The Magazine

Professor in Politics

Grading the successes and failures of Woodrow Wilson.

Dec 14, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 13 • By ALONZO L. HAMBY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Woodrow Wilson

A Biography

by John Milton Cooper Jr.

Knopf, 720 pp., $35

Some readers of THE WEEKLY STANDARD may have seen Darryl F. Zanuck's 1944 film, Wilson. A cinematic apotheosis that reflected Woodrow Wilson's status as the patron saint of the Democratic party, the movie portrayed a great and earnest president ambushed by vindictive partisans in his fight for a lasting peace underpinned by American membership in the League of Nations. Its implicit thesis was that World War II had been made inevitable almost single-handedly by Wilson's chief antagonist, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.

In general, professional historians, living in a liberal Democratic world, have treated Woodrow Wilson admiringly, but with considerably more nuance. John Milton Cooper Jr., a historian of great distinction, author of several books set in the Wilson era, and an alumnus of Wilson's cherished Princeton, has given us a landmark one-volume biography squarely in this tradition.

Cooper's Wilson was a young man from the secessionist South who found success and recognition by moving north, working tirelessly, and establishing himself as a leading public intellectual. Born into a family of prominent Presbyterian ministers, he took little interest in covenant theology and wore his Christianity lightly.

Pursuing a scholarly career as one of the founders of the emerging discipline of political science, he became a charismatic professor, and a widely read author of works on American history and politics. A Democrat by heritage, he might pay ritual tribute to Thomas Jefferson, but he harbored considerably more admiration for the centralizing modernity of Alexander Hamilton and its corollary of a strong national government spearheaded by a vigorous presidency.

Few American statesmen have been so consumed by big ideas. "I have no patience for the tedious toil of what is known as 'research,'" he told his first wife. "I have a passion for interpreting great thoughts to the world." Wilson was profoundly affected by emerging currents of evolutionary thought, pragmatism, and critical realism. His political philosophy melded the organic conservatism of Edmund Burke with the cautious liberalism of Walter Bagehot. His first, and best, book, Congressional Government (1885), depicted a rudderless national regime run by congressional committee chairmen answerable to neither party leaders nor a neutered presidency.

As president of Princeton (1902-1910) Wilson attempted to remake what had been a mediocre college for the sons of the wealthy into a world-class undergraduate institution built around the tutorial system of Oxford and Cambridge. Revolutionary in impact and conservative in conceptualization, this vision ran head-on against the emerging conception of the modern university as primarily a venue for graduate and professional education.

He successfully initiated the tutorial system, but in the struggle that followed over the salience of graduate education, he accepted no compromise and broke off friendships with colleagues who sought a middle ground. As was the case later in his political career, a meritorious policy preference became a rigid moral principle. Facing defeat, he resigned and moved into political life. Cooper tells us that Wilson's obstinacy was justified, but also that he had successfully initiated the transformation of Princeton into a great undergraduate college. Yet had he not also displayed a character trait that led him, having secured at least half a loaf, to embrace defeat rather than declare victory?

Never a cloistered academic, Wilson had not shied away from public issues. Before accepting an opportunity to run for governor of New Jersey in 1910 at the age of 53, he was a vocal critic of the populist radicalism personified in the Democratic party by William Jennings Bryan, but he also was an admirer of Theodore Roosevelt's presidential activism and poised to move in the direction of progressive reform.

As chief executive of New Jersey (1911-12), Wilson saw himself as the one authentic voice of the people. Assuming party leadership and acting in the mode of a British prime minister, he used both persuasion and patronage to achieve his objectives. Aligning himself with progressives of both parties, he marginalized the machine that had elected him, then secured an impressive array of legislation for direct democracy (primary elections, initiative, referendum, and recall), corporate regulation, consumer protection, and worker rights. By the beginning of 1912, having held public office for little more than a year, he was a leading Democratic candidate for the presidency. After a bruising primary campaign, he won the nomination at the national convention on the 46th ballot.