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Wilson as Governor and President

ISSUE:  Spring 1932

Woodrow Wilson, Life and Letters. By Ray Stannard Baker. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Company. Vols. III and IV. $10.00.

The first installment of Mr. Baker’s life of Wilson presented the intimate papers and letters of Woodrow Wilson during his early life and through the Princeton presidency. These volumes offer similar materials for the stormy years of the governorship of New Jersey and the first period of the presidency. While the former volumes gave the impression of thorough work and satisfactory selection, these go further and supply the reader and the historian with more intimate documentary supports and leave the impression of a completeness rarely attained by any of the other writers who have covered that era in American political leadership. There are scores of letters from Wilson to close personal friends, to men of doubtful loyalty, and even to sworn enemies. Since there is no known diary of the wartime president or of his family circle, this unstinted use of personal correspondence is most welcome—particularly those letters written to Mary Hulbert, about whom there has been so much gossip.

Mr. Baker treats exhaustively several subjects of current and abiding interest. For example, the delicate matter of a Democratic nomination to the presidency. There is nowhere in American historical literature quite so good a picture of a masterful man dealing with unscrupulous self-seekers as we have in the present story of the nomination to the governorship of New Jersey and the subsequent complete and exasperating public exposure of these men by their own favorite. The charges of ingratitude and betrayal by George Harvey and Henry Watterson never registered with the public. Wilson had simply outplayed the players and had to his credit the obvious purpose of rescuing the public from its plunderers.

Of greater interest is the story of Wilson’s estimate of public opinion during the hot and lively campaign of Theodore Roosevelt against President Taft for the nomination in Chicago in 1912. The New Jersey governor was at heart a conservative who held the example of Washington and the teachings of Edmund Burke in high esteem. Twitted when the great war was at its worst with the remark that Thomas Carlyle was in a sense the author of the war, he fell at once into a sturdy defense of the great Scotchman; it was the conservative Scotchman true to a Scotch reactionary. As between Jefferson and Hamilton, he had been brought up to prefer the latter. But the extremes of business men’s exploitations during the early years of the century and the clever devices of party machines drove him toward the standard of William J. Bryan—not a true Jeffersonian, to be sure, but a people’s man. That gradual shift was revealed in a letter in which he described a visit to Norfolk in April, 1911:

The South is a very conservative region—just now probably the most conservative section of the country—and I am not conservative. I wanted to tell my friends in the South just what I thought before they went further and committed themselves to me as a favorite son.

After making it plain to Virginians that he was too much like Thomas Jefferson for the Jeffersonians, he turned west, where the masses of men had long debated between the claims of the Orator of the Platte and the Rough Rider on horseback, to see what he could do there. In the spring of 1911, he toured the Bryan-Roosevelt country, spoke in Missouri, in California, and then returned by way of Minnesota and Lincoln, Nebraska, where Bryan’s brother handed the Wilson manager a check to be added to the scanty sum on which the tour had been financed! The orator had managed to be absent, but Mrs. Bryan welcomed Wilson most effectively. The New Jersey candidate, too radical for the South, had everywhere received ovations unlike any the bosses of the east had staged. It was a puzzle. Would the shy college professor edge both Bryan and Roosevelt out of the way and take his seat in the White House in March, 1913, most fateful of all the years since 1861? And exactly that is what happened; and volume three of this biography gives an unadorned, direct, and complete account of the kaleidoscopic changes and the shrewd moves of men and groups which accomplished the miracle. Lincoln was not more clever when, in 1860, he manoeuvred William II. Seward into second place as a national leader.

There is another chapter. The finances of the United States were then as now at the mercy of a small group of interested capitalists in New York. The Pujo Committee of Congress had shown how personal and how limited was the control of credit even in the field of business enterprise. The Aldrich Commission had worked for years on possible reforms. Every legislative change offered by this commission had revealed the purpose of a few bankers to concentrate control in New York and prevent anything like public guidance of so delicate and important a social function. Representative Carter Glass parted company with Bryan, his former leader, and worked out a plan which left the decisive influence in the hands of private bankers. Economists favored the Glass plan for a new financial system. After Wilson’s election, Glass carried his scheme to Princeton. The President-elect was uncertain. But as the months passed Wilson, Bryan, McAdoo, Glass, and Senator Owen elaborated the Federal Reserve system as it came finally to be adopted. The government was to control money and credit. This was the first great test of the new leadership: it proved cautious, informed, conciliatory, and wholly in the public interest.

The Glass bill passed the House of Representatives in the summer of 1913, the American Banker’s Association having denounced it in solemn resolutions. The United States Chamber of Commerce did the same thing when duly prompted. Roosevelt, Lodge, and the other Republican chiefs took the same drift. Although the measure had been discussed and matured for six months, not to mention the five years of previous work by Congressional committees, the Senate yielded to the demands of bankers and submitted the proposed Federal Reserve system to long hearings, simply to delay action. At the same time opponents of the administration played upon the people through the press and at times gave the appearance of precipitating a financial stringency in order to defeat the President and the majority of the two houses. Some of the best known men in the country participated in these dangerous tactics. Wilson showed an amazing patience. He saw every one who seemed to have any constructive offerings. But he was fixed in mind as to one thing: the issue of money and the regulation of credit must be a governmental, not a private, function. He had departed entirely from the Hamiltonian dictum that private business must govern. The fight in the Senate during the summer and autumn of 1913 revealed the American method of social control quite as well as any tariff lobby of that decade. Wilson fought to the end and two days before Christmas he signed the bill which, if it had been administered in accordance with the terms and the spirit of its clauses, would certainly have saved the country much of the disaster of the present depression. After a hundred and twenty years the government of the United States assumed the responsibility for the direction of the most important of all the functions of government, next to that of keeping the peace. As one reads the account of the President’s part in that critical year’s work, there can be no doubt that there was one leader who knew his own mind and had the will and the vigor to fight to the last ditch.

There has never been a president who was more true to his function and not one who knew quite so well how to circumvent opponents whose objectives were unsocial. One thinks of Jefferson who manned both houses of Congress as admirably as the best of British prime ministers, yet failed to break the alliance of the Federal judiciary with private interests. Lincoln fought the most cruel war in American history in order to maintain the Union of states, only to yield control in the end to groups which knew exactly what they wanted. From 1913 to 1915 Wilson held his power and defended his trust with a doubting majority in the two houses. It was the stern, resolute, uncompromising man who was giving the world the notion that he was personally autocratic and socially cold and uncommunicative—a picture which, in spite of all the contrary evidence of these volumes, is apt to survive.

No part of the story before us is more revealing than the long chapter on Mexico. It may be summarized: When Wilson took office Victoriana Huerta had just finished the work of putting Francisco Madero out of the way. Henry Lane Wilson, Taft’s minister to Mexico, lent a hand to Huerta and became the agent of American oil interests in that region. Sir Lionel Carden, more the agent of British oil than of the British people, quickly recognized Huerta. Judge D. J. Haff, of Kansas City, counsel for American oil and railway interests in Mexico, wrote and submitted a memorandum which outlined a proper policy for the government of the United States. Edward L. Doheny hung about Washington to urge immediate action in the disturbed region. And Walter Hines Page began to advise a combination of the British and the American governments to “clean up” all the Latin American countries. If ever a President was overwhelmed with counsel all bearing on one side of a great question, it was Wilson during the year and a half before Europe plunged into world-wide war. For a short moment, Wilson thought to make an end of the matter by yielding. But meanwhile he had sent amateurs and, perhaps, incompetents to the scene of trouble: William Bayard Hale and John Lind. If their reports were crude, they nevertheless offered evidence of disturbing facts; and the President set his hard head against Huerta and all who advocated his case. Huerta must go.

George Harvey denounced the “dictator” who would dictate to Mexico. Sir Edward Grey sent his private secretary to Washington in November 1913 to argue with Wilson. James Bryce, an old and intimate friend, wrote that no people in Latin America ever held an honest election or knew anything about democracy. Secretary Franklin K. Lane, a close friend of Theodore Roosevelt, gave public evidence of close relationships with Doheny who seemed never to despair of influencing the outcome. Finally, as the terrific strain of the Federal Reserve banking system was about to cease, Wilson explained to Congress and the country his “watchful waiting” and persuaded other countries to stay their hands, Germany being most hostile to his ideas. It was but the unconscious prelude to the great war; and Wilson unconsciously took the stand that any democratic-minded person must have taken. He would work out the Mexican dilemma in concert with other Latin American states, troublesome as that proved to be.

I can not say too much in favor of a wide circulation of these well-ordered and exhaustive volumes.


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