Monday, August 2, 2010


A review of Kendrick A. Clements’s Woodrow Wilson: World Statesman (1987)

(Rating 4 of 5)

Kendrick Clements presents a very good and well organized biography of President Woodrow Wilson. In eleven well written chapters he details and explains the life of this very complicated President. Wilson’s life takes many interesting turns, he starts out in life and politics as a die-hard imperialist, his position starts to transform into what he would later call ‘collective security.’ Clements lays this out brilliantly in his Wilson narrative.

The first few chapters focus on his youth and educational background. He was born Thomas Woodrow Wilson, and ultimately choosing to go by the middle name. Wilson would make a career in academia writing several papers on government. In this, his position often shifts, in his first major work,Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics, Wilson describes the American Government as inefficient and desires a parliamentary government, like the government in Great Britain. Although his first major work is a sharp critique of the American system, it was nevertheless was an important study to the American way of government. As time goes on Wilson changes his position and starts studying and writing more positively about U.S. Constitutional government, due to his admiration of President Grover Cleveland. In his last academic work, Constitutional Government of the United States, Wilson wrote a positive piece on American Government based on the presidencies of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt; he was impressed by the office of the president stating it was as big as the one who occupies it. Wilson would become the President of Princeton University, before leaving to take up politics.

(President Grover Cleveland who Wilson admired)

In 1910, Wilson was elected Governor of New Jersey over his opponent Vivian M. Lewis. As the new Governor, Wilson began a process of reform. Wilson established state primaries, reformed the public utilities commission, and established worker compensation laws to protect ordinary people. Wilson was being seen by many as a person who should be put in charge of the entire nation.

“Within the narrow goals set out by progressivism, Wilson was a marked success as governor of New Jersey. He and other progressives demonstrated that state government could be revitalized to deal with modern society. The irony of his success, however, was that triumph at the state level made him a national figure and a potential candidate for the presidency. The best leaders were thus plucked from the states and thrust upon the national stage, where to be successful they had to argue that the very problems they had been dealing with effectively at the state level could only be attacked from Washington. The success of state reform movements seemed to doom them and to focus attention on the national government. Wilson, for one, certainly made no attempt to resist the siren’s song.” p.73

(Although opponents in 1912, Wilson continued TR's tradition of a strong president)

(William H. Taft, Wilson's predecessor as president and 1912 opponent)

In the famous election of 1912, Wilson defeated both William H. Taft and Theodore Roosevelt to capture the presidency. The first President, who had made an academic study of the presidency before entering it, was going to have tremendous success. Wilson would be able to get almost whatever he wanted out of the Congress. He would create the Federal Reserve, and reestablish the presidential tradition of delivering the State of the Union to the Congress in person. He would also make a great deal of economic reforms to help low income people.

(President Woodrow Wilson)

Unfortunately he also, as President, issued executive orders, that segregated the Federal Government for the first time in history. Defenders might point out that he was a moderate when a great deal of the Congress wanted to expel all African-Americans from Federal jobs, and action that Wilson refused to do. However, Wilson's actions were harmful to many people and a long-term government mistake.

“Yet there were ways in which Wilson’s detachment was a liability. Because his decisions were based on principal rather than being expedient reactions to immediate problems, he spent a great deal of time alone, reading, thinking, and writing. Some people thought him cold and aloof. He had no social ambitions, did not entertain extensively in the White House, and seemed to avoid rather than cultivate the social contacts with politicians that are the channels though which a great deal of public business flows though Washington.” p.103

(Wilson at work)

In 1916, Wilson would narrowly win re-election, over Charles Even Hughes, under the slogan that he kept us out of the war. Wilson however, thanks to the Zimmerman note and the sinking of the Lusitania, would end up having the United States Congress to declare war. The United States spent little time in the war, but after is where Woodrow Wilson made his big splash; the Fourteen Points and the League of Nations proposal were historic and unprecedented. They would change the very nature of foreign relations for all nations. Unfortunately, the only major nation that did not join the new League was the United States, Wilson had alienated his support at home and his treaty failed to win U.S. Senate ratification.

(Anti-Wilson cartoon)

“Just as the stroke impaired Wilson’s ability to concentrate, so it seemed to narrow and limit his mind, stripping away his political skills and ability to deal with complexities, bringing emotion very near to the surface, and intensifying his deep-seated tendency to judge all issues as right or wrong. On such matters he could be clear and decisive, firing Lansing for his disloyalty on the treaty and for encouraging a movement toward intervention in Mexico, refusing to see House because he thought the colonel had given away too much in Paris. Unwittingly, Edith and Dr. Grayson contributed to his oversimplification of issues by shielding him from his problems that might be complicated and unpleasant. Because, like many stoke victims, he denied the severity of his own illness, Wilson really believed that he was quite himself. By 1920 he was even talking about running for a third term to vindicate his stand on the league.” p.216

Toward the end of his presidency he had a stroke, and was mostly unable to function as the President, his wife, Edith, (who he married during presidency after his first wife, Ellen, had died) would to bring papers for him to sign so no one would know of his condition.

(Edith Wilson helped her husband run the country when he had a stroke)

His time in his post-presidency was very short. He did, however, outlive his own successor—Warren G. Harding died in 1923—where Wilson lived until 1924. Clements wrote an awesome biography that details all of these events and much more. I highly recommend this book to anyone.

{Video is from Historic Films Stock Footage Archive.}

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