Woodrow Wilsonby Louis Auchincloss
Our tw ent y-eighth president was, says Louis Auchincloss, ?the greatest idealist who ever occupied the White House.? Now, in Woodrow Wilson, Auchincloss sheds new light on Wilson?s upbringing and career, from the grim determination that enabled him to overcome dyslexia to the skillful dance of/b>
A portrait of a century?s greatest political mastermind
Our tw ent y-eighth president was, says Louis Auchincloss, ?the greatest idealist who ever occupied the White House.? Now, in Woodrow Wilson, Auchincloss sheds new light on Wilson?s upbringing and career, from the grim determination that enabled him to overcome dyslexia to the skillful dance of isolationism and intervention in World War I to the intransigence that?despite his most cherished vision?caused the Senate?s rejection of the League of Nations. From the dynamic figure whose ringing speeches hypnotized vast crowds, to the gentle voice reading poetry to his children, Auchincloss presents all the triumphs and the final tragic irony of this flawed apostle of world peace.
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At the end of September, in 1919, the presidential train bearing Woodrow Wilson on a western tour of speechmaking in his last-ditch, desperate effort to rally the nation behind the ratification of the Versailles Treaty of Peace, which the Senate seemed determined to nullify, pulled into Wichita, Kansas, where a large crowd had gathered at the station to hear him. After a fifteen-minute wait the president's secretary, Joe Tumulty, appeared and announced gravely that his chief was suffering from "nervous exhaustion" and could not make the address. The train then headed directly to Washington.
Wilson had suffered a transient ischemic attack, the prelude to a major stroke, an occlusion of the right middle cerebral artery, which occurred at the White House on October 2, felling him to the floor of his bathroom, paralyzing his left side and rendering him essentially incompetent. Edith Bolling Wilson, his wife, and Admiral Cary Grayson, his devoted doctor, moved quickly to close the doors and hide his condition from all, but Ike Hoover of the White House staff made this entry in his diary: "The President lay stretched out on the large Lincoln bed. He looked as if dead. There was not a sign of life. His face bore a long cut above the temple from which the signs of blood were still evident....He was just gone as far as anyone could judge from appearances."
There followed a strange hiatus in American governance. As biographer August Heckscher has put it: "During this period no proclamations were issued, no pardons granted, bills became laws without a signature. The regular meetings of cabinet members gave the country the impression that some matters were being dealt with. They sat, these lieutenants who had once gathered around a formidable chief, discussing for the most part trivial matters, and even then were often unable to make decisions."
Edith Wilson would sometimes meet with the cabinet and take papers with questions to the president, always behind closed doors, returning with a "He says yes" or a "He says no." Had she read them to him? Or had she made up the answers? Nobody knew.
Her later defense in keeping all news from the public and barring all but family visitors from the sickbed was that any anxiety might have been fatal to her husband, and her ultimate justification, she would claim, was that he did get better and was eventually able to function more or less like his old self. But it was mostly less. Her excuse that she had no interest in the president of the United States but only in her husband was less that of a free American woman than of a Hindu wife who has no obligation to society beyond that of her duty to her lord and master, ending with that of throwing herself on his funeral pyre. Even had there been any validity in her exaggerated fear that any frank revelation of his health might have been fatal to her husband, was the proper governance of her nation not as much worth his dying for as the victory abroad for which he had asked thousands of young men to give their lives? For Grayson, anyway, as a doctor and naval officer, there seems no excuse.
The Wilson who at last recovered some of his health was a pale simulacrum of the man he had been. He was querulous, petulant, and unable to take care of business with anything like the wonderful efficiency that had characterized his former activities. And anticipating the Democratic Convention of 1920 in San Francisco, though he walked with difficulty, supported by an aide and dragging his left leg, and though he could not arise from a chair without assistance, and even though he had once told Grayson that the country was suffering ill effects from his sickness and he should resign his office, he now embarrassed his intimates by insisting that he would seek a third term! Even the loyal Grayson now had to brief Senator Carter Glass on the impossibility of this.
His stroke, however, had not been his first. He had suffered one in Princeton in his academic days and another in Paris during the peace talks, and though in each case his recovery had seemed complete, there is evidence that these strokes took some toll on his temperament. We shall see that there were always two Woodrow Wilsons, and that the tragedy of his bad health understandably contributed to the lesser and not the greater of the two. This ambivalence in a man so admired confused many who observed him closely. I believe it confused himself.
The twenty-eighth president of the United States was born a southerner, but his family had just arrived in the South. His father, Joseph Ruggles Wilson, an Ohio printer turned Presbyterian preacher, was the son of a Scotch-Irish immigrant, and his mother, Jessie Woodrow, had been born in England, daughter of a minister of the same denomination.
Joseph Wilson left Ohio when he accepted a call from the First Presbyterian Church of Staunton, Virginia, in which town his eldest son, Thomas Woodrow, was born in 1856. Two years later the now Doctor of Divinity Wilson moved his family to Augusta, Georgia, where he occupied one of the most important pulpits in the South, rising to be the chief executive of the Southern Presbyterian Church. On both sides of his family, therefore, the future president inherited a faith in a God who premised the forgiveness of original sin on man's unquestioning worship and offered eternal life for his obedience to divine law.
It was to be the major force of his life. He has frequently been compared to Gladstone as a statesman permeated with a sense of religion. It must have seemed to him that God had destined Woodrow Wilson to dedicate himself to providing good governance, directly or indirectly, to a nation that many, perhaps even most, Americans believed to have been endowed by the deity with a glorious future to be an example to the world. And Wilson, in seeking to emulate his God, in aiming perhaps to fulfill his destiny as a kind of minor prophet, would ultimately take on some of the characteristics of a supreme judge, even those demonstrated in the Old Testament, of wrath as well as benevolence. For if he could be harsh and authoritarian in his moral judgments, he could also be humble and kind. The president who could threaten to "crush" his opponents in Congress could also be the affectionate father and husband who loved to read Wordsworth and Browning aloud to his family and indulge in skits and charades.
Joseph Wilson, a brilliant and popular preacher and a man of an outgoing and cheerful disposition, did not find slavery inconsistent with his faith, and he sided enthusiastically with the Confederacy. His son grew up to view sympathetically the stricken and occupied South; as a little boy he had seen Robert E. Lee pass through Atlanta after the surrender, and standing by his father and looking up into the general's face, he had, as August Heckscher has put it, "perhaps his first intimation of what defeat meant and how it could be borne."
Wilson's claim to be a southerner had in it something of the factitious. Although it is true that he lived in Virginia and Georgia until he was in his late twenties, he had no southern ancestry, and he resided in the North for the balance of his life. There is more than a touch of sentimentality in his nostalgic attraction to the elegance and gracious living of the antebellum planters and their gallant fighting for a lost cause. He used to say that the South was the only part of the country where nothing had to be explained to him. As Henry Wilkinson Bragdon put it: "He was a Southerner in his courtly manners, in his attitude towards women, and in the hospitality with which he received numberless in-laws and cousins into his home. He was curiously indifferent to the moral iniquity of slavery and accepted uncritically the post-Reconstruction arrangements to keep the Negro in his place."
But it stopped there. Nobody was a greater supporter of the federal union. Even as a youth he deemed a Decoration Day for the Union dead a means of sustaining national bitterness, and only fifteen years after Appomattox, as a University of Virginia student, he approved in a speech the restoration of the union. The old South he relegated to history and romance; the political Wilson was a man of his time. He ultimately came to view the loss of the war as an actual benefit to the South, ridding it as it did of slavery and keeping it in God's union, though he never quite shook off the condescending southern attitude toward blacks, and his first administration was stained by his allowing segregation in certain government buildings. He did this, it has been said, only to enlist the support of southern members of his cabinet and congressman for his social legislation, but as late as 1915 we find him writing to his second wife, whose niece wished to marry a Panamanian: "It would be bad enough at best to have anyone we love marry into a Central American family, because there is the presumption that the blood is not unmixed." Still, nine out of ten men raised as he was would have thought the same.
The young Woodrow, or Tommy as he was called until an adult, did not read until he was twelve, and it is now generally assumed that he suffered from dyslexia. He overcame it, however, with a grim determination, and soon caught up with his contemporaries. Indeed, he began to show astonishing aptitudes; for example, his boyhood game of inventing navies, with remarkably accurate drawings (though he had never been to a seaport), showed that he knew every class and type of sailing vessel and the use of every sail, shroud, and spar.
Many historians have assumed that Wilson's health was frail in his youth, but Dr. Edwin A. Weinstein, author of Woodrow Wilson, a Medical and Psychological Biography, maintains that he was basically healthy, that he was strong and rode horses and played baseball, and that his ailments were psychosomatic: that his headaches and digestive upsets, and even his reluctance to engage in new experiences, were attributable to his mother. Jessie Wilson, according to Weinstein, was a lonely, fearful, discontented woman who prolonged her son's attachment behavior into his adulthood by her overprotectiveness and manipulation of her own ill health and depressions to keep him with her. It was this that made him come home after only a year at Davidson College (near Charlotte, North Carolina) and write in his journal: "I am now in my seventeenth year, and it is sad, when looking over my past life, to see how few of those seventeen years I have spent in the fear of God and how much I have spent in the service of the Devil."
Davidson was a small Presbyterian college aimed particularly at training young men for the ministry, where the living was simple, almost primitive, and the thinking was high. It had probably been chosen by Dr. Wilson because he was one of its trustees and may very naturally have hoped that his serious and devout son would follow his calling. But Wilson, perhaps curiously, never showed any inclination for the church, and after a rather disconsolate period at home following his abandonment of Davidson, he appears to have mastered what Dr. Weinstein calls his "attachment behavior," for after his matriculation at Princeton he stayed the course successfully until his graduation in 1879.
Princeton, or the College of New Jersey, as it was then still called, was a much more sophisticated institution than Davidson, but it was still a small denominational (Presbyterian) school with only five hundred undergraduates and free tuition for the sons of pastors, which may have been one of its attractions to Dr. Wilson. But it was already on its way to become something much more important in the field of education and was attracting the sons of old and established families who had less than no interest in becoming robed mentors. Indeed, the place was having some trouble with rowdy students. Wilson, however, loved it all. He took an active part in undergraduate activities, organizing the Liberal Debating Club, becoming managing editor of the Princetonian and president of the Baseball Association, and even having a paper called "Cabinet Government in the United States" published in a Boston review. Though many of his classmates found him cool and standoffish, he made some close friends. Twenty years later he wrote:
Plenty of people offer me their friendship; but partly because I am reserved and shy, and partly because I am fastidious and have a narrow, uncatholic taste in friends, I reject the offer in almost every case-and then am dismayed to look about and see how few persons in the world stand near me and know me as I am.
There has always been some disagreement about Wilson's looks. It has seemed to this writer that the photographs and portraits show a handsome man, with a tall slender face and a tall thin body, a high, noble brow, gravely staring eyes, and a firm, perhaps too firm, jaw. But there were many, including himself, who regarded him as on the homely side, though his admirers professed to see in this the homeliness of a Lincoln. All observers, at any rate, agree that he was impressive. And all agree that he was from his college days a wonderful speaker, one who enunciated clearly and crisply and never seemed to have to grope for a word. How he came by his oratorical gift we do not know, but his father, whom he adored and admired, was a famous preacher.
At some point in his college career he gave up all idea of becoming a minister, nor does his approving and benevolent father seem to have had any objection to his eventual decision to become an attorney. At the University of Virginia Law School he was enthralled by the lectures of the famous John B. Minor, whom he regarded as the greatest teacher he ever had, but his interest in the details of the practice of his profession was as slight as his fascination with its theory was keen. He decided, nonetheless, to hang out his shingle, and he and a Virginia classmate, Edward L. Renick, formed a partnership in Atlanta, Georgia, to whose bar he had been admitted. There followed a year of clientless boredom before he decided to abandon the law. He had always been almost exclusively interested in government and political science, and he had wrongly decided that the practice of law would be his best entry into the field. As he explained in a letter at the time:
I left college on the wrong tack. I had then, as I have still, a very earnest political creed and very pronounced political ambitions. I remember forming with Charlie Talcott a solemn covenant that we would school our powers and passions for the work of establishing the principles we held in common; that we would acquire knowledge that we might have power; and that we would drill ourselves in all the arts of persuasion but especially in oratory...that we might have facility in leading others into our ways of thinking and enlisting them in our purposes.
When he left college he was twenty-one. The above quotation sounds a bit smug, but youth is the time of smugness. What is remarkable in Wilson at this age is his confidence that his imagined mission in life was to be carried out through the intellect, and the intellect alone, in an era when the future seemed to belong to the doers rather than the thinkers: the pioneers of the West, the transportation magnates who were covering the land with rails, even the soldiers, like Grant and Hayes and Garfield, who became presidents. Yet Wilson seemed sure that, even without money or political connections or business acumen, he could approach power and influence through academe. His initiation as a statesman was more in the library than in any public forum. His precedent is more to be found in Europe than in America, more in the example of some young priest like the seventeenth-century Richelieu dreaming in the cloister of how he might take over the power of the state from the clumsy military minds that had ruled it so long.
He now enrolled, supported as always by a generous father, as a student in the graduate school of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he took courses in history, politics, and economics. His ambition, as he expressed it boldly, was "to become an invigorating and enlightening power in the world of political thought."
Graduate school was not the only major change in his life. On a visit to relatives in Rome, Georgia, he had met and fallen in love with the girl he was to marry, Ellen Axson, like his mother and himself the child of a Presbyterian minister. Wilson, as Dr. Weinstein put it, was all his life to need the close companionship of women, preferably adoring and uncritical women, and Ellen "made reality out of the rhetoric by which he idealized" her sex. She gave him a better self "free of his mother's gloom, apprehension and bitterness."
Their economic situation mandated a long engagement, and Wilson wrote passionate letters to his beloved. "I am sometimes absolutely frightened by the intensity of my love for you," he declared. And here is how, with something less than gallantry, he explained away a past infatuation for his first cousin, Harriet Woodrow, to whom he had unsuccessfully proposed marriage while a law student in Charlottesville:
...if it was love that I felt for the character which I supposed that lady to possess, it was a very contemptible dwarf beside the strong passion that is now at large in my heart and which leaps with such tremendous throbs of joy at the thought of your love.
They were married in June of 1885, and that fall Wilson took up his first paying job as a professor of history at Bryn Mawr, a women's college in Pennsylvania. Ellen was a cultivated and well-educated woman, a talented amateur painter and a poetry lover, with a fine mind that she nonetheless subjugated to her husband's. The marriage was a happy one, with one dark episode to be taken up later, lasting until Ellen's death in 1915, but there may be a question as to whether the uncritical adulation that she and her three daughters-Margaret; Jessie (later Mrs. Francis B. Sayre); and Eleanor (later Mrs. William G. McAdoo)-lavished on their husband and father was what was really needed by a nature already too prone to construe disagreement as personal hostility.
The year 1885 was also marked by the publication of Wilson's most esteemed book, Congressional Government, which brought him something like a national renown, at least in academic circles. His thesis was that the American system, in which the business of legislation was carried on behind closed doors by standing committees of the House and Senate, carried nothing like the efficiency or responsibility to the public of the British system, where the leader of the majority party, as prime minister, selects his cabinet entirely from Parliament and presents his legislative program directly to it. The executive branch, Wilson argued, had atrophied to something approaching powerlessness. The time was coming, however, when the problem so defined would be largely solved by the aggressive leadership of Theodore Roosevelt, in whose steps as a progressive Wilson himself would follow.
Wilson's attraction to the British system may be explained by what had happened politically in America since the Civil War. Starting with the seizure of power by a Congress determined to discipline the defeated South despite all that a depreciated president like Andrew Johnson could do, the chief of state had been largely ignored as a national leader. Grant had the needed popularity, but he was bored and inept in nonmilitary matters and left his government to incompetent and dishonest men. Hayes and Arthur were lightweight statesmen. It is difficult for a large and heterogeneous body of lawmakers to govern a country by the passage of statutes without an executive to organize a majority of them behind some kind of cohesive economic or political plan, and the true governance of America slipped by default, for better and often for worse, into the hands of the business tycoons who controlled our rails, oil, and steel, and, of course, our banking. The time was on its way when J. P. Morgan would treat with a president almost on equal terms. Small wonder that Wilson should have looked across the Atlantic for a solution to national problems.
Wilson at Johns Hopkins and at Bryn Mawr was at last beginning to have doubts as to whether he would be able to implement his youthful ambition to become a political leader through academe alone. One is surprised they had not come earlier. Was the rough-and-tumble of elections and party rule really consistent with the idealistic thinking of the political scientist? Might he not have to content himself with the indirect influencing of public events through his writing?
He had voiced his early fears in a letter to Ellen in 1884:
The whole effort of university life is to make men interested in books and in the remote interests which books discuss....And it is this spirit against which I struggle. I want to be near the world; I want to know the world, to retain all my sympathies with it-even with its crudenesses. I am afraid of being a mere student. I want to be a part of the nature around me, not an outside observer of it....Disraeli knew nothing about the true principles of politics, but he knew men-especially House of Commons men....You'll never find in a cloister a fulcrum for any lever which can budge the world.
As yet he could not see his way clear to doing anything but teaching and writing. He had a family now to support, and his college salary was barely enough for that. So he wrote books, as he liked to put it, "for the great host who don't wear spectacles." Sometimes he let his standards drop for a sizable advance. From 1892 to 1902, in addition to his academic duties, he published nine volumes and thirty-five articles and delivered more than twenty public addresses. But if Congressional Government, Constitutional Government in the United States, and Division and Reunion were shining lights, his five-volume History of the American People and his life of George Washington reveal, in the language of even so devoted a Wilson admirer as August Heckscher, "lazy scholarship and a cloying style." Heckscher's life of Wilson, published in 1991 after a near lifetime of study of his subject, is probably the nearest we have come to a definitive biography.
Wilson remained at Bryn Mawr for only three years, leaving it to join the faculty of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, as professor of history and political science. He had not been wholly happy at Bryn Mawr, and its trustees felt with some bitterness, though probably wrongly, that he had breached his contractual obligations in departing. In any event, he had not believed that teaching Greek and Roman history to young women-though he conceded that they were alert and attentive-would do much to further his ambition "to add something to the statesmanship of the country, if that something is only thought." Ellen went further; she was afraid that teaching women might actually demean him.
It seems there was always a bit of the Victorian male in Wilson's attitude toward the other sex. Women, he wrote, "have mental and moral gifts of a sort and of a perfection that men lack, but they have not the same gifts that men have. Their life must supplement men's life." And he once referred to "the chilled, scandalized feeling that always comes over me when I see and hear women speak in public."
At Wesleyan, where he remained for the next two years, he was much more popular and successful, and we begin to get our first impression of the dynamic figure who would hold vast crowds in awe with his oratory and idealism. His students' comments were enthusiastic: "He had a contagious interest-his eyes flashed." "I can see him now, with his hands forward, the tips of his fingers just touching the table, his face earnest and animated." "He talked to us in the most informed, jolly way, yet with absolute clearness and sureness." Wilson also organized "the Wesleyan House of Commons," a debating society based on the British Parliament, which became a center of undergraduate activity, and served on a two-man advisory board to coach the football team.
In the fall of 1890 he commenced his duties at Princeton in the Chair of Jurisprudence and Political Economy, which he held until his election as president of the university in 1902. This was probably the happiest period of his life. There are fewer reports of his "cool" personality, and some of his faculty friendships were intimate. The undergraduates voted him their most popular professor year after year, and it was reported that some of his classes applauded and even stamped their feet at the close of a lecture. His home life was happy, and his big house was always full, for he was unfailingly hospitable to his and Ellen's poor relations. At family gatherings he was known for his comic impersonations: the drunken man staggering about with a cowlike look in his eyes, the heavy Englishman with an insufferably superior accent and an invisible monocle, the villain done with a scowl and a dragging foot.
But a new era began when he was elevated to the presidency. He had attained a national reputation with his writings and speeches, and he was now head of a university that was determined to rival Yale and Harvard. Was there still time and occasion for him to enter the political field that he had dreamed of as a youth? He was forty-five. We find this note in his papers: "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."
As fortune would have it, just at the moment, in the fall of 1902, when Wilson was contemplating a future in politics, the man who was to first launch him on his way to the White House attended his inauguration at Princeton and was inspired by his address to go home and read all his books. Colonel George B. M. Harvey now dared to hope that he had discovered the man who could rescue the Democratic Party from the disastrous leadership of William Jennings Bryan!
Harvey was a New York journalist who had risen to the managing editorship of the World under the auspices of Joseph Pulitzer. He had also, associated with Thomas Fortune Ryan, made a fortune in public utilities, which had enabled him to buy the North American Review and become editor of Harper and Brothers and Harper's Weekly. It was he who, in 1904, would induce the novelist Henry James to revisit his native land after twenty years in Europe by offering to publish his account of his travels. He would meet the shy and stammering author of The Golden Bowl at the dock and sweep him off for a night at his mansion in Deal, New Jersey, terrifying him with the threat of a huge public tributory dinner which the captive writer protested he would flee to "Arizona or Alaska" to avoid! To James the "objectionable colonel" was the essence of the ebullient, hustling, intruding, publicity-loving new America that he was to deplore in The American Scene, which Harvey did indeed publish. But to hungry Democratic bosses, Harvey, who had now made politics his passionate hobby, was a useful and imaginative kingmaker.
But it would not be until 1910 that he would offer Wilson the governorship of New Jersey, so to speak, on a silver platter. We must deal first with the president of Princeton.
Reprinted from Woodrow Wilson: A Penguin Life by Louis Auchincloss by permission of Viking, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Louis Auchincloss. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
Meet the Author
Louis Auchincloss is a highly acclaimed novelist, literary critic, and historian. His more than fifty books include The Rector of Justin, The House of Five Talents, and The Atonement. He is also the author of several nonfiction works including The Man Behind the Book: Literary Profiles and a member and current president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in New York City.
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