It is a truth universally acknowledged among presidential scholars that one criticizes Woodrow Wilson at one’s peril when speaking to Princeton Men. They tend to exaggerate the good, gloss over the bad, and ignore the truly ugly. A. Scott Berg, a prizewinning biographer of Lindberg, Max Perkins, and Audrey Hepburn, is a Princeton man. And while he certainly falls within the booster camp (known to its alums as “Princeton in the nation’s service”), his deep knowledge of the university’s traditions and culture provides him — and subsequently his readers — with a similarly deep insight into the mind and character of Wilson. It also helps that Berg had access to new troves of Wilson’s correspondence (with one of his daughters and with his personal physician), which enables this book to flesh out the details and offer considered judgments about Wilson’s personal behavior and standards of conduct.
Wilson grew up in several southern towns (his father was a peripatetic minister, often shifting congregations) and witnessed some of the terrible destruction wrought by Union armies in Georgia. He came to value reading late in his youth (he didn’t learn how to read until he was eleven) but did well enough at school to get into Davidson, and after a failed year there, he regrouped and went to Princeton. As Berg recounts it, much of his political style was formed at this small college: he joined clubs and with his energy and enthusiasm quickly rose to leadership, after which he wrote new charters or constitutions. He caught the postwar wave of enthusiasm for a more parliamentary system of government, and his senior essay turned into an article on fixing the flaws of American national government, which was accepted for publication at the International Review by an up-and-coming intellectual named Henry Cabot Lodge.
Wilson tried law but was bored. He turned to his first love, the world of ideas, and without serious academic credentials (no doctorate yet received from his graduate school at Johns Hopkins) he nevertheless secured a position as an instructor at Bryn Mawr College. It was quickly apparent that he had no gift for teaching young women, and when he left for another post at Wesleyan, it was with the self-realization that, as he wrote to a friend, “I have for a long time been hungry for a class of men.” (When he was inaugurated years later as president of Princeton, Bryn Mawr did not send a delegation.) He was soon recruited to teach at Princeton, and Berg gives us an inside view of Princeton customs and traditions, all of which Wilson embraced as a popular and highly regarded member of the faculty.
What Berg omits, though, is the content of Wilson’s publications, and of the ideas floating in his mind, as he moved from his early embrace of the parliamentary system to a more nuanced view of the possibilities of presidential power, especially after President McKinley’s triumph in winning consent to the Treaty of Paris (ending the Spanish-American War) over the opposition of the Speaker of the House. He also slides past Wilson’s decision (while teaching at Wesleyan) to incorporate chunks of German scholarship almost verbatim (after his wife Ellen had translated them for him) into one of his major books, The State. Berg then provides one of the best accounts of Wilson’s approach to governance as president of Princeton: become the leader of an organization; promote a reform agenda; when faced with opposition convert the practical plan into a moral imperative that must be won through an appeal on principle rather than through political compromise; use oratory to attempt to win over the opposition and sway the undecided; accuse those who continue to oppose the plan of a personal betrayal, and sever relations with opponents forever; make the battle a supreme physical and mental test; and bear the consequences of a brittle physical constitution. This was the case with the effort to reform the eating clubs and create the graduate school at Princeton, and it was later to be the template for the formation of the League of Nations.
Berg is a master of the modern style of presidential biography, in which the president’s household and domestic relationships are interwoven in the narrative of national affairs. In Wilson’s case, it reaches an apogee as his courtship of Mrs. Edith Galt (née Bolling) is narrated as the confrontation with Germany over its naval policies comes to a head. The approach (and Berg’s brilliant writing style) is reminiscent of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biographies of FDR and Lincoln and Jon Meacham’s illuminating portrait of Andrew Jackson. Berg eschews deep psychological interpretations of Wilson, most especially the flawed psychoanalytic effort by William Bullitt and Sigmund Freud, demonstrating that Bullitt’s motivations were vengeful (he had been ignored as a young aide in the negotiations on the League in Paris). Berg’s seventeen chapter titles all come from the Christian Testaments (Ascension, Advent, Baptism, Gethsemane, etc.), which is the tipoff that he sees Wilson’s Presbyterian piety as the key to his character.
This is a book of vivid description: Berg brings the reader into the trustees’ room at Princeton, into the convention halls during campaigns; and there isn’t a parade, commemoration, or funeral that he has missed. We accompany Wilson to plays, concerts, music halls, vaudeville acts, and other entertainments of his times. But it’s also a work of wonderful moments, as in this brief summary of the smitten Wilson’s courtship of Edith Bolling: “ ’She’s a looker’ the doorkeeper told Colonel Edmund W. Starling . . . .Wilson’s personal bodyguard. ‘He’s a goner’ confirmed Arthur Brooks, the President’s valet.”
As a wise biographer should, he lets Wilson’s words and actions speak for themselves. But although we learn a great deal about Wilson’s intellectual development as an undergraduate at Princeton (including brief summaries of papers he wrote), we never learn the significance of Wilson’s new rhetorical approaches in the White House — which are so important that entire books have been written on the subject — and little about the impact of his scholarly writings on the new academic discipline of political science. We are given only a brief discussion of Wilson’s program as governor of New Jersey or of the motivations of the party bosses who gave him the nomination. In Wilson’s first two years as president much of the New Freedom legislation was passed: Berg dutifully recounts the highlights, including Wilson’s effort to regulate industry to prevent the establishment of financial trusts, but he spends considerably more time on the history of Princeton and its post–Civil War development, Wilson’s domestic arrangements, and his various hiking vacations in Europe. Berg describes Wilson’s summer and fall months at Shadow Lawn in 1916. What Berg doesn’t tell us is that it was an estate built by Benedict Greenhut, who had been the owner of the largest distillery in the world, a man who, ironically enough, had started the Distillers and Cattle Feeders Co. (also called the cattle trust) that united all distillers and for a time controlled the U.S. production of whisky.
Berg has made a wise choice in concentrating on what he does well, and no biography provides as thorough and as convincing a case for Wilson’s personal humanity. In Berg’s hands, Wilson is a passionate lover, and both wives adored him. He played games with his children and late in his term of office made a great friend of the child of his personal physician, motoring with him around the District on a daily basis. He hid his temper, it is true, and was more likely to freeze people out of his circle than raise his voice to them, but in Berg’s telling Wilson was an emotional man who paid a great price in keeping his emotions in check.
The book’s penultimate story (and of course its dramatic climax) involves the defeat in the U.S. Senate of the Treaty of Versailles. This is perhaps the only place where it would have been good if Berg had spent some time on constitutional matters. He tells the story with dramatic details and personal touches, and is particularly illuminating about the relationships between Wilson and his Allied counterparts. He provides one of the most illuminating discussions of how Wilson’s illness progressed and affected him during his speaking tour and thereafter. But he omits one central aspect of the story: Wilson’s objections to the Reservations presented by Senator Lodge were based not on animosity toward Lodge, or a generalized disposition against compromise, but rather on the content of the reservations: Lodge was undermining presidential prerogatives (especially involving the use of military force) in ways Wilson could not accept.
Although Wilson’s legacy with regard to women, African Americans, ethnic minorities, and the antiwar Left was decidedly mixed or wanting, Berg makes the case for his man. He opposed national action for woman suffrage, but after the amendment passed he worked hard for its ratification by the states. He segregated the federal workforce in the District of Columbia but early in his career spoke publicly in the South against both its practice of slavery and its decision to secede, and as president occasionally demonstrated compassion for the suffering of African Americans (though not nearly often enough, and Berg does not let him off the hook on his efforts to keep blacks out of Princeton). He made significant appointments of Jews to office, most notably his intellectual collaborator Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court (to balance his earlier appointment of the anti-Semitic McReynolds), and he backed the Balfour Declaration with its call for a national homeland for Jews in Palestine. He was hard on the antiwar movement: because he viewed Eugene Debs as disloyal he would not consider a request from his own attorney general to pardon Debs, and in his administration, as Berg notes, there was an ill-advised curtailment of First Amendment freedom during the World War.
In this biography Berg has brought Wilson to life. “The beauty about a Scotch-Irishman,” he joked, “is that not only does he think he is right, he knows he is right.” Jest aside, this was Wilson’s great flaw, but it does not take away from him another great insight that guided his entire career: “Sometimes people call me an idealist,” he told a crowd in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, while campaigning for the League of Nations. “Well, that is the way I know I am an American.”