Author: A. Scott Berg
I think it’s safe to say that most Americans have short memories. It is built into the DNA of our country. After all, we began as a collection of uncompromising immigrants, unwilling to settle or suffer under traditions from the old country. Hungry for new opportunities and adventures, we marauded our way from coast to coast and built an empire. Our brashness and boldness allowed us to create and innovate, unburdened by the cynicism or torpor of our European counterparts. This frenzied approach has led to monumental triumphs, and more than a few over reaches. But neither the taste of victory nor the sting of defeat last long in America, where both successes and debacles are quickly ground up under the boots of our perpetual motion machine.
There’s a lot to love in this approach, but as America continues to mature, the troubling lack of knowledge most citizens possess about our own history becomes more glaring. American students are less proficient in their nation’s history than any other subject. Only 18% of colleges require students to take a course in American history. A third of Americans cannot name the century in which the American Revolution took place. The list goes on. Obviously this lack of basic knowledge has destructive effects on our democracy, but it also creates a dearth of character amongst our citizens. What are we made of, if not the stories of our countrymen? How can American pride and dignity persist when the historical bedrock upon which they’re built is so fractured and porous?
The result is the dumbing down of our narrative. A white wash of our forebearers. A small stage can only hold so many actors, so we whittle down our list of heroes to the most obvious. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and MLK seem to remain firmly ensconced - but this relegates far too many leaders of consequence into the shoebox of yesteryear. There they remain as hazy black-and-white photos, strangely familiar to us, but for reasons unknown. Perhaps none more so, than the 28th President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson.
Wilson was a force in his time. A monumental figure of vision, grace and fortitude. He was a scholar and an academic. A moralist and a fighter. He orchestrated and presided over a great progressive uprising, and ushered America onto the world stage at time when the world was tearing itself asunder. He was an isolationist turned world leader. He was a savior turned invalid. But the one thing that he should never be, he has become - a historical footnote in the minds of his people. It is this realization that makes A. Scott Berg’s Wilson an indispensable new classic. To read it is to dust off the cobwebs of an extraordinary life, and add some polish to your own.
Woodrow "Tommy" Wilson was born in Virginia in 1856, and raised in Georgia and South Carolina. His hero and father, Joseph Wilson, a charismatic Presbyterian minister and southern sympathizer, molded his son’s thinking and character through countless hours of sermons and reading aloud after dinner. With most school operations suspended due to the Civil War, these paternal lessons proved invaluable. As a young man, Wilson struggled with faulty vision and problems with spelling and calculating. “Doctors a century later would suggest that he suffered from developmental dyslexia” Berg writes. But while the affliction certainly stunted the volume of literature he could absorb, his determination and slow place allowed him to retain information on a deeper level than most of his peers. As such, Wilson’s ability to quote passages, facts and limericks would never leave him, and would later help elevate his oratory into the sublime. In 1875 he entered Princeton, and his world began to blossom. Surrounded by a student body of 500 other ambitious young men, Tommy Wilson joined and helped manage more organizations and sports team than any other undergrad. After graduation, he passed the Georgia bar and became a young lawyer in Atlanta, but his heart wasn't in it. He moved on quickly and in 1886, earned his PhD in history and political science, eventually securing a professorship at Princeton. Back at his alma mater, he became the most popular teacher on campus. Wilson would hold students spellbound with his stunning and brilliant lectures on American government and history. Many of his classes ended in spontaneous applause, “not for the purpose of bootlicking,” as one student put it, “but because (we) could just not help it.”
His popularity amongst students and colleagues vaulted him into the most prestigious position of his life up until that point - President of Princeton University. In eight short years, Wilson ushered in revolutionary changes to the world of higher education. He established the core curriculum model followed by two years of study in a selected major, he raised admissions standards, increased the number of faculty and waged war upon the influence of rich alumni and legacies, whom he felt had far too much sway on Princeton’s social structure through their exclusive “eating clubs”. By this time Wilson had become a well known and in-demand lecturer at universities and committees across the northeast, and his battle against Princeton’s social elites spilled into public view. “We are making a university,” Wilson exhorted, “not devising a method of social pleasure.” In the end, the wealth and power of Princeton’s alumni was too much, and Wilson’s efforts to put an end to the “division of classes” amongst Princeton’s student body were stifled. The fight left him drained and with a case of probable neuritis, which inflicted pain and numbness in his right arm and shoulder, and a growing blindness in one eye.
His public persona attracted the attention of New Jersey’s democratic machine, and his name was floated as a nominee for the state’s next gubernatorial election. His knowledge of government and history, combined with his moving oratorical skills, made him an ideal candidate. His lack of political experience put the democratic machine behind him, as they were confident they could manipulate him once in office. They were mistaken. After being drafted for the nomination, Wilson made his governing philosophy clear - he would assume his duties “with absolutely no pledge of any kind to prevent me from serving the people of the State with singleness of purpose.” “The future,” he said, “is not for parties ‘playing politics’, but for measures conceived in the largest spirit, pushed by parties whose leaders are statesmen, not demagogues, who love not their offices, but their duty and their opportunity for service.” They had unleashed a political dynamo, and Wilson won in a landslide.
Wilson’s promises on the stump turned into political reality before the opposition knew what hit them. A sweeping election reform bill pried power away from political bosses and gave it back to the people. A workmen’s comp statute and crackdowns on private corruption quickly followed. The nation took notice. Berg writes, “Woodrow Wilson’s campaign for the Presidency began at the very moment that the groundswell of Progressive thought directed the mainstream of American politics. Without his even announcing that he was running, isolated trickles of support suddenly coalesced, creating a flash flood, the likes of which has seldom been seen in American history.” The wave that washed him into power in New Jersey, turned into a Tsunami, and “after less than two years - 658 days - of public service, Woodrow Wilson had been elected the 28th president of the United States.”
His impact on the federal government was immediate and powerful. He held twice-weekly press conferences in the White House, and reignited the tradition of delivering ‘State of Union’ addresses to Congress in person. Under his influence, Congress passed the UnderWood Tariff Act, which lowered tariff rates, weakened monopolies, and re-imposed a federal income tax. Wilson himself had helped motivate public opinion by twisting arms inside the capitol and making public speeches. The Federal Reserve Act quickly followed, establishing the Federal Reserve system, and a renewed central banking system for the U.S. government. The act also ushered in the seven person Federal Reserve Board, giving the government more elasticity in printing currency, and influence over corrupt banking practices. Then came the Federal Trade Commission Act, which provided a new regulatory approach to discourage monopolies and encourage competition. The act resulted in increased wages and less working hours for railroad employees, avoiding a disastrous nationwide strike. Wilson was on a roll.
But of course no president is perfect. His forays into Mexico during the Mexican Revolution were tone deaf and ill-conceived, resulting in both Mexican and American fatalities. While paying lip service to African American rights, his lack of response to white-on-black violence and an epidemic of lynchings can never be forgotten. His policy to allow segregation amongst federal employees influenced southern governments to usher in an era of Jim Crow laws that would take decades to erase. On the upside, his eventual embrace and the passage of the 19th amendment, which granted women the right to vote, made him a hero to women across the country.
But as Wilson enjoyed his successes, his personal life unraveled when his dear wife Ellen died of kidney failure. The distraught president mourned for months on end, adrift and depressed. His craving for companionship was evident to all, and his prayers were soon answered upon meeting Edith Bolling Galt, an attractive southern jeweler and widow. The president was immediately smitten and ardently pursued her, marrying her in 1915. As Berg puts it, “Less than 18 months after burying the first Mrs. Wilson, he married the second.” As Wilson’s personal life once again stabilized, the world was unraveling. WWI was now well underway, and the sinking of the passenger ship Luisitania by German submarines made the drums of war beat with renewed intensity.
“He kept us out of War” became Wilson’s rallying cry in the Presidential election of 1916, and it secured him another 4 years in the White House. But German submarines continued to aggressively strike passenger ships and claim American lives, eventually forcing Wilson’s hand. At the President’s urging, congress declared war on Germany. “Our motive”, Wilson asserted, “will not be revenge or the victorious assertion of the physical might of the nation, but only the vindication of right, of human right, of which we are only a single champion.” America soon raised a massive army, transitioned into a wartime economy, and passed harsh espionage and sedition laws that punished disloyalty and criticism of the government. America was in all the way.
With America’s intervention, the tide of the war soon turned in the Allies favor, and Germany surrendered. After more than 38 million deaths, and the devastation of nearly half the globe, the war came to an end. “No longer a peacetime nation that long disavowed foreign entanglements, America had become a mighty fortress, the first industrial superpower of the twentieth century” Berg writes. The eyes of the world turned to Wilson to help broker a peace amongst the ashes of empires. Using his famous 14 points as a template, and championing his League of Nations as an intergovernmental organization that would mediate conflicts and disputes in order to avoid warfare, Wilson left for the Paris Peace Conference to negotiate the ensuing treaty personally. No sitting president had ever left the territorial United States before, but, “he enjoyed a prestige and moral influence throughout the world unequaled in history.” His reception amongst the peoples of Europe was thunderous.
Months of tense and infuriatingly slow negotiations followed. France was intent on severely punishing Germany. The English continued to explore secret treaties. The Japanese and Italians pressed their own interests and no others. The result was the Treaty of Versailles, a deeply flawed, overstuffed document, that nevertheless represented the world’s best hopes for a stable peace. Wilson returned home to a hostile Congress, utterly opposed to the treaty, and to him personally. After months of traveling, cajoling, speechifying, compromising and arguing, the president fell ill, and seemed physically unprepared for the tough congressional battle ahead. Despite his recently rewarded Nobel Peace Prize, Republicans lined up in lockstep against the treaty’s ratification, and in particular rebelled against Wilson’s beloved League of Nations, arguing that it would entangle America in foreign affairs and compromise its freedom to declare war. Wilson was horrified that the peace achieved through the blood and death of so many American men could be nullified by the politics of a group of unscrupulous senators. With his health deteriorating rapidly, his wife and personal physician implored him to stay at the White House and pursue a compromise on the treaty. Wilson remained obstinate. “If the treaty is not ratified by the Senate,” he told his wife, “the War will have been fought in vain, and the world will be thrown into chaos. I promised our soldiers, when I asked them to take up arms, that it was a war to end wars; and if I do not do all in my power to put the Treaty in effect, I will be a slacker and never able to look those boys in the eye. I must go.” With that, he set out on a grueling barnstorm of American cities across the west, seeking to change public opinion and pressure Congress to ratify. As Berg puts it, “No President had ever gone to such lengths for a cause.”
After a series of rousing speeches and rallies to massive, ecstatic crowds, opinion began to break the President’s way. But just as momentum built in his favor, Wilson suffered from a heartbreaking and debilitating stroke. He was forced back to the White House, where he became a bedridden invalid, shielded by his physician and wife from all outside intrusions. Eventually an opportunity arose to pass a compromised version of the treaty. Wilson, weak but defiant, rejected any compromise, and the treaty was blocked. Berg writes, “Wilson stewed over this situation for the rest of his life. He believed the League of Nations represented ‘the birth of the spirit of the times’, and his foes would be ‘gibbeted and occupy an unenviable position in history along with Benedict Arnold.” To make matters worse, a veto-proof majority of Congress had passed the Volstead Act, ushering in the age of prohibition. Wilson called the law “unenforceable.” His words would be prophetic.
With the treaty’s stinging defeat, and another year left in his term, Wilson became “the lamest duck ever to inhabit the White House,” Berg writes. He adopted the routine of a retiree, and with his stamina and vigor swallowed up, performed the perfunctory duties of his position and nothing more. After the Republicans took back the White House with the election of the buffoonish Warren G. Harding, Wilson and Edith moved into stately house on S Street in Washington, and out of public life. His waning days consisted of daily drives and trips to the theatre. He dabbled in writing books, briefly opened a law firm and even made a short radio speech (his first ever) from the library in his home on Armistice day, but his health and mental decline proved too much to endure. A final stroke took his life at the age of 67, and he was interred at the Washington National Cathedral, the only president buried in the nation’s capital.
Like the best of our leaders, Woodrow Wilson transcended the confines of his office, and became a symbol of justice, peace and idealism across the World. A. Scott Berg’s stunning research and gifted story telling make the man come alive before our eyes. Wilson is a major achievement, and a landmark biography of the man who lived for “Ideals, and not ideas”.
A book like Wilson fills me with gratitude for the efforts and sacrifice that our countrymen before us have made on our behalf. It is a sad and sobering thought to realize how many of our current citizens will fail to recognize their toil. As Wilson himself stated, “The world’s memory must be kept alive, or we shall never see an end of its old mistakes”. How fitting that his likeness would appear on the $100,000 bill, meant for use solely among Federal Reserve Banks. A rare and precious article, seen and contemplated, by far too few.