“Wilson adventured for the whole of the human race. Not as a servant, but as a champion. So pure was his motive, so unflecked with anything that his worse enemies could find, except the mildest and most excusable, a personal vanity, practically the minimum to be human, that in a sense his adventure is that of humanity itself. In Wilson the whole of mankind breaks camp, sets out from home and wrestles with the universe and its gods.”
— William Bolitlo Twelve Against the Gods (1939)
Thomas Woodrow Wilson, the son of a Presbyterian (Calvinist) minister and a minister’s daughter was born 28 December 1856 in Virginia. His father was his first teacher of writing style. “When you frame a sentence, shoot with a single bullet and hit that one thing alone”. In an earlier generation, Wilson probably would have become a minister as well.
Rather, he chose the world of political scholarship and then political action. He first went to Princeton University as an undergraduate. He quickly developed a vision of political leadership. He wrote “The president must, above all things else, be a man of unbiased judgment, energy, determination, intelligence, moral courage, conscience.” When he graduated in 1879, he was voted by his classmates as the class’s “model statesman”. He then started to study at the law school of the University of Virginia and dropped his first name. He withdrew at the end of a year, citing his health which was always fragile. He later earned a PhD at Johns Hopkins in Maryland, writing his thesis in 1886 on Congressional Government which was published as a book, the first of a series on US government and the need for governmental reform.
In 1890 he was named chair of political economy (as political science was then called) at Princeton where he wrote his five volume History of the American People. In 1902, he was named president of Princeton University, his predecessor having been forced out for bad management. Wilson brought about educational reforms at the university but also used his post as a pulpit, speaking in public about education, service to the nation, and governmental reform, thus attracting the attention of New Jersey’s Democratic Party.
In 1910, he resigned his position at the university and ran for governor of a state which had long been under the administration of the Republican Party. The Democratic Party organizers were looking for a progressive who was not associated with the political corruption which was the public view of both the New Jersey Republican and Democratic Parties. Woodrow Wilson came to the world of politics from the quite different world of scholarship. The academic years were years of preparation for leadership. His studies and writings were devoted not to the theory but to the practice of government, not to ‘doctrine’ but to ‘affairs’. He was concerned with the real working of the US political system with all its strengths and weaknesses, its potentialities and problems.
He had barely settled his family into the New Jersey governor’s mansion (which is located in Princeton though the administration is in Trenton) and started his battles against the economic monopolies and trusts, when he was nominated by the Democratic Party to run for President in 1912.
The 1912 election was one of the few US elections when there were more than two candidates with the potential to win: William Taft, the incumbent Republican President, Theodore Roosevelt, the former President who ran as a newly-created Progressive Party candidate, Eugene Debs, for the Socialists, and Wilson or the Democrats. Wilson received less than 50 per cent of the vote, but he most votes of the four and so became president.
Wilson, under the banner of “The New Freedom” began a series of interlocking reforms: lowering the tariff, reforming banking and currency laws, instituted a graduated income tax and abolished child labour. Wilson believed that it was the obligation of the federal government to regulate the economy to protect the people from what he wrote was “the consequences of great industrial and social processes which they cannot alter, control or singly cope with.”
However, it is as a war-time leader and especially as a “father of the League of Nations” that Wilson moves beyond US politics to enter world history. At the start of the First World War in August 1914, Wilson − as most in the US− wanted to stay out of it. For most Americans there was little to chose among Germany, Austria-Hungary, Czarist Russia, imperialist France and the United Kingdom. War was a tragedy, not a crime. Wilson was elected for a second four-year term in 1916 with an election slogan of “He kept us out of war.” Wilson was inaugurated on 5 March 1917. Days later, German U-boats sank three US ships. Wilson concluded that there was no longer any way to stay out of the war. On 2 April, 1917, he went to the Capitol and asked Congress to declare war.
For Wilson in his Calvinist view of history “the hand of God is laid upon the nations. He will show them favour, I devoutly believe, only if they rise to the clear heights of His own justice and mercy”. In order to justify US war aims, in 1918, he drafted a speech outlining the war aims. The last of its fourteen points called for “a general association o nations for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.”
Yet his voice was frowned out in the discordant chorus of vengeance and selfishness. In his insistence on international cooperation in a world in which nations could no longer live apart, he spoke for a new principle for the New Age. In the League of Nations, he offered an instrument of good will. The failure of the League lay in that he could not provide that good will.
Today, in the United Nations and its Agencies of international cooperation, we have the means for reconciling differences among States amicably and fairly. We have the instruments to preserve freedom and establish peace. We need the will, the courage and the self-discipline to do what the tasks require.
For a good one-volume life of Wilson see August Heckscher Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (Charles Scribner’s Sons).
For Wilson’s academic writings see Nils Aage Thorsen’s The Political Thought of Woodrow Wilson 1875-1910 (Princeton University Press)