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.
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.
In the second part of his presidency, he led the US into World War I and performed a “miracle of mobilization” that sent 2 million soldiers to France, helping to bring the war to a swift conclusion. The impact, according to Cooper, was profound: “He shortened World War I, and hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people owed their lives to him.”
But it was the third part of his presidency – the Paris Peace Conference and the unsuccessful effort to convince the US Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and join the League of Nations – that defines his presidency.
Wilson thought that his “Fourteen Points” would provide the basis for a fair and just peace, but the Allies wanted a harsh settlement to punish Germany for starting the war. The result, writes Cooper, was a treaty “which left sore winners and unrepentant losers.” It also left the president worn out physically and emotionally, and probably contributed to the massive stroke he suffered while on a nationwide speaking tour trying to generate popular support for the Treaty and the League of Nations.
The extent of his illness – he was an invalid for the rest of his presidency – was carefully kept from the public and even the cabinet. Equally important, the stroke altered his personality. It rendered Wilson “an emotionally unstable, delusional creature.” The gifted leader became a “stubborn, self-righteous spoiler who blocked reasonable compromises.” When he refused to consider any changes to the agreements, the Senate rejected the treaty.
Cooper’s rich, thoughtful, extensively researched biography provides a complete picture of this seminal figure in American history. This is a much-needed and welcome addition to the literature of American political history.
If there is a shortcoming to the volume, it is that Cooper is almost too sympathetic to his subject. Outside of all of Wilson’s great accomplishments, there were significant missteps even before illness altered his judgment. His administration segregated federal agencies in an effort to reduce racial mingling. Grievous violations of civil liberties also mar his record. He pushed for the Espionage Act, which punished dissident opinions; allowed his postmaster general to deny the use of the mail to radical publications; and did not object when Attorney General Mitchell Palmer launched his attacks on those suspected of Bolshevik sympathies.
Cooper attributes these incidents to Wilson’s desire to give his cabinet officers considerable latitude to manage their agencies. Maybe. But none of these would have occurred if the White House had objected. At best, Wilson tolerated these actions. At worst, he condoned them.
All important political leaders are complex, gifted individuals with a variety of strengths and weaknesses. Their careers usually reflect both successes and failures. Unfortunately, a single failure has come to define Wilson’s presidency and, as a result, undermines popular appreciation of his historical significance. John Milton Cooper’s powerful biography will help increase popular understanding of Woodrow Wilson and restore him – faults and all – to his place in the pantheon of leading American presidents.
Terry Hartle is senior vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education.