On reading these volumes it appears strange at first that a writer and orator with such a gift of clear expression, backed by so honest a character and such direct and frank behavior, should have been misunderstood; but it is not surprising that he should have been hated. He was hated, rather than disliked, for men hate what they fear. It was not natural for him to speak soft words.

(The New Democracy, Presidential Messages, Address, and Other Papers (1913-1917), By Woodrow Wilson ’79. Harper and Brothers, New York, 1926. Two volumes.)

The final opposition to Woodrow Wilson came not only from those who objected to our country’s entering the League of Nations, but from the large number of persons and organized bodies that he frightened or offended by the reform policies of his first administration. He acted upon the principle that it was a needed and neglected function of government to protect the individual citizen from the encroachments of corporations whose very existence depended upon governmental consent. He conceived that in so doing he was carrying into effect the spirit not merely of the party which is called Democratic but of the nation which was founded on the revolutionary doctrine of liberty and equality. The strength of that powerful reaction against democracy which began with Hamilton and has grown with the wealth of our people proved too much for him and overwhelmed him. The authentic history of his first administration is to be found in these two volumes more directly than in any other source. They contain his public oral utterances and his state papers from March 4, 1913, to March 4, 1917. It is, as far as it goes, a tale of triumph. The tragedy came later, though its causes are plainly evident in these documents and what they imply.

President Wilson entered upon his office with shining hopes and a high heart. He had his feet planted firmly upon a definite structure of principles. Expediency, opportunity, and all the light scaffolding by means of which politicians usually feel their way along the face of difficulties were not in his mind at first. More than any other of our Presidents, he had a philosophy of government and a plan. In comparison with the subjection and oppression suffered by the ordinary American citizen in 1913 the so-called tyranny of George the Third and his ministers was as light as a feather, and Mr. Wilson believed that he and his party, with the help of all honest and patriotic Americans, were destined to break our bonds. The task in its entirety was too difficult, too complicated, radical, and dangerous, to be accomplished in one administration or even one generation. He was doomed to be disappointed. Yet the record of these four years surpasses what all except the most exalted optimists dared to hope, and if the War had not come, with its more insistent problems and more glorious though less easily attainable dream of world-union and world-peace, his second administration might have seen miracles.

On laying down these books, I asked myself, “What, then, was this man’s central idea?” and my memory went back to the first time I ever heard his name, on a day long before I came to college. “Princeton” to me was a word of romance, and the glamor of Princeton gleaned from a pile of Nassau Literary Magazines and Princetonians that lay in a corner of Robert Bridges’ room in his father’s house across the street in the town where he and I lived. He spoke, with a degree of respect very uncommon in the language of college students in speaking of their classmates, about the man who had written some of the best things in these publications. And later, in Whig Hall, we were urged by a group of young graduates to “try Wilson’s scheme,” which was to apply to the affairs of our society the plan which he advocated for the country, in his first book, Congressional Government. With these early reminiscences, the whole endeavor of Woodrow Wilson, as a university president and as a statesman, suddenly became clear to me in the form of a single idea. In one word, it was Federation. Federation, cooperation, responsibility of the part for the whole and of the whole for the part, is the subject of his first book, and the survival of this principle in his mind appears in the actions which startled the country when he went in person to address Congress, and when he said “There has been a change of government. …What does the change mean? ...It means much more than the mere success of a party.” He conceived of himself as the head of a party to which had been committed temporarily the will of the nation, and he intended that the head and the body of that governing party should work together with a fuller degree of mutual responsibility than had been usual in our politics. What was his central idea at Princeton? Not the establishment of the preceptorial system; that was incidental, not central. His central idea was the transformation of Princeton into a collegiate university, a federal union of colleges. This idea was not presented as attractively as it might have been. It became entangled with other issues, and Princeton rejected it. But as a plan for the organization of our overgrown American universities, it remains as the hope of the future.

On a grander scene he once more pleaded for the federal idea. The scene was the world, and he offered it the idea of the League of Nations. Once more he failed, men say. Did he fail? No, even now we may be sure he did not altogether fail, for the League is in being, and slowly our country is learning a painful lesson, that we have made a cruel and wicked mistake. He has given to political idealists all over the earth something to live for, a project, a program, a hope, a faith. If human destiny is really the result of constant will, rather than the sport of mutually contradicting and destructive national interests, the idealists must in the end prevail.

On reading these volumes it appears strange at first that a writer and orator with such a gift of clear expression, backed by so honest a character and such direct and frank behavior, should have been misunderstood; but it is not surprising that he should have been hated. He was hated, rather than disliked, for men hate what they fear. It was not natural for him to speak soft words. He was more brave than tactful. His first inaugural address is not conciliatory, though the innocent may remember what a thrill of combative joy it sent through their ranks. How full of thought it was, how appealing to reason, how audacious in its quiet assumption that his opponents were in the wrong, how provocative to the pessimists and cynics, how enraging to “the interests,” how alarming to conservatives, how flattering to the nobler feelings of common people! “The great government we loved had too often been made us of for private and selfish purposes, and those who used it had forgotten the people…I summon all honest men, all patriotic, all forward-looking men, to my side. God helping me, I will not fail them, if they will but counsel and sustain me!”

See him striking right and left, regardless of the consequences to himself to his party. See him flutter the dove-cotes with this radical dogma: “Not only to establish but to alter is the fundamental principle of self-government.” Would that he were alive today to repeat to a more attentive nation these words of wisdom in regard to Latin America: “You cannot be friends upon any other terms than upon the terms of equality. You cannot be friends at all except upon the terms of honor. We must show ourselves friends by comprehending their interest, whether it squares with our own interest or not. It is a very perilous thing to determine the foreign policy of a nation in the terms of material interest.” Of the Philippines he dares to say without “ifs” or “buts”: “We must hold steadily in view their ultimate independence.” Of universities he says: “Young men are embarrassed by having inherited their fathers’ opinions. I have often said that the use of a university is to make young gentlemen as unlike their fathers as possible.” Of the poor and lowly he says: “I have found that the flame of moral judgment burned just as bright in the man of humble life and limited experience as in the scholar and the man of affairs.”

In general his speeches on internal reform, most of which were made in 1913 and 1914, and those in which he struggled against the insidious forces that were moving heaven and earth to cause armed intervention in Mexico are better than those he made in 1916, in his efforts to keep the United States out of the Great War. These are monotonous. They convey little information. They are based upon the false assumption that “with its causes and its objects we are not concerned.” Mr. Wilson might consistently enough have maintained that war under any circumstances was wrong, or that only war in self-defense was right; but he tried to convince himself and the people for nearly two years that it was not our duty to intervene and stop the bloodshed. He might have said with Herodotus: “No man is so foolish as to desire war more than peace: for in peace sons bury their fathers, but in war fathers bury their sons.” But fathers were buying their sons by millions, and we could have stopped it.

This was originally published in the February 25, 1927 issue of PAW.