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Woodrow Wilson

ISSUE:  Autumn 1925

Woodrow Wilson: The Man, His Times, and His Task.
By William Allen White. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin Co. $5.00.

College and State: Educational, Literary and Political Pa ­pers (1875–1913) By Woodrow Wilson. Edited by Ray Stannard Baker and William E. Dodd. 2 Vols. New York and London: Harper and Brothers.

The author of the first of these volumes was an ar ­dent follower of Roosevelt, who was drawn to Wilson by his policies, not by his politics or his personality. His acquaintance with Wilson was slight, and he found him personally repellent. “When I met him, he gave me a hand that felt very much like a five-cent mackerel; cold, stiff, moist, unresponsive. . . . He smiled, but I got the wrong side of his face, a side which gave me a certain im ­pression of a reptilian personality—a strong sense of some essential treachery in the man.” Mr. White undertakes “a relentlessly penetrating study” of Wilson’s psychology. It is the biographical method of Strachey employed by a bril ­liant but decidedly breezy Kansas journalist. The friends of Wilson will frequently be shocked by passages like that quoted above, while his enemies, still revelling in one of these passages, will suddenly find themselves in the midst of a glowing panegyric falling little short of hero worship.

The literary psycho-analyst revels in contrasts, in dissect ­ing mental and moral traits, and in demonstrating the inter ­play of hereditary strains that make up character. The con ­trasts in Wilson’s life and character form the keynote of this book, beginning with this striking passage in the Introduction: “His partisans have idealized his virtues and so have sought to create a superman—some sort of Heaven ­sent Messiah to redeem a wicked world from its iniquity. His enemies—alas, they have seen his weakness through the green and red glasses of envy and hate, and a fine old striped devil they have made of him. He was neither God nor fiend, but in his political career rather a shy, middle-aged gentleman with the hoar frost of the cloister upon his pub ­lic manner, with an academic respect for facts and with Cal-vinistic addiction for digesting the facts into his own God-given truth. On the surface he was half or two-thirds Irish, and so turned to his friends a gay and lovely face. But the dour Scot, big and dominant inside him, turned to his ad ­versaries a cold and implacable heart that transformed even the most amiable of his opponents into ardent foes with a lust for torture.”

In the first chapter on “The Miracle of Heredity” the author lays the basis of his theory of the effect of the mixed inheritance, Woodrows and Wilsons, which, he claims, gave the subject of his sketch a dual personality. His sterner moral and intellectual qualities came from the Scotch Woodrows, while the gayer, lighter, humorous strain was an inheritance from the Irish Wilsons.

Mr. White sees in the dropping of the name Thomas the emergence of the man. The tradition in Columbia, South Carolina, is that he dropped his first name because it was undignified. For he said, “It’s Tommy the turkey and Tommy the cat and Tommy the gardener. So I dropped it.” But the true explanation was probably that given to a friend: “I find I need a trademark in advertising my lit ­erary wares. Thomas W. Wilson lacks something. Wood-row Wilson sticks in the mind. So I have decided publicly to be Woodrow Wilson.”

“The birth of Woodrow, successor to Tommy Wilson” is described thus:

“Woodrow Wilson had greater things to say than Tommy, was aglow with nobler passions and saw higher stars to which his wagon might be hitched, but Tommy Wilson wrote as well as Woodrow and probably spoke with more fire. For he recited as orations in his lit ­erary society these political essays, and old men who heard him forty-five years ago say he thrilled his world. The gris ­tle of his youth was becoming the bone of his maturity in those Virginia days. Woodrow was hoving in sight. But Tommy kept on singing, roistering, rollicking, playing a little baseball, joining the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, writ ­ing nonsense rhymes for college festivals and cutting gay capers before high Heaven. That was the last of Tommy Wilson, there at Virginia cavorting through the pillared halls that Jefferson designed after the palaces of Palladio, There, amid the beauty and romance of the hilarious cloister, where youth is eternal, renewing itself every year in happy springs that come bubbling out of childhood, Woodrow Wilson, turning some sudden corner, lost Tommy forever.”


The author’s attempt to analyse Wilson’s character and to describe his personality will doubtless strike those who knew Wilson as nothing less than fantastic—as fantastic as his description of the flaxen haired youth. Imagine Wil ­son’s brownish black hair ever having been flaxen except possibly in his early infancy!

When he comes to politics and public questions, Mr. White is on familiar ground and contributes some interest ­ing facts and points of view. One of the most perplexing questions in connection with Wilson’s career is, what was his real attitude and intention toward Germany from the sink ­ing of the Lusitania to the close of the presidential campaign of 1916? Did he keep us out of war, and, if so, what was his motive? On this problem Mr. White throws new light. He quotes a statement from Gilson Gardner, a newspaper reporter, in regard to a “Sunrise Conference” held at the White House on a May morning in 1916, a year after the sinking of the Lusitania:

“As the story was told to me, this early morning conference at the White House was attended by Representatives Clark, Flood, and Kitchin. It was at this conference that President Wilson announced his intention to put the United States into war and to do so immediately. Clark, Flood, and Kitchin were shocked at Wilson’s announcement and declared that it was impossible; that the people did not want this country put into war, and that any effort on Wilson’s part to force such a result would be met by them with a very bitter fight. Wilson threatened, and said that any man standing in the way would be politically destroyed if he started to carry out his purpose. There were heated words, and the conference broke up with a declaration by these leaders that they would resist the President to the utmost in any such effort.”

Flood and Clark died without committing to paper what took place at this conference. Shortly before Kitchin’s death Gardner wrote to him for confirmation of the story. Kitchin replied confirming the fact that such a conference had taken place, and expressing regret that Clark and Flood had died without leaving a record of it which all three had agreed to draw up and sign. He promised to go over the whole matter with Gardner on his return to Washington, but he died before seeing Gardner again.

Mr. White rejects the idea that the slogan, “He kept us out of war,” re-elected Wilson. He holds, on the contrary, that the Progressive vote of the West was the decisive fac ­tor. As evidence of this he says: “When the call came for volunteers, a few months after the election, the States which gave Wilson his majority were the first States to fill their quota in the Army and in the Navy; weeks and sometimes months ahead of the fire-eating, war-hungry States which damned Wilson in the election as a pacifist.” They voted for him, “not because he was trying to keep them out of war, but because he was trying to keep them out of plu­tocracy.”

Throughout the book the author pays high tribute to Wilson’s moral leadership. While preparing the Lusitania note, the President said to Frank Cobb:

“I do not know whether the German Government intends to keep faith with the United States or not. It is my per ­sonal opinion that Germany has no such intention, but I am less concerned about the ultimate intentions of Germany than about the attitude of the American people, who are already divided into three groups; those who are strongly pro-German, those who are strongly pro-Ally, and the vast majority who expect nie to find a way to keep the United State out of war. I do not want war, yet I do not know that I can keep the country out of War. That depends on Germany, and I have no control over Germany. But I in ­tend to handle this situation in such a manner that every American citizen will know that the United States Govern ­ment has done everything it could to prevent war. Then if war comes, we shall have a united country, and with a united country there need be no fear about the result.”

Mr. White regards this statement as the gist of the long debate that followed. “The everlasting series of notes which he wrote and wrote and wrote, when impatient critics were demanding deeds and not words, were, after all, more than guns and ships and the provender of war, the real muni ­tions that broke the German front. He was hypnotizing the world! In that magnificent debate, Olympian in its gran ­deur, probably the most vital interchange of contesting ideas that the world has ever seen, we find this Celtic statesman at his best. His mind was fitted by its very limitations for its task. No great philosopher was he; the restrictions, quali ­fications, niceties of statement that would have crowded in upon a first-class mind, would have robbed his issue of its force and turned it beyond the comprehension of the com ­mon mind. But Wilson, from his Irish heart, matched minds with the common people of the world. He was given Divine grace to see, as the world could not see, the funda ­mental issues of the Great War.” Wilson’s first trip to Europe was more than justified by the results. His decision to return to Paris in March, 1919, was “a bad decision because at Paris Colonel House repre ­senting him could have bargained better as an agent than Wilson, himself, could bargain as a principal. Always the Colonel could have stood back and deplored the man in Washington who remained immovable. But when the ‘man in Washington’ was seated in a chair across the table, the agent had small power and the chief had to compromise.”

In conclusion Mr. White declares that Wilson’s fame is bound up in the League of Nations. “If that stands, he may tower beside it as the Washington of a World Fed ­eration. If the League of Nations crumbles, if in the in ­scrutable ways of Providence some other method is devised by men to institutionalize their yearnings for peace, then Wilson will become one of the host of good men who spent their zeal striving for futile things. . . . On the other hand, if his vision becomes reality, then all the petty faults which men saw and fumed about will fall away from him. His strength will survive; his moral courage will stand out. The fire of his words will not be quenched, and the sword of his faith will flame at the gate of a new order. This much we may know of Woodrow Wilson surely: If Fame does come to him through the conjunction of time and chance working upon the genius of the race to preserve the struc ­ture which he previsioned in his hour of trial, Fame will find a man here—a clean, brave, wise, courageous man—ready-made for heroic stature. Little will crumble from him in that day. He will remain as we know him who worked with him. And the man we saw in our pride of him need suffer little change as his poor finite clay turns to memorial bronze.”


The two volumes, “College and State,” constitute the first installment of the authorized edition of the public papers of Woodrow Wilson. They contain a selection of 65 essays and speeches, beginning with an essay on Bismarck, con ­tributed to the Nassau Literary Magazine in November, 1877, when he was twenty-one years old, and ending with his speech at Seagirt, New Jersey, August 7, 1912, accept ­ing the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. The bibliography of Wilson’s published writings and addresses at the end of Volume II contains over 250 titles for the years covered by the two volumes, so that the editors have selected for re-publication about a fourth of the titles and much less than a fourth of the material at hand. They have not, of course, included his books, and they have had to omit some of his best essays originally published in magazines and later collected in book form, such as “Mere Literature and Other Essays” (Houghton, Mifflin Co., 1896, 1912 and 1913), which contains among other things “A Lit ­erary Politician” (Walter Bagehot), “The Interpreter of English Liberty” (Edmund Burke), and “A Calendar of Great Americans,” a free and illuminating (as to Wilson himself) discussion of the claims to enduring fame of most of his great predecessors in the presidential office.

The present collection gives a clear impression of Wilson’s intellectual growth, of his educational aims, and of the in ­evitable drift toward the larger field of political leadership. In reading these essays and addresses one cannot fail to be impressed by Wilson’s intellectual grasp and moral pur ­pose, and by his remarkable powers of expression. His style is often self-conscious, occasionally giving evidence of studied adroitness. In his after-dinner speeches he some ­times indulged in a degree of facetiousness that must have created in his hearers an unpleasant suspicion of ridicule. Such was his delightfully clever address on the Puritan be ­fore the New England Society of New York. From his youth Wilson was a close student of literary style. His at ­tention was first called to the importance of this subject by his father, who was himself a polished writer and speaker. At an early age he began the study of the great English writers. The two whose style influenced him most and whom he accepted as models were Edmund Burke and Walter Bagehot. In his lectures to graduate students at the Johns Hopkins he frequently quoted them, and I have on my shelves now a five-volume edition of Bagehot which I bought at the time under Wilson’s inspiration.

His remark to Dean Fine that his style had not improved since the early essays of his college days was to a large ex ­tent true. His youthful writings show remarkable maturity of both thought and style, and they bear the ear-marks of his later style. In his great war papers we find the same at ­tention to phraseology, to form as well as to substance. Like Jefferson, Lincoin, and Roosevelt, he was a great phrase-maker. He strove to put ideas into simple but strik ­ing combinations of words that would stick in the popular mind. This tendency sometimes led him astray, as in the expression “too proud to fight.” On the other hand the slogan, “We must make the world safe for democracy,” played a powerful part in winning the war. It won the support of the liberals in this country and clarified the is ­sues in the minds of thousands abroad.

Wilson’s earlier writings will be eagerly read by histori­ans and students of the future for the light they throw on the political philosophy of his great state papers. They will be no less eagerly read by his friends and admirers to-day. The editors have performed their task well and have ren ­dered a public service.


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