not remind you of the various abuses in the business world which recent legislation has been more or less unsuccessfully attempting to correct, of the vast combinations by which capitalists in this, that, and the other line of enterprise have sought to control the markets of the country, of the special favours the railways have granted to some of their shippers and the manifest injustice and ruin they have imposed on others, of the incalculable values, and lacks of value, give to securities in the stock market by methods of financial manipulation long in vogue unchecked, almost unheeded,-- of the thousand and one ways in which what were thought to be the business interests of the country were pushed forward without regard to anything but the profit of those immediately concerned. That profit, stated in terms of wealth, was signally well served. What was intended was accomplished,-- and with the results you know.
     You have heard the whole story many times, and with many variations, true and false. What has not been sufficiently noticed and emphasized is, that most of those collossal processes of wealth which have now fallen under our condemnation were conducted by honest men who were keeping within the bounds of the law. There were rogues among them, of course, but no more than any age will show, and they were almost always rejected by their comrades when they were found to be rogues. The whole huge game, so far as its success was substantial and lasting, was an honest man’s game; no crooks or blacklegs were wittingly admitted into it. Every man served his own particular interest with extraordinary intensity and devotion and with immense success, and could have told you with frank and steady eyes that he had done that which was his duty to do.
     But what unprofitable servants they were,-- unprofitable even to themselves and to the business enterprises they served: Many of those enterprises are for the time being discredited, their prosperity almost fatally checked by a universal distrust and suspicion, by hostile legislation, by arrested credit. Everything that for their sake should be steady has been thrown out of poise and balance. Their very success has been questionable, if you demand of success that it bring enjoyment and content with it. Success has a heart and you should look into it. It is often of lead, sometimes of gall, sometimes of dry pith, only sometimes a source of living joy.
     No mere material object gained ever brought happiness. No man lives with his possessions. He lives with his thoughts, with his impulses, with his memories, his satisfactions, and his hope. I heard a distinguished man say very wisely, the other day, that we must divest ourselves of the idea that men have souls. They are souls. The have bodies, and their bodies have material needs which must be supplied. There are bodily pleasures which they may enjoy; but those pleasures will not satisfy them unless they convey to the soul intimations and confirmations of what it desires. They are the mere vehicles of satisfaction, and it is the man himself, the soul, that must be satisfied.
     The men who brought disaster upon business by success brought it because they ran with blinders upon their eyes, saw only the immediate task under their hands, volunteered no look around, paid no call of thought or wish upon their fellow men, left statesmanship to politicians and public interests to the censors of public morals, attended wholly to their own business. The business of life is a bigger thing than they thought it. Only the far-seeing eyes are the eyes that descry the real fields of success, the ultimate paths of content and pleasure. The words I have quoted from St. Luke contain nothing less than the secret of what it is to live.
     It ought to be an open secret to university men. Indeed, it is evident enough to any man who has looked frankly upon his own life and heeded its plain revelation. If we would have ease of heart, we must first do our duty. That is a matter of course. It were dishonour not to do it. What he really looks to to give colour, dignity, distinction, if it may be romance, to his life is what he adds to his duty for his own satisfaction, for the release of the power that is in him.
     If you have been set a task, and address yourself to it alert, awake, attentive, you will not watch the clock or begrudge the use of your faculties. You will forget the hours, will find that you have taken hold of the thing as if you were pleasing yourself, not as if you were serving an employer. The thing is upon the instant your own; you are a partner in the business without intention. The thing interests you: you are stretching your faculties upon it: it has ceased to be a task.
     If you are a youngster in a law office, and are sent to look up a certain series of cases and the principle involved takes hold upon you as you read, lures you back to the books out of hours, recalls lectures you paid little heed to in the law class and touches them with a new illumination, and sets you at last questioning the very decisions of the court itself, you know what has happened to you. You have begun to become a lawyer. You are thinking out a bit of the processes of society. Your mind has emancipated itself from the office and has become an instrument of the life about you. You are free: you have had your first taste of the excellence of mastery. The rest and the profit are in what it was not your duty to do.
     If, after the fatigues of a labourious day, you go home and are struck by something about the attitude of the one you love most there which speaks of sadness or disturbed spirits, and you set yourself to ascertain the cause by some tender art of divination which love has taught you, you will forget that you were fatigued. You will find a new vivacity come into your blood: a weary day will be succeeded by a stimulating, it may be a delightful, evening of light-hearted exertion. When the day is over, if you think about yourself at all, you will wonder what brought the singular refreshment you feel. It will come again whenever you let your thoughts leap away from yourself and do a thing that it pleases you to do, a thing in which you give your heart spontaneous play.
     If, on your way to the polls to vote, out of a sense of duty, something brings your mind to attention and suddenly opens your eyes to the significance of what you are about to do; if your thoughts begin to dwell seriously upon the candidates and upon the issues involved, and some image of the community about you, of the action of common purpose between you and your neighbors, forms itself in your mind’s eye, you will be aware that the duty you are about to perform is a small and trifling thing if you stop with that,-- that your real use consists in the fact that you are a thinking man. At that moment you become a citizen and fill your nostrils with an ampler air.
     If a neighbour obliges you to render him a service which you had promised but neglected, and you let the service, though you were obliged to perform it, and the man himself, though he put compulsion upon you, take hold upon you and interest you, interest you so much that you add to the service kindness and a certain thoughtful care in its performance, a volunteered extension even;-- if thine enemy oblige thee to go with him a mile and you go with him twain because your thought has been quickened as you walked and you wish his company further, you will have made a friend and gone a whole mile of pleasure.
     It is always the same. Whatever you do, whatever comes from the natural fire kindled in you, whatever your spirit willingly undertakes and makes a satisfaction of, that is the thing which profits you. It at once contains and enriches your life. The more you are stimulated to such action the more clearly does it appear to you that you are a sovereign spirit, put into the world, not to wear harness, but to work eagerly without it. You will be a profitable servant indeed when once you have found yourself thus, but it will not be that which interests you. You will be satisfied, you will be loved, you will have life and have it abundantly.
     The college man is ready to be the most open-eyed of all adventurers in this inviting field of self-discovery. He knows what the world contains. He knows what he should look for and where he should search to find it. The margins of profit are for him inexhaustible. His opportunities are the measure of his world and of its satisfactions. He may be the king of volunteers.
     GENTLEMEN OF THE GRADUATING CLASS: It is with real affection and genuine solicitude for your happiness and success that I now address you, on this last day upon which we can take counsel together. I have spoken to you in very simple phrases to-day and have given only homely and intimate counsel, because I feel very near to you,-- as if in some subtle sense, of which I had not before been conscious on like occasions, we were members of one household.
     We have said a great deal about the system of instruction which has brought you into close association with preceptors in your daily work throughout the four hears of your life here, an association which has grown closer and closer as year was added to year and you were matured by study, but its chief effect, as we all know, has been to draw faculty and students together into a new knowledge of each other. I have felt the effect in the ease and naturalness with which you have approached me and with which I have felt it possible to approach you; and it has culminated at last in the feeling on my part, and I believe on yours, that President and students were, in some real and delightful sense, colleagues in a common life and undertaking.
     I have felt very happy in the change; and the simple counsel I have sought to give you to-day has not been the counsel of an officer of the University addressed to his pupils and charges, but the counsel of a friend addressed to younger associates. I have gone further upon the journey of life than you have. I think that I can say that I know what comforts the heart and cheers the will and sweetens all experience. It is contained in this deep saying of our Master: “When ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.” I give it to you as something deeper than the lesson of a seat of learning,-- as the lesson of life, which you may learn now at the outset, and be happy to know for the rest of your days. May God bless you and bring you all light and courage and peace.

Original Format





Wilson, Woodrow, 1856-1924, “Woodrow Wilson Princeton Baccalaureate Address,” 1909 June 13, WWP19558, Eleanor Wilson McAdoo Collection at the University of California-Santa Barbara, Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum, Staunton, Virginia.