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Woodrow Wilson: A Biography

by John Milton Cooper Jr.; Knopf

Woodrow Wilson, the president who peered down his long nose through pince-nez glasses, remains an enigma. What powered the flurry of reforms he pushed through Congress when he entered the White House in 1913—progressive landmarks like the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, the Federal Reserve and the Federal Trade Commission? Why, in the bloody era of the resurrected, lynch-happy Ku Klux Klan and the romanticized South of Birth of a Nation, did he let federal offices be re-segregated and say or do little to stanch violence against blacks? How did the crusading idealist championing a program dubbed New Freedom sanction the fierce and divisive repression of antiwar Americans?

The way Cooper, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, tells it, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning president we remember as a utopian dreamer was actually a social conservative. A Whig-ish son of the Civil War South, he stayed very close to his roots, despite his spectacular rise from a family of Presbyterian clerics to reform-minded Princeton president, antiparty-machine New Jersey governor and finally U.S. president at the high-water mark of American progressivism. His successes and failures alike can be traced to his obsession with procedural politics rather than, say, the improvising drive that FDR—a Wilson disciple—unleashed at immediate problem solving.

Cooper contends that Wilson’s ideological guides were already in place by the time he earned his Ph.D. in history and political science from Johns Hopkins at age 22: Walter Bagehot, the English essayist who favorably compared parliamentary, party-centered government to the American system, and Edmund Burke, the Whig theorist who advocated organic growth rather than revolution as the road to enduring change. Both writers were less interested in ideals than processes. This sheds light on Wilson’s successes: During the 1913-14 marathon congressional session, he worked Congress like a tireless European parliamentary leader. But it also helps clarify subsequent failures. Take the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference, which marked the end of World War I. After being widely acclaimed as the herald of a just peace for his Fourteen Points, he compromised on virtually the entire agenda to save his beloved League of Nations. He fervently believed the League would lead to a more stable world order in time. But the way it was born created an explosive political and economic situation in Germany that led almost inexorably to World War II.

Cooper casts Wilson as a tragic figure. He was a romantic soul whose letters to women burn with passion. At the same time, his arch rival Theodore Roosevelt and others viewed him as an intellectual cold fish. The devout believer in process resisted nearly all input on key decisions, and allowed his wife to act as de facto president, concealing the debilitating stroke he’d suffered during his last-ditch whistle-stop crusade across America for the League.

This biography doesn’t solve all of the long-running arguments arising from Wilson’s paradoxes. But it does offer a definitive portrait of him for our own paradoxical times.


Originally published in the April 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here