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The American Presidents
By H. W. Brands
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2003 H. W. Brands
All rights reserved.
To See the Benches Smile
In the beginning was the word. And in the end was the word. And in between were words: beautiful words, soaring words, words that moved a nation and enthralled a world, words that for a wonderful moment were more powerful than armies, words that made the most terrible sacrifice seem part of a glorious struggle, words that echoed across the oceans and down the decades.
Woodrow Wilson was a man of words. His actions weren't insignificant: he guided America onto a new plateau of social responsibility, and he led the nation to victory in a terrible war. But his legacy was his words, and though his steps faltered at his journey's end, his words lived on, inspiring later generations to achieve what he never could.
Wilson was from the South by way of the North, which went far toward explaining how he won the Democratic nomination for president in 1912. His forebears hadn't been long in America, with his mother an immigrant and his father the son of immigrants. Scots predominated in his ancestry, although some kin had relocated to the north of Ireland, allowing Wilson to claim Irish lineage when convenient. His father grew up in Ohio, where he met Wilson's mother, who had narrowly escaped being swept overboard by a rogue wave en route from Liverpool. The couple married in 1849, two weeks before Joseph Wilson's ordination as a Presbyterian minister. They remained in Ohio long enough to have two daughters, but in 1854 a better pulpit became available in western Virginia, in the Blue Ridge town of Staunton. There Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born on December 28, 1856.
Yet Tommy, as the boy was called, never knew Staunton, at least not to remember. In 1858 the ambitious Reverend Wilson found another church, in Augusta, Georgia. At a time when the issue of slavery had grown explosively sensitive, Joseph Wilson followed many of his southern colleagues-in-the-cloth in discovering biblical sanction for the peculiar institution. The Bible had less to say about secession, when that came, but Joseph Wilson had no difficulty rendering Caesar — or Jefferson Davis — his due. During the Civil War, Wilson served briefly in the Confederate army before returning to his flock.
Had the Wilson family lived in Atlanta or on the route of Sherman's march to the sea, the war would have had a deeper influence on young Tommy. But Augusta was comparatively sheltered, and the conflict often seemed something that happened to other people. This impression grew stronger in retrospect, for after the southern surrender, the northern roots of the family, combined with Joseph Wilson's religious calling, protected the household from the harsher aspects of Reconstruction.
Yet perhaps Tommy wouldn't have noticed the revolutionary events of the war and its aftermath even if Sherman himself had burned the Wilson house down. In youth he displayed an uncanny ability to view life as if from outside. Later, speaking of children generally but almost certainly extrapolating from his own experience, he characterized the typical child as standing "upon a place apart, a little spectator of the world." Referring specifically to his own childhood, he said, "I lived a dream life."
The dreams of another Civil War child — Theodore Roosevelt, who experienced the conflict from the relatively safe distance of New York City and whose life path would intersect Wilson's significantly — were filled with literary adventure, with tales of the heroes of history and romance. But not Tommy Wilson's, for the boy in Georgia didn't learn to read until he was ten years old. A later generation of pediatricians and educators likely would have diagnosed dyslexia, but in Tommy's time the boy just seemed slow. Had he been of a different family, he might have turned his back on the land of letters; but with a father whose vocation depended on translating the Word of God into the words of men, and who, by the evidence of every Sunday, excelled in the art, Tommy couldn't help being drawn in. He perceived letters and words as possessing a mysterious power, a power not easily captured and the more potent for its elusiveness and mystery. When he finally did decode the alphabet and enter the priesthood of the literate, he felt an exhilaration that stayed with him his whole life.
At fourteen the family moved again, to Columbia, South Carolina. The Reverend Wilson was appointed professor of pastoral theology at the Presbyterian seminary there, a position he supplemented by service as interim minister of the First Presbyterian Church. Tommy received tutoring from one of the seminary's professors. Though his academic progress continued slowly, he became enamored of a system of shorthand he saw advertised in a magazine. The ads touted the time-saving features of the system — an obscure variant of the more popular systems of the day — for secretaries and stenographers, its obvious clientele. What doubtless intrigued young Wilson was its very obscurity. Having been so long mastering ordinary letters, Wilson by this leap could surpass that large majority of writers to whom the unusual system was not vouchsafed. (Although he couldn't know it at the time, he thereby complicated the labors of future archivists and editors who, in processing his papers, had to decipher the hieroglyphics of the long-forgotten system.) The leap was a struggle; the young man required years to attain proficiency. But he evidently thought the prize worth the toil, for he soldiered on.
At seventeen Tommy left home to pursue his education. He attended Davidson College of North Carolina, which was not so far away as to rule out occasional visits home, nor so selective as to prevent the admission of a student whose performance still lagged many of his peers', nor so secular as to eliminate the possibility of the son's following the father's footsteps.
His classroom work improved, especially in the humanities. He discovered an interest in history and, to his surprise, a talent for writing. He also discovered a passion for public speaking. He joined the debating club and devoured the library's collection on rhetorical technique and great speakers of the past.
Davidson, however, proved a false start. Tommy stayed one year, toward the end of which his father moved yet again. Doctrinal disputes and financial troubles forced the Columbia seminary to close and the Reverend Wilson to find another job, which he did in Wilmington, North Carolina. Had Tommy been more enamored of Davidson, the strain on the family budget caused by the job switch and the household move might not have forced his withdrawal from the college; but as it was, he decided that a suspension of his higher education was in the family's and his own interest. (The Wilson family's finances inspired a story often told about the Reverend Wilson. When someone remarked that the minister's horse was better groomed than the minister, Dr. Wilson replied, "That is because I care for my horse. My parishioners care for me.")
Tommy Wilson spent the next year in Wilmington, polishing his shorthand, observing the arrivals and departures of ships in the harbor, reading the novels of Walter Scott, and wondering what life held for him. Yet one thing he knew, as he told a friend from Davidson: "I like nothing so well as writing and talking."
During this period the idea of going north to college took shape in his head. Dr. Wilson, who had attended seminary in Princeton, New Jersey, knew the man who currently headed the College of New Jersey, commonly called Princeton, located in the same town. The college lacked the reputation to draw all the students its upkeep required, and its president, on one of his recruiting and fund-raising trips through the Carolinas, cast his eye on the son of his old friend. After a year under the parental roof, Tommy was ready to leave again, and in September 1875, three months before his nineteenth birthday, he boarded a northbound train.
He entered the life of the college with some diffidence. He joined one of the newer eating clubs, the Alligators, and played on the freshman baseball team. But his classes were uninspiring. "Study review in Xenophon's Memorabilia for examinations all the afternoon and evening," he jotted in the diary he kept in shorthand. "Very stupid work." Two days later he wrote, "Studied geometry from 8 to 10 — very stupid work indeed."
Extracurricular rhetoric and persuasive writing were another matter. He helped organize the Liberal Debating Club, whose members held forth on crucial questions of the day. He competed in public-speaking contests. He joined the staff of the Princetonian, becoming editor his senior year. In the pages of the paper he expounded on all manner of subjects: the mode of selecting the captain of the baseball team, the excess of visible skin in the gymnasium, the woeful inattention to the persuasive arts in the curriculum of the college. "Why shall a thorough course in elocution not be the next acquisition to the College?" he demanded in one issue. In another he instructed his readers on the aims and uses of oratory:
What is the object of oratory? Its object is persuasion and conviction — the control of other minds by a strange personal influence and power. What are the fields of labor open to us in our future life career as orators? The bar, the pulpit, the stump, the Senate chamber, the lecturer's platform.
Public speaking and editorial writing led Wilson to politics. In the presidential campaign of 1876, he threw his support behind Samuel Tilden, the Democratic nominee. As a southerner, Wilson probably would have backed Tilden against any candidate the Republicans put forward, but Tilden's reputation as a reformer, in contrast to the spoilsmen who dominated the party of Grant, gave the New York governor a particular appeal. "Tomorrow the nation makes its choice between Samuel J. Tilden and R. B. Hayes," Wilson noted in his diary for November 6, 1876. "I most sincerely hope that it will be sensible enough to elect Tilden as I think the salvation of the country from frauds and the reviving of trade depends upon his election." Yet with the sophistication of the college senior, Wilson refused to endorse the Democracy as a whole. "The Democrats will be very likely to abuse power if they get it," he predicted. "Men are greedy fellows as a rule." (The 1876 election also marked the political coming-out of Harvard undergraduate Theodore Roosevelt, who paraded for Hayes.)
The balloting was agonizingly close. "Oh for some decision one way or the other in the election!" Wilson moaned as the votes were tallied. When the results revealed that the voters had chosen Tilden but their electors Hayes, the outcome frustrated Wilson — as it did a great many Americans — and it piqued his curiosity as to whether this sort of thing happened in other countries. Looking to England, he became enamored of the great statesmen and orators of America's mother country. He copied the speeches of Edmund Burke into his commonplace book; he praised the elder William Pitt for a poetic imagination that "set his words fairly aglow with beauty." John Bright's rhetoric revealed "the calmness of white heat." William Gladstone's style was "a two-edged sword that can split fine hairs of distinction with no less precision than it can search out the heart of an opponent's plea, that can make the dexterous passes of dialectic fence with the same readiness with which it can cleave the defenses of prejudice."
With admiration for British statesmen came enthusiasm for the political system that produced them. Wilson won a minor reputation with an essay published in the International Review shortly after his 1879 graduation, calling for measures to make the American cabinet responsible to Congress, as the British cabinet was responsible to the British Parliament. He adduced various arguments in support of his recommendation, starting with the negative evidence of ongoing corruption in the American system. But his central argument was that exposure to Congress, and to the debates that took place there, would cleanse the cabinet of the moral rot that infested the unexamined executive branch. At the same time, regular exchanges between those who crafted the laws and those who executed them would have a vivifying effect on the electorate, now discouraged because so often kept in the dark. "Debate is the essential function of a representative body," Wilson declared. "In the severe, distinct, and sharp enunciation of underlying principles, the unsparing examination and telling criticism of opposite positions, the careful, painstaking unraveling of all the issues involved, which are incident to the free discussion of questions of public policy, we see the best, the only effective means of educating public opinion."
Not for decades would Wilson's contact with the world of politics be closer than secondhand, anything more intimate than the outside observations of the scholar. But these early assessments of the great statesmen certainly suggest a strong desire in the young Wilson to emulate those he admired. Gladstone, Bright, and the others won fame and influence by voicing the needs and desires of their countrymen. Throughout history, some men have gained power by the sword, others by the purse. Still others — the ones with whom Wilson identified — gained power by the compelling nature of their words.
In the editorial in which he had identified the vocations open to the orator, Wilson listed the bar first. Thus it was no leap for him to enroll in law school the autumn after his graduation from Princeton. He chose the University of Virginia, which, despite its reputation as the pride of the South, didn't impress him. "I can't say that my liking for life at the University increases as my acquaintance with it grows," he told one of his Princeton friends midway through his first year. "My judgment of the place is about this, that it is a splendid place for the education of the mind, but no sort of place for the education of the man."
In fact, it was the law rather than the university that was the problem. The law, Wilson said, was "a hard task-master." And dull.
I wish now to record the confession that I am most terribly bored by the noble study of Law sometimes. ... I think that it is the want of variety that disgusts me. Law served with some of the lighter and spicier sauces of literature would no doubt be at all times to us of the profession an exceedingly palatable dish. But when one has nothing but Law, served in all its dryness, set before him from one week's end to another, for month after month and for quarter after quarter, he tires of this uniformity of diet. This excellent thing, the Law, gets as monotonous as that other immortal article of food, Hash, when served with such endless frequency.
Wilson stuck with law school for eighteen months. He would have quit earlier but for his father's admonition to persist. After its promising start, Dr. Wilson's career had bogged down, and he was feeling the midlife pinch of an unremunerative profession. He didn't want his son to suffer a like fate. The younger Wilson's answer was to plead ill health, which caused his mother to insist that he suspend his law studies and come home to recuperate. He did so in December of his second year (of a two-year curriculum) and never returned.
Living again with his parents was hardly the thing to excite a twenty-four-year-old. He grudgingly continued to study law on his own ("Stick to the law and its prospects," his father declared, "be they ever so depressing or disgusting") even as he moonlighted in subjects more in keeping with his ambition and his conception of what counted in life. He read history and politics and practiced elocution. He took voice lessons, to strengthen and polish his delivery. "I make frequent extemporaneous addresses to the empty benches of my father's church in order to get a mastery of easy and correct and elegant expression, in preparation for the future," he told a Princeton friend. "My topics are most of them political, and I can sometimes almost see the benches smile at some of my opinions and deliverances."
His familial claustrophobia peaked about the time he judged himself ready to try his luck as a lawyer. He moved to Atlanta in the spring of 1882 and became half of the firm Renick and Wilson. Business arrived slowly, not least since Wilson found the practice of law even more dismal than its study. "I am unfit for practice," he said after several months. "I have had just enough experience to prove that. In the first place, the atmosphere of the courts has proved very depressing to me. I cannot breathe freely nor smile readily in an atmosphere of broken promises, of wrecked estates, of neglected trusts, of unperformed duties, of crimes and of quarrels." He felt his soul shriveling and his heart hardening from constant exposure to the nether side of human nature. "But this is the least part of the argument," he continued. "Here lies the weight of it: my natural, and therefore predominant, tastes every day allure me from my law books; I throw away law reports for histories, and my mind runs after the solution of political, rather than of legal, problems, as if its keenest scent drew it after them by an unalterable instinct. My appetite is for general literature and my ambition is for writing."
Excerpted from Woodrow Wilson by H. W. Brands. Copyright © 2003 H. W. Brands. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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