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The Presbyterian Nietzsche

Woodrow Wilson

by August Heckscher
Scribner’s, 743 pp., $35.00

Woodrow Wilson: A Life for World Peace

by Jan Willem Schulte Nordholt, translated by Herbert H. Rowen
University of California Press, 495 pp., $34.95

Young Nietzsche: Becoming A Genius

by Carl Pletsch
Free Press, 261 pp., $22.95

America in the Great War: The Rise of the War Welfare State

by Ronald Schaffer
Oxford University Press, 244 pp., $27.95

In the summer of 1908, the president of Princeton University, recovering from one of his many mysterious illnesses, was staying at a country place in Scotland; but he broke off his vacation to visit Edinburgh, where he hung around the telegraph office and newsstands, just in case the Democratic convention, meeting in Denver, should nominate him for the presidency. The absurdity of this expectation can be tested if we remember that he had never, at that point, held or even run for public office—never, in fact, attended a Democratic convention.

This behavior looks more rather than less odd when we consider that Wilson wrote his major book, about the inner workings of Congress, without ever having set foot in the Capitol. Most of his other youthful writing was, about English parliamentary leaders—and, in childhood, about British naval adventurers—though he had not, at that point, crossed the Atlantic or been to sea. He lived adventures in his imagination long before his eerily linked qualities of will and luck made them “come true.”

His two bedrock certainties were that history is what great men do and that he, Thomas Woodrow Wilson, was a great man. As a student at Princeton he made a covenant (a favorite word of his) with a fellow student, whose oratorical skill Wilson admired, that they two

would school all our powers and passions for the work of establishing the principles we held in common; that we would acquire knowledge that we might have power; and that we would drill ourselves in all the arts of persuasion, but especially in oratory (for he was a born orator if any man was), that we might have facility in leading others into our ways of thinking and enlisting them in our purposes.1

That dream is unusual for Wilson only in that another person is included in his destiny. He later remembered “the glow and the pulsations of the hopes and the purposes of that [covenanting] moment” as his own pledge to futurity.2

Wilson was in such a rush to the top that he could not take slower, more expectable paths. As a child—born in Stanton, Virginia, four years before the Civil War, moving about with his father, a Presbyterian minister—he had a busy interior life that made him neglect such accommodations to others as learning to read or write until he was nine. But then he acquired a private language (shorthand) for quicker communication with himself. He did poorly at the prescribed Greek and Latin of early school days in the nineteenth century, and shirked modern languages at Princeton and even at the Germanophile Johns Hopkins University, where he did his graduate study. He was interested in words only as vehicles of power, and he practiced his oratorical English with a joy in the effects he could produce.

He left Princeton in a hurry to reach Washington, and fretted when law school (at the University of Virginia) forced him to learn things irrelevant to politics:

The profession I chose was politics; the profession I entered was the law. I entered the one because I thought it would lead to the other. It was once the sure road; and Congress is still full of lawyers. But this is the time of leisured classes—or, at least that time is very near at hand—and the time of crowded professions.3

He wanted out of the crowded legal profession—he had considered quitting even at law school, and completed only a year and a half of the two-year course. But when he found he could pass the bar in Georgia, he halfheartedly worked at legal jobs in Atlanta before disturbing his mother with an announcement that he was through with the law, though he had just barely tried it. As August Heckscher writes:

This was one of the rare occasions when his mother took a sterner stand [than his father]. She must have had in mind the series of abandonments marking her son’s record. He had left Davidson College after a year, had fled Charlottesville, and now if he quit Atlanta without definite plans it would look very much like a defeat.

But Wilson was too in love with his own fate to loiter over petty-criminal law cases. He had been giving speeches and redrafting a book he conceived when he was an undergraduate, one based on the work of his favorite living author, Walter Bagehot. In The English Constitution (American edition, 1873), Bagehot had made some comparisons of English with American governmental practice. Wilson developed these from the American direction but with a similar preference for the English system. Comparative studies were welcome at the graduate school that had first adopted philological methods in America, the Johns Hopkins University of Baltimore. Wilson entered its history department to polish his book.

He soon grew as restless with rigorous historical work as he had at the law. He left the university without his degree, to accept a teaching job at Bryn Mawr, where he finished his book and asked, on the basis of its good reviews in professional journals, to be awarded the Hopkins doctorate. Given that certification, a successful teaching career at Bryn Mawr and Wesleyan, and genial ties with the small band of historians just undergoing professionalization, Wilson was considered a scholar, a claim Heckscher takes more seriously than most scholars have. Wilson himself said he took academic jobs to support his writing, and he wrote to develop a style that would move people in the realm of politics. While still at the Hopkins he had confessed to his fiancée:

Style is not much studied here; ideas are supposed to be everything—their vehicle comparatively nothing. But you and I know that there can be no greater mistake; that, both in its amount and in its length of life, an author’s influence depends upon the power and the beauty of his style; upon the flawless mirror he holds up to nature; upon his facility in catching and holding, because he pleases, the attention.4

As a young professor, Wilson wrote a prodigious amount, almost all of it frankly inspirational and aimed at the widest public. His five-volume History of the American People was composed in the 1890s in the form of lavishly illustrated articles for Harper’s. He was paid $1,000 for each article, an unheard-of price at the time.

Wilson, who liked to live in the style befitting a great man, threatened to leave the Princeton faculty unless he was paid more than other professors, and a group of alumni raised a supplement to his salary. But he did not write mainly for money. He had conceived the absurd idea of launching a political career through his popular writings—and, against all odds, he succeeded. After he became the president of Princeton, he wrote broadly on public themes, prompting the Democratic machine pols of New Jersey to approach him, shortly after his rueful wait at Edinburgh’s telegraph office, with the chance to run for governor of New Jersey. He leaped at it. This was what he had been waiting for.

Two years later, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge mused on what would lead a moralizing academic to take this low and suspect door into political activity. Nothing could explain it but opportunism, in Lodge’s view:

As to Wilson, I think he is a man of ability, but he has no intellectual integrity at all. A man can change one or two of his opinions for his own advantage and change them perfectly honestly, but when a man changes all the well considered opinions of a lifetime and changes them all at once for his own popular advantage, it seems to me that he must lack in loyalty of conviction.5

Lodge was in a good position to judge Wilson. He had received his own doctorate in history from the one place that could challenge Hopkins as an early home of historical method—Henry Adams’s seminar in medieval law at Harvard. Lodge, as a young editor at The International Review, had accepted Wilson’s first serious article, an early draft of his book on congressional government. By the time Lodge and Wilson clashed over the League of Nations, they had a long history of mutual wariness and misunderstanding. They actually shared some ideals, like the neo-Hamiltonian regard for centralized government and a strong presidency; but that just made Lodge wonder the more at Wilson’s connection to the Democratic Party of loony idealists like William Jennings Bryan and political lowlife like his New Jersey sponsors.

Lodge could not discern the consistency in Wilson’s politics because it fit no customary pattern. Wilson’s politics, like his academic and writing careers, was shaped by his private dreams and ambition. He was a conservative in much of his background and temperament—the descendant of Presbyterian ministers, born and raised in the South. But he was also a hero-worshiper of the most Carlylean sort, who applauded radical change when it was introduced by strong leaders.6 Though he spent his infancy in the wartime Confederacy, he admired Lincoln as a type of the lonely genius wielding new powers. He went to Jefferson’s university for his law studies, and even presided over a debating club called the Jefferson Society, but he thought that Jefferson’s distrust of power was a fatal defect. In his most important book, Congressional Government, he contrasted Hamilton and Jefferson in these loaded terms:

The one had inherited warm blood and a bold sagacity, while in the other a negative philosophy ran suitably through cool veins.7

Wilson’s dream of the conquering hero was prepolitical in its literary zest, however important its political consequences. His elaborate fictional accounts of British admirals preceded his admiration for the oratorical giants of the British parliament. The picture of British government presented by Bagehot made America’s uninspired Congress look like a convocation of dwarfs. Wilson’s open preference for the British system had to do with its fostering of great orators: “The question [in Britain] is not, What will the Parliament do? but, What will Mr. Gladstone do?”8

Wilson’s witty satirizing of American government was not a likely way to ingratiate himself with the public; it made him willing to tinker with the Constitution in fundamental ways, to move it toward the parliamentary model. He sounded like reforming and centralizing Republicans of the imperial sort—in fact Wilson noted an improvement in American government between the first and the second editions of his book. By that time (1900), the Spanish War and the addition of colonies (dependencies) had augmented presidential power, a healthy development in Wilson’s view:

When foreign affairs play a prominent part in the politics and policy of a nation, its Executive must of necessity be its guide: must utter every initial judgment, take every first step of action, supply the information upon which it is to act, suggest and in large measure control its conduct. The President of the United States is now, as of course, at the front of affairs, as no president, except Lincoln, has been since the first quarter of the nineteenth century, when the foreign relations of the new nation had first to be adjusted. There is no trouble now about getting the President’s speeches printed and read, every word. Upon his choice, his character, his experience hang some of the most weighty issues of the future. The government of dependencies must be largely in his hands. Interesting things may come out of the singular change.9

  1. 1

    The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, edited by Arthur S. Link, et al., (Princeton University Press, 1966), Vol. 2, p. 500.

  2. 2

    Papers, Vol. 2, p. 500.

  3. 3

    Papers, Vol. 2, p. 500.

  4. 4

    Papers, Vol. 2, p. 504.

  5. 5

    Henry Cabot Lodge, 1912 letter to John T. Morse, quoted in John A. Garraty, Henry Cabot Lodge (Knopf, 1953), p. 295.

  6. 6

    For Wilson’s early addiction to Carlyle, see Papers, Vol. 1, pp. 90, 125–127, 280–282.

  7. 7

    Woodrow Wilson, Congressional Government (Houghton Mifflin, 1885; Meridian Books, 1956), p. 26.

  8. 8

    Wilson, Congressional Government, p. 58.

  9. 9

    Wilson, Congressional Government, pp. 22–23 (from the 1900 preface).

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