Patton, Francis Landey

Patton, Francis Landey (1843-1932) twelfth president of Princeton, was born in Warwick, Bermuda, on January 22, 1843. His early schooling was at Warwick Academy; later he attended Knox College of the University of Toronto and studied for two years at Princeton Theological Seminary. After ordination in June 1865, he held pastorates in New York City, Nyack, Brooklyn, and Chicago. His teaching career began in 1872 with his appointment as Cyrus Hall McCormick Professor of Didactic and Polemical Theology at the Presbyterian Theological Seminary of the Northwest (now McCormick Seminary).

In conjunction with his faculty duties, Patton was expected to defend conservative Presbyterianism against the new liberal currents of thought that had all but taken over the Chicago Presbytery. Thin, bespectacled, wearing side whiskers, a white lawn tie and a black frock coat, Patton looked every bit the part he was called to play. He plunged into the task with zeal, as editor of the Interior, a Presbyterian weekly, and as professor and public speaker. The culmination of his crusade came in April 1874, with a much-publicized heresy trial of the Rev. David Swing, the most popular representative of Chicago liberalism, whom Patton charged with serious departures from the faith. Patton lost his case before the Presbytery, but gained a great reputation as the eloquent champion of orthodoxy, leading to his election as Moderator of the General Assembly in 1878. Three years later, Princeton Theological Seminary appointed him to a new chair in the Relations of Philosophy and Science to the Christian Religion, endowed especially for Patton by Robert L. Stewart.

When Patton arrived in Princeton in the spring of 1881, he retained the stiff, formal appearance that seemed to reflect his conservative views, but his manner mellowed during the years that followed. The side whiskers disappeared, the high collar came down, the white lawn tie gave way to a simple black business tie. His reputation as a teacher and theologian grew rapidly, and his services as an after-dinner speaker were soon much in demand. Even those who disagreed with his orthodox beliefs admired his platform brilliance embellished as it was with literary allusions and laced with incisive wit. In 1884, he added to his Seminary schedule the teaching of a course at Princeton College in Ethics and the Philosophy of Religion. But the severest test of his career came in 1888, when he was elected by the trustees of the College to the office of the presidency held so ably for many years by the much-revered McCosh.

Patton's election did not enthuse all Princetonians. Alumni had hoped not only for an educator, but also for an experienced administrator who would bring efficiency and system to the expanding business needs of the College. Some noted that he was not even an American citizen. Undergraduates feared that they were to be ``admonished, sermonized, disciplined after the John Knox fashion.'' But Patton managed to allay many doubts in his first speaking engagement. Before the New York alumni in March 1888, he alluded to his predecessors, particularly Witherspoon and McCosh, saying, ``It is manifest that there is more joy among the Alumni over the one President who has been naturalized than over the ninety-and-nine that have needed no naturalization.'' Amid frequent laughter and applause, he referred to the criticism that he lacked business acumen by saying that he believed that a ``college president ought to know an interest-coupon from a railway-ticket, and that he ought to be able to understand a balance-sheet as well as to grade an examination-paper.'' Continuing, Patton referred to the value of diversity among a student body and explained, ``I am not prepared to say that it is better to have gone and loafed than never to have gone at all, but I do believe in the genius loci; and I sympathize with Sir Joshua Reynolds when he says, ``that there is around every seminary of learning, an atmosphere of floating knowledge where every one can imbibe something peculiar to his own original conceptions.'' Perceptive though this observation was, unfortunately the subordinate clause, ``it is better to have gone and loafed than never to have gone at all,'' was to be most remembered and later often quoted out of context as evidence of Patton's casual attitude toward scholarship.

The classes of the nineties -- the ``golden nineties'' to their members -- were unanimous in their respect and affection for Patton. His course in ethics was popular, and when he preached at Chapel, one of his students recalled, ``the most indifferent of loafers slouched over to hear him.'' His kindly wisdom and ready wit soon became legendary, and students frequently sought him out for guidance and counsel.

During Patton's administration, Princeton underwent great change. The student body increased from slightly over 600 to more than 1300, while the faculty, too, more than doubled. Patton appointed a number of both promising and accomplished scholars and teachers who soon brought new lustre to the community. Among them were Woodrow Wilson, Bliss Perry, John Grier Hibben, Winthrop More Daniels, George McLean Harper, Paul and Henry van Dyke, and Howard Crosby Warren. During the same time, more than a dozen major buildings were completed. The social life of the students was also changing as eating clubs proliferated. The clubs, together with the surging interest in athletics, particularly football, created a new atmosphere on campus and an emphasis on ``college life'' rather than college studies. The climax of the ``golden nineties'' came in 1896 during the Sesquicentennial Celebration when Patton proclaimed that the College would ``in all future time be known as Princeton University.''

The change in title, hailed as signaling the beginning of a new era in the history of Princeton, also marked the beginning of the end for the Patton administration, for it brought sharply into focus the president's failures as an administrator. Even by standards of that day, the administrative structure of Princeton was spare to the extreme. Patton conducted college affairs from his study in Prospect. He had no personal secretary until 1895 when he assigned that position to his son, George Stevenson Patton '91, and there was no college or university secretary until the election of Charles Williston McAlpin in December 1900. Patton was assisted by only one dean for most of his term, during which he turned aside the faculty's urgent appeals to inaugurate a system of deans to accommodate the expanding institution. Faculty accounts indicate that Patton lacked initiative in important policy matters, resisted meaningful curriculum reform, was lax in matters of discipline and in scholarly standards -- in short, as one faculty member put it, was ``a wonderfully poor administrator.''

To many of the faculty, enthused by the high promise of the Sesquicentennial, the time seemed at hand to take concrete measures toward making Princeton in fact what she now claimed to be in name. With little help from the president, the faculty did manage an important step forward with the establishment, by the trustees, of the Graduate School in 1900. In its administrative structure, Patton was effectively circumvented, since the dean, Andrew Fleming West, appointed directly by the trustees, was given nearly autonomous powers. On the other hand, faculty committees labored for nearly two years to reform the curriculum, but Patton remained unconvinced that a student's performance could thus be improved and succeeded in shunting aside the proposals.

Significantly, the efforts of the faculty reformers gained the sympathetic attention of many influential trustees who, although they continued to admire Patton as a teacher, preacher, and public speaker, were becoming deeply concerned about his administrative inadequacies. The Board of Trustees itself had changed its profile during the 1890s as the traditional clerical majority was slowly reduced by the election of more business and professional men. Most of the sixteen new trustees elected in the last five years of the century were successful businessmen and lawyers, products of a burgeoning industrial America, who valued efficiency and who were not inclined to be patient for long with Patton's methods.

The climax came during the spring of 1902 when several trustees and faculty proposed to Patton that an executive committee of two trustees and three faculty members be formed to assume many of the president's administrative powers. Patton protested this reduction in his control of university affairs, but even his friends on the board gave him little encouragement. Finally, after some negotiation, he decided that resignation was the better part of wisdom, and he resigned at the trustees' meeting on June 9, 1902. The board, with Patton's strong endorsement, immediately chose Woodrow Wilson to be his successor.

Patton did not leave his office empty-handed. To compensate him for retiring six years earlier than he had intended, a group of trustees, alumni, and friends agreed to give him a sum in cash that, together with his yearly salary of $4000 as Professor of Ethics for one term a year, would equal for six years his salary as president of the University. His career was by no means ended, for not only did he continue to teach at both University and Seminary, but in the fall of 1902 he accepted election to the new office of president of Princeton Theological Seminary.

Whatever his deficiencies as an administrator, Patton continued high in the affection of students, faculty, and alumni. He also retained his sense of humor. At one time, when asked by a Seminary visitor if he had any connection with the University, he wryly replied, ``Yes, indeed, I am President of Princeton University -- once removed.''

Patton retired from the Seminary in 1913 and returned to his beloved Bermuda, there to write and preach, coming to the States occasionally to lecture. He went on speaking out on behalf of scriptural and doctrinal integrity in numerous controversies that arose in the Presbyterian church, and he presented his case for orthodoxy most fully in his book, Fundamental Christianity, published when he was 83. ``We cannot change Christianity,'' he wrote, ``We may reject it if we please, but its meaning is plain.'' He died in Bermuda on November 25, 1932.

David W. Hirst

From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

Go to Search A Princeton Companion