Woodrow Wilson ’79 As A Senior.
Princeton Alumni Weekly. December 5, 1917 issue.

To be a literary artist, a writer must possess a constructive imagination. He must be a man of feeling and have the gift of imparting to others some share of his own emotions. On almost every page of President Wilson’s writings, as in almost all his policies, whether educational or political, is stamped the evidence of shaping, visionary power. Those of us who have known him many years remember well that in his daily thought and speech he habitually proceeded by this same poetic method, first growing warm with an idea and then by analogy and figure kindling a sympathetic heat in his hearers.

The subjects that may excite an artist’s imagination are infinitely numerous and belong to every variety of conceivable life. A Coleridge or a Renan will make literature out of polemical theology; a Huxley will write on the physical basis of life with emotion and in such a way as to infect others with his own feelings; a Macaulay or a Froude will give what color he please to the story of a nation and compel all but the most wary readers to see as through his eyes. We are too much accustomed to reserve the title of literary artist for the creators of fiction, whether in prose or in verse. Mr. Wilson is no less truly an artist because the vision that fires his imagination, the vision he has spent his life in making clear to himself and others and is now striving to realize in action, is a political conception. He has seen it in terms of life, as a thing that grows, that speaks, that has faced dangers, that is full of promise, that has charm, that is fit to stir a man’s blood and demand a world’s devotion; no wonder he has warmed to it, no wonder he has clothed it in the richest garments of diction and rhythm and figure.

Woodrow Wilson ’79 As Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Economy in 1890.
Woodrow Wilson ’79 As Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Economy in 1890.
Princeton Alumni Weekly. December 5, 1917 issue.
There are small artists and great artists. Granted an equal portion of imagination and ad equal command of verbal resources, and still there will be this difference. It is an affair of more or less intellectual depth and more or less character. If character were the only one of these two things to be considered in the case of Mr. Wilson’s writings, one might with little or no hesitation predict that the best of them would long remain classics. They are full of character, of a high and fine character. They have a tone peculiar to themselves, like a man’s voice, which is one of the most unmistakable properties of a man. It would be no reflection on an author to say that his point of view in fundamental matters had changed in the course of thirty or forty years; but the truth is that with reference to his great political ideal Mr. Wilson’s point of view has not widely changed. The scope of his survey has been enlarged, he has filled up the intervening space with a thousand observations, he sees his object with a more penetrating and commanding eye; but it is the same object that drew to itself his youthful gaze, and has had its part in making him

“The generous spirit, who, when brought among the tasks of real life, hath wrought

Upon the plan that pleased his boyish thought.”

The world, in time, will judge of the amount of knowledge and the degree of purely intellectual force that Mr. Wilson has applied in his field of study. A contemporary cannot well pronounce such a judgment, especially if the province be not his own.

In the small space at my disposal I shall try, first, to say what I think is the political conception or idea upon which Mr. Wilson has looked so steadily and with so deep emotion that he has made of it a poetical subject. And then I shall venture to distinguish those processes of imagination, that artistic method, which we call style, by which he has elucidated its meaning for his readers so as to win for it their intelligent and moved regard. The inquiry will take into account his earliest book, “Congressional Government,” published in 1885, “Division and Reunion,” 1893, “An Old Master and Other Political Essays,” 1893, “Mere Literature and Other Essays,” 1896, “George Washington,” 1897, “A History of the American People,” 1902, “Constitutional Government in the United States,” 1908, and a volume, issued very recently in England, containing some of the President’s statements on the war and entitled ‘America and Freedom.” I am sorry to say I have not read his text-book, “The State,” but it is so well known to a whole generation of Princeton graduates that my opinion of it would be superfluous.

President Wilson coming out of the Engine House on Chambers Street, after Voting in the Election of 1917.
President Wilson coming out of the Engine House on Chambers Street, after Voting in the Election of 1917.
Princeton Alumni Weekly. December 5, 1917 issue.
Like a strong current through these works runs the doctrine that in a good government the law-making power should be also the administering power and should bear full and specific responsibility; safeguards against ill-considered action being provided in two directions, by the people on the one hand, and on the other hand by law and custom, these latter being considered historically, as an organic growth. He finds the elements and essentials of this doctrine in our Constitution, though somewhat obscured by the old “literary” theory of checks and balances. He finds it more fully acknowledged in the British Constitution. He finds it originating in our English race, enunciated at Runnymede, developing by a slow but natural growth in English history, sanctioned in the Petition of Right, the Revolution of 1688, and the Declaration of Rights, achieved for us in our own Revolution, and illustrated by the implied powers of Congress and the more directly exercised powers of the House of Commons. It is a corollary of this doctrine that the President of the United States, to whom in the veto and in his peculiar relations to the Senate our Constitution gives a very real legislative function, should associate himself closely with Congress, not merely as one who may annul but also as one who initiates policies and helps to translate them into laws. In his “Congressional Government,” begun when was a student in college and finished before he was twenty-eight years old, Mr. Wilson clearly indicates his dissatisfaction with the tradition which would set the executive apart from the legislative power as a check against it and not a co-operating element; and it is a remarkable proof of the man’s integrity and persistent personality that one of his first acts as President was to go before the Congress as if he were its agent.

If any proof of his democracy were required one might point to his rather surprising statement, which he has repeated more than once, that the chief value of Congressional debate is to arouse and inform public opinion. He regards the will of the people as the real source of governmental policy. Yet he is very impatient of those theories of the rights of man which found favor in France in the eighteenth century and have been the mainspring of democratic movements on the Continent of Europe. He regards political liberty, as we know it in this country, as a peculiar possession of the English race to which, in all that concerns jurisprudence, we Americans belong.

The other safeguard against arbitrary action by the combined legislative administrative power is, he declares, national respect for the spirit of those general legal conceptions which, through many centuries, have been making themselves part and parcel of our racial instinct. He perceives that the British Constitution, though unwritten, is as effective as ours and commands obedience fully as much as ours, and that both appeal to a certain ingrained legal sense, common to all the English-speaking peoples. These peoples do not really have revolutions. What we call the American Revolution was only the reaffirming of principles which were as precious in the eyes of most Englishmen as they were in the eyes of Washington, Hamilton, and Madison, but which had been for a time and owing to a peculiar circumstances, neglected or contravened. Political development in this family of nations does not, he maintains, proceed by revolution, but by evolution. On all these points his "Constitutional Government in the United States" is only a richer and more mature statement and illustration of the ideas expressed in his “Congressional Government.” The main thesis of his “George Washington” is that the great Virginian and first American was the truest Englishman of his time, a modern Hampden or Eliot, a Burke in action. Again and again he pays tribute to Chief Justice Marshall, who represented, in our early history, the conception of law as something in its breadth and majesty older and more sacred than the decrees of any particular legislature, and yet capable of being so interpreted as to accommodate itself to progress. Mr. Wilson has from the beginning been an admiring student of Burke. And if Burke has been his study, Bagehot has been his schoolmaster. The choice of book and teacher is significant. “Mere Literature” shows how Mr. Wilson revered them in 1896; his public life proves that he learned their lessons well. In “An Old Master and Other Essays,” he had already paid tribute the genius of Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, who, as compared with Continental writers, illustrate in the field of economics the Anglo-Saxon spirit of respect for customs that have grown by organic processes.

Mr. Wilson’s “Division and Reunion” is an admirable treatment of a question upon which a Southerner might have been expected to write as a Southerner. He has discussed it as an American. His “History of the American People,” though it contains many passages of insight and the charm that comes from intense appreciation of details, is to diffuse and repetitious. A great history should be a combination of a chronicle and a treatise; it should be a record of facts and at the same time a philosophical exposition of an idea. Mr. Wilson’s five-volume work is insufficient as a chronicle and too long for an essay. Yet an essay it really is. Moreover, unless I myself am blinded by prejudice, it makes too much for the errors committed by our government in the reconstruction period after the Civil War. On the whole, with all their faults, the administrations of Grant and Hayes accomplished a task of enormous difficulty, with remarkably little impatience and intemperance. The disadvantage of having been written originally under pressure in monthly installments, for a periodical, are clearly visible in the “History.” There is a too constant effort to catch the eye with picturesque description. Nevertheless, in his book, as in the others, Mr. Wilson evokes in his readers a noble image of that government, constitutional, traditional, democratic, self-developing, which, from the days of his youth, aroused in him a poetic enthusiasm.

And now for the way his imagination works and clothes itself in language. The quality of his mind is poetic, and his style is highly figurative. There have been very few professors, lecturing on abstruse subjects, such as economics, jurisprudence, and politics, who have dared to give so free a rein to an instinct frankly artistic. In the early days of his career, Mr. Wilson was invited to follow two courses which were supposed to be inconsistent with each other. The so-called “scientific” method, much admired at that time even when applied to subjects in which philosophic insight or a sense for beauty are the proper guides, was being urged upon the rising generation of scholars. Perhaps the Johns Hopkins University was the centre of this impulse in America; at least it was thought to be, though the source was almost wholly German. If he had had to be a dry-as-dust in order to be a writer on politics and history, Mr. Wilson would have preferred to turn his attention to biography and literary criticism. But he promptly resolved to disregard the warning of pedants and to be a man of letters through a professor of history and politics. I well remember the irritation, sometimes amused and sometimes angry, with which he used to speak of those who were persuaded that scholarship was in some way contaminated by the touch of imagination or philosophy. He at least would run the risk. And so he sent himself to work cultivating the graces of style no less assiduously than the exactness of science. There is a distinct filiation in his diction, by which, from Stevenson to Lamb and from Lamb to Sir Thomas Browne, one can trace it back to the quaint old prose writers of the seventeenth century. I remember his calling my attention, in 1890 or thereabouts, to the delightful stylistic qualities of those worthies. Many of his colors are from their ink-horns, in which the pigments were of deep and varied hues. When he is sententious and didactic he seems to have caught something of Emerson’s manner. And indeed there is in all his writings a flavor of optimism and a slightly dogmatic, even when thoroughly gentle and persuasive, tone which he has in common with the New England sage.

But in spite of all these resemblances to older authors, Mr. Wilson gives proof in his style of a masterful independence. He is constantly determined to think for himself, to get to the bottom of his subject, and finally to express the matter in terms of his own personality. Especially is this evident in his early works, where he struggles manfully to be himself, even in the choice of words and phrases, weighing and analyzing the most current idioms and often making in them some thoughtful alteration the better to express hi exact meaning. His literary training appears to have been almost wholly English. There are few traces in his writing of any classical reading or of any first-hand acquaintance with French, German, or Italian authors. And indeed in the substance of his thought I wonder if he is sufficiently hospitable to foreign ideas, especially to the vast body of comment on the French Revolution. I imagine few Continental authorities would agree with him in his comparatively low estimate of the importance of that great movement, which he seems to regard with almost unmitigated disapproval.

In Mr. Wilson’s addresses and public letters concerning the War he re-affirms his principles and applies them with high confidence to the fateful problems of this time. His tone has become vastly deeper and sounder since he made his great decision, and from his Speech to Congress, on February 3, 1917, to his Reply to the Pope, last August, it has rung true to every good impulse in the hearts of our people. His letter to the Pope is in every way his masterpiece, in style, in temper, and in power of thought. He has led his country to the place it ought to occupy, by the side of that other English democracy whose institutions, ideals, and destiny are almost identical with our own, as he has demonstrated in the writings of half a lifetime. Let us hope there was prophetic virtue in a passage of his “Constitutional Government,” where, speaking of the relation between our several States and the Union that binds them together, he says they “may yet afford the world itself the model of federation and liberty it may in God’s providence come to seek.”

No one can rise form a perusal of the great mass of Mr. Wilson’s writings without an almost oppressive sense of his unremitting and strenuous industry. From his senior year in college to the present day he has borne the anxieties and responsibilities of authorship. The work has been done with extreme conscientiousness in regard to accuracy and clearness of thinking and with sedulous care of justness and beauty of expression. It might well crown a life with honor. And when we remember the thousands of his college lectures and the hundreds of his miscellaneous addresses which have found no record in print, when we recall the labors of university administration which crowded upon him in middle life, when we consider the spectacle of his calm, prompt, orderly, and energetic performance of public duty in these latter years, our admiration for the literary artist is enhanced by our profound respect for the man.

This was originally published in the December 5, 1917 issue of PAW.