Woodrow Wilson was elected to only two offices of public trust. The first was governor of New Jersey in 1910; the second was president of United States, in 1912 and again in 1916. No other figure in American political history has emerged so quickly, accomplished so much, and yet endured such bitter defeats at the end of his career, only to be recognized later as one of American history’s greatest figures. Within the remarkable span of only fourteen years, Woodrow Wilson burst from political obscurity to make his mark as one of America’s outstanding presidents, one whose legacy continues.
August Heckscher’s biography is a superb survey of Wilson’s life and career. Within one volume, Heckscher has achieved three almost impossible tasks. The first is to recount Wilson’s life in a comprehensible but accurate format. This Heckscher has done with style, precision, and grace. The second task is to outline Wilson’s political achievements and failures, to chart his successes and defeats as a political leader at home and as a world statesman abroad. This the author has done superbly, largely because he relates this second task to his third, which is to discuss Wilson’s philosophy of democratic government and to show how, in his public life, Wilson put into practice the doctrines and theories that he had taught so brilliantly in his academic career. As a president and as a man, Woodrow Wilson is difficult to appreciate in his depths and subtleties, but Heckscher has accomplished the feat.
Wilson’s life splits neatly, if unevenly, into two parts. The first extends from his birth through 1910. During these years, Wilson, born in Virginia, reared in Georgia and South Carolina, grew to manhood, became a respected professor of history and government, married Ellen Axson, his first wife, and reared a family. Known and valued for his intelligence, scholarship, and writing abilities, he became president of Princeton University and brought that institution into the first rank of American colleges and universities.
For a college professor—or even a college president—Wilson was remarkably well known, even among the general public. He appeared widely and frequently on the lecture circuit, published in popular magazines, and produced serious and scholarly books that nevertheless reached a wide public. His thoughtful, articulate, and understandable commentary on government and its place in modern life was appreciated throughout the country. As Heckscher demonstrates, Wilson made politics seem important to the average citizen, and he did it by appealing to the intelligence and civic pride of the American people. He called for their best, and they responded.
This part of Wilson’s life culminated in 1910, when New Jersey Democratic party officials sought him out to run for governor. It was an offer that might have caused many individuals to agree immediately or to make promises or deals that might be regretted later. Wilson did neither. He kept the party leaders waiting until he had decided that it was, indeed, the proper time for him to be a candidate, and then he was a candidate on his own terms, embodying the best elements of the Democratic Party and expressing a reform plan that was daringly liberal in its scope and promise. Both the plan and Wilson were popular with New Jersey voters, and he won the election.
Almost as remarkable as Wilson’s campaign promises were the ways those promises were kept. After his election, Wilson pushed through a comprehensive package that made New Jersey one of the most progressive states in the nation. By outflanking the political bosses and responding to the liberal mood of the times, Woodrow Wilson had become a serious contender for the 1912 Democratic presidential nomination.
The last Democratic president had been Grover Cleveland, who had left the White House in 1897. Since that time, the Republicans had held sway, and the incumbent, William Howard Taft, was up for re-election. It seemed likely that Taft would be challenged by his predecessor, the popular and frighteningly energetic Theodore Roosevelt. With Taft and Roosevelt splitting the regular Republicans, a Democrat had a chance to win. The nomination of a progressive such as Wilson further enhanced Democratic opportunities.
Wilson, once nominated, mounted a brilliant campaign that demolished both Taft and Roosevelt. After a long period of Republican rule, the country was ready for a change, especially for reforms that would benefit the middle and lower classes instead of the rich. Taft’s policies were largely discredited, and while Roosevelt’s progressive credentials were loudly proclaimed, they appeared hollow beside the rational appeal and undeniable accomplishments of the New Jersey governor.
In the section of the biography titled “The Great Campaign,” Heckscher tells the story briskly, lucidly, and vividly. There is a real sense of Wilson’s energy and idealism and the fashion in which he could excite crowds with the power of ideas alone. It was a remarkable presidential campaign, one decided upon the intellectual and moral appeal of a man who had only recently been a university professor. The election of Woodrow Wilson to the presidency was truly one of American democracy’s greatest triumphs.
The Wilson presidency began with similar success. Wilson’s campaign had championed the cause of what he aptly called the “New Freedom,” and his first term saw the practical implementation of that policy. Fair labor laws and tariff and banking reform, including the...
(The entire section is 2257 words.)