Woodrow Wilson

by William Allen White. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1924. Large 8vo. viii+512 pp. Illustrated. $5.00.
The True Story of Woodrow Wilson, by David Lawrence. New York: George H. Doran Co. 12mo. x+368 pp. $2.50.
THESE are interesting books. Both are written by journalists; the one, an acquaintance, spiritually sympathetic with the war president; the other, a student under Wilson, a reporter who followed him up and down the earth, and latterly a rather unsympathetic observer from without the Wilson fold. Mr. White paints a portrait on a small canvas; but he makes the canvas most compelling. The other takes a much larger space, treats many details, but somehow leaves the onlooker rather cold. It is so with the world. Some love to contemplate the mystery called Woodrow Wilson; others see no mystery at all.
Mr. While studies Wilson from the point of view of a Roosevelt Progressive who finds his subject a marvelous personal dualism, fairly understandable, a leader whose ‘mind was not of the first or even the second class, whose character was better than his mind, but whose contribution to the world was his faith that a just God rules the world through the hearts of plain people.’ That is not an unfair statement of the case, although I am inclined to put Wilson’s mind well up in the ranks of the second class of thinkers in the field which he made his own. But the best of his writings fall far short of the best of his talk, if ever that were known.
This newest Life of Wilson emphasizes another point in the story — Wilson’s purposes. ‘The things he sought were high things. The faith that made him a world leader was the impulse that led him on, and he ran as straight a course as it is given to stumbling men to follow. What made the frosty veil between him and life no one knows.’
The frosty veil. I am not sure there was one. Men hated him and he hated some men, hated some men for what they represented rather than what they were. Our author asks the question whether in the greatest debate ever held on earth, that between Wilson and the Kaiser, he really knew what the forces he fought were. ‘Wilson fought plutocracy but called it autocracy. . . . Did Wilson know that it was Big Business that lay behind it all?’
This may be answered by a brief quotation from Wilson dated September 13, 1918: ‘I used to attend conferences in New York’s business district. On my way it was my custom to turn into the Brick Church to pray, for I felt I might fall among thieves.’ That brief statement has stuck in the mind of him who heard it.
White’s book is a good book. It is biography, not history. It portrays Wilson admirably, albeit I cannot accept all that dualism which the author likes to dwell upon. He does not build up the great stage on which Wilson fought and died. But he does describe the beautiful family and social group out of which Wilson emerged in all but perfect manner. Ellen Axson, the wife, is a saint pure and simple in these pages and the world may some day come to know her as such. The story of Joe Tumulty is touching. And the figure of Mrs. Peck, the clever, innocent woman of whom the cruel slander of two campaigns made so much, appears for all she was, a devoted friend of a great soul.
David Lawrence’s True Story begins with the assumption that Wilson was a mystery. It is not easy to know a man one does not love, least of all Woodrow Wilson. But The True Story of Woodrow Wilson is a very considerable, even an able account of the war president. I think the picture which he draws of Mrs. Wilson handing Colonel House a clipping from a London paper, a clipping which spoke of the greatness of Colonel House and in disparagement of Wilson in Paris, tells too much. The break with House was one of the catastrophes of American history. It ought never to have taken place. But I should not place the responsibility at Mrs. Wilson’s door.
Both Lawrence and White attach great and disastrous importance to the Wilson request in 1918 for a Democratic Congress. Both attach greater importance to the failure to appoint leading Republicans on the Commission to Negotiate Peace than the historian will ultimately attach to that failure. These omissions of Wilson doubtless troubled him. but no one. I think, ever heard the broken man say that his failure turned upon either the one or the other.
It is the tragedy of Woodrow Wilson that both Lawrence and White recognize, although neither of them recognizes in the background of American history the elements and even the causes of the tragedy. Thomas Jefferson once made a similar fight for high ideals and he lost his fight at every point. The hatreds of that struggle still haunted the imagination of Henry Cabot Lodge as he visualized Woodrow Wilson, a similar disturber of ‘fixed institutions.’ Many were the inheritances of that struggle that were marshaled in the war upon Woodrow Wilson. It was the past which defeated the programme of 1918.
I have laid down these volumes with regret. Let us hope there are others, many others, yet to come, and that one day we shall understand more fully the man whose voice and noble purpose moved us to higher thoughts than men had been accustomed to think.