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

There is something ominous about that last sentence. Wilson had just predicted this century’s growth of “the imperial presidency”—centered on the person of the Executive (his character, his “every word”), as demanded by the primacy of foreign policy and the custody of imperial possessions (from the “dependencies” of 1900 to the nuclear arsenal of our time).

Why did Wilson not rise through the ranks of McKinley’s party, and Theodore Roosevelt’s, the imperial party of its time? Lodge obviously thought he should have, had he had any consistency or integrity. The Democrats, giving their leadership repeatedly to William Jennings Bryan, were predominantly populist, decentralizing, and noninterventionist when Wilson entered politics. Unlike the populists, Wilson never entirely overcame his dislike for “democracy” when that cut down heroic figures in the name of mediocrity. As a student at Princeton, he had written: “Universal suffrage is at the foundation of every evil in this country.”10 His study of the flaws in congressional government was partly written to take the full onus of democratic ineptitude off the people. In an early draft for that book, he wrote:

But while it is indisputably true that universal suffrage is a constant element of weakness, and exposes us to many dangers which we might otherwise escape, its operation does not suffice alone to explain existing evils.11

Wilson learned a rhetoric of flattering voters when that was necessary, but he continued to think the wisdom of the people was shown mainly in recognizing the great men who could best dispose of their affairs. (In the same way, he learned how to use Democratic formulas at Jefferson Day dinners without fundamentally changing his views on the third president.)

Wilson’s readiness to use whichever political party turned to him first came from his low opinion of both parties insofar as they were tainted by the “congressional government” he had spent decades excoriating. Besides, any party that gave him a platform he would consider an entity plastic to his will. That is the way he treated every institution he had dealt with—remaking the rules at Princeton, the Johns Hopkins, the University of Virginia, and Bryn Mawr (where he left an angered administration that felt he had broken his contract). At Princeton and the University of Virginia, after joining the debating societies, he refashioned their constitutions. The great man creates his environment, he is not made by it.

It is useful to look at the nineteenth-century cult of the individual here in a parallel, apparently remote, case to see how thoroughly Wilson exemplifies it. In Young Nietzsche, Carl Pletsch has turned a mechanically Freudian dissertation into a flawed but instructive book by noticing how the culture of hero-worship affected Nietzsche and Wagner separately and in tandem.12 It is interesting, when one looks at Nietzsche’s early career in this light, to see how many similarities, large and small, it had to Wilson’s. Nietzsche also came from a long line of parsons, was slow in learning to speak, was a theatrical reciter of verse in his family circle, took an oath with two undergraduate friends to the ideals of their youth, rejected his fraternity (whose journal he had edited) when it proved too low-minded, was trained in the German philological tradition (which he soon rejected as too narrow), failed to finish his dissertation and take the expected degree, got a teaching job nonetheless on the basis of his teachers’ high esteem, and was awarded the degree on the basis of later published work.

Nietzsche went on to break all molds and redefine heroism as the making of one’s world rather than the domination of other peoples’ lives. He differed from Wilson in being a genius as well as thinking himself one. Wilson relied more entirely on the cultural values that became a mere starting point for Nietzsche. It was an unlikely cluster of values to carry Wilson far in American politics, where pragmatism is more often valued than his romantic form of idealism; and he certainly needed an extraordinary run of luck to get into a position of power; but once he was there, his idiosyncratic views had much to do with his achievements.

Wilson’s luck included the onesided presentation his fight with Princeton’s trustees was given in the press; the improbable recruitment by New Jersey bosses in 1910; the hair’s-breadth nomination for president two years later in Baltimore—won only on the forty-sixth ballot, with the crucial help of Bryan, whom he had ridiculed; the division of the Republican vote by Theodore Roosevelt’s third-party effort, allowing Wilson to win with a plurality rather than a majority (he won a majority of the popular vote in only fourteen states); the European war in 1916, allowing him to win re-election, because Americans rally to the president in such crises, while promising to keep America neutral. Only by squeaking past each of these obstacles was he able to reach the wartime presidency in which he was the instrument for substantially remaking the politics of our century.

Wilson might have taken these lucky breaks as signs that he should yield to more conventional political forces, but he seems to have accepted them as further evidence that he was a chosen instrument of Providence. He could now use his eloquence in the work for which he had forged it. He defied the tradition Jefferson had established of not addressing Congress in person. Theodore Roosevelt is credited with the notion that the presidency is “a bully pulpit,” but no words of his, preached from that lectern, have been as profound in their influence as Wilson’s.

Yet this was not merely a triumph of words. Wilson had other advantages working for him that he and his biographers do not enough credit. By sitting loose to his own constituency, Wilson had the ease of moving away from it that leaders always exercise against their expected position—as when Nixon goes to China, Begin to Camp David, or Reagan to Reykjavík. The Republicans, the neo-Hamiltonians, had been the outright imperialists while Bryan was taking the Democrats toward pacifism and nonintervention. By working from a Democratic base—and even by appointing Bryan as his first secretary of state—Wilson disarmed some of the objections to intervention that Taft or Roosevelt would have aroused. Wilson, while swearing he would ne’er do so, intervened—on a large scale, in Mexico (repeatedly), Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. As Heckscher notes, Wilson “involved the United States in more military interventions than any administration before or since.”

Heckscher is also good at describing the way Wilson created a national consensus over the Great War by giving the appearance of reluctance to fight even after he had gone beyond that position. (Lodge, watching from the sidelines, was disgusted at the pretense, since he suspected Wilson’s anglophile heart was with the allies all along.) But Wilson, for good or ill, brought the Democratic Party to take an internationalist posture that could not have been expected of it. He had remade his surroundings, so successfully that the parties would reverse their previous positions in the aftermath of World War I, the Republicans flirting with an “isolationism” that the Democrats had been more at home with before.

Wilson remade the presidency, too, as any wartime president must. But Wilson welcomed the occasion to concentrate power, repudiating in practice the “checks and balances” he had denounced in his theoretical work. He had argued in 1884 that “the more power is divided the more irresponsible it becomes.”13 During most of the time when Arthur Link has been doing his magisterial work on Wilson’s life and papers, a liberal consensus, formed in the long presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, held that this aggrandizement of the executive was benign, and that Wilson was fitted into a liberal mold more conventional than his idiosyncracies merited.

Only in the aftermath of recent “presidential wars” have people begun to fear the imperial presidency Wilson fathered. A good example of this reaction is Ronald Schaffer’s America in the Great War, which shows how thoroughly the “war welfare state” of Wilson’s second term prefigured the national security state of the 1940s. Wilson could be ruthlessly “Hamiltonian” in using his war powers. Though he tsk-tsked mildly at some excesses of wartime xenophobia, he wanted all the tools of suppression to be available to the president in person:

When the Espionage Act was being framed, he tried unsuccessfully to have a provision added giving broad censorship powers directly to the president; he favored a peacetime sedition act (possibly to head off more stringent legislation); and in 1920, long after the fighting was over, he pocket vetoed a bill that would have abolished the Espionage and Sedition acts.

It is not surprising that Wilson’s presidency ended with the antiradical “Palmer Raids,” which gave J. Edgar Hoover a start at building what became the secret-police apparatus of the FBI.

Schaffer spends most of his book showing how war, “the health of the state” in Randolph Bourne’s phrase, is a form of welfare for large corporations in war production, a truth that would be confirmed on a huge scale in World War II and during the cold war. He is less sweeping than he might be in showing how larger patterns of deference to power are developed, so that when Wilson was felled by his worst stroke, the office of the presidency was protected from congressional or press scrutiny, giving Edith Wilson powers that make charges against Nancy Reagan seem trivial. Mrs. Reagan had to work for a long time, through many agents, to force Donald Regan out of office. Mrs. Wilson held at a distance Wilson’s oldest and closest political advisers, Joseph Tumulty and Colonel House, by simple decree. The office Wilson wanted to elevate as a platform for extraordinary ability was now being used to disguise disabilities. The presidency given to an “intellectual” was now at the disposal of a woman with only two years of formal schooling.

The relations between the two political parties in the 1930s have often been retrojected to distort the battle over the League of Nations, which is presented as a fight between liberal internationalism and conservative isolationism. Even an “isolationist” like William Borah of Idaho was not a “conservative” in American politics but a progressive who championed a national income tax, popular election of senators, and diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union. Besides, the crushing blows against the League came not from isolationists (a rarer breed in our politics than myth would have it) but from imperialistic neo-Hamiltonians like Henry Cabot Lodge, Elihu Root, and Henry Stimson.14 Then, to complete the rout, liberals like Walter Lippmann and the editors of The New Republic attacked the peace treaty Wilson had linked indissolubly to the League.

Lodge and his allies, the most important figures in the defeat, opposed the League for reasons as far removed as possible from isolationism (and their relations with Borah were correspondingly touchy throughout the fight): having watched the United States emerge on the world scene as an international power, they did not want to see the country’s hands tied preemptively. The code-phrase for this was “preservation of the Monroe Doctrine,” but its advocates meant to provide wider freedom of action than that would cover.

A great deal of ink has been spilled on the possible compromises, tactical steps, or personal gestures by which Wilson might have won acceptance for the League. (The same is true of his conflict with the trustees of Princeton.) It is true that Wilson was needlessly confrontational. But the cause was probably lost when he said he would go to the Peace Conference himself. The man who went to sway Congress in person, as he had imagined Gladstone bewitching Parliament, could not resist the opportunity to speak to all the world. When things went against him, he addressed the Italian people over their delegates’ heads—as, on his return, he would tell Americans to repudiate their elected representatives in Congress. The man so ready to break the rules indicated he would seek a third term to win this battle, ignoring Washington’s precedent as he had defied Jefferson’s precedent on addressing Congress. In those pre-FDR days, running for a third term would have alienated people otherwise disposed to support the League—yet Wilson kept trying to carry out his threat of running in 1920, and his papers contain a draft for his third inaugural address. He waited for word that the convention would draft him, just as he had lingered by the Edinburgh telegraph office in 1908.

The willful great man was never more in evidence than at the end of his presidency. The man who had suggested radical constitutional amendments in his first book asked the senators to run in a special election that would serve as a referendum on the League—Heckscher calls this “one of the most fantastic procedures ever considered by a President.” Resistance to his eloquence he took as a defiance of the Zeitgeist. The great man rejected becomes a measure of national sickness. Like Nietzsche, Wilson descended into illness and feebleness fulminating about power and health.

The liberal view of Wilson as a flawed missionary a little too delicate for rough-and-tumble politics—a view supported by much of Arthur Link’s admirable scholarship—is given two more airings in the Heckscher and Nordholt books. Heckscher essentially gives us a one-volume statement of the Link view, incorporating a judicious use of Edwin Weinstein’s argument that Wilson suffered from a pattern of neurological disorders all his life.15 The result is the most thorough and accurate one-volume biography so far.

Nordholt takes the flawed missionary view to new heights of sentimentality and silliness. The book treats Wilson as prophet and martyr, one whose belief in self-determination is bearing its ultimate fruit in the breakup of the Soviet bloc. The book is full of melodramatic statements and “deep” rhetorical questions:

He compelled the world to judge him by his own principles, and hence he could not help but fail. But what problems this confronts us with! What do principles really mean? No, this book is not an essay on the problem of ethics in politics; it is only an illustration of it, and the Italian question is an example.

Nordholt thinks that Wilson is relevant because he challenges us to live up to the ideals he espoused. The real challenge is to grapple with the things he achieved, which remain to plague us rather than inspire.

This Issue

January 16, 1992