Getting it Right, Left, and Wrong with "Wilson"

By John Milton CooperNovember 3, 2013

Wilson by A. Scott Berg

Triptych image: Viviane Sassen, "Menthe"


WOODROW WILSON is on a lot of people’s minds again, and that’s good. He is one of our most important and most interesting presidents. Some of the renewed interest in him springs from centennial-mindedness. Last year marked the 100th anniversary of his election to the presidency, and this year marks the same anniversary of the beginning of his two terms in the White House. Despite his dismal record on race relations, he evokes comparison with the current incumbent. Like Wilson, Barack Obama is an intellectual, circumspect in the exercise of powers yet willing to make bold moves, a person of professedly high principles, and, withal, not a gregarious back-slapper with a long prior resume in practical politics. Much of the current interest in Wilson also stems from two distinct sources — a fierce detractor with a big footprint in the mass media and an adoring admirer with a wide audience in reading circles.

The detractor is the right-wing television personality and commentator Glenn Beck. For several years, Beck has regularly damned Wilson as the root of all evil in American public life, namely “big government.” Whereas earlier detractors damned “That Man,” Franklin Roosevelt, and his New Deal for extending the reach of government in economic and social affairs, more recent right-wingers have correctly discerned that what transpired in the 1930s was really a second act in such governmental growth. Its sources lay a quarter century earlier in the progressive era. Wilson was the leading presidential actor in that era, compiling a legislative record that included the Federal Reserve, income and inheritance taxes, aid to farmers, a ban on child labor (later struck down by the Supreme Court), an eight-hour law for railroad workers, and nomination and confirmation of Louis D. Brandeis to the Supreme Court. From the standpoint of Beck and others on the right, Woodrow Wilson ranks in their unholy trinity of big-government liberals, alongside Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.[1] Ironically, Wilson’s right-wing denigrators have done him a favor by reminding people of who he was and where he belongs in the political firmament.

The admirer who has brought Wilson to the forefront of public attention is A. Scott Berg, with this newly published biography. Much acclaimed for his previous biographies of Maxwell Perkins, Samuel Goldwyn, and Charles A. Lindbergh (which won the Pulitzer Prize), as well as a memoir of Katharine Hepburn, Berg has earned true literary celebrity. Like historians David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Edmund Morris, he can attract readers to a subject simply by choosing to write about her or him. Predictably, this book has drawn reviews in major newspapers and magazines, had part of a chapter excerpted in Vanity Fair, and made the best-seller lists. The author has appeared on both network and public television shows and radio programs, and has spoken at events around the country. Most impressive of all, a Hollywood movie deal for the book appears to be in the works with a production company headed by Leonardo DiCaprio. It is hard to imagine how Wilson’s name could be made more familiar to people today, and anyone who thinks he should be better known and appreciated owes Berg a hearty vote of thanks.


Because this book has already been widely reviewed, I find myself here in the role of a cleanup hitter.[2] I cannot avoid raising at least briefly some of the same points as other reviewers, but I shall also raise others and try to assess where this biography leaves the ongoing project of coming to grips with Wilson. Previous reviewers have praised the book as a piece of writing, and I can only echo their applause. Berg has long shown how graceful and fluent he makes his prose, and he does so again here. This is a long book, but it is never tedious. It tells a fascinating story well. The reader learns a lot about the lives of Wilson and those around him, particularly his immediate family. Berg has uncovered some previously unavailable letters to the middle of Wilson’s three daughters, Jessie, which add detail to accounts of their relations, but no startling revelations. He has also perused the papers of Wilson’s White House physician, Cary T. Grayson, and added some more material about the president’s health. Here, too, the significant medical facts were already known, thanks to the labors of the greatest of Wilson scholars, Arthur S. Link, and his associates on the monumental edition of The Papers of Woodrow Wilson.

This book’s greatest strength is as a domestic biography, replete with details and anecdotes about its subject’s private life. Berg continues the efforts of earlier biographers to humanize Wilson, and no one who reads this book can come away thinking of him as cold and aloof. It is a shame that in the centennial years of his presidency, and just weeks shy of the 90th anniversary of his death, Wilson still needs to be humanized, but that is the case. The man is partly a victim of his looks: with his long-jawed face and beaked nose, he would have looked comfortable in the conical hat and cloak of a 17th-century New England Puritan. His religious background has added to that image. Born in a manse, Wilson was the son, grandson, and nephew of Presbyterian ministers, and he later became the son-in-law of one as well. Given the obloquy that H. L. Mencken and other “Modernists” of the 1920s heaped on what they thought “Puritanism” was, Wilson could not escape being tagged as a stern, moralizing, repressive prude and religious zealot. Berg’s wealth of homely detail about Wilson helps us get away from that mistaken image.

The quality of the writing in the book, the pleasure in reading it, and the warm human impression it leaves of its subject are the good news. The bad news is that the book leaves out much that it ought to include and includes some that it ought to leave out. Several earlier reviewers have pointed one glaring omission: politics. This book glides past the content of the policies Wilson advocated, the laws he saw enacted and administrative actions he took, the diplomacy he conducted, the war he waged, and the lasting peace he tried and failed to forge. Anyone interested in those matters will need to look elsewhere. One can imagine recommending this book to readers for the private, personal side of Wilson and then have them turn to other works that deal with his public career. But it does not work that way. Woodrow Wilson without the politics is like, in Sir Walter Scott’s phrase, “Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark.” The omission and slighting of Wilson’s politics leaves a gaping hole in this biography, which no amount of fine writing and domestic detail can paper over.

Equally glaring is the lack of attention to Wilson’s thought. He was the only holder of a PhD and the only tenured academic to become president, and any ranking of great American political scientists would place him in the top 10, most likely in the top five. Ideas mattered to Wilson. In his first tentative venture into politics, while he was president of Princeton, he avoided identifying too closely with his conservative Democratic patrons because he had long rejected their states’ rights, limited-government views. Once he did get into politics, he took the lessons and insights he had gained from his academic studies and applied them to the governorship of New Jersey and presidency of the United States. He got the chance to practice what he had preached, particularly about using party leadership to bridge the separation of powers and make the American system work more like a parliamentary one. His taking to heart the anti-ideological stance of Edmund Burke inoculated him against the excessive idealism and utopianism with which critics have charged him. Writing about Wilson without his ideas is like writing about Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald without the content of their novels and short stories. It is not the right approach to take with those writers or with this president.

In spite of the book’s strength in depicting Wilson’s family life, it is also oddly unsatisfactory about one of its most important figures: his father. Throughout his life, Wilson called his father the greatest teacher he ever had. Berg affectingly tells how the Reverend Joseph R. Wilson took his favorite child in hand to help him overcome what was probably a mild form of dyslexia and become an accomplished writer and speaker. Berg correctly portrays this as a warm, loving relationship, and, thankfully, he avoids any hint of the Oedipal fantasies spun around this father and son by several writers, including Sigmund Freud himself.[3] Left out, however, is a sense of what a worldly clergyman the elder Wilson was and how he enjoined his son against “ a mere literary career.”[4] The son studied and briefly practiced law mainly to satisfy his father and probably chose academic life over highbrow journalism because it looked better in the eyes of his father, who had been a seminary professor. The elder Wilson’s academic career ended badly just as “Tommy,” as he was called in his youth, was about to enter college. Thereafter, Joseph Wilson made his son the vessel of his thwarted ambition, but that did not include having the son follow in his clerical footsteps, and there is no evidence Tommy ever wanted to do so anyway — all of this strangely absent from this biography.

Berg spends little time on Wilson’s relationship with Edward M. (“Colonel”) House, the fawning wealthy expatriate Texan on whom Wilson relied as first a political and then a diplomatic advisor. After only a short acquaintance before the 1912 election, the president-elect tapped House, for reasons that remain mysterious, to be his go-between in making cabinet appointments. Thereafter, the president regularly sat down to discuss politics and policy with the Texan, who soon carved out foreign affairs as his bailiwick. Though not much of a reader or writer, House aspired to be the Samuel Pepys of his time by keeping an extensive diary, which remains an indispensable source for Wilson’s presidential years. It is also a dangerous source because it gives only House’s side of their relationship and often inflates his importance. The Colonel’s star began to fade when Edith Bolling Galt came into the picture, even before she became the second Mrs. Wilson. She disliked and distrusted House from the outset, and although she learned to keep her feelings to herself, she never stopped trying to undermine him. Given Berg’s focus on Wilson’s personal life, it is disappointing that he does not shed much light on this important relationship.

Berg also includes many small details that he probably shouldn’t have, or he should have at least viewed their sources with a skeptical eye. His dramatic account of the stroke the president suffered in October 1919, for instance, includes Mrs. Wilson rushing to his side and Wilson falling unconscious in the bathroom. The source for this account is My Memoir, which Edith Wilson wrote nearly 20 years later, and which one of her biographers has called “fanciful.”[5] Notes made by a neurologist who examined the president on the day of the stroke mention only that he could not walk across the bedroom after he woke up in the morning. Berg also reports that two months later, two senators visited the ailing president in an attempt to penetrate the cover-up of his illness initiated by Mrs. Wilson; one of them said he had been praying for the president, to which Wilson allegedly answered, “Which way, senator?” This exchange, which Berg recounts, likewise comes from My Memoir, but the notes Mrs. Wilson and Dr. Grayson took at the meeting do not contain that snappy retort, which would have been in character for Wilson in his better days.


And then race and religion. No biography of Wilson can avoid these subjects, but they have to be handled with care. Race offers the one area in which Berg is highly critical of his subject — and properly so. Wilson sanctioned efforts by Southern members of his cabinet to introduce segregation into the federal workplace. They dropped those efforts in the face of protests mounted by the newly formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and attacks by a few Republican politicians. Government offices did remain informally segregated — a practice that stayed in effect after Republicans returned to power in the 1920s — and the number of jobs held by African-Americans dropped sharply. The attempt at segregation, followed by a screening at the White House of D. W. Griffith’s cinematically pioneering but scurrilously racist film The Birth of a Nation, have sullied Wilson’s reputation among African-Americans and civil rights advocates ever since.[6]

Berg pulls no punches in telling the story of Wilson’s racial shortcomings, and he is to be commended for not attempting to mask flaws in a person he otherwise admires. Where he falls short is in his explanation. He lays blame for Wilson’s racism and often tries to account for other actions and attitudes by referring to his birth and upbringing in the South. Berg has said that a primary motive in choosing this subject was that he had not yet written a biography of a Southerner. The problem is, Wilson was not just a Southerner, he was an expatriate Southerner. He was the first Southern-born person to be elected president since 1848, but he was not elected from the South. He was not governor of a Southern state, he was governor of New Jersey. Except during his unhappy four-year stab at law, he spent his entire adult life north of the Potomac. During his brief legal practice in Atlanta, he complained about not being able to “lead an intellectual life [...] in ignorant Georgia.”[7] His college friends at Princeton recalled that he had no Southern accent, and he tried unsuccessfully to wean his Georgia-born-and-raised first wife from her accent. In 1896, he turned down the most attractive academic post in the South, the presidency of the University of Virginia, in order to remain at Princeton, where he was just a professor, not yet president.

It is interesting to speculate about what might have become of Wilson if he had accepted the offer from Virginia. It seems a safe bet that he would have shaken up that university, as he later did Princeton, in an effort to raise intellectual standards. Also, since he later bragged at Princeton about wanting to knock Harvard off its pedestal at the top of American higher education, he would most likely have striven to lift Virginia above its standing as the “Harvard of the South” and try to equal or surpass the one in Massachusetts. Wilson might well have gotten involved in Virginia politics, perhaps becoming governor or senator. As an undergraduate at Princeton he had joked with friends about seeing each other in the Senate, and he had supposedly penned a calling card that read “Thomas Woodrow Wilson, Senator from Virginia.” If he had followed that route, however, he would not have become president of the United States. In those days, neither party would nominate anyone from the South. Republicans wrote the region off as hopeless, while Democrats took it for granted. In fact, Wilson’s nomination from New Jersey was unusual. Both parties normally chose nominees from the states with the biggest electoral votes, New York and Ohio.

Wilson did cherish his Southern roots, particularly his birth in Virginia (which he left before he was two years old), but he harbored ambivalent attitudes toward his native region. Weak support there almost cost him the Democratic nomination for president in 1912, and he felt uncomfortable about press depictions of his incoming administration as a Dixie restoration. As Berg correctly notes, the new president allowed the segregation efforts to go forward because he was worried about his party’s Southern base. In his own racial attitudes, however, Wilson was much more in tune with the majority of Northern whites at the time. He viewed race as an annoying, lesser problem, largely confined to the South, and amenable to “benign neglect” and the self-help approaches of such black leaders as Booker T. Washington (whom he had invited to his inauguration as president of Princeton in 1902, to the consternation of his wife’s Southern relatives).

That was not the mindset of his contemporary white Southerners, for whom race always loomed large. This was true whether they were Negrophobic demagogues like Tom Watson of Georgia and Senator James K. Vardaman of Mississippi, or gentlemanly paternalists like Mississippi’s other senator, John Sharp Williams, and Wilson’s secretary of the navy, Josephus Daniels. Later, after going to war, Wilson did issue a public denunciation of lynching, and he intervened in Southern Democratic primaries to mount the only successful presidential party purge, defeating Vardaman among others, although not because of their racism but because of their opposition to the war. Clearly, then, Wilson was a Southerner with a difference, and simply invoking his sectional origins does not go far in an effort to understand him.

The same caution applies to his religion. Wilson was a deeply religious person, but rather than discuss the man’s religion directly, Berg titles each chapter with a word that has a religious, mostly biblical ring, such as “Ascension,” “Disciples,” “Pietà,” and “Resurrection.” He also quotes one or more verses, usually from the New Testament, at the head of each chapter. These verses are always from an older Bible, presumably one that Wilson read, but sometimes they are in an archaic spelling, such as this from “The Actes”: “And as he iourneyed he came neere Damascus” — which Wilson almost certainly never read. Other reviewers have found this practice tiresome; I found it unenlightening and strange. Berg’s intention seems to be to surround Wilson with a spiritual aura and to imply that that he either was or saw himself as a Christ-like figure. In one of his television interviews, Berg has said Wilson had a “Christ complex.”[8] The oblique and insinuating approach to the man’s religion avoids a serious examination of the role it played in his life and thought, and the Christ ascription is dead wrong.

As a religious person, Wilson stood about as far away as it is possible to stand from today’s evangelical politicians, who brag about having taken Jesus Christ as their personal saviors and demand that everybody else do likewise — and, as a consequence, follow their dictates on reproductive choice, health insurance, and taxes. Wilson opposed the leading moral reform of his day — prohibition — he disliked mixing religion in politics — including when it supported his causes, as with the Social Gospel — and he never compared his political persuasion to preaching — as did his rival, Roosevelt. Even in the depths of grief after the death of his first wife — which Berg depicts movingly — Wilson did not become more notably religious, neither praying more nor seeking solace in scripture or clerical counseling. During this ordeal he said publicly, “For one, I am not fond of thinking of Christianity as the means of saving individual souls.”[9]

The clearest evidence of how Wilson’s religious grounding shaped his public actions came when he made the weightiest decision of his presidency: to go into World War I. He faced an agonizing choice, and unlike some other presidents, he did not take the country into war because he thought God was telling him to do so. Earlier, he had told his stenographer, “War isn’t declared in the name of God; it is a human affair entirely.”[10] For Wilson, whether or not to plunge into the carnage of World War I was a choice between evils. In part, he chose intervention through practical calculation, as the lesser evil.

But his thinking ran deeper. He ended his address to Congress asking for a declaration of war — in my opinion, the greatest presidential speech since Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address — with a haunting sentence. Dwelling on America’s painful, unsought choice to take up arms in hopes of helping to make the world better, he avowed, “God helping her, she can do no other.”[11] As nearly everybody recognized, that was a paraphrase of Martin Luther’s declaration, “God helping me, I can do no other.” Wilson was casting his country in the role of Luther’s individual Christian: that of a limited creature who could only seek humbly to do God’s will, inevitably imperfectly, and who could not avoid sin but must, as Luther enjoined, “sin boldly.” If Wilson had any religious-related complex, it might have been a Luther complex. If his religious-based thinking resembled that of any other notable American, it was the hard-eyed, skeptical Christian realism later expounded so well by Reinhold Niebuhr.


To sum up, this biography has much to recommend it, especially the pleasure it affords in reading it. Its shortcomings make it far from balanced or comprehensive, much less “definitive,” and those shortcomings strike me as deriving from the author’s method. Berg has said on numerous occasions that he steeps himself in his subjects, reading and listening to their own words, visiting places where they lived and worked, and trying to get inside them. That approach reverses the course prescribed among academic historians and biographers. They enjoin, first, reading the “literature” — what fellow practitioners have already written — and then locating oneself among established interpretative frameworks. The danger in this academic approach is failing to get a fresh take on the subject. The danger in reversing this approach is reinventing the wheel and missing material and insights others have discovered. Obviously, it is necessary to follow both approaches, but as well as I can judge from the bibliography and notes, Berg has neglected to do enough of the second half of the task; at least he does not list or cite many standard works by historians and other biographers. On Wilson’s politics and foreign policy up to 1917, and more generally, the voluminous works of Arthur Link could have helped enormously, but aside from The Papers of Wilson, which Link edited, the only work of his cited in the bibliography is a history of the First Presbyterian Church of Princeton. Kristie Miller’s excellent biography of Wilson’s two wives could have raised red flags about Edith’s memory. John Mulder’s account of Wilson’s early life could have put his upbringing and religious background in better perspective. Tryge Throntveit’s work could have shown what a rich and fertile mind he had. Work by Samuel Schaffer on the Southerners around Wilson and by Patricia O’Toole on his political circle could show how his sectional background and other influences shaped his conduct in office. Modesty restrains me from recommending my own work, but, naturally, I think it might have also helped in providing perspectives on Wilson.[12]

A minor cold war seems to divide popular biographers such as Berg from their academic opposites. Academics disdain “popularizers” as shallow and pandering, while those on the other side sneer at academics as narrow, pedantic, and boring. Such hostility and lack of cooperation are totally unnecessary. Popular writers can do excellent research and advance penetrating interpretations, while academics can write lively accounts on interesting subjects. Certainly, of all biographical subjects, none should draw upon both camps more than Wilson. He was, after all, an academic, but one who ventured out into the world and strove to write and speak to the broadest possible audiences. It is a shame that this biography does not combine both approaches. This is a book that anyone interested in Wilson should read, but it is not the last book to be read, nor should it be the first.


[1] Some commentators have pointed out that Beck is wrong to lay the blame for governmental expansion on Wilson’s shoulders alone, and that his presidential predecessor and great rival, Theodore Roosevelt, deserves equal billing. For a brief time, Beck tried to induct TR into his hall of shame but soon abandoned the effort. Another commentator on the right did indict him. In Theodore and Woodrow: How Two American Presidents Destroyed Constitutional Freedom (New York, 2012), Andrew Napolitano condemns TR for betraying the Republican party’s “small government origins,” but two pages later he charges Lincoln with having subverted the Constitution more than any other president; his book is not really about TR and Wilson but is a rant against almost everything that has happened in American government since 1850 and perhaps earlier.

[2] The baseball simile is apt. Wilson was an enthusiastic and pretty good player in his youth, and he was an ardent fan throughout his life.

[3] Freud and William C. Bullitt, Thomas Woodrow Wilson: A Psychological Study (Boston, 1967). Another, better grounded work in this vein is Alexander and Juliette George, Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House: A Personality Study (New York, 1956).

[4] Joseph R. Wilson to Wilson, Dec. 22, 1879, in Link, ed., Papers of Wilson, vol. 1, p. 589.

[5] Kristie Miller in conversation with me before CSpan program on First Ladies, Sept. 23, 2013.

[6] On the screening of “The Birth of a Nation,” see Link, ed., Papers of Wilson, vol. 32, p. 267, n. l.

[7] Wilson to Richard Heath Dabney, May 11, 1883, in Link, ed, Papers of Wilson, vol. 2, p.

[8] NBC with David Gregory, Sept. 15, 2013.

[9] Wilson speech, Oct. 24, 1915, in Link, ed., Papers of Wilson, vol. 32, p. 221.

[10] Charles E. Swem diary entry, May 10, [1915], in Link, ed., Papers of Wilson, vol. 33, p. 138.

[11] Wilson speech, Apr. 2, 1917, in Link, ed., Papers of Wilson, vol. 41, p. 527.

[12] Works cited here include, Link, Wilson, 5 vols. (Princeton, 1947-65); Miller, Ellen and Edith: Woodrow Wilson’s First Ladies (Lawrence KS, 2010); Mulder, Woodrow Wilson: The Years of Preparation (Princeton, 1978); Thorsen, The Political Thought of Woodrow Wilson, 1875-1910 (Princeton, 1988). Berg also cites only one of several books I have published that relate directly to Wilson.


John Milton Cooper is an American historian, author, and educator and the author of a dozen books on 19th and 20th century American history. His most recent book is Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (2009).

LARB Contributor

John Milton Cooper is an American historian, author, and educator and the author of a dozen books on 19th and 20th century American history. His most recent book is Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (2009).


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