October 24th, 2013



Woodrow Wilson
John Christen Johansen (1876-1964) / Woodrow Wilson, c. 1919 / Oil on canvas / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
So, Woodrow Wilson! I didn't know a lot about Wilson before I read A. Scott Berg's new biography of him, just that he'd been President of Princeton University and Governor of New Jersey before being elected President; that he was President during World War I and was a leading proponent of the League of Nations, for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize; and that he'd suffered a severe stroke during his second term in office but didn't step down. Oh, and that he was a Presbyterian, and pretty racist.

Now, of course, I know more. The thing that probably surprised me the most was that he grew up in the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction. (This shouldn't have surprised me as much as it did. Of course someone elected President in 1912 would have lived through those periods.) I knew he'd been born in Virginia (add that to the list in the first paragraph) but I just assumed he spent most of his life in New Jersey, But in fact he lived in the South right up until he left North Carolina's Davidson College to finish his undergraduate studies at Princeton, and didn't settle north of the Mason-Dixon Line permanently until he was 30 years old. Moreover, Princeton at the time was heavily populated by Southerners, because it was closer to the Southern states than any other elite private university, so his temperament remained thoroughly Southern throughout his life.

Knowing that, it's not too surprising he held views that by modern standards were thoroughly racist. He believed blacks were not capable of self-governance, and that they were more closely related to animals than to humans. He told racist jokes, discouraged African Americans from applying to Princeton, and allowed the members of his cabinet to segregate their agencies, demote or fire blacks already serving in Federal jobs, and reduce the number hired for new jobs. He was opposed to slavery, but on economic grounds.

But his background as a Southerner had salutary effects when it came to the aftermath of World War I. His personal participation in the negotiating of the Treaty of Versailles, and his interest both in establishing the League of Nations and in trying to prevent Germany from being too harshly treated by the Allied nations, stemmed from his experience growing up in the military-occupied South during Reconstruction. He hoped to prevent the German people from growing resentful of the harsh treatment by the victors, as many Southerners did in the aftermath of the Civil War, fearing that if the Allies took advantage of the situation to exact revenge on the Central Powers, another war would be inevitable. History would suggest he was correct about that.

The chapters concerning the fight in Congress over the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles reminded me a lot of the current situation in Washington. Like now, the government was divided in 1919: Wilson was a Democrat, but both houses of Congress were controlled by the Republican Party. The Senate's fierce fight against ratification had more to do with a personal dislike of Wilson (especially on the part of Henry Cabot Lodge, the Senate Majority Leader) and a desire to deny him credit for the peace than with any particular problem with the treaty. Sounds familiar! On the other hand, that same Republican Congress did pass the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, and it's hard to imagine the current Republican Party doing the same, especially with what's going on down in Texas right now.

The prolonged negotiations over the treaty and the subsequent fight to see it ratified by the Senate probably led to Wilson's incapacitation during his last year in office. (Berg says that Wilson's behavior toward the end of his stay in Paris suggests he may have suffered one or more mild strokes or transient ischemic attacks while negotiating the treaty.) His major stroke or TIA, the one that mostly incapacitated him, was both more and less severe than I'd previously believed; I was under the impression he was fully incapacitated, but in fact the attack left the left side of his body paralyzed but left his cognitive functions largely unaffected. Nevertheless, Berg makes a strong case that at the very least Wilson should have allowed Vice President Marshall to serve as acting President while recovering from the attack and the exhaustion caused by the nationwide tour the President undertook in support of the treaty.

By this time, I imagine you're wondering what Wilson has in common with James K. Polk. Several things, actually! They were both Southern Democrats, and former governors. Both worshiped in Presbyterian Churches, though Polk never joined a church and was baptized as a Methodist on his deathbed. They both took the nation to war, albeit for very different reasons. And they share one very unusual thing in common: they both were elected President without the support of their own states. Polk failed to carry his home state of Tennessee in 1844; Wilson did carry New Jersey in 1912, but lost it to Republican Charles Evans Hughes in 1916.

My bottom line on Wilson is that if you're interested in Presidential history or the early 20th century, it's well worth your time. Berg is a very good writer, and a large cache of papers were available to him that no previous biographer had access to, so even if you think you already know a lot about Woodrow Wilson, you're very likely to find something new here.