President Wilson’s place in history as an author, despite all limitations and defects to which reference has been made, it must be maintained that President Wilson’s historical and political writings have in them the essential elements of permanence, proving themselves capable of standing the test of time and, indeed, of becoming more and more appreciated as the years pass on.

In a recently published article on President Wilson, we called attention to his student life at Princeton, to his personality, his career as a university professor, to his ability in public address, and to his official career as a state and national executive. We are now concerned with his specific work as an author and writer.


His Province as an Author

President Wilson never ventured into the domain of verse. He was distinctively a prose writer, within the special province of. Historical and political literature, though not infrequently discussing educational and religious topics. The titles of his books, as distinct from his miscellaneous writings, are a sufficient evidence of this prevailing type of topic:

“Congressional Government”

“Division and Reunion”

“The State”

“An Old Master and Other Political Essays”

“Constitutional Government in the United States”
“A History of the American People”

“George Washington” and “The New Freedom.”

There is but one of his more important books that has a literary title – “Mere Literature and Other Essays.” Even here on-half of the “Other Essays” are political, while literary topics are treated in a somewhat civic spirit. If, apart from his books, we examine his addresses, articles and reviews, we find this same distinctive historical and political element, as in “Culture and Democracy,” “The Statesmanship of Letters,” “University Training and Citizenship.”

Outside of the political and historical sphere there are some specific articles on education and religion, such as “The Spirit of Learning,” “The Meaning of a Liberal Education,” “The Minister and The Community,” but these are limited and exceptional. Thus it appears that, in the main, President Wilson as an author must be studied within the province of the political and historical. He may be described by a phrase which he himself uses, as “A Literary Politician,” a scholar and an author in politics, and here he has goodly company in the persons of Gladstone, John Morley, Lord Bryce, Balfour, Bancroft, and Motley.

It is a fact of significance that most of President Wilson’s best historical and political books were published before he entered on his official political life in 1911 as Governor of New Jersey. It is well worth remembering, especially on the part of students, that as early as 1877-8, when an undergraduate at Princeton, he opened his career as an historical writer in his contributions to the college periodicals, in such papers as “Bismarck” and “Chatham.” His paper on “Cabinet Government in the United States” was written in 1879, the year of his graduation, while from this time on to his fatal illness, not a year passed in which he did not make a valid contribution to historical and political literature. His first book, “Congressional Government,” was published in 1885, but six years after graduation, and in the very year that opened his educational career as Professor of History and Political Economy at Bryn Mawr. Herein it is seen that President Wilson’s method and salient features as an historical and a political author were formed quite outside the actual province and experience of political life, in what Milton has called “the quiet and still air of delightful studies.” It was not until he actually entered on his official political life that his career as a political speaker began, as distinct from that of a political writer. Just here, we have one of the most interesting illustrations in earlier or later history of the interaction of a somewhat retired life and one of a public and official character. A comparison of President Wilson in his study, preparing his books for publication, and later in the open forum of public address, expounding his views to the American people, clearly reveals a change from the privacy of the library to the publicity of the platform, from the academic habit of the scholar and university teacher, to the forensic method of the orator. The union of these divergent forms of expression in President Wilson as an author intensifies the interest in all that he wrote or spoke.


The Characteristic Features of His Style

1. First in order is Intellectual Vigor. This is a dominant feature. With President Wilson language was the expression of thought, whatever the method of its expression might be. He believed in what Spencer calls “The Philosophy of Style.” This involves the emphasis of subject-matter over mere form, profound and intensive reflection, comprehensiveness of outlook and a pervading mental sobriety. It involves a direct and insistent appeal to the judgment and conscience of the reader. There is, he would say, such a product as a solid, substantial style, the result of sustained and sober meditation, marked by mental balance as opposed to all extremes and by what Matthew Arnold calls “intellectual seriousness.” Historical writing as based on fact and truth especially demands this order of expression. President Wilson met these prime conditions as he sat down to write such a work as “The State” or “Constitutional Government.” In this respect his style is strictly Baconian, a thoughtful, logical statement of truth, such as we find in all great historians of literature.

No one, therefore, can rise form the reading of President Wilson’s books without having been mentally stimulated and enriched. They have a real tonic temper and quality, and as an old writer would have expressed it, “Stretch the mind.” In this respect we are reminded of Froude and Hume, of Grote and Gibbon, who as historians evinced a similar mental type. Just here some of President Wilson’s critics have felt, and justly so, that he not infrequently pressed this intellectual element in style to the limit, and bordered too closely on a rigid and unduly rigorous order of narrative. There is at times a lack of flexibility, of freedom, of wholesome variety, of that light descriptive touch that enlivens and vivifies the narrative, such as we find in John Morley’s “Life of Gladstone” or Bryce’s “American Commonwealth” or Motley’s “Rise of the Dutch Republic” or Green’s “History of the English People” or Bagehot and Freeman and Lecky.

2. A second feature is Verbal Clearness and Conciseness. At this point President Wilson is a real expositor, holding correctly the theory that an indispensable quality of a writer’s style is that it is understandable, manifest in its meaning beyond all doubt, and thereby reflecting on the intelligence of the readers if it is not apprehended. He held that all style is postulated on the theory that it is intelligible, capable of interpretation. President Wilson had an exceptional English vocabulary, characteristically English as distinct from being Latinic, idiomatic in the fullest sense, copious and comprehensive, crisp, terse, trenchant and laconic, presenting to his readers, in this respect, a model of luminous writing, of what a modern author has called “expressive English.” Lord Bryce thus speaks of him as an “acute and lucid writer.” Nothing could induce him to familiarize himself with modern continental languages, lest they corrupt the “well of English.” A loyal friend of classical studies, he kept them well within bounds as offering a competing order of diction. English, he well knew, is a composite tongue, dependent as no other modern language is, on essential contributions from foreign sources, especially Latin and French, so that no writer’s vocabulary can afford to underate these vital verbal additions from outside sources. Still, he was, after all, in actual expression an eminently English writer, presenting an order of diction native in its groundwork and governing type, while sufficiently illustrative of foreign influence to insure its catholicity without impairing its English quality.

President Wilson was a maker of sentences, moulding them with consummate care in obedience to the accepted canons of literary law. In this particular his style may be called structural. SO intent was he, however, to fashion each separate sentence on the principle of strict construction that the mechanism is at times too apparent, and there is a lack of natural sequence, of organic unity and fusion and orderly progression. In his public addresses this defect is especially apparent, often preventing an inspiring impression.

3. Literary Spirit. Reference has been made to the fact that President Wilson wrote but one book under a specifically literary title, - “Mere Literature,” – in which he defends and exalts all that pertains to literature proper as distinct form science and the useful arts and enters a strong protest against neglecting or underrating it. In speaking, however, of President Wilson’s style as literary, emphasis is to be laid on its literary spirit more than on the specific literary form in which it is embodied. If by literary style is meant such an order of style as is exhibited by Cardinal Newman and James Russell Lowell, - a style in which literature as a fine art is stressed and the aesthetic side of prose writing is emphasized, - President Wilson’s writing is not distinctively literary. If, however, the inner and pervading spirit of literature is designated, suffusing the entire subject-matter, such as is found in Bacon and Burke and Webster, then President Wilson’s style is essentially literary, revealing a real literary appreciation and purpose, a valid recognition of all that is meant by culture in the world of letters. This difference can be signally illustrated by a comparison between Dr. Thomas Arnold as an historian and his gifted son Matthew as a prose writer, - the father illustrating the inner spirit of literature and the son its artistic technique. Dr. Arnold was a literary historian, Matthew Arnold was a literary artist in prose and verse. We cannot conceive of the father writing “The Essays in Criticism,” or the son, “The History of Rome.” President Wilson finds his prototype in Thomas and not in Matthew Arnold. They, however, are the masters in this respect who combine in vital fusion the spirit and the form. It is because the spirit of literature is not always found in President Wilson’s writings in organic fusion with the nicest exactions of literary art, that he must rank at this point below such historical and political writers as Gladstone and John Morley and Motley and Buckle.

President Wilson’s place in history as an author, despite all limitations and defects to which reference has been made, it must be maintained that President Wilson’s historical and political writings have in them the essential elements of permanence, proving themselves capable of standing the test of time and, indeed, of becoming more and more appreciated as the years pass on. Their intellectual groundwork, their clear and copious diction, and their inherent literary quality and temper will ensure their perpetuity. It is because they have in them the principle and potency of life that they will defy decadence.

Intellectual without being pedantic; clear without being commonplace; concise without being enigmatic and literary without being ornate. President Wilson’s prose style is pervaded by his unique and virile personality, offering a suggestive combination of the juristic and forensic, that of the lawyer at the bar and the orator in the public forum.

Though not a popular writer, even in the legitimate sense of that term, as Macaulay and Prescott are popular, he is the kind of a writer that the world will always need to quicken and stimulate and elevate it. It is because President Wilson’s writings deal with vital subjects in a vital manner, in a rare order of English and in a purely literary spirit that the world will not “willingly let them die.”

This was originally published in the June 4, 1924 issue of PAW.