Orren Jack Turner/Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library

President-Elect Woodrow Wilson and his wife Ellen Axson in Princeton, New Jersey, on their way to Washington, D.C., March 3, 1913

Georges Clemenceau famously compared Woodrow Wilson to Jesus Christ (and not to Wilson’s advantage); John Maynard Keynes thought he was a booby; Richard Nixon, surprisingly, admired him and had his desk brought into his office at the White House (although with the capacity for missteps that dogged Nixon, the desk turned out to belong to someone else). American liberals have tended to idolize Wilson as someone who had big ideas and wanted to set the world to rights while conservatives blame him for everything from the Federal Reserve to the United Nations. Glenn Beck predictably loathes him and today’s Europeans tend to cast him as the worst type of moralizing American whose noble sentiments cloak sheer self-interest.

Yet the roads and squares all over Europe that are still named after Wilson are relics of a time when he was greeted rapturously by an earlier generation who hoped that he was bringing a new and more peaceful era to their troubled continent. It is hard not to see parallels with Barack Obama, both positive and negative. Both men spoke—with great eloquence—to ordinary Americans and to many around the world. Both have also been accused by their critics of being indecisive and using their fine words to paper over a lack of action.

Nearly a century after his death, Woodrow Wilson still stirs controversy, as Obama will continue to do, and there is no agreement among historians on his place in history. For isolationists in the 1920s and 1930s, Wilson was the man who had duped the United States into entering World War I. In the late 1950s William Appleman Williams accused him of using a moralistic foreign policy as a cover for the extension of American economic dominance. Arno Mayer and others thought Wilson’s call for a new world order was driven primarily by fear of Bolshevism both at home and abroad. Gordon Levin Jr. sees him as preparing the way for “an American liberal globalism, hostile both to traditional imperialism and to revolutionary-socialism.”

The man himself remains a puzzling mix. He was highly intelligent, principled, and thoughtful. An intellectual, he was also a warm and deeply emotional man. Some of the nicest passages in the new biography by Scott Berg show Wilson in love—he wrote wonderful love letters—or with his beloved daughters. As a politician and as a man he showed great courage: he stood up, for example, to the powerful Democratic machine in New Jersey, and when, as president, he received the almost inevitable death threats, he accepted them calmly and refused to sequester himself. “The country,” he said, “cannot afford to have a coward for President.”

Yet he was also quick to see slights and was vindictive to those who crossed him. They were, he too often assumed, not just misguided but morally wrong. He uttered some of the greatest oratory in American politics but also told boring shaggy dog jokes of the sort that involved an Irishman, a Scotsman, and a Frenchman—and too often a black man who invariably said something stupid. He sincerely believed that American policies should be based on the highest principles of fairness, justice, and democracy, and implemented some of the greatest reforms of any president. Yet he also allowed the increased segregation of African-Americans, notably by the federal government, and let his attorney general violate American law and practice in the name of an anti-Red campaign. In his foreign policy he talked of the rights of small nations yet during his presidency the United States shamelessly bullied and manipulated its neighbors.

With a well-deserved reputation for biographies of Charles Lindbergh and Katharine Hepburn, Scott Berg is adept at probing beneath the public image. He has made good use of the available primary sources, including recently discovered family letters that were in the possession of one of Wilson’s grandsons, to show us the man. Berg rightly pays considerable attention to Wilson’s upbringing in the South during and after the Civil War. While Wilson remained a southerner in his attitudes toward blacks, he always maintained that it was right that the North had prevented the secession of the South.

Berg also has much to say that is useful about Wilson’s close relationship with both his parents, who seem to have had a somewhat relaxed attitude when it came to bringing up children. The young Wilson, who was initially a slow learner, was allowed to take his own time when it came to reading and formal education. The family was a close one and although his father, a Presbyterian minister, moved restlessly from one parish to another, his son appears to have revered him. When Woodrow dedicated his first book to “The Patient Guide of his Youth, the gracious companion of his manhood, his best instructor and most lenient critic,” his father was overcome by “such a blow of love.”


Unlike many young men of his time, Wilson does not appear to have suffered a crisis of faith. His religion, he once said, made his life worth living, but we get very little sense from Berg of how it influenced him or whether he moved away from Calvinism, the intellectual basis of the Presbyterianism he espoused. Did he continue, for example, to believe in original sin? His optimism that human nature could be improved would suggest that he did not, but one of the striking omissions of Berg’s biography is the absence of any serious discussion of religion in both Wilson’s own life and the United States of his day. Berg has chosen instead to be cute: he starts each chapter with a verse from the original edition of the King James Bible, complete with archaic spellings. Does he intend to show Wilson as a figure from another time or perhaps, since many of the passages deal with the life of Christ, as yet another holy martyr? It is never made clear.

Once he had mastered reading, the young Wilson became an avid student. “I’ve found,” he told his father, “I have an intellect and a first-class mind.” This was no mere boasting. He was to become a leading scholar and, among American presidents, he ranks as one of the most intelligent and thoughtful, along with Obama himself. As an undergraduate at Princeton and then a graduate student at the University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins, he often ignored the formal curriculum to pursue his own interests.

To understand Wilson properly it is surely necessary to understand the influences on him, and here again Berg says very little indeed. Wilson read and admired Edmund Burke (not an Irish Catholic, by the way, as Berg seems to think), William Gladstone, John Bright, and Walter Bagehot, all in their way classical liberals who wanted government to create an arena in which the individual could compete fairly. This could mean using government power to break up concentrations of power, wealth, and entrenched privilege that distorted society and corrupted political life.

Wilson’s political idols and ideas matter because he increasingly focused on politics not just as an object of study but as a career. Berg pays little attention to Wilson’s own writing, dismissing his first book, Congressional Government (1885), as “largely a collage of other people’s ideas.” Most students of Wilson see it rather as an original and important work, in which he lays out his central ideas about constitutions—how they must be organic and living things, not rigid legal frameworks—and advocates the adoption of something like the British parliamentary system to make American government more democratic and efficient. In his later work on American history, Wilson argues that the country’s wealth and power bring with them corresponding obligations, a view that later informed much of his foreign policy. Berg’s curious failure to deal with Wilson’s ideas misses a large part of what made him such an important figure in American public life. It’s like writing about Picasso or Callas without bothering to analyze their art.

Although he qualified as a lawyer, Wilson showed little enthusiasm for a legal career and gravitated instead to university teaching. Berg chooses to see his early career (before he reached Princeton) as comparable to Jesus wandering in the wilderness, but in fact Wilson was doing well, making a name for himself as an outstanding teacher and lecturer. He had made a happy marriage to Ellen Axson, another southerner. “I live upon your love,” he wrote after ten years of marriage, “—would die if I could not win and hold your admiration: the homage of your mind as well as your heart.” (This did not prevent him, however, from developing an intense romantic friendship with an attractive widow, Mary Allen Hulbert, an episode that Berg treats with sensitivity and understanding.) To support his growing family he drove himself hard; his propensity to collapse physically, often when he was under emotional pressure, grew. By the time he was in his late forties he had acquired a permanent facial tic.

By 1890 Wilson had returned to Princeton and by 1902 had proved so adept at university politics that he emerged as its new president. He turned what had been a sleepy school for gentlemen into an intellectual powerhouse, reforming the curriculum, getting rid of deadwood among the staff, and raising substantial amounts of money.

As things soured for Wilson at Princeton—he tried unsuccessfully to reform the school’s self-important eating clubs—new opportunities were opening up (Berg here cites Paul on the road to Damascus). He was already being talked about as a future president, and in 1910 he was offered the Democratic nomination for the governorship of New Jersey. Promising clean government for the people, he won by a landslide. And he made good his word, largely ignoring the Democratic machine that had put him in and getting a host of reforming measures passed. In 1912, he won the nomination for president. Berg’s strengths show here, in his delineation of the personalities and the atmosphere. You can feel the heat, smell the sweat, sense the machinations at the Baltimore convention.


What the reader will not get, sadly, is any coherent sense of progressivism, that great wave of reform directed against entrenched power, monopoly, and inequality that convulsed American politics from the city to the national level at the turn of the century. The Social Gospel movement that provided so much of the intellectual content of Wilson’s ideas is mentioned in passing but nowhere explained. Nor is the platform—the New Freedom—on which Wilson and the Democrats ran in 1912. And what did Wilson mean when he told an audience in Mobile, Alabama, that he wanted “the development of constitutional liberty in the world”? It says something about the nature of this biography that his friendship with Mary Allen Hulbert has considerably more entries in the index than progressivism. Yet Wilson’s first administration, in what is an extraordinary record of achievement, produced legislation that, among much else, lowered tariffs—and thus stimulated trade—and set up the Federal Reserve and the Federal Trade Commission.

As president, Wilson tried to nudge the United States toward cabinet government, with Congress acting as a parliament. He also attacked what he described as the “invisible government,” the lobbyists for special interests, and showed a very modern touch in using the press to reach out directly to the American people. In his first year of office he held over sixty press conferences. Indeed a dangerous assumption made itself evident in his thinking: he spoke more directly to the people than to their elected representatives—and they to him.

The black mark of his presidency, as it was to be for so many of his successors, was race. For all the promise of his campaign platform, when it came down to it Wilson was not prepared to risk his own political capital or especially southern support to push for greater rights for African-Americans. Worse, he did not object when his colleagues introduced segregation into the federal government. African-Americans, who had voted overwhelmingly for him, were bitter and resentful, yet when their leaders protested, Wilson replied unconvincingly that having blacks in separate quarters with separate facilities would make them less likely to be discriminated against by whites. When he faced a particularly vehement black delegation in the fall of 1914, he effectively ordered them out of his office, accusing them of being unchristian.

The New Freedom platform was almost exclusively domestic, although the secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, and other progressives saw a link between reform at home and abroad. If Wilson had thought about foreign affairs before he became president, it was in the most general terms. He had held that America should be an example to the world; as he said when he was campaigning in New Jersey, “America is an idea, America is an ideal, America is a vision.”

He had supported the Spanish- American War and the United States’ acquisition of territory such as Puerto Rico and the Philippines, on the grounds that the Americans would bring civilization there. And as president he was prepared to intervene in the affairs of America’s neighbors, by force if necessary. As he said to a British diplomat, “I am going to teach the South American Republics to elect good men!” Wilson tended to deceive himself, as other American decision-makers have done since, that American motives were altruistic where those of other nations were selfish. When he sent American forces to intervene in Mexico’s internal affairs, he claimed, “We have gone down to Mexico to serve mankind if we can find out the way. We do not want to fight the Mexicans.”

“It would be the irony of fate,” Wilson nevertheless told a friend in 1913, “if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs.” A year later, as Wilson was sitting at the bedside of his dying wife, World War I broke out in Europe. Although his initial decision was for neutrality, his sympathies lay with the Allies, which he saw as more democratic (Russia of course excepted). He offered the services of the United States as mediator and increasingly thought about how to build a better international order, where the rights and territorial integrity of nations small and large would be guaranteed and some sort of international body would be set up to prevent war and improve humankind.

In 1915, Wilson married again. Edith Galt, a lively Washington widow, gave him fierce devotion but she was blindly partisan and lacking in judgment. When William Jennings Bryan resigned over a matter of principle—his objection to the United States hardening its attitude toward Germany—she was jubilant, calling him “that awful Deserter.” Wilson, as so often, suspected for Bryan “that the motive is something sinister.” Edith was also jealous and resentful of one of Wilson’s closest advisers, Colonel Edward House, who had served him loyally for several years and who had an unparalleled knowledge of European affairs. Eventually she helped to create a permanent break between the two men.

Wilson ran again in 1916 and was elected on a platform that promised: “He kept us out of war.” German policy, in particular the unrestricted submarine war that resulted in the sinking of American ships and the loss of American lives, as well as an attempt to encourage Mexico to attack the United States, made it impossible for Wilson to keep that promise. In April 1917, in one of his greatest speeches, he asked Congress to declare war. In the speech he sketched out a vision of a better world, safe for democracy and free from war, and to show that the United States was fighting for different ends than his European partners, he insisted that it be an associate, not an ally. He entered into the war with a heavy heart but hoped that it would serve to bring the American people together and educate them about international issues and their responsibility toward the world.

For reversing himself Wilson was attacked both from the left, by those who felt the United States should have remained neutral, and by those who felt that it should have intervened from the start on the side of Britain and France. In discussing this and the subsequent making of the peace, Berg falls headlong into the trap that awaits biographers of seeing things too much from the subject’s point of view. It also does not help that he relies heavily on the unreliable memoirs of the second Mrs. Wilson. Leading opponents of Wilson such as Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge pop in and out of the story, making lots of noise and waving big sticks like Mr. Punch, apparently out of sheer mischief.

It simply will not do, though, to dismiss Roosevelt as a windbag full of empty bluster or Lodge as a cynical, coldhearted Boston mandarin (worse, one suspects for Berg, is that he went to Harvard). The two men had genuine differences with Wilson that went to the heart of what the United States should be and the shape of world order. Lodge had advocated intervention early on: he felt that isolationism was morally damaging to the United States because it encouraged selfishness. (He made the same criticism of Britain.) Roosevelt, too, castigated America’s “base and complacent materialism which finds expression in the phrase ‘Safety first.’” As much as Wilson did, both men felt that its very blessings conferred great obligations on the United States.

Lodge also raised a very real issue when it came to the armistice. Wilson understandably was eager to end the fighting, but he did so without fully consulting the Europeans and before Germany was completely defeated. Lodge believed that no peace was possible “unless the Allies win a decisive victory.” History appears to have proved him right. Certainly, Franklin D. Roosevelt was going to insist on the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan in World War II so that there could be no new myths about stabs in the back or defeats that were really victories.

When it came to the making of the peace, Wilson showed himself at both his worst and his best. In assembling the American delegation for the peace conference in Paris he was foolishly partisan. He refused to select Lodge, who as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee should have been considered, and chose instead only a nominal and ineffectual Republican. On the other hand he laid out in his Fourteen Points and subsequent speeches a vision of a better and fairer world.

There were, however, genuine criticisms of the Wilsonian program that again Berg fails to grapple with. By giving respectability to the ill-defined concept of national self-determination, Wilson raised, as his new secretary of state, Robert Lansing, warned, a host of expectations, some realistic and some not. What made a nation—ethnicity, culture, religion—and how far peoples could be divided into smaller and smaller units are not questions easily resolved. And how could the competing claims to national territory—often wildly inflated and based on bad history—be adjudicated? Wilson himself came to regret, as he told the Senate at the end of 1919, that he had ever uttered the words “all nations had a right to self-determination.”

His critics, then and subsequently, also felt that his League of Nations lacked teeth. Both Roosevelt and Lodge were strong advocates of international law and measures such as disarmament, but felt that in the end the only workable world order must be based on partnership among great powers who shared the same values. And in their view peace could only be maintained by the threat of force. The difference in conception is not unlike that between the United Nations on the one hand and NATO or the G7 on the other.

In his treatment of the peace conference, Berg falls back on the old view, promulgated by Wilson supporters such as Ray Stannard Baker, of a noble Wilson bearing the gift of peace and a better future to the blackhearted Europeans who will have none of it and who work to destroy him. (Tellingly the chapter is called “Gethsemane.”) The reality is more complicated. Many Europeans shared Wilson’s vision and even cynics such as French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau were prepared to work with him. Indeed, given American financial power they had little choice. The French were, it is true, determined to get reparations from Germany (after all, much of the war had been waged on their soil); but Clemenceau accepted a considerably lower figure for reparations and an Anglo-American guarantee—which turned out to be worthless—in return for renouncing territorial claims on Germany. Nor was British Prime Minister Lloyd George a “political weather-vane,” as Berg, following Edward House, would have it; rather he had become convinced that the terms of the peace treaty were too harsh and ought to be modified.

Berg recounts the sad end of the story well, from Wilson’s return to the United States and his last desperate fight to persuade the American people to support the treaty and the League to the stroke that brought him down. He plays down, though, the extent to which Mrs. Wilson interposed herself between the American government and her husband. He died, a broken man, in 1924. His widow lived on to attend President Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. Berg’s biography, for all its flaws, leaves us with a vivid picture of an intensely ambitious and idealistic man who had a major part in the history of the United States and the modern world. If only it could have given us more political setting and more understanding of what those ideals and policies meant.