Politics

Woodrow Wilson: Political Preacher

By

The first two volumes of the official biography of Woodrow Wilson are now before the public: the first deals with Wilson's early life up to the time of his going to Princeton as a professor, and the second takes him up to his resignation as president of Princeton. Mr. Baker has both the vices and the advantages of an official biographerthe vices of a loquacious admiration which cannot refrain from continually exclaiming over the utterances and deeds of his hero instead of allowing them to speak for themselves, and a bias which, from beginning to end, prevents him from permitting his subject to appear for a moment as anything but a perfect gentle knight. T h e result is that, with the copious documentation of a history, his biography moves in something of the miraculous atmosphere of a saint's legend. You would never know from this history that Wilson was, among other things, a resourceful politician: he is represented as carrying all before him by some divine irresistible authority. But Mr. Baker's advantage lies in the fact that he does have the documents; and it may be said that, allowing for his bias, he seems to use them conscientiously and carefully. His book is not very vivid and not very well written: it has something of the monotony of vocabulary, the lulling repetitiousness and the dilution of ideas of the subject himself. Thus, after quoting from some one of Wilson's utterances in which the weakness of the latter's thought and style are already sufficiently evident, Mr. Baker will add some such comment as: "The sheer eloquence of the man!" or "The sheer fighting spirit of the man!" or something of the sort, using "sheer" precisely in the way that Wilson was in the habit of doing, with the intention of reinforcing some statement, but with the effect of rendering it feebler. It cannot, therefore, be denied that Mr. Baker has been guilty of some insipidity. On the other hand, the material of his biography has been most scrupulously and clearly arranged: his book is extremely well ordered. Fie neglects none of the activities of his subjectpolitical, academic, domestic or recreativeand he tells about everything in its place, proceeding slowly, step by step, indicating exactly the order of events and going back patiently to trace some aspect which, for fear of complicating his main narrative, he has hitherto been obliged to neglect. As a result, we have what is undoubtedly the most illuminating and valuable work on Wilson which has yet appeared. Mr. Baker has thrown into shadow some of the angles and colors of his subject, but most of Wilson's character is there: it is quite plain in his acts and in his letters. We no longer feel, after we have read the first volume of Mr. Baker's bookthe volume dealing with that part of Wilson's life about which least has hitherto been writtenwe no longer feel, after reading this, that there is anything really enigmatical about Wilson.

The whole man is before us from the beginning. We have heard much of Wilson's development and varying phases; but we see now that, though he sometimes changed his views on specific problems, his abilities, his ambitions, his relations with the world about him, remained essentially the same. The first fact of importance which emerges in this account of Wilson's early life is the extraordinary homogeneity of his family and ancestry. All Wilson's family, so far back as anything is known about his father's side and for many generations on his mother's, were either Scotch or Scotch-Irish schoolmasters, professors or ministers. His paternal grandparents were born in the north of Ireland; and his mother was born in Scotland. There were also, among them, men of considerable importance in their communities. The paternal grandfather appears to have been a highly successful journalist and publisher in the West of the early century: he was a member of the state legislature, a bank director, and was locally known as "Judge." "While Judge Wilson was away in the legislature or in Pittsburgh, where, in 1832, he founded a new tri-weekly paper, the Pennsylvania Advocate, the redoubtable Anne

Adams [Woodrow Wilson's grandmother] and her sons brought out the Steubenville Herald." The maternal grandfather Woodrow, a Scotch Presbyterian minister, after emigrating to America, held pastorates, first at Chillicothe, Ohio, and then at Columbus. One of Wilson's Woodrow uncles studied at Harvard under Agassiz, and at Heidelberg: while a professor at the Theological Seminary of Columbia, South Carolina, where he taught his classes evolutionary theories, he was tried for heresy, and, though acquitted, forced to leave. He continued, however, active in religious work, published a Presbyterian journal, became a successful business man and the president of a bank, and finally president of South Carolina College. " A t one time, after the close of the Civil War, when the state government was at its lowest ebb, he made a bid for the state printing which had been done under the most wasteful of political methods. To the astonishment of everyone at the capital, he secured it. There was great speculation as to whether he would run his presses on Sunday, as all the former printers had been forced to do by the exigencies of publication connected with the legislature. But the people were not long to be in doubt. At twelve o'clock on the first Saturday night. Dr. Woodrow turned out all the lights in his printing office and the shop remained closed until one o'clock Monday-morning." Wilson's father was ordained In Ohio as a Presbyterian minister, taught chemistry and the natural sciences and rhetoric in the South, then became pastor of the First Presbyterian Church at Staunton, Virginia. He later moved to Augusta, and the first Southern Presbyterian Assembly after the schism caused by the Civil War was held in his church, The Southern Presbyterian Church was organized there, and Dr. Wilson remained for thirty-seven years its Permanent Clerk. His influence upon his son seems to have been profoundperhaps the most Important of Wilson's life. When the boy was only a few months old, "very plump and fat and remarkably quiet," his maternal grandfather Woodrow is reported to have observed: "That baby is dignified enough to be Moderator of the General Assembly 1"

The whole of Wilson's early life Is thus completely enclosed by the horizons of the Presbyterian home. He grows up in the post-war South, and he identifies himself with its fortunes to the extent that, while a student at Princeton, he is capable of turning pale with passion and leaving the room, over an argument on the subject of the War; but he win not exhibit, except in certain particulars later to be noted, any essential Southern characteristics, He moves always in the atmosphere of Presbyterian public lifethat is, lecturing, editorial writing and preachingand Presbyterian domesticity. This provides him with a discipline and a whole set of social ideals which completely command his allegiance, In order to understand Wilson's career, we must consider the virtues and the deficiencies of the Presbyterian society which nourished him, and whose benefits he probably had the advantage of enjoying at their fullest. 

One of the features, then, of Wilson's forbears is that they are men and women of principlethat is, though by no means naive in the material world, they habitually put moral considerations above material ones. They may turn a hand to real estate or banking; but they are consecrated to higher causes, to education and to the Church. Much of Woodrow Wilson's power was derived from the passionate persistency with which he adhered, in later life, to this ideal of acting on principle. He carried the devotion to principle Into fields where people had never thought to see it, and those he encountered were invariably at first demoralized or won. I have complained that Mr. Baker represents Wilson as carrying everything before him as by some irresistible authority; but, if we do not slight the other elements in his career, this, in a limited sense, is true. All that vocabulary of idealism truth, righteousness, service, faithwhich the ordinary public speaker uses without believing in them and almost without the expectation of being believed •all these phrases meant something real to Wilson; and it was the perception of this fact which arrested the attention of the public. This was the language which Wilson had always spoken: you find it in all the family documents which Mr. Baker has published: you find it in the devoted letters between Wilson and his father. Wilson continued to speak it all his life: he would, indeed, never learn any other; and, in his inability to learn the language of the world even while dealing with worldlings or himself bringing into play the machinery of the world, he illustrates one of the weaknesses, as he also illustrates so astonishingly the strength, of that Puritan culture which he had inherited. For it was characteristic of Wilson that he could not express himself on any issue or describe any action of his own except in the terms of the pulpit, the language of semi-religious idealism. I do not believe that he was ever a hypocrite: I believe that he was always convinced that the values of a given situation were such as he represented them.

Wilson had never relinquished his first religious faith: he declined to debate religious questions; he would "go crazy," he insisted in later life, if he did not believe in God. When his fiancee reads philosophy and raises religious doubts, he writes her that, "so far as religion is concerned, discussion is adjourned." And the validity of his own moral principles, the infallibility of his judgment in acting on them, seem to have for him something of the same sort of authority as religious dogma. In the whole of Mr. Baker's two volumes, I cannot remember a single passage, not merely among Wilson's public utterances, but in his letters and diaries themselves, where he represents himself for a moment as influenced by anything other than the highest and purest motives. He never admits a personal resentment or an impulse of frivolity, a spiritual or physical distemper: he never calculates anything for interest; he will barely admit that he is writing a book or delivering a lecture because he is badly in need of money. I can see no reason, therefore, to suppose that Wilson was ever consciously hypocritical. Yet this persistent refusal co admit any of the accidents of our common humanity is the most unsympathetic feature of his character. Why are we a little unpleasantly affected by Wilson's repudiation, in New Jersey, of the bosses who had supported him in his campaign for governor? Grover Cleveland did much the same thing, but it is always cited as an example of his honesty, instead of his bad faith, The fact is that it is the way in which Wilson expresses himself that irritates usit is his moral indignation: it is his inability to accept realistically the fact that he is himself a practical politician playing the political game. Why, again, are we inevitably more shocked by certain of Wilson's prevarications, by his denial, for example, in his conference with the Senate committee, that he had ever heard of the Treaty of Londonthan we are by, say, Bismarck's falsification of the Ems telegram? Simply because Bismarck knows what he is doing and accepts the moral consequences; that is the way in which he chooses to meet life; he has never pre tended otherwise. But Wilson has pretended, and does pretend, otherwise: he appears to pretend even to himself.

The great handicap of this Puritan culture was, of course, its limited scope and its isolation from the world. Wilson knew little of the arts; he was neither widely nor profoundly read: he had little real intellectual curiosity; and he was never, as we shall see, able to appreciate or respect the points of view of worldly people. T h e characteristic mode of self-expression of the society in which Wilson grew up was the Protestant sermon; and Wilson became a master of the sermon: he was essentially, to the end of his life, not a philosopher, but a preacher; and be bad only so much learning, and did only so much intellectual work, as is necessary for a preacher. He understood very well, however, in what his genius consisted: he was conscious even of his limitations. It is surprising, in reading this biography, to find how early and how exclusively he is preoccupied with public speaking. By the time he has graduated from Princeton and from the law school of the University of Virginia, by the time he has tried practicing law and given it up after a year, though he goes to study politics at Johns Hopkins, he does not think of himself as a scholar or even as a writer: he knows that he is neither of these things and rebels against the kind of apprenticeship to which he finds himself articled. Neither does he want to be a politician:

the politics of the time appall him: they seem to him to belong to the order of a different planet from that on which he lives. His father has hoped be would enter the Church; and, though by some accident of temperament only in the field of public affairs, it is as an inspirational speaker that he sets out to perfect himself. In this purpose he is magnificently successful. Making speeches was the thing he did best, the thing, indeed, which he did supremely well. In reading his published addresses, we are irritated by the vagueness of the language and the unctuousness of the rhetoric. But Wilson's delivery was more distinguished than his style. Even when his language was bafflingly evasive or insipidly florid, his voice remained quiet, well mannered and peculiarly distinct, with an edge that made his words seem incisive. He had just enough of a southern accent and a manner learned in the South to make one forget his square face and stiff bulk in a certain grace and ease; and, save when the subject of a dreaded opponent pressed the stop of some querulous note of the schoolmaster or the parson, a certain agreeable persuasiveness. He gave the impression of burning zeal and deep conviction, under imperturbable control. Maynard Keynes, in his account of the Peace Conference, has given an admirable description of Wilson's qualities: "He had no plan," he says, "no scheme, no constructive ideas whatever for clothing with the flesh of life the commandments which he had thundered from the White House. He could have preached a sermon on any of them or have addressed a stately prayer to the Almighty for their fulfillment; but he could not frame their concrete application to the actual state of Europe."

One must not, however, make it appear that Wilsonespecially in his student dayswas nothing better than a facile evangelist. The young man who emerges from the letters and the memoirs of the first volume of this Life is an attractive and impressive figure. Stiff, earnest, a little pompous, pursuing his career with a Scotch egoism and gravity, he is none the less sympathetic by reason of his very seriousness and of the dissatisfactions and self-scrutinies of which his letters at this time are full. He already knows his strength, but he is poor and his opportunities seem limited. He had sworn, at Princeton, with a classmate, to a "solemn covenant" that they should "school all our powers and passions for the work of establishing the principles we held in common; that we would acquire knowledge that we might have power; and that we would drill ourselves in all the arts of persuasion, but especially in oratory, that we might have facility In leading others into our ways of feeling and enlisting them in our purposes." "It was not so long ago," he writes to his fiancee from Johns Hopkins, "but that I can still feel the glow and the pulsations of the hopes and the purposes of that moment." He desperately envies a friend who Is studying in Germany: he plans, at one time, to go there himself. He is urged by another friend to take steps to have his name put forward for an Assistant Secretaryship of State: "the office is not much In demand by politicians and Mr. Bayard, who likes gentlemanly, scholarly associates, is finding it hard to fill Don't you pity me, with my old political longings thus set throbbing again?" But he knows of no one to recommend him, and he is obliged to give up the hope. He produces, at twenty-nine and while still a student at Johns Hopkins, the best of all his books, a book, indeed, quite out of the class of his subsequent ones. The young author of "Congressional Government" is, within the limited scope of his field, a very intelligent man and, so far as his subject admits it, an excellent writer; he has made an original and realistic study in political history, and the immediacy of his success is dramatic. But even this sudden and brilliant success fails to allay his restlessness. He is excessively shy: he has already a reputation as an accomplished public speaker and as a singer on college glee clubs, but it is difficult for him to meet people, and when he does so, he does not seem closely to apprehend them. He is so much more interested in himself. He is lonely, repressed, and uneasy.

During his year of law practice, however, be bas fallen in love. He has gone, on business of his mother's, to visit an uncle in Rome, Georgia, and he there meets Ellen Axson, the daughter of the minister of the First Presbyterian Church: "her grandfather, the 'great Axson,' was pastor of the famous Independent Presbyterian Church of Savannah." Wilson's own description of this incident, in a letter to his wife, is worth quoting at length: it is so characteristic of the social atmosphere which surrounds him in his youth, which gives its color to his whole character. "The first time I saw your face to note it was in church one morning during the first of my last spring's visits to Romein April, wasn't it? You wore a heavy crepe veil, and I remember thinking 'what a bright, pretty face; what splendid, mischievous, laughing eyes! I'll lay a wager that this demure little lady has lots of life and fun in her' And when, after the service (I think it had been a communion service) you spoke to Mrs. Bones, I took another good look at you, and concluded that it would be a very clever plan to inquire your name and seek an introduction. When I learned that this was Miss 'Ellie Lou' Axson, of whom I had heard so often, quite a flood of light was let in on my understanding and I was conscious of having formed a small resolution. I took an early opportunity of calling on the Rev. Mr Axson. That dear gentleman received me with unsuspecting cordiality and sat down to entertain me under the impression that I had come to see only him. I had gone to see him, for I love and respect him and would have gone to see him with alacrity if he had never had a daughter; but I had not gone to see him alone. I had not forgotten that face, and I wanted very much to see it again: so I asked rather pointedly after his daughter's health, and he, in some apparent surprise, summoned you to the parlor. Do you remember? and do you remember the topic of conversation? How your father made me 'tackle' that question that was so much too big for me, Why have night congregations grown so small?' " They go on long walks and boat-rides and picnics together. She talks to him about George Eliot, about Wordsworth and Browning; she paints, and she tells him about painting. He has never occupied himself with these things, and it is as if she has thrown open a new world to him: he has been refreshed from a richer mind and a more sensitive temperament, Six months afterwards, they are engaged, and he has already become deeply dependent on her sympathy and her responsive imagination, as he is to remain all his life. Their home is, in most respects, just such a home as that in which he has found her, just such a home as that from which he comes. Mrs. Wilson, who, outside her household, seems to have commanded so little attention, who was overwhelmed by the social responsibilities of Princeton and Washington, devoted herself to her husband's career and to a sort of intensive family culture with all the energy of her original idealism. She is even said to have played the role of a determining influence in some of Wilson's political decisions.

The Wilson home was an abode of old-fashioned sweetness and light of a not undistinguished quality; but it was firmly disciplined and bounded. The books, for example, which the young ladies were allowed to read were sternly censored. Wilson’s marriage had been for him a growth, a great illumination, one of the major events of his life; yet it was a growth and illumination which took place entirely within the confines of the Presbyterian World where he was born.

One of the most striking features of Wilson's early life which Mr. Baker's biography has brought to light is his passion for framing constitutions and drawing up programs: as a boy in Atlanta, he provided a set of rules for a club which met in the hayloft, and at Davidson, at Prince-ton, at Virginia, at Johns Hopkins and at Wesleyan, he reorganized the college debating societies and turned them, in every case, into something of an almost parliamentary impressiveness. This was always the department of college activity which interested him most, He would arrive, in a very short time gravitate to the head of the society, then with enormous enthusiasm and energy proceed completely to make it over: he would frame a new set of rules and purposes, which would be laid before the other members with great eloquence and force, and adopted with the utmost eagerness; the society would embark upon a new period of popularity and interest; then Wilson would pass on elsewhere. This becomes the type of his activity everywhere, and even as sponsor of the Fourteen Points. He can draw up a fine luminous program and he can get it accepted by an eloquent speech. Much beyond this he cannot go. When he has successfully accomplished this, he does not apply himself to the details or the machinery by which his proposals are to be put into effect. He can only draw up a new set of proposals and repeat the previous performance.

One must not, however, imply that this particular kind of action for which Wilson had so much genius was useless or ineffective. It did not take them long in New Jersey, after he had ceased to be governor, to pull the teeth of the bills which he had passed. But, at Princeton, his policies were important and the edifice based upon them endures to this day. Wilson, indeed, probably deserves most of the credit for rescuing Princeton from its extreme disorganization and demoralization during Patton's administration in the nineties: whatever is sound in the college today was established under Wilson. As a member of the faculty, he was a stimulating and popular lecturer; but his classes did not do much work. Wilson had himself little or no real passion for learning; and his course was known as a "gut," that Is, an easy course. But, once he was elected president, he found himselfand for, perhaps, the first time in his lifewith an appropriate field for his powers. The faculty was at that time directly appointed by the president. Wilson cleared out the dead wood among the professors with his characteristic combination of radiant enthusiasm and ruthlessness; and even got rid of two trustees who had been involved in an insurance scandal. He then picked out and appointed new professors, with a judgment which today seems singularly sound; and got from the trustees an appropriation for fifty younger instructors to be added to the faculty and known as "preceptors," whose function was not to lecture or to hold classes in the ordinary sense, but by meeting the students semi-informally, to supervise and encourage them in their work. Wilson was perhaps never more happily inspired than during these early days as president of Princeton. Many of the professors whom he brought there still remain, and they are now among the most distinguished figures of the university. Men who first came as preceptors under Wilson say that they have never, in the American educational world, seen so much enthusiasm in any other place. Wilson was not, however, quite so triumphantly infallible as Mr. Baker represents him. H e had his characteristic mistaken obstinacies and errors of judgment. The department of modern languages, for example, was at that time in a rudimentary state; but Wilson did not much believe in modern languages: he had little German and less French, and used to quote with satisfaction a saying of Walter Bagehot to the effect that "a Frenchman can say anything, but has nothing to say." When the department was being reorganized., Wilson insisted upon dictatingand without allowing any discussion on the part of the instructors themselvesimpossible courses of reading in those languages with which he himself was so unfamiliar that he was able to be skeptical as to the importance of their literatures. The students, with their inadequate preparation, were unable to cope with these assignments, and the department, in the course of time, was forced quietly to abandon Wilson's program and evolve one of its own. It was characteristic of him at Princeton, as it was afterwards at the Peace Conference, that he should have shown himself as autocratic in dealing with departments of whose work he knew nothing as with those of which he had had some experience.

What follows is extremely interesting, and affords a curiously complete parallel with Wilson's successes and failures at Washington. We become aware, in Mr. Baker's biography, of a feature of Wilson's character which appears plainly in his early letters and which produces at Princeton its first tragic disaster. Wilson is a man of enormous energy, who is always restless when he is not acting and who is capable of only one way of acting the way that I have indicated above. Once he has succeeded in securing the adoption of one program, he must pass on to another. This appears strikingly in his writings of this period. Princeton, he complains, is not yet perfect, it is not yet an ideal university. How could he have expected it to become one overnightwith the establishment of the receptorial system, or of any other system? It is quite plain that the true reason for Wilson's anxiety is to be found in his incapacity for satisfying himself by any occupation except his own peculiar kind of statesmanship. Except for politics, he is neither learned nor interested in the subjects taught in universities; and in respect to politics, he would rather be an actor than a student. He cannot sit patiently for a time and supervise the life of the college. He lays about him for another constructive proposal, and finds it in the social system. We here encounter for the first time a charge which is often to be brought against Wilson in his subsequent careerthat of reversing his position. It is true that Wilson reversed his views on many social and political questions: we may certainly object to the tone of righteous indignation with which he denounces opponents who are merely holding today opinions which Wilson himself has held yesterday. But we should, I believe, be entirely mistaken in supposing that expediency played anything other than a contributory role among the considerations which moved him. It was simply that Wilson, whose intelligence was not at all subtle or far reaching, was capable of thinking only about one or two things at a time; when he did think about anything, however, he thought in the right direction. He had not so much ideas as divinations, which came forthwith to seem to him self-evident. In this case, it is truewhat Mr. Baker fails to mentionthat Wilson had contributed a preface to a handbook of Princeton in which he had written with his customary unctuousness of the incorruptibly democratic character of Princeton life. He sees now, however, that the clubs are a menace: they break the college up into cliques, and they foster snobbishness. He proposes a different system of social units, which shall be established and controlled by the university. The students and the unmarried professors shall be allotted both to live and to eat in buildings each of which is to provide a center at once social and academic. The clubs are to be abolished.

The writer of the present review is certainly no defender of the clubs. He believes Wilson's instinct about them to have been sound. They are, without question, the most undesirable of Princeton institutionsnot so much because they are snobbish: some sort of snobbishness seems inevitable and is probably valuable; hut because they are dull. Nothing interesting is ever done in them: the students simply eat their meals there and occasionally give house-parties over the week-ends. They are not even allowed to live in them, as is the case with fraternities. Movements are periodically put on footand on the part of the students themselves to get rid of them or to transform them into something more dignified. They have always constituted a great force of inertia which has blocked the intellectual development of the university. Yet they are so enormous in bulk, and represent such a formidable investment, that it has, so far, been impossible to dislodge them. There is, however, another element to be considered in connection with the clubs. In spite of their gigantic heaviness and emptiness, they have inevitably become identified with that peculiar idyllic quality which endears Princeton to its inhabitants. It is difficult to describe this quality solidly, but it has something to do with the view from Prospect Street, from the back piazzas of the clubs, over the damp, dim New Jersey lowlands, and with the singular feeling of freedom which refreshes the alumnus from an American city when he goes back to Prospect Street into what seems infinite freedom and space and realizes that he can lounge, read or drink as he pleases, dress anyhow or go anywhere, without anyone's questioning him. Now it was not Wilson's policy about the social system which was ill-advised: it was his methods which were tactless. In the spring of 1907, he put his proposals before the Board 'of Trustees, introducing them with a speech which those who heard it describe as one of the most eloquent he ever made. The Board responded almost unanimously and voted some sort of resolution of approval. How far this resolution was supposed to go is a subject of controversy, but it is probable that the Trustees, for the most part, regarded themselves as voting merely a general endorsement of the principles which Wilson had suggested. He had brought forward no plausible plan for putting these principles into practice: he had not discussed the problem of expense. Presumably, they were authorizing him merely to prepare a more detailed program. Wilson, however, composed and sent out a memorandum to the clubs.

It was Commencement and these institutions were holding their annual banquets. Wilson caused his memorandum to be read at the banquets. Mr. Baker fails to show this incident in its true significance. His language about the memorandum suggests that he must be aware of its having been open to objection, but, quoting from it only a few sentences, he does not make it possible for his readers to understand its effect. The night of these club banquets was, until recently, at Princeton an occasion of peculiar ceremonies and supreme conviviality. The freshmen, who have been excluded from Prospect Street, are now, for the first time, allowed to see it. Late in the evening, they form a parade, and, with red fire and Roman candles, they march down between the rows of clubs. When the men at the banquets hear the singing and the tramping. They rush out with glasses of champagne and offer the freshmen drinks: the more prominent members of the class are toasted. At the same time, the newly elected sophomores feel, for the first time, that they are established in the club: they have entered the haven of content. And the alumni have returned with something of that feeling of exhilaration and relief which I have tried to describe above, and no doubt, also, with that touching need for loyaltya loyalty far in excess of the worthiness or interest of its objectwhich, in a country so poor in institutions that may with dignity command men's loyalty, pours itself out on the commercial boosting of cities, on lodges and Rotary Clubs. It was this moment which Wilson chose for communicating to the clubs a memorandum which gave the effect of an edict, which seemed intended to break to them the news that they were summarily to be disbanded, and which even went so far as to suggest that they appoint trustees into whose hands "each club would vest its property," with the purpose of melting it up in the unfamiliar quad system. If Wilson had deliberately sought to discover a strategic move which would render a maximum of alumni opinion antagonistic to his policy, he could not have acted otherwise. The undergraduates and the alumnimany of them, no doubt, drunkmust have felt as if their delightful houses were being snatched from over their very heads, and that at the moment when they loved them most dearly; that their good-fellowship was receiving an affront. In any case, they did not delay to bring pressure to bear on the trustees, and the trustees, astonished and frightened, "reconsidered" their resolution. It is quite probable that, if Wilson had gone about the matter more patiently, and with sufficient sense of the foolish attachments which people form for scenes and institutions associated with convivial memories, he would have caused his policy to be adopted. At that time, almost everyone was in favor of iteven those, like Mr. Pyne, who afterwards opposed it. But he had never estimated the high exhilaration of fun and freedom which he had not hesitated to blight: he had had no experience of that sort of thing himselfjust as they had never known the ecstasy of moral conviction, of the triumph of the personal will which knows also that it "conquers in this sign," of the shaping of great institutions from the palaces, the wretched coops, of the children of this world.

There appears, however, at Princeton, another element which Wilson begins presently to find unassimilablethe only man, apparently, in the university, sufficiently ambitious, sufficiently persistent, sufficiently self-confident and independent to put up a formidable resistance. If it had not been for Andrew West, a professor in the classics department, it is probable that Wilson would have won, even over the recalcitrance of the alumni. Now it is possible to entertain only a moderate opinion of West, either as scholar or as educator. But it seems plain that he, too, derived a certain strength from an educational ideal, and that his collision with Wilsona collision fatal to the latteroccurred partly as a result of Wilson's inability to und stand or sympathize with this ideal. For West, also, had his pre fixe, but it was an idea of another kind. He was possessed by an overmastering vision which was based, to some extent at least, on the ideals of classical humanism: he had imagined a super-graduate school, a withdrawn yet luxurious resort for an aristocracy of scholars, with "dreaming spires" "whispering the last enchantments of the Middle Ages" in the midst of the American golf links, with dons in gowns having dinner on a dais under a sumptuous stained glass window and a magnificent organ loft; of a place fairly deliquescent with Oxonian Gothic beauty, All that was admirable in this vision Wilson probably did not understand; its vices were only too plain to him. And, what was probably more important, he resented another powerful egoism which had somehow got into his sphere of influence. In the early stages of his career as president, he treats West with great respect: he writes a preface to a prospectus for the graduate school, smoothly commending the project; and when West is offered the presidency of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Wilson requests him to remain at Princeton, giving him an assurance that, if he will stay, he shall presently have his desire. West remains, and supports Wilson's policies. When the quad system is proposed, however. West becomes anxious; and when Wilson appears to be acting beyond his authority, he is furious. If the reforms are put into effect, they are certain to be expensive. And if the trustees undertake to supply the money, how win the graduate school be built? There seems no doubt that, in respect to the graduate school. West had a just grievance: he felt that he had received a pledge from Wilson, that he had stayed at Princeton on the strength of that pledge, find that the pledge had not been redeemed. Grover Cleveland, who has come to Princeton to live, partly by reason of his friendship with West, and who has been made a member of the Board of Trustees, sympathizes with his friend. He believes. moreover, that he has himself had evidence of Wilson's treachery. Now Mr. Baker makes no attempt to state or study the case against Wilson. All this, which is the crux of the controversy, he systematically evades: he says that Wilson was accused of "bad faith," but he does not say how or why. The truth was, undoubtedly, that Wilson, who had already found himself and West in hitter opposition, had become so exaltedly preoccupied with his own projects that lie was able to forget all his ordinary obligations, and had simply brushed West and his graduate school aside. He could not believe that they were important; and he was able to convince himself that, in matters of no importance, it was not important to keep one's word.

The whole conflict now passes into a phase extremely unedifying on either sidea phase which presents great difficulties for Mr. Baker. A Mrs. Swann has left a bequest for a graduate school, which, according to the terms of her will, is to he erected on the campus. Ralph Adams Cram, the supervising, architect at Princeton, has designated a site.' West, however, who has succeeded, to Wilson's not unfounded alarm, at an early stage of the proceedings in securing a free hand for the future in everything connected with the graduate school, so that it shall be completely independent of the university, and who even proposes to collect the students' fees through a separate treasurer's officenow insists upon having the new college erected at some distance from the campus. He is balked by the terms of the will, but he soon secures another bequest on the opposite condition. Wilson is handed, without warning, a letter from W. C. Procter, a graduate of Princeton and the manufacturer of Ivory Soap: in this letter, Procter announces to West that he is prepared to give half a million dollars for the proposed graduate school, if West can raise half a million more; but that he has examined the site on the campus selected by Ralph Adams Cram and that he does not consider it suitable: his offer is only conditional upon some other site's being chosen. Wilson, who, though president of the university, has not been notified by Mr. Procter of the latter's visit to Princeton with the purpose of selecting a site for a graduate school, not unnaturally resents this action. He holds, however, a very strong card in the terms of Mrs. Swann's will, and he attempts to play this card. He calls upon Procter in New York and proposes to him that, since it seems impossible to arrive at an agreement, two graduate schools be erectedone, with Mrs. Swann's money, on the campus; the other, with Procter's, on the golf links. This proposal is, of course, preposterous, and Wilson counts on Procter's capitulating to the terms of Mrs. Swann's will. Procter, however, remains obstinate; and Wilson sits down In the Jersey City Station and writes out to Mr. Pyne a note announcing his resignation as president of the university. When the Board of Trustees meet again at the beginning of the next year (1910), the opposition plays a trick on Wilson. Unsuspectingly he attends a meeting of the graduate school committee: he is confronted with a letter from Procter in which the latter pretends to accept the proposal which Wilson has just sponsoreda proposal which had never been intended as anything but a reductio ad absurdum. Wilson loses his temper, and for the first time blurts out the truth, that the site of the graduate school is really immaterial: "we could make this school a success anywhere in Mercer County I" The trouble is that Princeton is not large enough to hold him and West both. It is characteristic of him, however, that, instead of saying merely "Dean West and I seem to have Irreconcilably conflicting ideas," or something of the sort, he should declare that "Dean West's ideas and ideals are not the ideas and ideals of Princeton I" The controversy is now at its height; the whole community is divided into factions. At last, Dean West secures a third bequest: another rich alumnus dies, making West his executor and leaving the graduate school a sum then reported as ten million dollars. The trustees accept it with joy; and Wilson, who has in the meantime received overtures from the New Jersey politicians, resigns with relief.

In the course of these Princeton controversies, Wilson, from whose semi-prophetic point of view everyone who was not with him was against him, who, as has been said of him by one of his own supporters, seemed incapable of understanding that "intellectual error is innocent"has behaved toward his opponents with the harshest bitterness. He has been on intimate terms with Hibben; but Hibben has voted against the quad system, and Wilson now drops him and cuts himas he is afterwards to do with so many other allies who venture to disagree with him. When he becomes President of the United States and returns to Princeton to vote, Mr. Hibben, then president of the university, goes to the station to receive him; but Wilson refuses to speak to him, turns his back and walks away. There was in all this a passionate pride, which was also at the root of Wilson's greatness: "I am proud and willful beyond all measure," he writes to his fiancee, while he is still a student at Johns Hopkins. This pride was a part of his strength; but Wilson presented in an extreme form one of the peculiar paradoxes of the Puritan temperament: he was, at the same time, obdurate and ruthless, and extremely thin-skinned. He was too sensitive to criticism; he was too resentful and suspicious toward his opponents; and he was therefore unable to deal with either except by overriding them. During the days after the War, he repeated on a larger stage the whole tragedy of Princeton, with Lodge in the role of West, the League of Nations for the quad system, and the Senate for the Princeton trustees. It is possible to observe in certain lives, where superior abilities are united with serious deficiencies, not the steady progress toward a goal or the continuous development which we ordinarily expect in the great, but a curve plotted out many times and always turning from some flight of achievement toward a steep descent of failure. Casanova's is such a life: his memoirs show again and again the same triumph of impudence and cunning as well as of fine imagination and intelligence, followed soon by the detection of an imposture which discredits and eclipses the whole man. Wilson's career was, also, such a case, If I have dwelt at length on Wilson's weaknesses, it is not for lack of admiration, but in the attempt to correct Mr. Baker's bias, which has obscured some of the elements in Wilson's story. It may, in general, be said that public enthusiasm for Wilson, after having reached, at the time of the War, such astonishing proportions, has, not merely since his death, but since his compromise at Versailles and his collapse after his return to America, been at a very low ebb. And this is also true of the intelligentsia, who are excessively afraid of taking him seriously. Yet, in the complete bankruptcy of political idealism which has followed his presidency, as in the timidity and inertia toward which American university life is always tending, we may find it salutary to do him honor, and we may read many less profitable books than Mr. Baker's Life. In any case, we shall do extremely ill to fall in with that cowardice and ignorance of public opinion, which, after having for years exalted Wilson, despite all his errors and sinswhen he broke down, derided and forgot him, for all his heroic audacity and his genius for leadership.

This article originally ran in the November 30, 1927 issue of the magazine.

Loading Related Articles...
Politics
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

You must be a subscriber to post comments. Subscribe today.