Woodrow Wilson was ahead of his time. Son of a Southern theologian and preacher, he was 13 when he saw Robert E. Lee parade through the streets of Augusta, Georgia, in 1870, but he stayed ice-cold to the Southern cause. "Because I love the South," he declaimed at Virginia Law School in 1879, "I rejoice in the failure of the Confederacy." He spoke already like a politician, though he would reach his fifties before he got to be one. Wilson's contemporaries in America (William Howard Taft, Theodore Roosevelt) and Europe (H.H. Asquith, Lloyd George, Kaiser Wilhelm) thought in 19th-century terms. Wilson had more in common with the system-upending radicals of the following generation, such as Lenin and Mussolini—or, better still, the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, because Wilson was subtle. Where many 20th-century revolutionaries took the bourgeois order for an obstacle to their aims, Wilson saw in it possibilities for power that were hidden in plain sight.
The question about Wilson that preoccupied Americans in his lifetime—whether his program was compatible with America's Constitution, and its civilization more generally—has, for better or worse, been settled. Voters and judges have hurried the Constitution along the path Wilson laid out for it, swapping liberties for efficiencies and congressional powers for executive ones. If today we have a "progressive" or a "living" constitution, Wilson can claim to be its father. His record—consumer regulation, women's suffrage, the Federal Reserve, the income tax, World War I, and even his failed design for a League of Nations—set the mold in which the institutions of modern government were cast. Back then, his governing philosophy ("Sometimes people call me an idealist…well, that is the way I know I am an American") sounded sanctimonious and naïve—an affront to the American character. Today it is the American character. That adds urgency to a central question that faces, or should face, all Wilson biographers: whether the most sweeping re-founder of America was ever quite in his right mind.
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In his new biography, Wilson, A. Scott Berg, whose earlier Lindbergh (1998) won the Pulitzer Prize, notes a bizarre compulsion that Wilson acquired in his teens and kept till the end of his life. Any time he became part of a group or organization—from the Eumeneans at Davidson College to the Princeton baseball club to the Johns Hopkins Literary Society—he would dig up and then rewrite its constitution, usually seizing on some neglected provision which, in an emergency, could be wielded to make the system more efficient, hierarchical, and subject to his own wishes. Wilson became a peripatetic academic—studying at Davidson, Princeton, Virginia Law, and Johns Hopkins; teaching at Bryn Mawr and Wesleyan; finally returning to Princeton, where he would serve as president for almost a decade—and constitutions were his specialty.
His main thought about his own country's Constitution was that it was inadequate to the challenges of the day. (That was the meaning of the word "New" in the New Freedom he preached in his 1912 presidential run.) He preferred England's constitution, as Walter Bagehot described it—a combination of dignified pomp and efficient power exercised unapologetically in loco regis. At 19 he wished America had "England's form of government instead of the miserable delusion of a republic" and confided to his diary that "universal suffrage is the foundation of every evil in this country." Though wholly un-English in temperament, Wilson was a sentimental anglophile; he wrote his wife after a first visit to Oxford that, if he were ever offered a position there, America "would see me again only to sell the house and fetch you and the children."
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His preference for prime-ministerial over presidential government—for power-magnifying over power-balancing—was the one constant of his constitutional philosophy. He avowed it to other politicians and schemed towards it in private. When it appeared he would lose his bid for a second presidential term in 1916 to Republican Charles Evans Hughes, he sent a letter to the secretary of state with an elaborate and probably illegal plan for his own early departure from office, as in a parliamentary dissolution. During the battle over the Versailles Treaty that settled World War I, he considered calling on senators to resign and fight for their seats over the treaty, promising to resign himself if enough pro-treaty senators lost.
Even including Barack Obama, Wilson may have had the shortest career in the public eye of anyone elected president. Had it been longer, the odds on his election would have been longer, too. Wilson did not endear himself to his university colleagues, but he always impressed them—in the early stages for his lecturing style; later on for his unbending self-righteousness. It was the same everywhere he went.
To a reformer of sufficient self-confidence, the very fact that an institution has served society well can be a reason to dismantle it. In order to adapt Princeton to "modern life," Wilson sought to abolish the system of clubs that had been built up over generations. As anyone who attended Princeton in the past century will realize, he failed. Wilson didn't listen, didn't understand compromise, and couldn't tell the difference between honest disagreement and sworn enmity. He suspected the board's opposition was to his person, not his plan—but the two blurred in his own mind. In 1910, he gave a speech to Princeton alumni in Pittsburgh that was so irrational ("unhinged" is Berg's word) that his opponents had it reprinted and circulated. The Princeton debacle was a trial run for his failed campaign to get the Senate to approve U.S. membership in the League of Nations and, more generally, for Wilson's tendency to polarize opinion. His arch-foe, Massachusetts Republican Henry Cabot Lodge, would later confide to Theodore Roosevelt: "I never expected to hate anyone in politics with the hatred I feel toward Wilson." Just as Wilson's position at Princeton was becoming untenable, he was elected governor of New Jersey.
"I shall not be a constitutional governor," he said, "because there is one thing that a man has to obey over and above the State constitution, and that is his own constitution." Although he never made any bones about his Progressive ideology, he was not the Progressive candidate. He was recruited by the corrupt statewide Democratic machine of boss James Smith, Jr., and Progressives, in fact, opposed him. But the machine was weak—that is why it needed to put a fresh face on its increasingly disreputable operation. Wilson was smart enough to see this, and steely enough to reject Smith's every demand for a sinecure or a cushy appointment. He caught the attention of depleted national Democrats. Thanks to a split in the Republican field between the incumbent William Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt, aiming to wrest the office back from his protégé, Wilson found himself in the White House barely two years later.
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The number of reforms the Wilson era saw would sound almost superhuman if we forgot that the bipartisan Progressive Movement already had a long list of measures ready to vote on, and legislators ready to back them. But most of these reforms required a powerful and vastly expanded executive branch, and the Constitution was full of mechanisms that made such centralization of power impossible. Wilson's entire life had prepared him for the task of disabling those mechanisms. He shifted the country's revenue base from tariffs (which are somewhat self-limiting) to income taxes (which can climb and climb). He established the debt ceiling (it used to be that every bond issue would require new legislation). He fought for the women's vote (albeit more slowly than radical suffragists would have wished) and imposed a kind of prohibition as a wartime emergency measure (although he would veto the Volstead Act). He started an embryonic intelligence agency. He urged the adoption of cloture rules to limit filibusters. Such reforms allowed him to increase the size of government tenfold.
To forget that Wilson pursued these goals in an honest and forthright way would be to miss a great secret of his appeal. He enforced a 1901 agreement with Britain under which U.S. vessels were to receive no special exemptions from Panama Canal tolls. He fought crooked corporations by prosecuting individual decision-makers, feeling the government should "divest such persons of their corporate cloak and deal with them as with those who do not represent their corporations." (This is in marked contrast to the Bush and Obama administrations, in which companies have paid vast fines for malfeasance related to the financial crisis, but no top-level individuals have been prosecuted.) But in his most important task as president, Wilson misled the country.
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If the role of the United States in World War I is hard to understand, that is partly because Wilson understood it poorly himself. He called for the war's authorization on April 2, 1917, on the grounds that the United States was fighting for democracy in
a war determined upon as wars used to be determined upon in the old, unhappy days when people were nowhere consulted by their rulers and wars were provoked and waged in the interest of dynasties or of little groups of ambitious men who were accustomed to use their fellow men as pawns and tools.
Whether he was being disingenuous or thoughtless, this was false. Never in history had there been a broader groundswell of democratic support for a war than there was in Europe in 1914.
But for that reason, the common complaint that Wilson lied the country into war is not quite fair, either. He didn't have to. It is true that Wilson made his move just weeks after fighting the 1916 election on the slogan "He kept us out of war." But there was no anti-war alternative to Wilson in 1916. Republican challenger Charles Evans Hughes backed intervention. So did many of the Republicans who would challenge the League of Nations at war's end. There was enough jingoism in the United States—especially once the popular press and Teddy Roosevelt began calling for war—to send the country rushing off to the trenches in a patriotic fervor, as European publics had done in 1914. In fact, that is just what happened in America in 1917: patriotism is what Americans thought they were fighting for.
But Wilson thought they were fighting for something different. When he urged Americans to "make the world safe for democracy," he was not so deluded as to think the country was in danger of being invaded. Nor was he talking about vindicating America's system of government. On the contrary, he meant to reform it out of recognition. He meant to establish the League of Nations, which he had already begun to sketch out in his speeches as a "league of honor." That was America's casus belli, as Wilson wanted to see it. In 150 days of combat, over 100,000 Americans died, fighting, so their families and neighbors assumed, to defend their country. But once it was over, Wilson, the great rewriter of constitutions, drew the world's attention to the fine print of his oratory, and, like a trial lawyer triumphantly waving a contract that some wronged party had been bamboozled into signing, informed them that they had fought for no such thing. "If the Treaty is not ratified by the Senate," he said, "the War will have been fought in vain." This terrifying sentence was not rhetoric.
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The price of this misunderstanding was visible in the Treaty of Versailles. It was high. As Winston Churchill and others have said since, Wilson made Hitler possible. But the line was not direct. Wilson did not actively urge the Carthaginian peace that put much of the German population at odds with the international order. He considered himself to be fighting both for the League and for fair treatment for Germany. But he was a bad negotiator—his attachment to the League was both monomaniacal and visible. Once it was obvious that the League was the whole of the Treaty to him, he had to pay for it by bartering away everything the other victors wanted: for French premier Georges Clemenceau, this meant the breaking of Germany, which would ultimately produce the Nazis; for the Japanese emperor, it meant China's Shantung province, which, just as disastrously, would bring the Sino-Japanese war and Mao Zedong.
It is in the nature of visionary plans to meet resistance. That very few nations wanted the League of Nations didn't worry Wilson, nor did it stop him from accusing its U.S. opponents of "breaking the heart of the world." He was so thoroughly prepared to use America's commanding economic position to bring recalcitrant Europeans to heel that he sometimes sounds, in his private communications, like the villain in a Soviet propaganda film. "When the war is over," he wrote his adviser Colonel Edward House, "we can force them to our way of thinking, because by that time they will, among other things, be financially in our hands." These are America's allies he is talking about. Meeting resistance from Italy on a minor negotiating point, he asked a financial adviser to make sure a $50 million emergency loan was blocked until the country came around.
There was only one nation strong enough after World War I to resist Wilson's strong-arming: his own. The League meant an unprecedented surrender of U.S. sovereignty, for the collective-security arrangements envisioned by the League were much more ambitious than those later put in place by the United Nations. And what interest did an ocean-moated industrial giant have in committing itself to intervene in (i.e., to escalate) wars in every corner of the planet? It had no such interest. Like the trustees of Princeton presented with Wilson's plan to destroy the university's institutions, Americans now began to suspect that the real war aim for which they had fought and died was to enshrine Woodrow Wilson as a Great Man.
None of the president's actions during and after the Versailles negotiations dampened this suspicion. Berg tells us that when Lloyd George called for a peace that would establish the principle of "government by consent of the governed"—the very thing Wilson professed to be fighting for—"Wilson's spirits sank." The British prime minister was stealing his thunder. At an American soldiers' graveyard in Suresnes, he made an implicit comparison of his own sacrifice to theirs, insisting that there is "something better…that a man can give than his life, and that is his living spirit to a service that is not easy, to resist counsels that are hard to resist, to stand against purposes that are difficult to stand against."
Convinced that Wilson was embezzling glory from the nation, voters gave Republicans majorities in both houses of Congress in 1918, and increased them in 1920, a presidential year when Democrats failed to win a single state outside the Old South. American participation in the League was dead. The almost absolute powers conferred on Wilson through "emergency" legislation, however, lived on.
The political scientist Robert Nisbet wrote decades later in Twilight of Authority (1975),
I believe it no exaggeration to say that the West's first real experience with totalitarianism—political absolutism extended into every possible area of culture and society, education, religion, industry, the arts, local community and family included, with a kind of terror always waiting in the wings—came with the American war state under Woodrow Wilson.
The Justice Department worked with a network of 250,000 informers—the American Protective League—to root out those suspected of treason. Wilson warned that newly naturalized citizens "have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life." He jailed dissenters, including the gentle socialist Eugene Debs. He created a network of propagandists, "Four-Minute Men," to give spontaneous-looking defenses of government policy during cinema intermissions, and enlisted a stable of writers—including George Creel and Ray Stannard Baker—as court historians, showing that there could be a revolving door between "idealistic" muckraking and servile propaganda. An expanded sense of the president's personal prerogatives developed, along with a sinister courtier culture. On the eve of the Armistice in 1918, Colonel House cabled him: "Autocracy is dead; long live democracy and its immortal leader."
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The "bought" nature of so much World War I opinion about Wilson creates a historiographical problem for any biographer, but particularly one of Berg's type. Berg has set out to write an intimate biography—a story of Wilson the person. Its focus is more on Ellen Wilson's plans for the White House Rose Garden, say, than Woodrow Wilson's plans for the Saarland. Those interested in Wilson the politician will soon weary of sentences like: "A buffet supper followed—oyster patties, boned capon, Virginia ham, chicken salad, caramel ice cream, and a three-tiered wedding cake."
An intimate biography can be a useful window on a personalized presidency. The problem is, no one ever remained intimate with Wilson unless he showed he worshipped the ground Wilson walked on. Wilson wielded against all those who disagreed with him a vindictive, grudge-holding, lifelong hatred. He had fantasies of revenge and would go to great lengths to satisfy them in the smallest measure. During a visit to Princeton, he sent for his former best friend, Jack Hibben, his replacement as university president, only to tell him he did not wish to see him. (Berg takes a more neutral view of this incident.) His second wife, Edith, brought out his nastiness like a highlighting solution in an X-ray. After getting a note from her in which she wished for the death of Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, Wilson replied, "What a dear partisan you are…and how you can hate, too!" Like many petty people, he was obsessed with the "bigness" and "smallness" of various human actions. On Armistice Day in 1922, addressing a crowd of true believers in the League of Nations, he said: "Puny persons who are now standing in the way will presently find that their weakness is no match for the strength of a moving Providence."
Sigmund Freud, who late in life co-authored a controversial study of Wilson, found one such episode bizarre and significant. On the night of Wilson's presidential election victory in 1912, the chairman of his campaign committee visited his house in Princeton. "Before we proceed," Wilson greeted him, "I wish it clearly understood that I owe you nothing. God ordained that I should be the next president of the United States. Neither you nor any other mortal could have prevented that." Freud believed that Wilson, his head ringing with scripture, mistook himself at times for the son of God.
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But those words could be said in a humble way or an arrogant way. The question they raise for us is whether Wilson was admitting his powerlessness over circumstances or claiming to be under God's protection. Berg does not resolve the question. He gives Biblical titles and epigraphs to all his chapters ("Advent," "Paul," "Passion," "Resurrection") to pretentious effect, without making clear whether he's proposing a parallel between Wilson and Christ or endorsing Freud's sense that Wilson is crackers. Instead, Berg hazards a partial medical explanation for Wilson's moods: that he was of unsound body and mind for large parts of his adult life. Wilson appears to have had his first stroke at age 35 and suffered an episode of blindness at 49. A final stroke would incapacitate him for the last year of his presidency. Berg wonders whether he was suffering from dementia at Versailles, remarking on his "impatience," "self-absorption," "compulsive" and "suspicious" behavior, but admitting that "[m]ost of those symptoms were, in fact, chronic attributes of Woodrow Wilson."
The parts of Berg's book that cover the Versailles conference in 1919—when Wilson was suddenly exposed, for the only time in his life, to the extended and intimate inspection of people who were neither fawning relatives nor terrified subordinates—are far richer and more rounded than the rest of the book. It was in Versailles that Wilson met Clemenceau, who warned him: "The history of the United States is a glorious history, but short"; and Harold Nicolson of the British delegation who found in him "no gift for differentiation, no capacity for adjustment to circumstances." Woodrow Wilson was used to being deferred to in his still not especially sophisticated native land. It had been only 24 months since he had first called for a "League of Peace" in January 1917, the first step towards entering the war. South Carolina Senator Ben Tillman had called it "the most startling and noblest utterance that has fallen from human lips since the Declaration of Independence." It almost surely did not occur to Wilson that his ignorance of who started the Franco-Prussian war, or of whether Sarajevo is in Bosnia or Serbia, might be a reason to moderate his ambitions to remake the world in his own image.