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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Roscoe Conkling Ensign Brown (1867–1946)
 
HIGH political station in America rarely comes to the pure publicist. Conditions do not favor the recognition and advancement in the official world of men whose claim to leadership is based primarily on an intellectual mastery of statecraft unaccompanied by a long practical apprenticeship in politics. A Guizot, a Macaulay, or a Morley, finds here no open road to power. In recent years he has been finding a less open road in England and France, owing to the development there of the same cause that has operated here,—the highly organized party, recruiting its leaders from those who successfully manage the machinery and woo the electorate of local constituencies. Such an organization can commonly offer only a political excursion to the scholar, give him a term or two in Congress where it considers him an amateur, or honor itself by placing him in a distinguished but unstrategic office. The United States has not been lacking at any time in statesmen who were also eminent as scholars and men of letters. But scholarship and letters were not their sanction in politics. The springs of their power, if they had real power, lay elsewhere in the early cultivation of politics as an art, not as a science. Woodrow Wilson is the conspicuous exception to this rule. Alone among American Presidents, almost alone among American statesmen of high rank, he was first drawn in mature years into practical political life in recognition of eminence in scientific political thought. He was fifty-four years old when, on the strength of a reputation entirely academic and literary, he was taken from the head of Princeton University to the Governorship of New Jersey with the well-understood prospect of becoming President of the United States.  1
  Yet, however academic may have been Woodrow Wilson’s relations to public affairs through all his formative years, there was nothing abstract about those relations. If he was not in practical politics, his work was of practical politics, concerned with the concrete realities rather than the theories of government, with its vital functioning, which is often obscured in the operation of its conventional and traditional forms. Even in his student days this trait clearly marked him. It gave distinction to his work as a teacher. It fitted him as few men have been fitted outside the rough and tumble of affairs to adapt the working structure of his political theories to the changing material and human factors of public problems.  2
  Woodrow Wilson inherited from his Scotch-Irish ancestors a strenuously logical mind and a rugged fixity of purpose. They combined habits of intellectual abstraction with extreme practicality. His grandfather, James Wilson, came to America in 1807 and became a printer in Pennsylvania. Later in Ohio he founded and edited two newspapers. Woodrow’s father, Joseph Ruggles Wilson, was a Presbyterian clergyman. After preaching and teaching in Ohio he became a professor in Hampden Sidney College, Virginia, and in 1855 settled as pastor of a church in Staunton, Virginia, where on December 28th, 1856, Thomas Woodrow Wilson, named after his maternal grandfather, was born. Two years later the family removed to Augusta, Georgia, then to Columbia, South Carolina, and again just before Woodrow entered college, to Wilmington, North Carolina. The elder Wilson had studied at Princeton Theological Seminary and the son naturally went to the New Jersey college where James McCosh was then at the height of his fame.  3
  Woodrow Wilson was a good but not an extraordinary student, a normal youth who made friends and loved companionship and entered into the usual activities of college life. He developed a taste for reading and debate. More important, he developed a perfectly clear vision of his aim in life and a pertinacity in pursuing it. He would be a leader in public affairs. The avenues through which he sought influence were changed by circumstances, but never his singleness of purpose, or his intelligent self-direction. “This choice of the best thing for his purpose,” says his classmate, Robert Bridges, “was the marked quality of Wilson in his student days.” At that time, before sociology had become a popular subject for post-graduate study, the law was the natural approach to politics. Moreover, it was a desirable part of preparation for serious study of government. Accordingly, in the autumn after his graduation in 1879, Wilson matriculated in the law school of the University of Virginia. There he gave much attention to public speaking as a necessary training for his chosen work. Though a Southerner only by accident of birth, environment and association turned him toward the South for his professional career and on his admission to the bar in 1882 he opened an office in Atlanta, which because of its rapid growth seemed a promising one for a young attorney. Clients were slow in coming and the work for those who did come soon convinced him that the routine of trivial legal business did not lead to that field of public law where his interest lay. So he abandoned practice and, drawn by the post-graduate courses, with which Johns Hopkins was just setting a new standard for American universities, he determined to fit himself to be a teacher of politics. He spent two years at Baltimore, receiving the degree of Ph.D in 1886. In 1885 he went to Bryn Mawr College as associate in history. The next year he became associate professor of history and political science. In 1888 he took the chair of history and political economy at Wesleyan University, and two years later he was called to the chair of jurisprudence at Princeton. His brilliant work as a teacher and writer on history and politics gave him a wide reputation and when President Patton retired in 1902 he was elected President of Princeton. His administration was characterized by the attempt, through the introduction of a preceptorial system, to bring to the great mass of the students the larger intellectual life which is too often the possession of only the more ambitious. He also sought a more democratic organization of the student body. Outside of the University he was particularly active in the Short Ballot movement, which aimed to secure a more intelligent choice of officials by simplifying the task of the electorate and at the same time to make those officials more clearly responsible for administrative results.  4
  Meantime, Democrats, searching for new leaders who could take advantage of the opening opportunities for their party as none of their old commanders associated with discarded doctrines and methods could hope to do, fixed upon him as a figure of promise. In 1910 he was elected Governor of New Jersey. His early estrangement from the political leaders who had brought him into office and his measures to control corporations added to his popular prestige. In the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination of 1912 his leading rival was Speaker Champ Clark. Though Wilson had been an opponent of free silver and had asked in a much-quoted letter for somebody to knock Mr. Bryan “into a cocked hat,” William J. Bryan turned from Clark, whom he had favored, on the ground that Tammany had come to his support, and paved the way for Wilson’s nomination which took place after a protracted struggle on the forty-sixth ballot. He triumphed over the divided opposition of Roosevelt and Taft and, despite the reunion of the Republicans and Progressives four years later in support of Charles E. Hughes, he was re-elected.  5
  Through all these years he has been a voluminous writer. His first book was ‘Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics’ (1885). ‘The State: Elements of Historical and Practical Politics’ (1889) is a manual on the organization of government in the United States and European countries. ‘The State and Federal Government of the United States’ followed in 1891. ‘Division and Reunion, 1829–1889’ (1893) is the last volume of the series ‘Epochs of American History.’ ‘An Old Master and Other Political Essays’ (1893) takes its title from a tribute to Adam Smith. ‘Mere Literature and Other Essays’ (1896) contains studies of Burke and Bagehot, the essay on the writing of history, and his ‘Calendar of Great Americans.’ ‘George Washington,’ a spirited biography, appeared in 1896, ‘A History of the American People,’ in 1902, and ‘Constitutional Government in the United States,’ in 1908. He wrote the chapter ‘State Rights, 1850–1860’ in the ‘Cambridge Modern History.’ ‘The New Freedom: A Call for the Emancipation of the Generous Energies of a People’ (1913) was the definition of his own attitude toward industrial questions at the time of his election to the Presidency. It was a plea for nineteenth-century laissez-faire liberalism robbed of its laissez faire and buttressed with the guarantees of state regulation.  6
  Woodrow Wilson’s first significant publication was the product of his undergraduate days and was in a peculiar sense prophetic. Its analysis of the executive power in the United States laid the foundation of his conception of the place that the President should fill as a leader of national thought and an influence on legislation, which has so avowedly inspired his own administration. This essay on “Cabinet Government in the United States,” published in the International Review for August, 1879, was an inquiry into the realities of American government working underneath its forms. It was written in the spirit of Bagehot who influenced him greatly and to whom he later paid a glowing tribute in the essay ‘A Literary Politician.’ It is significant, however, that, with all his admiration for Bagehot and his desire to be like him “a man with an imagination which, though it stands aloof, is yet quick to conceive the very things in the thick of which the politician struggles,” Wilson felt the deepest lack in Bagehot to be a want of sympathy “with the voiceless body of the people, with the ‘mass of unknown men.’” Wilson in his first review summed up his analysis of our administrative machinery with the statement: “Our government is practically carried on by irresponsible committees.” He noted that this was due to the lack of anybody in Congress to speak for the nation as a whole. The executive had no means of proposing and explaining measures directly to Congress. A binding link was needed in a responsible cabinet to secure intelligently articulated legislation and vigorous execution. This idea he has steadily held and adapted to practical conditions. In 1884 he returned to it in an essay on ‘Committee or Cabinet Government,’ published in the Overland Monthly, and he used both articles as preliminary studies for his doctor’s thesis at Johns Hopkins, which was published in book form under the title ‘Congressional Government.’ Like its forerunners, instead of deducing our government from its constitutional preconception, it sought in the actual methods of business to discover what our constitution was as a working instrument. Thirteen years later in his ‘Constitutional Government in the United States,’ made up of lectures delivered at Columbia University, he expressed his political ideas most completely and again dwelt on the fact that the President was much more than the forms of law made him. He was “the leader of his party and the guide of the nation in political purpose, and therefore in legal action.” After his election to the Presidency, Wilson in a letter against a single-term amendment, showed how steadily he had been looking to the evolution of the ministerial system. He pointed out that the Presidency was passing through a transitional stage, and that the President “must be Prime Minister, as much concerned with the guidance of legislation as with the just and orderly execution of law,” the “spokesman of the nation in everything.” As President he has acted on that theory, perhaps not more effectively than any of his predecessors, but certainly more frankly and more consciously as a molder of institutions. To establish leadership he has substituted the Presidential speech for the traditional message and has used it with an increasing tone of confident authority, which reached its highest expression in his address calling for the recognition of war with Germany and formulating the American policy in the struggle. For its elevation of spirit, largeness of conception, and felicity of phrase that address is likely to hold an enduring place among great state papers. It is the best example of President Wilson’s style and method when he undertakes at once to direct and to express popular opinion.  7
  The writing of history has been with Wilson an avocation incidental to the development of his philosophy of politics. His chief work in that field, ‘A History of the American People,’ is concerned less with events than with their significance in forming the character and institutions of the United States. He breaks sharply away from the tendency prevalent in recent years to exaggerate the importance of “original research” and present the accumulation of facts as the supreme duty of the historian. He seeks like Macaulay to arouse the imagination with vivid pictures and bold generalizations, without, like Macaulay, becoming a special pleader. He brings a national vision to the study of American life. He has an instinct for the things that mean the spirit of America in the tangled web of Old World conceptions and New World provincialisms. This is even more apparent in some of his shorter essays than in the popular narrative of the history. In an address before the New Jersey Historical Society in 1895 he dwelt on the Westerner as “the type and master of our American life.” ‘A Calendar of Great Americans’ pays warm and discriminating tribute to Hamilton whose “English talent for conservation gave to our fibre the stiffness of maturity” and without whom “our national life would have miscarried at the very first”; to Madison as “a type of the slow and thoughtful English genius for affairs”; to Jefferson, un-American in his philosophical radicalism and sentimental abstractions; to John Quincy Adams and Calhoun as great provincials; but it is in Franklin, Washington, Marshall, Webster, Clay, Grant, and Lee that he finds the essence of America, and, above all, in Lincoln. In ‘The States and the Federal Government,’ a review article of 1908, this son of Virginia seeks the pragmatic solution of the old controversy and points out that the actual distribution of authority is not a question of sovereignty, but of vitality, and that the bounds of federal power are only those set by the conservative temper of the country—an evolutionary view, which in office has led him freely to approve measures that he deemed opportune, even though they involved new demarcations in his own constitutional law. In the same spirit he meets the Southerner’s view of a government by contract with the doctrine that union had a validity in 1859 that it did not possess in 1789. This feeling for government as an organism, for law and institutions as something living and self-growing, permeates all his political and historical writing and makes his teaching dynamic. It gives to opportunism the sanction of principle. It lends flexibility to the most crystallized political conceptions.  8
  An instinct for the interesting marks all of Wilson’s work. Dealing almost entirely with historical facts and political theories, he sees them with imagination. His style is literary. It unmistakably reflects the scholar and his genial poise; but at the same time it is vivid and swift moving. He avoids the conventional expression, is given to epigrams and loves the synthetic catchword that becomes the symbol for a whole train of ideas. “The new freedom,” “watchful waiting,” “too proud to fight,” “peace without victory,” “the world must be made safe for democracy”—all testify to his aptitude for the striking phrase; some, to the danger of its incautious indulgence. Owing to this habit the apparent clearness of his style is sometimes deceptive. He often uses a concise and vivid phrase that seems to involve a definiteness of thought or commitment, which does not survive analysis; because what he really does is not to formulate a concrete meaning, but to use a concrete expression as a token for general ideas subject to interpretation in many different ways. He does this more in his later political addresses than in his earlier writings; doubtless because it rallies sentiment in support of policies on the details of which agreement is not at the moment possible. But the method is the natural evolution of his literary style, of his gift for seeing things in the large and for applying imagination to the interpretation of facts.  9
  Faced with the most difficult task of any American statesman in a generation, that of guiding his country through an effort to maintain peace in a world at war and then of leading it to seek peace by war, Woodrow Wilson has shown that it was not in vain that he strove in letters to be an interpreter of the American people. His shrewd understanding of the point of view of the common man, his appraisement of political possibilities, his readiness to wait the slow concert of majorities, have given him in the end the ungrudging support of a united nation. His steadfastness has proved equal to the task of being patient lest he run ahead of his time, even at the risk of running behind it and losing all. His insight has timed his action to the readiness for action, not merely of a part, but of a whole people. His gift for crystallizing popular thought has worded for the nation and the world the moving moral principle of the great struggle to preserve the free spirit of man. Whatever the judgment of more distant days may be upon his policies and leadership, in the universal contemporary recognition of his voice as the authentic expression of America at its best, his meed of fame is secure.  10
 
 
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