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Woodrow Wilson, who was completing his second term 100 years ago, was one of the most popular of all presidents, despite his having only minimal experience in government before ascending to the White House.
Scott Berg’s 818-page biography, “Wilson,” (2013) reveals an extraordinary man: scholar, theologian, peacemaker, lawyer, university president and reformer. Born in Staunton, Virginia, the son of a Presbyterian minister, Wilson was a man in a hurry from an early age. He was a champion debater at a time when skill at debate, rhetoric, public speaking and logic were highly prized. He studied at Davidson, Princeton, the University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins, earning a Ph.D.
Wilson was also a man divided between two centuries. Born in 1856 in a state that would secede from the United States before he was 6, Wilson’s perspective was influenced by Confederate veterans. His morals were both Victorian and segregationist, but he enthusiastically looked toward the future in a world about to experience its greatest changes in centuries.
Leaving a position he loved as president of Princeton, Wilson ran for governor of New Jersey and won. Two years later, in 1912, he won a landslide victory to become president of the United States in one of he oddest elections in history. The electorate was divided into four camps, with former president Teddy Roosevelt running a third-party campaign against Republican incumbent William Howard Taft. Socialist Eugene Debs was also on the ballot. Wilson, the Democratic nominee selected by party bosses, had Democratic voters to himself.
Two years later in 1914, war sparked by miscalculations, poor communications and lingering ethnic hatred, broke out in Europe. Industrialized war had created unimaginable slaughter. Despite the loss of American lives in German U-Boat attacks, Wilson refused to join the war on the side of the western democracies.
In 1916, Wilson ran for re-election on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” but two years into his second term, he asked Congress to declare war on Germany and its allies. Wilson’s ability to sway an audience made it possible for him to persuade an isolationist nation to join the “War to End All Wars.”
Wilson was a great believer in the power of language. He wrote history books, and he wrote his own speeches through most of his varied careers. He was also a believer in the power of ideas, and he put great thought into the ideas that motivated his speeches.
He saw opportunity in the armistice ending the Great War (as it was known) and the formal peace treaty that would finalize the war’s end. He developed his 14 Points that he considered essential to any peace treaty. He then broke precedent by going to the peace conference in Paris himself to wrangle Britain, France and Italy into a peace treaty that would reshape the maps of Europe, Asia and Africa. Two key points were the right of people to self-determination and establishment of a League of Nations that would arbitrate international disagreements and avoid future wars.
Wilson put all of his energy into this treaty, but his absence from Washington gave isolationists under Henry Cabot Lodge a chance to build opposition to ratification of the treaty.
Berg begins his biography with a description of President Wilson waiting to board a steamship to France to negotiate the peace. Wilson was, Berg writes, by far the most popular person in the world, the man who would end war and give freedom of self-determination to all peoples. Wilson set out on a grueling transcontinental trip, giving several speeches a day, in order to win ratification of the treaty. Before his trip ended, he was a broken man, having suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on one side and a shadow of the man he had been.
Wilson’s second wife (his first wife, to whom he was deeply devoted, had died in 1914), Edith Gault, and a few others guarded the secret about how seriously incapacitated the president was. He remained popular even after his presidency; admiring crowds would stand outside his Washington townhouse hoping for a glimpse of the great man.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Wilson gave his life (or at least his health) for his vision of a world without armed conflict. His presidency based on scholarship and principles offers a contrast and possibly an alternative to today’s winning-is-everything politics.
Hal Tarleton is a former editor of The Wilson Daily Times. Contact him at email@example.com.