Woodrow Wilson

IT will be many years before a complete picture of Woodrow Wilson and his work can be drawn. Much of the necessary material is still locked up in private diaries, private letters, and confidential files in public offices. Nevertheless, the main lines of his character and conduct can be traced.

His racial and family inheritances are already known. They were remarkably strong and fine, and well-nigh determined, as in most human beings, his qualities of mind and heart, and the nature of the work he did in the world. His father and mother both belonged to the Scotch race, and both were Presbyterians in religion, children of Presbyterian ministers of the staunchest sort. These Presbyterian ancestors had served in Northern pulpits and in Virginia, but had settled by 1858 in Augusta, Georgia, and Columbia, South Carolina, which then formed one community.

The Wilson family, in spite of their Scottish origin and long residence in the North, were thoroughly Southern in sentiment before the Civil War began. When the Civil War broke out, it was in the house and church of Woodrow Wilson’s father that the Southern Presbyterian Church was organized. The sufferings of the South during the War and the Reconstruction period were familiar to the young boy; and his heroes and exemplars were all Southern, like Calhoun the antagonist of Andrew Jackson, and Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Alexander Stephens, leaders of the Confederacy. His father and mother were his principal teachers till he was eighteen years old, with assistance from a maternal uncle and a maternal aunt. Then he went away from home to attend Davidson College, a school conducted by Presbyterian teachers, and attended by sons of southern Presbyterian families. There the boy continued his studies in the Classics, elementary mathematics, and the Calvinistic philosophy in the good old way; but only for a short time.

In the spring of 1875, he returned to his family, who had moved from Columbia, S. C., to Wilmington, N. C., in order that the father might again devote himself exclusively to the work of a pastor. The boy’s health required care; for he had developed digestive troubles. He was too tall and thin; and he read serious books more constantly than was good for him. In Wilmington, the young man saw the ocean which is sometimes a barrier and sometimes a highway, and thought about the English blockade-runners who gave such effective aid to the Confederacy, and about Gladstone, the sympathizer with peoples whom he thought of as oppressed, whether in the Near East, in Egypt, or in the States which seceded from the American Union in 1861.

By September, 1875, Woodrow Wilson had decided to go to Princeton, the college which had bred many political leaders for the Southern States, and many Presbyterian ministers for all parts of the country. The students there usually came from Presbyterian or Evangelical families; and the political and social ideas which prevailed in the College were of Southern origin. Moreover, it was his father’s college.

Wilson did not distinguish himself as a student at Princeton. Probably his mind was too excursive for the Princeton programme of that day. At any rate, his natural taste and disposition carried him into realms of thought and study which were not included in the Princeton quadrennium. He took to independent reading in the library, and to the use of his powers as a debater in Whig Hall, and as a writer in the Nassau Literary Magazine. He graduated at Princeton without high standing as a scholar, but with some reputation among his fellow students as a debater and writer.

Dr. Theodore W. Hunt, who taught Woodrow Wilson as an undergraduate at Princeton, has lately said that the impression made on him ‘was that of an exceptionally mature student deeply interested in current events, often devoting to general reading the hours that others were giving to the regular academic schedule, willingly surrendering high academic standing to the attractions of general literature, of history, and of political writing.’

From Princeton he went to the University of Virginia to study law. His studies there were interrupted by an illness which sent him again to his father’s house in Wilmington. But he soon returned to finish his preliminary studies in law and take his degree at the University. He then started in practice at Atlanta, Georgia, with a partner as inexperienced as himself; but they were only young strangers there, and no success attended their efforts.

While at Atlanta, he paid long visits at the house of his cousin Mrs. Brower, who now lived in Rome, Georgia, and there met Miss Ellen Axson, of Scotch Presbyterian descent and nurture like his own. That meeting determined a change of profession; for it became a great object to earn a livelihood.

He dropped Law, and aimed at becoming a college teacher. To that end he entered Johns Hopkins University in September, 1883, apparently as a graduate student, and proceeded to study history and political science under the guidance of Professor Herbert B. Adams. In September, 1884, he appears as a Fellow, an office which carried with it a small salary. He associated at Johns Hopkins with a group of ambitious young scholars bent on mastering the methods of accurate research in subjects of their choice; but he was older than most of them, and they found him variable in mood — sometimes silent and dour, sometimes gay and fascinating.

Within two years he was invited to an Associate Professorship of History and Political Science in Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, a women’s college, then often called in Baltimore circles Joanna Hopkins College. On that prospect Miss Axson and he were married at the end of June, 1885.

As his graduating thesis for the doctorate at Johns Hopkins, Wilson had published an elaborate essay on Congressional Government. This essay declared that Congressional government in the United States was in a bad way, and could best be saved by converting it into Cabinet government on the English model. It condemned the American constitutional method of dividing authority among the Administration, the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the Supreme Court. This essay was well written and was characterized by striking independence of thought; but it was not taken seriously by the politicians and indeed commanded but little attention.

Bryn Mawr College was near Philadelphia; and Philadelphia was the headquarters of the Republican Party machine, which had been skillfully managed for many years by a series of Republican chiefs. Its atmosphere was not congenial to a budding Independent like Woodrow Wilson. The young Professor, therefore, devoted himself to teaching history and political science to the young women who attended Bryn Mawr College, many of whom were well-to-do.

There he stayed three years, and then moved on to Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, where he could teach young men instead of young women. All the time he was at Wesleyan, he was also ‘Reader in Administration’ at Johns Hopkins, and was welcoming the many opportunities offered him to lecture before intelligent audiences in many different parts of the country on the historical, social, and political subjects which he had made his own.

In 1890, he became Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton, where he taught that subject and political science joyfully for thirteen years.

The Wilson home at Princeton, as time went on, became the scene of ample and cordial hospitalities, quite in the manner of the Southern planter before the Civil War. The feminine influence in the household was strong, though not dominant. Mrs. Wilson had a decided gift in arts of design. Miss Helen Bones, Mr. Wilson’s cousin, joined the family in order to attend a school for young ladies at Princeton, and was a helpful member of it. Three daughters had been born to Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, all of whom had interesting minds and charming dispositions. No sons were born to the family; so that Wilson could not leave behind, as his most precious and durable work, letters to sons, as Theodore Roosevelt did. President Wilson’s father had come to live with him in the pleasant Princeton which they both loved. The household was a costly one. Hence, Professor Wilson was always trying to increase his income by miscellaneous lecturing, and by writing magazine articles and books which might yield good royalties.

Wilson’s career as a teacher, from 1885 to his entry into politics in the autumn of 1910, was characterized by enlarging vision, increasing success, and great personal happiness. His student audiences listened to him with admiration and delight, his colleagues in the colleges he served recognized and applauded his varied knowledge, the spiritual exaltation of his theories and beliefs, and his steady advocacy of the humanities in education.

The series of books he wrote on political and historical subjects were much read, not only in the institutions where he taught, but at other colleges and by Americans, wherever living and in whatever occupations, who were interested in historical and political subjects. Their style was attractive, because full of fervor and enthusiasm, and their matter commanded the respect of scholars, with the possible exception of a History of the American People, a book apparently written in haste, or under pressure from its publishers with a view to getting an immediate money return from it.

When one reconsiders the whole series of his published books, essays, and addresses, from the essay on Congressional Government to The New Freedom, 1913, When a Man Comes to Himself, 1915, and On Being Human, 1916, one learns that all Wilson’s studies in history, jurisprudence, and political science, and his gifts for speaking and writing came to be regarded by him as qualifications for entrance into the real work of his life — political service. His desire to get into political life was, however, still to be long postponed. In 1896, Woodrow Wilson was chosen to deliver one of the addresses at the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the College of New Jersey. The celebration occurred in October, in the midst of the first Bryan campaign for the presidency, a season of high political excitement all over the country. It was an admirable opportunity for declaring his own ideal of university education and of a sound training for public service. This is one of his striking sentences: ‘Religion is the salt of the earth wherewith to keep both duty and learning sweet against the taint of time and change; the catholic study of the world’s literature as a record of the spirit is the right preparation for leadership in the world’s affairs; you do not know the world until you know the men who have possessed it and tried its way before ever you were given your brief run upon it; the cultured mind cannot complain, it cannot trifle, it cannot despair; leave pessimism to the uncultured who do not know the reasonableness of hope.’

Henceforth Professor Wilson was regarded at home and abroad as the natural successor to the Presidency of Princeton University. Heretofore the Presidents of Princeton had been ministers of the Protestant Church; but already Cornell, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Yale had taken laymen as Presidents; so that there was nothing novel or revolutionary in the candidacy of Wilson, a Professor of Jurisprudence and Politics, for the Presidency of the College of New Jersey in 1902. When President Patton quietly retired on his Professorship in the Theological Seminary, Woodrow Wilson became President of Princeton University. His acceptance of this Presidency postponed for eight years his entrance into politics.

Six months before he became President of Princeton University Woodrow Wilson made the following statement in a letter to a friend with whom he had long maintained very affectionate relations:—

I was forty-five three weeks ago, and between forty-five and fifty-five, I take it, is when a man ought to do the work into which he expects to put most of himself. I love history, and think that there are few things so directly rewarding and worthwhile for their own sakes as to scan the history of one’s own country with a careful eye, and write of it with the all absorbing desire to get its cream and spirit out. But, after all, I was born a politician, and must be at the task for which, by means of my historical writing, I have all these years been in training. If I finish at fifty-five, shall I not have fifteen richly contemplative years left, if the Lord be good to me! But, then, the Lord may prefer to be good to the world!

It was nearly eight years later that Wilson abandoned educational administration for politics.

These eight years were to be first adventurous and then stormy. The new President went to work at once to reform the existing Princeton curriculum; but the reform he advocated was moderate when compared with the changes which had already been made in many other colleges in the country. For instance, all students were to follow a prescribed course of study during the first two years of college. Only in the last two years of the course could a student give the major part of his time to studies of his choice.

President Wilson was eager to make the young students at Princeton love study and the search for knowledge, and to regard intellectual pursuits as the main object of college life. To this end he believed that more contact of students with inspiring teachers was necessary, such as had been possible in the early days of Princeton, when students were few. He therefore introduced into Princeton his preceptorial system, a very costly system which would require for its best development a considerable number of costly dormitories and the employment of from thirty to forty young doctors of philosophy, most of whom would live in the new dormitories and become companions and guides of the students. His estimate of the cost of this system was $100,000 a year. Rich friends promised the new President the large sums of money needed for the proposed buildings and salaries. Within four years Wilson formed about Princeton and himself a group of wealthy friends who in later years stood by him with remarkable constancy in his first political adventures.

Another serious undertaking which President Wilson entered upon almost simultaneously with the plan of building new dormitories was the breakingup of the club arrangements for upper classmen at Princeton. These clubs were strongly entrenched, physically in attractive buildings, and morally in the affections of both their present and their past members. The Professors, Trustees, and the moneyed supporters of Princeton soon became divided into two parties. One stood by President Wilson and the other by Professor Andrew F. West, Dean of the new Graduate School. Up to February, 1910, the Board of Trustees adhered to the policies of the President, but they were closely divided.

In March, President Wilson visited Princeton Alumni in all parts of the country, and made many addresses explaining his plans. At Pittsburgh he defined clearly the educational reform for which he was contending, as follows: —

The universities would make men forget their common origins, forget their universal sympathies, and join a class; and no class can ever serve America. I have dedicated every power there is within me to bring the colleges that I have anything to do with to an absolute democratic regeneration in spirit, and I shall not be satisfied, and I hope you will not be, until America shall know that the men in the colleges are saturated with the same thought that pulses through the whole great body politic.

He had appealed to the unlearned public for the democratization of American university life. The struggle stimulated his desire for political life.

It is impossible now to set forth in a sure way the strange negotiations in which George Harvey, Henry Watterson, James Smith, Jr., and Woodrow Wilson took part in 1912, negotiations which ultimately secured the nomination of Wilson to the Governorship of New Jersey, and led later to his triumphant election. It is certain, however, that Wilson made no promises to any one of the other three in respect to his own public action if elected Governor of New Jersey, or in respect to the political aspirations of the men who should help him into that office.

In speaking to the convention that nominated him Wilson said, ‘I did not seek this nomination; I have made no pledges and have given no promises. If elected, as I expect to be, I am left free to serve you with all singleness of purpose. It is a new era when these things can be said.’

Wilson immediately resigned the Presidency of Princeton University and entered upon his unique political career.

In an unpublished address which Woodrow Wilson made to an audience of Jews in New York City after he had become Governor of New Jersey (lately printed in the Jewish Tribune) the following passages occur which clearly declare Wilson’s feelings about politics and political service: —

Now, what do you think of politics? What is your conception of politics? Is it a game for advantage? Is it a bit of strategy in order that the people of one combination may have the upper hand over the people of another combination, or is it an effort to make a fair adjustment of human relationships all along the line? . . .

The real thing that we are fighting in New Jersey, for example, is . . . a machine which does not pay the least regard in its private councils to either Democratic or Republican tenets, and which is a common league against the public interest. . . .

America cannot add one single star to her crown by piling up material resources. . . .

Shall we in this time of change, of crises, not renew our ancient vows of self-sacrifice, and of service, and of devotion, and say that we also will make a new and constructive age, and re-conceive the liberties of America?

That last question might well be asked to-day.

After a long and bitter struggle in the Democratic convention of 1912, in which again Woodrow Wilson made no promises and gave no pledges, but repeated his former declarations to the effect that if elected to political office he should expect to be the actual leader of his Party and of any Congress which was Democratic by majority, this idealist, this student and teacher of history, political economy, and jurisprudence was nominated for the Presidency and, in the following fall, triumphantly elected.

Under his very active leadership, with help from Cabinet officers of his own selection, Congress enacted an extraordinary amount of legislation, which brought great relief and profit to the whole nation. It reformed the currency, created the Federal Reserve System, greatly improved the system of taxation, reduced tariff duties, created a non-partisan Tariff Commission, and the Federal Trade Commission; it put on the statute books the Farm Loan System, the Agricultural Educational Extension Bill, and the Federal Warehouse Act; it promoted coöperation among farmers in their own interest and that of the country. The Republican Party which replaced the Democratic Party in the control of the Government in March, 1921, has not tried to set aside or modify substantially these remarkable enactments, and has made no significant additions to them. They still stand as unexampled contributions to the financial, industrial, and social interests of the nation. Such was the work done by this scholar, teacher, and idealist within two years of his accession to power.

The World War broke out when the Wilson Administration had been only seventeen months in power; so that the American Government and people were forced to turn their thoughts to such great subjects as the safety of democracy in the world, the righting of old and new wrongs committed by autocratic rulers against their own subjects or against other nations, the security of small states, the abolition of secret diplomacy and concealed treaties, and of war as means of settling international disputes.

President Wilson tried for a time to hold America out of the World War, hoping to play a good part as a neutral while the War lasted and a still better one when peace came; but when his second term began he was ready to put the whole strength of the American people, both material and spiritual, into the fierce struggle going on in France for the maintenance in the world of political freedom, public justice, and international peace. The American people rushed into this heroic adventure with all their physical resources and all their souls. President Wilson had proved himself a great leader of the people in peace; he now showed himself a still greater leader in war.

Moreover, he insisted on representing the Government and people of the United States in the Conference at Paris on the conduct of the War and the terms on which peace should be made. There he laid down his ‘Fourteen Points,’ the only programme which the statesmanship of the world produced for attaining the real ends of the War. It was a genuine programme for world’s peace, but in style and substance it was full of Wilson’s imperative spirit.

In November, 1917, President Wilson closed an address to the Annual Convention of the American Federation of Labor at Buffalo with the following words: ‘I am with you if you are with me. And the only test of being with me is not to think about me personally at all, but merely to think of me as the expression for the time being of the power and dignity and hope of the United States.’

On January 8, 1918, in an address to Congress, he again set forth his Fourteen Points and summed up his proposal in the following striking terms: ‘We have spoken now, surely, in terms too concrete to admit of any further doubt or question. An evident principle runs through the whole programme I have outlined. It is the principle of justice to all peoples and nationalities, and their right to live on equal terms of liberty and safety with one another, whether they be strong or weak. Unless this principle be made its foundation, no part of the structure of international justice can stand.’

Eleven months later in the President’s Annual Address to Congress, December 2, 1918, President Wilson reviewed the crowded events of the eleven months just elapsed, and again declared his purpose ‘to join in Paris the representatives of the governments with which we have been associated in the War against the Central Empires, for the purpose of discussing with them the main features of the treaty of peace. . . . The peace settlements which are now to be agreed upon are of transcendent importance, both to us and to the rest of the world. . . . I realize the magnitude and the difficulty of the duty I am undertaking; I am poignantly aware of its grave responsibilities. . . . I go to give the best that is in me to the common settlements which I must now assist in arriving at in conference with the other working heads of the associated governments.’

In a short speech which President Wilson made at Mt. Vernon, at a Fourth of July celebration, he laid down four additional Points, supplementing the Fourteen. These were: —

I. The destruction of every arbitrary power anywhere that can separately, secretly, and of its single choice disturb the peace of the world. . . .

II. The settlement of every question, whether of territory or sovereignty, of economic arrangement or of political relationship, upon the basis of the free acceptance of that settlement by the people immediately concerned. . . .

III. The consent of all nations to be governed in their conduct toward each other by the same principles of honor and of respect for the common law of civilized society that govern the individual citizens of all modern states in their relations with one another. . . .

IV. The establishment of an organization of peace which shall make it certain that the combined power of free nations will check every invasion of right, and serve to make peace and justice the more secure by affording a definite tribunal of opinion to which all must submit, and by which every international readjustment that cannot be amicably agreed upon by the peoples directly concerned shall be sanctioned.

These great objects can be put into a single sentence — What we seek is the reign of law based on the consent of the governed and sustained by the organized opinion of mankind.

The great Powers assembled at Paris found President Wilson’s thoughts and motives to be those of a man uninformed about European diplomacy and European history, and his mind that of an idealist and not of a practical man accustomed to seek progress by the recognized European methods of discussion and compromise among rulers who habitually live well-armed and trusted with power to make war or peace without previous appeal to their respective peoples or the peoples’ representatives. They had no use for idealism in politics and government. On the other hand President Wilson had no use for anything else in that field. And what Wilson thought of his own idealism during the War and during the Paris Conference is told in moving words in the last paragraph of his speech at Boston when he landed there on his first return home: —

And, therefore, probing deep in my heart and trying to see the things that are right without regard to the things that may be debated as expedient, I feel that I am interpreting the purpose and the thought of America, and in loving America I find I have joined the great majority of my fellow men throughout the world.

In the very first days of the Conference of the Allied Powers, President Wilson learned that the daily conferences were not to be conducted in the open, public way he had expected; on the contrary they were to be conducted in private, and their progress was not to be reported to and by the Press of the free nations. The British and American publics got no direct reports of the daily proceedings of the Conference. President Wilson could make no daily report to Congress, and was obliged to fight alone and without support from home for the principles on which alone he believed that a useful settlement could be made. It is known that he fought hard for his ideas, embodied in definite proposals; but the details of the contest are not yet accessible.

He succeeded in making his Covenant of the League of Nations a constituent part of the Versailles Treaty, but at the cost of abandoning some measures dear to him, and by threatening at a grave crisis to abandon the Conference and go home.

He would not have had even that success, if his colleagues at the Conference had not taken it for granted that the American people and their Congress would follow their President and had, indeed, authorized him to represent them at Paris.

The tragedy now moved fast to its dire conclusion. After the Senate had refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, Wilson undertook a final appeal to the American people in a long series of public addresses, but was stopped half way by a serious breakdown of strength and vitality. Shortly after his return from Utah to Washington a heavy stroke incapacitated him for further public service.

His last words to the people of the United States closely resembled his first. In his Inaugural Address as President of the United States, March 4, 1913, he said: —

Nowhere else in the world have noble men and women exhibited in more striking forms the beauty and the energy of sympathy and helpfulness and counsel in their efforts to rectify wrong, alleviate suffering, and set the weak in the way of strength and hope. We have built up, moreover, a great system of government, which has stood through a long age as in many respects a model for those who seek to set liberty upon foundations that will endure against fortuitous change, against storm and accident. Our life contains every great thing, and contains it in rich abundance.

Surely a noble vision!

Thus Moses leading to the very door
Of promise might not cross its threshold o’er —
Yet towers secure the leader evermore!

Woodrow Wilson was from youth and at maturity a solitary-minded man. He could seize like lightning on another man’s idea, make it his own, push it forward eagerly, and apparently forget its source. Again, when he was at the height of his power, he often received letters of suggestion or advice from friends he respected, and returned for them grateful acknowledgments; but this was what he acknowledged: ‘You have helped me to clarify my own thoughts.’ He did not enjoy criticism of his work either as a scholar and author, or as a political leader and ruler. Toward a friend who persisted in criticizing and differing, Wilson’s friendship cooled. When he sought relief from the cares and labors of the anxious days in the White House, he liked best the society of the loving and admiring women of his family. He was capable of treating without due consideration friends of his youth and early prime who later differed from him on important public questions. He himself felt passionate resentment against political opponents who, he thought, maligned him, and he roused in them a corresponding hatred. In short, Woodrow Wilson, like most reformers and pioneering folk, had a fierce and unlovely side.

And now he is dead, and everybody knows that he gave his life to the country, just as the soldiers did who were mortally wounded in battle but lived crippled for a few months.

What are the American people thinking about him now? They are thinking that Wilson’s fight for the League of Nations was, after all, America’s fight, and humanity’s fight; that the League is not a super-State, but an organization for promoting better acquaintance, consultation, mutual agreement, and coöperation among the nations; that it is a way of procuring the doing of things which America wants done. They are thinking that under bad leadership the United States has kept out of the League ignorantly and selfishly; and that it had better join the League forthwith and try with all its might to make up the time lost.

Wilson’s place in history will be determined by the calm unbiased historians of 1950 and after; but those who honored and loved him in life think they know now what the historians’ verdict will be.