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Woodrow Wilson: A Biography

This excellent biography offers a much-needed adjustment of Woodrow Wilson’s place in popular history.

By Terry Hartle / December 21, 2009



Historians regularly rank Woodrow Wilson as a very good or even excellent president who led the United States through World War I and won approval of significant domestic policies. But the public, if they think of Wilson at all, are more likely to see an obsessive idealist whose unwillingness to compromise cost him his biggest priority.

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The difference in perspectives is partly because unlike the other leading presidents of the 20th century – both Roosevelts, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan – Wilson has attracted comparatively little attention from biographers.

John Milton Cooper Jr., a historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, fills this enormous vacuum with Woodrow Wilson: A Biography, a powerful, carefully researched, and insightful new biography of the nation’s 28th president.

Born in Virginia, the son of a Presbyterian minister, Wilson lived in several Southern states before heading off to college at Princeton University. He briefly (and unhappily) practiced law before earning a PhD at Johns Hopkins University and authoring a greatly admired study of congressional decisionmaking.

He took a teaching job at Princeton, where he eventually became president of the school. He was a superb academic administrator: Cooper gives Wilson great credit for making Princeton an outstanding university. In 1910, he was elected governor of New Jersey as a liberal opponent of the Democratic Party bosses and, just two years later, became the Democratic candidate for president. In one of the most important elections in American history, he defeated the incumbent president, William Howard Taft, and a former president, Theodore Roosevelt, to win the White House.

Cooper divides Wilson’s eight years as president into three parts. The first is largely devoted to the extraordinary record of domestic success of his first term. Landmarks include the creation of the Federal Reserve and Federal Trade Commission, the institution of the progressive income tax and tariff reform, the first child labor laws, the first federal aid to farmers, the first federal aid to education, and the first law mandating an eight-hour workday for industrial workers. He also appointed Lewis Brandeis to the Supreme Court, its first Jewish member.

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