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Wilson, by A Scott Berg, Simon & Schuster, RRP£30 / $40, 832 pages

One hundred years ago this month, just a couple of days before Christmas, President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) signed into law the Federal Reserve Act and laid the foundations of the modern American banking system. It was among the first of a momentous series of legislative reforms that Wilson pushed through with a missionary zeal befitting his mixture of idealism and progressivism. He felt his life and work determined by an “over-ruling Providence”.

A child of Scots-Irish Presbyterians and the American South, Wilson found his first calling as a scholar of American history and politics. He gained jobs and book contracts with ease, and his rise was little short of meteoric. In 1890, he took a junior professorship at Princeton; only 12 years later he became the university’s visionary, reforming president. From there, he would stand successfully for the governorship of New Jersey in 1910, which in turn gave him the national profile to secure the nomination as the Democratic candidate for president in the 1912 election.

The debates were a revelation. With the Republican vote divided between President William Howard Taft and his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt, running as a Bull Moose Progressive, Wilson showed his skill in campaigning for tariff reform and casting both his main rivals as in the pocket of monopolistic big business. His mixture of pragmatic politics (quickly learning to be a good “hater”) and visionary idealism was reflected in the high-minded but plain-speaking style of his campaign rhetoric. Wilson had heeded his father’s advice that with speech you need to “shoot with a single bullet”. He won by a landslide, taking all bar eight states.

In office, Wilson saw through the 17th amendment to the constitution in 1913, allowing the people to elect their senators for the first time. It was a boon for his party but elsewhere there were sterner tests, with racial tensions at home and revolutionary politics in Mexico to contend with, while war engulfed the rest of the world. Wilson had put together a “team of Rebels” predominantly from the solidly democratic South and practised what he preached about delegating authority. He nevertheless relied heavily upon a few confidants, including his personal physician, Dr Cary Grayson, and the non-elected but hugely influential adviser, Colonel Edward House. While Europe burnt, House would be dispatched to take the political temperature overseas.

In August 1914, Wilson’s wife Ellen died. He was left grief-stricken yet, as A Scott Berg notes in Wilson, another deeply hued and character-rich biography to match his justly celebrated study of Lindbergh, “with the destruction of his universe” the president “found strength in the collapse of the world”. He soon found love again too, marrying Edith Bolling Galt in December 1915.

Wilson won a second term (just) in 1916 with the slogan that he had kept America out of the war. But the politics of isolationism could not be maintained forever and the following year, in the face of unrestrained submarine warfare and revolution in Russia, he made his case for mobilisation, saying of America that “she can do no other”. Adapting his famous 14 points into a plea to make the world “safe for democracy”, he looked to create a League of Nations that could deal with future global problems. Failure here was not an option – it would “break the heart of the world”.

When action came, it proved decisive. The dramatic administrative reorganisation of the American state on a war footing, allied to Wilson’s authority and presence, made plausible his vision of a League of Nations. He kept it at the forefront in his negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, when millions in Europe had greeted him as their saviour.

Wilson wrung a commitment to the League and helped to broker the treaty signed at Versailles. As the young economist John Maynard Keynes noted, “never had a philosopher held such weapons wherewith to bind the princes of this world”. But Wilson couldn’t bind his Republican opponents at home and, on his return, he found popular discontent and a political nemesis in the senator from Massachusetts, Henry Cabot Lodge.

Lodge had the numbers to defeat the motion to have the Treaty accepted in the Senate, and the setback practically killed Wilson. Even after a stroke that left him incapacitated, the extent of his condition was kept quite secret and his work was undertaken through a combination of Grayson, his wife, and close political allies. He retired in 1921 and died peacefully only a few years later, aged 67, having made possible the American century that followed him.

Duncan Kelly teaches political thought at the University of Cambridge. He is author of ‘The Propriety of Liberty’ (Princeton)

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