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

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:

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