28th President of the United States (1913-1921)
Full Name: Thomas Woodrow Wilson
Born: December 29, 1856, Staunton, Virginia
Political Party: Democratic
State Represented: New Jersey
Term: March 4, 1913-March 4, 1921
Age at Inauguration: 56 years, 65 days
Administration: 32nd and 33rd
Congresses: 63rd, 64th, 65th, and 66th
Vice President: Thomas Riley Marshall (1913-1921)
Died: February 3, 1924, 2340 S Street NW, Washington, D.C.
Buried: Washington National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.
2012 Dead Presidents Ranking: 20 of 43 [↔]
I often feel like I’m fighting a losing battle at pointing out how overrated Woodrow Wilson is, but I’m a warrior for what I believe and this will always be a hill that I’m willing to die on. With comparisons that some historians, including myself, are making with Wilson’s version of “idealism” and George W. Bush’s version of “idealism”, I feel like we’re making some ground at showing who Woodrow Wilson was and how maybe his worldview wasn’t nearly as progressive or as perfect as many used to believe. I think it’s important for people to realize the type of leader he was — stubborn, paranoid, uncompromising, and, in the last 18 months of his Presidency, a crippled, gravely-ill, mentally-handicapped man who clung to the Presidency with the help of his wife, a few doctors, and several aides. Is that a good President? I don’t think so. It’s also worth noting that Wilson campaigned for reelection by promising to keep Americans out of the first World War, nearly lost the 1916 election to Charles Evans Hughes anyway, and declared war on Germany less than a month after his second inauguration. On top of that, when the United States finally entered the war, it took far longer to get our troops ready and into the action than it would have had Wilson listened to advice from all over to at least have our military ready as a contingency plan since, you know, most of the rest of the world — including our closest allies — was in the midst of the biggest, bloodiest, and most brutal war in human history. Instead of hitting the ground running and bringing relief to our allies who had been staggering through the stalemate of trench warfare, most of our military was barely even trained, hit the ground crawling instead of running, and did bring an infusion of fresh troops into the war, but could have done so much earlier if President Wilson had at least increased the readiness of our military even as he attempted to protect American neutrality. The delays probably cost hundreds of thousands more lives in the war than would have been lost had the United States been prepared, as it clearly needed to be but wasn’t until 1917 — delays that led Theodore Roosevelt to call Wilson, among other things, “shameful”, “contemptible”,”ignoble”, and “the very worst man we have ever had in his position” , as well as flat-out calling Wilson a “coward”. And, of course, once the war ended, Wilson personally went to Europe to claim his share of the glory from winning the war and be seen as the man who shaped the peace. That “peace” — in the form of the Treaty of Versailles — ended up being so harsh towards Germany that their humiliated population followed Hitler into darkness a decade later and resulted in an even worse world war, not to mention the fact that the Japanese delegations in Versailles were treated so dismissively that they also began planning their next moves. If that wasn’t bad enough, when Wilson returned to the United States and demanded that the Senate ratify the Treaty of Versailles and allow the United States to join the League of Nations, he was so inflexible and unreasonable (as he was in France when he personally negotiated the treaty without allowing input from those Americans who would actually be ratifying it), his obstinance finally went too far. The Senate refused to ratify the treaty, denied American participation in the League of Nations, and gave the President who had earned a doctorate while writing a book on Congressional government a harsh lesson on the balance of power in the United States. I have an endless amount of respect for fellow Presidential historians, but I cannot understand why so many scholars consider Wilson one of the better Presidents in American history. I have him ranked 20th of 43 and even that feels wrong. I don’t think he was a good politician, I don’t think he was a good executive, I don’t think he was a good Commander-in-Chief, I don’t think he was a good man, and I don’t think Woodrow Wilson was good for this country or this world, and I think that was proven by the aftermath of World War I and the build-up to World War II.
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine: 4 of 29
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine: 4 of 31
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine: 7 of 38
1990: Siena Institute: 6 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine: 7 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 6 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll: 13 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership: 11 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 9 of 42
2010: Siena Institute: 8 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre: 6 of 40
The last book that I finished reading was Shooting Victoria: Madness, Mayhem, and the Rebirth of the British Monarchy by Paul Thomas Murphy (BOOK | KINDLE), which explores Queen Victoria’s lengthy reign in England through the eight unsuccessful assassination attempts against her. Most of the attempts were actually pretty pathetic and can barely be considered attempts at assassinating the Queen, but Murphy uses the attacks as the vehicle for a history of VIctoria’s reign and her relationship with the British people. Victoria became Queen after the unpopular Regency Era and the British monarchy was in a troublesome position at the time following the illnesses and unpredictability of King George III, the extravagance and excesses of King George IV, and King William IV’s unremarkable and relatively brief reign.
Queen Victoria’s early reign seemed to suggest that the troubles might continue and her popularity began to wear off after the excitement of Victoria’s coronation. Victoria had been notoriously sheltered while growing up, so her political understanding and practice of politics were far below par when she began Queen. As she learned her role (and, just as important, what she shouldn’t be doing), Victoria took to her job well. When she married Prince Albert, he became a true partner and did wonders with helping Victoria reign, even though he remained a prince consort rather than a King and assumed no official powers. Prince Albert and a house full of children did help change the perception of the British monarchy from a stuffy, ancient, aristocratic lineage of Kings and Queens and Princes and Princesses (which it still was) to a group of human beings. Albert was a public relations wizard and he basically rebranded the British monarchy into the “royal family”, and personalizing the monarchy — giving it faces and hearts and names — did wonders for the popularity of the institution itself, as well as the Queen. The assassination attempts written about in Shooting Victoria didn’t come too close to actually wounding Victoria or endangering the Queen’s life, but they augmented her popularity, especially when the Queen’s subjects saw how she handled the threats. Instead of letting the assassination attempts interrupt her routine or change the way she interacted with the public, the Queen projected a sense of strength and an absence of fear or apprehension; in some cases, Victoria even seemed defiant — an attitude that the British, especially the working-class Londoners, couldn’t help but appreciate.
Eventually, the tragic death of Prince Albert devastated Queen Victoria and changed Victoria’s outlook on life and changed the perception that the British people had of her, but using the assassination attempts as a way to view the ups-and-downs of Victoria’s life and legacy is a very fascinating and original way to tell her story. Plus, the assassination attempts themselves range from ballsy to interesting to just plain laughable, and getting to know a few of the wacky would-be assassins is alone worth the price of Shooting Victoria: Madness, Mayhem, and the Rebirth of the British Monarchy (BOOK | KINDLE).
Wow, I wasn’t planning on turning that into a little book review, but there you go, free of charge!
As for what I am currently reading, I just started Thunder at Twilight: Vienna, 1913-1914 by Frederic Morton (BOOK | KINDLE), which was originally published in 1989 and recently re-released as a 25th anniversary edition by Da Capo Press. I’ve never read the book, but I’ve always heard amazing things about it, so I’m looking forward to getting into it. The story focuses on Vienna (obviously) in the two years leading into World War I. Of course, Austria was a major hot spot for tensions as the world headed to war and this book apparently touches on the incredibly fascinating cast of characters that one would have found in Vienna in 1913 and 1914 — Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, Archduke Fraz Ferdinand (whose assassination in Sarajevo in June 1914 triggered the outbreak of the war), a young and volatile Austrian artist named Adolf Hitler, a group of Communist agitators who would later be recognizable by the names of Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin, Marshal Tito, Sigmund Freud, and others. I’ll give a complete account of my thoughts when I’m finished reading Thunder at Twilight, but I’m already captivated by the remarkable thought that all of these people who had such an influence on history were bouncing around Vienna at one point or another right around the same time (1913-1914). I mean, imagine a young Hitler sketching ideas in a VIennese coffee shop while a young Lenin and Stalin debated with each other at the next table! We don’t know if that ever happened (probably not), but it’s crazy to realize that it could have.
Also…great casting so far on young Hitler, young Lenin, and young Stalin. The younger versions of Hitler and Stalin look just like the real deal.
It was the most colossal misfortune of the century that in this great crisis…our President should be an absolutely selfish, cold-blooded and unpatriotic rhetorician.
Wilson has a great deal of ability of the most sinister type…above all in appealing to whatever is evil or foolish in the average man…
Theodore Roosevelt, on Woodrow Wilson’s leadership during World War I, letter to Arthur Lee, August 17, 1917
On the night of March 18, 1917, several hundred Republican leaders gathered in the Union League Club in New York City. With German U-boats engaging in unrestricted warfare and sinking American ships on the high seas despite United States neutrality in World War I, the Republicans demanded that President Woodrow Wilson declare war against Kaiser Wilhelm II’s belligerent empire, infuse fresh warriors into the stagnant European war, and prove that the U.S. was a truly international power that was only getting stronger in the midst of the American Century.
After the meeting, three of the nation’s most influential and powerful Republicans sat down to dinner in a nearby cafe. Charles Evans Hughes was a former New York Governor, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, and had narrowly lost the 1916 Presidential election to President Wilson four months earlier in one of the closest elections in American history. Theodore Roosevelt was also a former New York Governor, had served as President from 1901-1909, and his third party challenge for the Presidency in 1912 had split the GOP, sabotaged the re-election chances of his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, and ensured Wilson’s first Presidential election victory. Elihu Root, 72, had stepped away from the Senate two years earlier, had previously served as Roosevelt’s Secretary of War and then Secretary of State, and was frequently mentioned as a potential Presidential contender.
As they discussed the crisis at hand and envisioned American entry into the war, Roosevelt — a vicious critic of President Wilson, who disliked TR just as strongly — passionately spoke of his hope to lead American soldiers into battle in Europe much like he had done nearly 20 years earlier with the Rough Riders in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. At 58 years old, Roosevelt was overweight, nearly deaf, blind in one eye, and had never fully recovered from a near-fatal bought of malaria that he contracted during a seven-month-long expedition in unexplored jungles of Brazil a couple of years earlier. Partly due to his age, but mostly due to their contentious relationship, it was unlikely that President Wilson would grant Roosevelt his wish. But with tears welling in his eyes and his voice breaking, the former President told Hughes and Root how badly he hoped to serve his country one last time. ”I must go,” said Roosevelt, “but I will not come back.”
Roosevelt’s emotional declaration dramatically silenced his fellow Republican statesmen at the table. Hughes, who would later become Secretary of State and then Chief Justice of the United States, solemnly looked at Roosevelt (who had once said that the sober, reticent Hughes was a “bearded iceberg”) without saying anything. It was Root, who had served in Roosevelt’s Cabinet throughout almost all of TR’s Presidency, who finally spoke up.
"Theodore, if you can make Wilson believe that you will not come back, he will let you go!"
Well, I think Wilson is tremendously overrated. I think his idealism was essentially an early-20th Century version of George W. Bush’s idealism. Wilson set forth that idea that American knows best, Americans always do right, and the American way is the best way for everyone. It’s presumptuous, paternalistic, and offensive to people from other countries, as it should be.
I think that the punitive expedition of General Pershing that Wilson launched into Mexico after Pancho Villa’s cross-border attack in New Mexico was half-assed and misguided. I think that Wilson waited too long to get Americans ready for World War I when American entry into the war earlier probably could have saved a lot more lives in Europe. When the U.S. finally entered the war, it took longer than it should have for the American forces to get ready to be shipped overseas. The U.S. should have had its soldiers ready, as many American leaders were urging the Wilson Administration to do even before his reelection. On top of that, his selection of William Jennings Bryan as Secretary of State was the wrong choice for that tumultuous period.
What did he do that was good? Well, we’re seeing the disadvantages of the Federal Reserve, but it was a good thing to control the flow of money and calming economic conditions. There were some good things done with anti-trust and child labor laws, and the Adamson Act helped pave the way for an 8-hour workday in the United States.
I’m not the guy to sing Wilson’s praises, however. I think he is a vastly overrated American leader. I think he was a stubborn politician. I think he was a bad person. And, I think he put the country in a lot of danger with the way he tried to dominate the post-war treaty negotiations, the way he tried to sell of the League of Nations as something that Americans should accept because it was a Wilson-supported idea, and the way he hung on to power after a stroke that left him an incapacitated shell who was an emotional, physical, and mental wreck.