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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2257

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...

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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 creation of the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Reserve, were all passed by the Congress and signed into law. Wilson moved to deregulate business while still restraining the power of trusts and monopolies, and by doing so he enhanced the roles of small business. In all these moves he was remarkably successful, and Heckscher’s account of Wilson’s relationship with Congress is lucid and instructive. Seldom have the two branches of government worked so well, or so beneficially, together.

In only one area, civil rights, does Wilson fall short when judged by contemporary standards. Although a tolerant and unprejudiced man in private life and an ardent defender of civil liberties, Wilson suffered from the faults of his time and position. In the America of the early twentieth century, few white politicians dared speak up for civil rights for persons of color. As a leader of the Democratic Party, which then drew much of its strength from the “Solid South,” Wilson was further constrained. Although he might have attempted more, it should be remembered that Wilson would have met with intractable opposition to any civil rights legislation from Republicans and conservative southern Democrats. Nearly fifty years later, both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson would face that same set of opponents when they fought for the passage of civil rights bills. By then, however, the temper of the country had changed, and progress was possible.

Despite the one area of neglect, Wilson’s first term was marked by a remarkable, and remarkably successful, legislative program of the New Freedom. How a college president came to be such an effective political leader is considered and explained by Heckscher. Wilson, Heckscher notes, had long been a close and careful observer of the American political process, and he knew its workings. Beyond that, he had considered the forces behind the mechanics of politics, including those forces often neglected by traditional politicians. Wilson was not afraid to call upon the idealism of the American people or to rely upon their good sense and judgment. “Know your people and you can lead them,” Wilson once told his students, adding, “Study your people and you may know them.” Seldom was advice so carefully followed as in Wilson’s first term.

Throughout most of his second term as well, Wilson was preeminently the student and leader of the American people. As Europe plunged into World War I in August, 1914, Wilson and his countrymen held themselves apart. The wisdom of neutrality was soon apparent, as the war ground into a stalemate that destroyed a generation of European youth. Still, the United States was pressed hard by the Allies to join them, while the German navy’s unrestricted submarine campaign against unarmed merchant ships hurt American trade and cost American lives. At home, vociferous rabble rousers, some of whom happened to be former presidents, taunted Wilson for cowardice and urged war. Still, Wilson held the United States out of the conflict, using diplomacy to gain concessions from both sides to the American benefit. It was not until all diplomatic avenues had been blocked, and German outrages had become too excessive to ignore, that Wilson reluctantly entered the war on the Allied side.

With the coming of war appeared yet another transformation of Woodrow Wilson. The university professor and president who had emerged as a master politician and national leader now became an outstanding wartime president, capable of rallying popular sentiment while managing the enormous complexities of modern warfare.

At the same time, however, Wilson was looking beyond the immediate struggle, and as victory became more certain, he searched for a means to prevent such a cataclysm from occurring again. His thoughts, embodied first in his famous “Fourteen Points,” were later given fuller and more comprehensive shape in his plan for a League of Nations, an assembly of the world that would resolve disputes peacefully, protecting the rights of all, and thus putting an end to war.

It was at this point, with the war ended and the American president cheered by millions throughout the world as the greatest hope of humankind, that Wilson began his tragic fall. Perhaps, like the hero of an ancient Greek tragedy, Wilson had dreamed too greatly, reached too far for mortal powers. It could be that his dream of founding a League of Nations was an expression of hubris, or pride, the fatal flaw that is the undoing of Greek heroes. Heckscher hints at this, for he notes that when others doubted or scorned the idea and ideals of the League of Nations, Wilson became more firmly convinced of their soundness and made the contest one greater than politics. Wilson came to see the fight over the League of Nations as nothing less than a moral, even a spiritual, struggle.

The strong sense of idealism that had always run through Wilson’s character now hardened into inflexibility. The stubborn determination to fight on as long as a chance or hope remained became simply stubbornness. Where once Wilson had been able to compromise and maneuver, he was now rigid and unbending. This was not, unfortunately, the way to convince the United States Senate to vote in favor of U.S. membership in the League of Nations. There was already a core of opposition to the league led by the Republican senator from Massachusetts, Henry Cabot Lodge, a man who was determined to obstruct Wilson and defeat the league on purely partisan political grounds. Wilson’s stubbornness gave Lodge the opening he needed, and through shrewd parliamentary tricks, Lodge kept the peace treaty and the league hostage.

Wilson had one final resort, a direct appeal to the American people. In a bold and unprecedented move, he made this appeal, embarking upon a grueling nationwide speaking tour to explain the League of Nations and rally popular support behind it. Amazingly, the tactic began to work, and as their president clearly and eloquently presented his case, those who heard him responded. Then, tragedy struck.

Wilson’s health, weakened by years of hard work and neglect of his high blood pressure, first sagged, then gave way. On September 25, 1919, while traveling by train through Colorado, Wilson collapsed. He was rushed back to Washington, where, during the night of October 1, he suffered a debilitating stroke. From then until the inauguration of the next president, the Untied States was effectively without a chief executive. It is a harrowing and saddening chapter in American history, and Heckscher does it full justice in his account, revealing for the first time the extent of the silent years of Wilson’s life.

The final silence of death came for Wilson in 1924. Already he had been recognized abroad as one of the greatest of American presidents. The Nobel Peace Prize had come in 1919 as the culmination of his global accomplishments. In the United States as well, the confusion and bitterness of Wilson’s final months in office gave way to memories and appreciation of his earlier achievements, of his leadership during the war and the enduring contributions of the New Freedom. As the twentieth century progressed, it became clear that only Franklin D. Roosevelt could claim greater accomplishments than Wilson, and that few other chief executives in American history have done so much to shape and better the nation.

This, then, is the Wilson who is found most dramatically in Heckscher’s splendid biography. Heckscher does not evade or dismiss Wilson’s faults and shortcomings, his all-too-human weaknesses or lapses, but he concentrates, and rightly so, on those achievements for which Wilson best deserves to be remembered. Perhaps no better praise can be given Heckscher’s volume than this: Had Woodrow Wilson the scholar read this book about Woodrow Wilson the president, it is likely that both would approve of its honesty, insight, and understanding.

Sources for Further Study

The American Spectator. XXIV, November, 1991, p. 42.

Boston Globe. December 1, 1991, p. 14.

Kirkus Reviews. LIX, July 15, 1991, p. 909.

Library Journal. CXVI, September 15, 1991, p. 88.

National Review. XLIII, November 4, 1991, p. 49.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIX, January 16, 1992, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, December 15, 1991, p. 3.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, August 16, 1991, p. 40.

San Francisco Chronicle. December 15, 1991, p. REV5.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, November 17, 1991, p. 1.

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