Woodrow Wilson's foes called him an ideologue, a hypocrite, and a coward. His admirers thought he was the hero who put forth the best hope for the world. Teddy Roosevelt labeled him a "prize jackass"; when Wilson died, eulogists compared him to Icarus. Today Wilson inspires feelings that are just as extreme and contradictory. His name has become a flashpoint in the debate over using American might to spread American ideals. Obscured by Wilsonianism, however, is the man himself.
Wilson comes alive in John Milton Cooper Jr.'s insightful and important biography, Woodrow Wilson. Wilson could be stubborn or reflective; idealistic or canny; a visionary who was too often blind. His idea for a League of Nations bound by humane principles can be savaged or exalted, depending on your perspective. Cooper is, on balance, admiring, but he steers clear of caricaturing binaries. Wilson was not a utopian. Nor was he a realist, having watched balance-of-power politics sink Europe into a bloodbath. He was not a pragmatist, though pragmatists loved him, nor an arid intellectual, despite his academic background. He was something stranger and harder to describe. Cooper calls him "one of the deepest and most daring souls ever to inhabit the White House." If this seems a little grand, it pales in comparison to what Wilson called himself: an interpreter of the historical moment. He wanted, most of all, to translate "the right" into reality.
Wilson believed it was his job to divine the common temper of the age and to harness the country to the gradual forces of progress. America was exemplary. So, he thought, was he. To determine the right, he looked to himself. He once kept a copy of Rudyard Kipling's "If" in his wallet, and he memorized its opening lines: "If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you; /If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you … " Since Wilson was convinced that disinterested consciences will lead men along the same right path, those who disagreed with him had surely lost their heads. It was impossible to argue about the ideas he most cared about—which made the arguments all the fiercer.
Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born just before the Civil War, in Staunton, Va. His father was a Presbyterian minister, and Wilson's religious upbringing instilled a sense that God was immanent in the world. Young Wilson briefly practiced law and then became an academic, first as a professor and then as Princeton's president. Clashes with the faculty and alumni drove him out of academic politics and into the real thing. In 1912, two years after being elected governor of New Jersey, he was elected president.
As a politician, he was a liberal who wanted a more perfect government to reflect a more perfect world. Wilson's administration oversaw tremendous domestic reform: the modern progressive income tax, tariff reform, the Federal Reserve Act, and much more. He expanded the power of the executive, becoming the first president to address Congress in person since John Adams. (Thomas Jefferson had discontinued the practice, considering it too kingly.) Wilson believed that social reform connected the law to the movement of moral progress—from disorder to order, tyranny to democracy, selfishness to obligation, wrong to right.
To Wilson, the evolution of order tended in the direction of a "universal dominion of right," and he believed himself an instrument of progress. His task was to build not by blueprint but by gradual interpretation. Halfway through World War I, he became convinced that a harmonious "league of nations" would be the mechanism of progress. His idea was vague, on purpose. He wanted sovereign nations wary of specific commitments to join the league, but he also wanted the league to be flexible, always free to ask what's right. He gambled that moral appeals could be absolutely persuasive.
Wilson was not trying to impose American-style democracy at gunpoint —at least on most days. (Especially in the early part of his presidency he did, disastrously, try nation building in Latin America.) He was committed to neutrality and negotiation in the Great War long after many thought it practical. He also refused to accept that his ideals were exclusively American. He thought they were universal. Universal, American, Christian—Wilson used these words almost interchangeably. His staunch Presbyterianism tends to get too much credit or too little. He was not a religious crusader. Roosevelt—for whom Christianity was more an identity than a belief system—was the candidate who ended campaign rallies with "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Wilson did not separate his politics from his beliefs; he would not have thought it possible. But he did make less of a distinction between the secular and the sacred than we're accustomed to. Righteousness for him depended less on the existence of virgin births than of a common faculty, emanating from God and human reason, to understand justice.
Yet Wilson was often unjust. His racial views were shameful; his administration actually resegregated federal offices. He bore grudges. Despite his distrust of passion, he stoked paranoia and xenophobia with feverishly patriotic speeches. His administration oversaw some of the worst abuses of civil liberties, including the Espionage and Sedition Acts, which criminalized "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" against the government, military, or flag. His commandeering attitude at the Paris Peace Conference failed to prevent the spoils-trading among victors that paved the way for World War II. Back at home, he imperiously dared the Senate to reject the flawed treaty. It did.
"Let's stop being merely practical, and find out what's right," Wilson was known to say at Princeton. He cared about expediency—but the principle came first. Wilson could deal with disagreements only by treating them as "merely practical" or by calling dissent heresy. He could—and did—brook political disagreements and disloyalty, but he could not stand challenges to his vision of the common good.
It is still hard to know exactly what to say about that vision. Wilson's great themes of democracy, self-determination, nonpunitive peace, and international mutual obligations were part of his conception of justice, but they were not the same thing as a universal dominion of right. "Rights" are different from the right. Ultimately, Wilson could not define the right. Nor did he want to: he saw it as a living thing. But to understand what's right, he had to rely on his subjective convictions, and it turned out that relying on his conscience could lead him astray.
When Wilson died in 1924, he believed he was a failure. His treaty—promising a peace so different from the nonpunitive one he had once imagined—had been rejected by his own countrymen, and some said he had himself to blame. "The 'great' people at home wrote and wired every day that they were against me," he told a historian just before his death. He did not exaggerate. "The one secure conclusion that history will draw," wrote a publication that once championed him, "is that a liberal democrat at large is not an adequate instrument of democracy." Cooper draws kinder conclusions. His Wilson is noble—too noble for some readers, but it's easy to see why he captures many imaginations. We still want to believe what Wilson believed: that there is a common right, that we can find it, and that it matters most of all.