His class picutre in 1879.
Princeton Alumni Weekly. March 7, 1967.

The thrust of Woodrow Wilson studies has received impetus this publishing season from two widely separated directions. The first is the beginning of the publication of his papers by Princeton University Press, in approximately 40 volumes edited by Professor Arthur S. Link, the other the appearance of a “psychological biography” written in the 1930s by none other than William C. Bullitt and Sigmund Freud (Houghton-Mifflin, $6).

To put last things first, historians and psychologists have vied in condemning what is really a psychiatric study. The former clan have pointed out the transparent animus informing every page and questioning in the most irresponsible fashion every action and motive of Wilson. The net effect is like that of John T. Flynn’s book on Franklin Roosevelt; if Roosevelt had gone up in a balloon Flynn would have said he was an exhibitionist; if he hadn’t, then he was a coward. * The nature of the “1500 pages of notes” Bullitt says he used is not indicated, but evidently they were assembled from systematic interviews with that legion known as the “Wilson-haters.” It is significant that one quotation from the Princeton period is taken from the unpublished papers of Dean Andrew Fleming West.

The psychiatric fraternity seems to regard the book as somewhere between a forged First Folio and the Protocols of Zion. They point out that it is bad theory as well as bad history; in fact, it is bad Freud. From internal evidence it is possible to determine that Bullitt wrote the theoretical parts too, using as his guide the (misunderstood) table talk of Freud. The master’s critical sense in 1932 refused to allow its publication, but he relented in 1939 when Bullitt as American Ambassador rescued him from the Nazis.

Yet behind this compendium of rumor and insinuation there is a grain of solidity. In an otherwise critical review in the Atlantic Barbara Tuchman concedes that “as an analysis of the deep mainsprings of motivation in one of the most complex and puzzling public characters who ever lived, it is sharply illuminating, and with certain reservations, convincing; it makes the contradictions in Wilson’s behaviour fall into place with an almost audible click.” What she is referring to is Wilson’s peculiar moralistic approach to politics which was both a source of strength and weakness, and which can be explained only in terms of his complex and inscrutable personality. Judging from the continual series of psychosomatic illnesses and near-nervous breakdowns from which he suffered, he seemed to live at times in a state of what might be called controlled hysteria. Some inner insecurity, some compulsive necessity compelled him to identify his own opinions with righteousness and to denounce honest and honorable men who happened to disagree with him as unprincipled and “wilful,” and as a consequence his life was marred by a sequence of broken friendships.

Neither Freud nor (apparently) Bullitt ever saw another attempt at a psychological sketch of Wilson, this one with more distinguished and sympathetic results. This was by Alexander L. George and Juliette L. George, political scientists trained in dynamic psychology, in their consistently interesting Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House: A Personality Study, published in 1954. Like all psychologists they go back to childhood, where they maintain that he was continually humiliated by his father, and that thereafter political power was a means of restoring the self-esteem damaged as a child. From the close friendships his temperament required – like John Grier Hibben and Colonel House – he demanded total subservience, which led to disastrous breaches; a strong opponent, like Dean West or Henry Cabot Lodge, evoked this father image and with it passionate and uncontrollable resentment. The book is plausible, even intellectually convincing; but it suffers not so much from its Procrustean bed of a priori theory as from a simple lack of proof. The evidence is of the scantiest, at least in childhood, and consists largely of a series of suppositions and inferences. Their case, regrettably, remains unproven.

The reason that the George book is important – despite its conceded deficiencies – is that at least it provides us with some key to understanding this remarkable, baffling man. Here are some quotations from men who, unlike Freud-Bullitt, were fundamentally sympathetic to him:

“The vagaries of his mind during this period [of the graduate college fight] are unfathomable…His refusal to compromise in the graduate college controversy was almost Princeton’s undoing; his refusal to compromise in the fight in the Senate over the League of Nations was the nation’s undoing. Both controversies assume the character and proportions of a Greek tragedy.” – Arthur S. Link

“The Ray Stannard Baker memoranda [solicited reminiscences o hundreds of Wilson’s acquaintances] testify to the existence in Wilson of some consuming inner difficulty for which he paid a terrible price.” – A. L. and J. L. George

“I was never able to understand Mr. Wilson and with due deference I doubt if you or anybody else can. He was the most extraordinary and complex character I ever encountered.” – Lindley M. Garrison

“The core of his being was a flaming ambition, which his religion fanned rather than quenched, by presenting it with successive programs of reform. And along with ambition went an impatient craving for immediate domination which was kept reasonably in curb by his own good sense until health deserted him.” – Edward S. Corwin

“Before five minutes had passed I knew that I was in the presence of a very great man…I had never before talked face to face with so compelling a person…We knew him to be authentically a great man before the country at large.” – Robert K. Root

“President Wilson was the dominant factor. I am sure that all the newcomers had unbounded confidence in him and that this was the ultimate source of their faith in the future of Princeton…they felt the direct influence of his strong personality.” – Charles H. Smyth Jr.

How to deal with such a remarkable figure? This is the significance of The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, of which the first volume was published this winter (1856-1880, 715 pages, $15), the rest to follow at the rate of approximately two a year. A succession of fortunate documentary finds have turned up in the Wilson team’s systematic search in the past decade – for instance, a shorthand college diary has surfaced, and in 1963 his complete boyhood letters, previously assumed lost – and now it appears that the Wilson archive will approach the stature of the Boswell or Walpole papers. The documentary record for Wilson is probably more complete than for any political in history, including Thomas Jefferson (whose papers are also being edited at Princeton, by Professor Julian P. Boyd, and published by Princeton University Press). He set down his most intimate thoughts on thousands of pages. As he once wrote, “I suspect that one might find out almost, if not quite, as much about me from my letters as by associating with me, for I am apt to let my thoughts and feelings slip more readily from the end of my pen than from the end of my tongue.” Now the record is complete, the materials spread out for writing a real biography, be it psychological, psychiatric, political or what you will.

Professor Link – no Freudian he – can find only one good thing to say about the Freud-Bullitt book: “It might stimulate psychologists and scholars to try to discover the truth about Wilson on a basis of the available record”; his 5,000-word review, which will appear in the April Harper’s, is altogether devastating. In his own magisterial biography (again published by Princeton University Press, 1947-1966), which has reached five volumes and the year 1917, he quickly skipped over Wilson’s youth because at that time (1946) there simply wasn’t much documentation available. Yet so cogent is this flood of new insights on Wilson’s formative years that he is talking going back and doing a volume on them too.

The evolution of Wilson's handwriting
Princeton Alumni Weekly. March 7, 1967.

The Alligators (his informal eating club in 1879, Wilson third from the right).
Princeton Alumni Weekly. March 7, 1967.

Wilson’s notebook from Professor Orris’ senior Greek course. Robert F. Goheen translates this passage (from Plato’s ‘Republic’) as follows: “One must posit [, then,] that even if the just man experiences poverty, disease, or any other seeming evil, he will have these misfortunes finally work out to his benefit, either during his lifetime or after death. For he surely will not be overlooked by the gods, who has set himself earnestly to being just and, through the pursuit of excellence, to becoming as much like a god as a man can.” [Wilson has omitted the connective oürws ǎpa in the original text. – R.F.G.]
Princeton Alumni Weekly. March 7, 1967.

Wilson’s lecture notes in President McCosh’s course in Greek Philosophy, showing his use of shorthand.
Princeton Alumni Weekly. March 7, 1967.

*It is one of the charms of Freudian method that one does not need to refute the evidence of an opponent, simply question his motives; therefore it is relevant that Wilson earned Bullitt’s undying hatred by refusing to receive him in 1919 after he thought he had negotiated an agreement with Lenin restricting Communist rule to the Moscow area and Leningrad.

This was originally published in the March 7, 1967 issue of PAW.