Twenty-eighth President of the United States; b. Staunton, Va., Dec. 28, 1856; Educ. Davidson Coll., N.C., 1874-5; A.B., Princeton, 1879, A.M., 1882; grad. in law, U. of Va., 1881; post-grad. work at Johns Hopkins, 1883-5, Ph.D., 1886; (LL.D., Wake Forest, 1887, Tulane, 1898, Johns Hopkins, 1902, Rutgers, 1902, U. of Pa., 1903, Brown, 1903; Harvard, 1907, Williams, 1908, Dartmouth, 1909; Litt.D., Yale, 1901); pres. Aug. 1, 1902-Oct. 20, 1910, Princeton U.; gov. of N. J., Jan. 17, 1911-Mar. 1, 1913 (resigned); nominated for President in Dem. Nat. Conv. Baltimore, 1912, and elected Nov. 4, 1912, for term, Mar. 4, 1913-Mar. 4, 1917; renominated for President in Dem. Nat. Conv., St. Louis, 1916, and reelected, Nov. 7, 1916; for term Mar. 4, 1917-Mar. 4, 1921; Left for France on the troopship George Washington, Dec. 4, 1918, at the head of Am. Commn. to Negotiate Peace; returned to U.S., arriving in Boston, Feb. 24, 1919; left New York on 2d trip to Europe, Mar. 5; arrived in Paris, Mar. 14; signed Peace Treaty, June 28, 1919.
THE explanation of President Wilson will be found in a certain inferiority. When all his personal history becomes known, when his papers and letters have all been published and read, when the memoirs of others have told all that there is to be told, there will stand clear something inadequate, a lack of robustness, mental or nervous, an excessive sensitiveness, over self-consciousness, shrinking from life, a neurotic something that in the end brought on defeat and the final overthrow. He was never quite a normal man with the average man's capacity to endure and enjoy but a strange, impeded, self-absorbed personality.
History arranged the greatest stage of all time, and on it placed a lot of little figures, "pigmy minds"--all save one, and he the nearest great, an unworldly person summoned from a cloister, with the vision of genius and the practical incapacity of one who has run away from life, hating men but loving all mankind, eloquent but inarticulate in a large way, incapable of true self expression in his chosen field of political action, so self-centered that he forgot the world's tragedy and merged it into his own, making great things little and little things great, one of "life's ironies," the everlasting refutation of the optimistic notion that when there is a crisis fate produces a man big enough to meet it.
The world finds it hard to speak of Mr. Wilson except in superlatives. A British journalist called him the other day, "the wickedest man in the world." This was something new in extravagance. I asked, "Why the wickedest?" He said, "Because he was so unable to forget himself that he brought the peace of the world down in a common smash with his own personal fortunes."
On the other hand General Jan Christian Smuts, writing with that perspective which distance gives, pronounces it to be not Wilson's fault but the fault of humanity that the vision of universal peace failed. Civilization was not advanced enough to make peace without vindictiveness possible.
This debate goes on and on. Mr. Wilson is either the worst hated or the most regretted personality of the Great War. The place of no one else is worth disputing. Lloyd George is the consummate politician, limited by the meanness of his art. Clemenceau is the personification of nationality, limited by the narrowness of his view. Mr. Wilson alone had his hour of superlative greatness when the whole earth listened to him and followed him; an hour which ended with him only dimly aware of his vision and furiously conscious of pin pricks.
You observe this inadequacy in Mr. Wilson, this incapacity to endure, at the outset of his career. It is characteristic of certain temperaments that when they first face life they should run away from it as Mr. Wilson did when, having studied law and having been admitted to the bar, he abandoned practice and went to teach in a girls' school. That was the early sign in him of that sense of unfitness for the more arduous contacts of life which was so conspicuous a trait during his presidency. He could not endure meeting men on an equal footing, where there was a conflict of wills, a rough clash of minds, where no concession was made to sensitiveness and egotism.
Some nervous insufficiency causes this shrinking, like the quick retreat from cold water of an inadequate body. Commonly a man who runs away from life after the first contact with it hates himself for his flight and there begins a conflict inside him which ends either in his admission of defeat and acknowledgement of his unfitness or in his convincing himself that his real motive was contempt of that on which he turned his back. If he admits to himself that he is really a little less courageous, a little more sensitive, a little less at home in this world, then he is gone. If he does satisfy himself that he is superior, has higher ideals, worthier ends, despises the ordinary arts of success he becomes arrogant, merely in self defense.
Mr. Wilson's "intellectual snobbism" was this kind of arrogance, acquired for moral self preservation, like that of the small boy who when his companions refuse to play with him says to himself that he is smarter than they are, gets higher marks in school, that he has a better gun than they have or that he, when he grows up, will be a great general while they are nobody. Almost everyone who feels himself unequal in some direction can satisfy himself that he exceeds in others. It is a common and human sort of arrogance, and Mr. Wilson had it inordinately.
He hated and contemned the law, in which life had given him his first glimpse of his frailty. He would have no lawyers make the peace or draft the covenant of the league of nations. Lawyers were pitiful creatures,--he kept one of them near him, Mr. Lansing, admirably chosen, to remind him of how contemptible they were, living in fear of precedents, writing a barbarous jargon out of deeds and covenants, impeding the freedom of the imagination with their endless citations.
He despised politicians, he despised business men, he despised the whole range of men who pursue worldly arts with success. He despised the qualities which he had not himself, but like all men who are arrogant self protectively he was driven to introspection and analyzed himself pitilessly.
The public got glimpses of these analyses. Sometimes he called that something in him which left him less fit for the world than the average, a little regretfully, "his singletrack mind." Sometimes it leaped to light as an object of pride, his arrogance again, a pride that was "too great to fight," like the common run of men,--in the law courts or on the battlefields. He kept asking himself the question, "Why am I not as other men are?", and sometimes his nature would rise up in protest and he would exclaim that he was as other men were and would pathetically tell the world that he was "misunderstood," that he was not cold and reserved but warm and genial and kindly, only largely because the world would see him as he was.
But always the one safe recourse, the one assurance of personal stability was arrogance. Contempt was the most characteristic habit of his mind. Out of office he is no sage looking charitably at the fumbling of his successor.
A friend who has seen him since his retirement describes him as watching "with supreme contempt" the executive efforts of Mr. Harding. Washington gossip credits him with inventing the phrase, "the bungalow mind," to describe the present occupant of the White House. Another remark of his about the new President is said to have been "I look forward to the new administration with no unpleasant anticipations, except those caused by Mr. Harding's literary style."
There is always his contrast of others with himself to their disadvantage, mentally or morally, as writers, or leaders, or statesmen. So full a life as Mr. Wilson led in the last dozen or more years ought to have made him less self-conscious. A robuster person would have hated with a certain zest, continued with a certain gaiety, laughed as he fought, found something to respect in his foes, seen the curtain fall upon his own activities with a certain cheerfulness.
He seems deficient in resources. He had not that gusto which richly endowed natures ordinarily have. He found no fun in measuring his strength with other men's. There was a certain overstrain about him, which made him cushion himself about with non-resistant personalities. He lacked curiosity. His fine mind seemed to want the energy to interest itself in the details of any subject that filled it, and this was one of his fatal weaknesses at the Peace Conference. Perhaps it was a deficiency of vital force. Moreover he came to his great task tired. His life till he was past fifty was one of defeat. There was the early disappointment and turning back from law practice, the giving up of his youthful ambition for a public career to which he had trained himself passionately by the study of public speaking. Dr. Albert Shaw, who was his fellow student at Johns Hopkins, says that in the University Mr. Wilson was the finest speaker, except possibly the old President of the College, Dr. Daniel Coit Gilman.
Then there were the long years of poverty as a college professor, when he overworked at writing and university extension lectures, to make his small salary as a teacher equal to the support of his family, his three children and his aged parents. There was his failure at literature, for his History of the United States brought him neither fame nor money, the public finding it dull and unreadable.
Then the crowning unsuccess as President of Princeton; for when his luck changed and a political career opened to him as Governor of New Jersey, with trustees and alumni against him, nothing seemed to be before him but resignation and a small professorship in a Southern College. It was a straightened life that he had led when he came to Washington for the first time as President, scandalizing the servants of the White House with the scantness of his personal effects. There had been neither the time nor the means nor probably the energy for larger human contacts. And something inherent always held him back from the world, something which diverted him to academic life, which when he was writing his Congressional Government, his best book, held him in Baltimore, almost a suburb of Washington, where he read what he wrote to his fellow-students at Johns Hopkins, whose livelier curiosity took them often to the galleries of the House and the Senate about which he was writing from a distance.
Those to whom life is kinder than it was during many years to Mr. Wilson have naturally a zest for it. Robuster natures than his even though life averts her face, often preserve a zest for it. Conscious of his powers he seems to have fortified himself against failure with scorn. He had a scorn for the intellects of those who succeed by arts which he did not possess. He had scorn for politicians. He had a scorn for wealth. He had a scorn for his enemies. He had a scorn for Republicans. He had a scorn for the men with whom he had to deal in Europe, the heads of the Allied Governments.
Above all he scorned Lloyd George, an instinct telling him that the British Premier had a thousand arts where he himself, unschooled in conference with equals, had none. He said of Lloyd George just before he sailed for Paris, suspecting him of treachery to the League of Nations, "I shall look him in the eye and say to him Damn you, if you do not accept the League I shall go to the people of Great Britain and say things to them that will shake your government."
When he made this threat he could not foresee that the compromise of the Peace would leave him with so little character that British Liberals, their faith destroyed, should in the end couple his name with their own Premier's and exclaim, "Your man Wilson talks like Jesus Christ, but he acts like Lloyd George!"
More than all others he scorned Lodge. The Massachusetts Senator who had put by scholarship for politics and had won the opportunity to do menial service for a political machine hated the man who had chosen scholarship, for whatever motive, and come out with the Presidency. You hate the man you might perhaps have been if you had chosen more boldly, more according to your heart--if you are like Mr. Lodge.
A life of demeaning himself to politicians, of waiting for dead men's shoes in the Senate, had, however, brought some compensations to Lodge, among others an inordinate capacity to hurt. The Massachusetts Senator could get under the President's skin as no other man could. Washington is a place where every whisper is heard in the White House.
Mr. Lodge's favorite private charge uttered in a tone of withering scorn was that the President failed to respond as a man would to the national insult offered by Germany in sinking the Lusitania because there was something womanish about him and he would tell, to prove it, how Wilson went white and almost collapsed over the news that blood had been shed through the landing of American marines at Vera Cruz.
The President hardly failed to hear this. Perhaps it reminded him of that something in him which he was always trying to forget, that something which diverted his life toward failure at the outset, which once betrayed him, with a strange mixture of the arrogance and inferiority, into his famous words "too proud to fight."
At any rate mutual comprehension and hatred between these two men was instinctive, each having the opposite choice in the beginning and neither in his heart perhaps ever having forgiven himself wholly for his choice. Mr. Wilson could never get Mr. Lodge wholly out of his mind in the last two years of his Presidency, a disability which prevented him from looking quite calmly and sanely at public questions.
The story of the President's appeal for a Democratic Congress in 1918 which has never been fully told, illustrates the bearing this Lodge obsession had upon Mr. Wilson's later fate. When the Congressional election was approaching ex-Congress-man Scott Ferris, then acting as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, went to the President and told him that there was danger of losing both houses of Congress, the lower house not being important, but the Senate as a factor in foreign relations, Mr. Ferris suggested, was indispensable to the Democratic party. Mr. Wilson was more hopeful but agreed to take under advisement some sort of appeal to the country. It was not desired that this should be anything more than a letter, perhaps to Mr. Ferris, intended for publication, and pointing out the need of support for the President's policies in the next Congress.
Shortly afterward Mr. Tumulty, the President's Secretary, brought to the Shoreham Hotel in Washington an appeal to the country for a Democratic Congress and read it to several Democrats gathered there for the purpose, including Homer S. Cummings, who, by that time, had become acting Chairman of the Democratic National Committee and was in charge of the campaign. Mr. Cummings doubted the wisdom of an appeal, couched in such terms as the one Mr. Tumulty read. He took it to Vance McCormick, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who, because he was Chairman of the War Trade Board, was not taking part in the election. Mr. McCormick agreed with Mr. Cummings that the appeal as written would do more harm than good to the Democratic party, saying that the war had not been conducted on a partisan basis, that some of his own associates on the War Trade Board were Republicans and that Mr. Wilson should ask for the reelection of all who had been loyal supporters of the war, whether Republicans or Democrats.
The appeal to the country as it then stood contained a bitter denunciation of Senator Lodge. What Wilson chiefly saw in a Republican victory was himself at the mercy of the man he hated worst, the Massachusetts Senator. Mr. McCormick thought that if the President was going to name names he must, at least, denounce Claude Kitchen, the Democratic leader of the House, as well as Senator Lodge. If Mr. Wilson would ask for the reelection of those who had been loyal, of whatever party, listing the offenders, of both parties, including Mr. Lodge if he must, Mr. McCormick believed that the impression on the country would be favorable and thus a Democratic Congress might be elected.
Being agreed, Mr. Cummings and Mr. McCormick went to the White House and argued for a less partisan appeal. All they accomplished was the striking of Mr. Lodge's name out of the appeal by convincing Mr. Wilson that he could not attack the Republican Senator while ignoring the worse offenses of Mr. Kitchen and Champ Clark in his own party.
For the rest, the President made the appeal more purely personal and more partisan than before. He could not get the Lodge obsession out of his mind. He could not bring himself to ask for the election of members of Mr. Lodge's party. The wisdom of Mr. Cummings and Mr. McCormick was soon vindicated. The appeal with Mr. Lodge's name out was only a shade less impolitic than it would have been with his name in. It gave Mr. Lodge his majority in the Senate and turned the peace into a personal issue between the two "scholars in politics."
By this time Mr. Wilson had lost his sense of actuality. He could ask the nation for a Congress to his liking as a personal due. He could condemn Mr. Lodge as an enemy of those purposes with which we entered the war, simply because Mr. Lodge could hurt him as no other man could. The President had been talking for some months to the whole world and the whole world had listened with profound attention. His mission had taken, unconsciously perhaps, a Messianic character. His enemies were the enemies of God. The ordinary metes and bounds of personality had broken down. The state of mind revealed in the appeal as originally written was the state of mind of the Peace Conference and of the fight over the Treaty and the League which succeeded the Peace Conference. All that happened afterwards, including the pitiful personal tragedy, had become inevitable.
For a while at Paris amid the triumphs of his European reception and the successes of the first few months up to the adoption of the League covenant Mr. Wilson forgot Mr. Lodge, forgot him too completely.
It was my fortune to see him at the apex of his career. He was about to sail for America on that visit which he made here in the midst of the treaty making. His League covenant had just been agreed to. The world had accepted him. Fate had led him far from those paths of defeat and obscurity into which his sensitiveness and shyness had turned him as a youth. He was elated and confident. He looked marvelously fresh and young, his color warm and youthful, his eye alive with pleasure.
He talked long and well, answered questions freely, told stories of his associates at the peace table, especially of one who never read the memoranda his secretaries prepared, who was so deaf that he could not hear a word spoken in conference and who spoke so loudly that no one could interrupt him. "What could one do," Mr. Wilson asked, "to penetrate a mind like that?" M. Clemenceau, who unlike this other commissioner, had eyes and saw not, had ears and neither would he hear, had said to him once, in response to a firm negative, "You have a heart of steel!" "I felt like replying to him," flashed Mr. Wilson, "I have not the heart to steal!"
So well poised, so sure of himself he felt that he could do an extraordinary thing. He could laugh off a mistake. Robuster natures accept mistakes as a child accepts tumbles. Mistakes for Mr. Wilson were ordinarily crises for his arrogance.
You may judge, then, how confident he was at that supreme moment. He could brush aside a great mistake lightly. Someone asked him, "What about the freedom of the seas?"
"The freedom of the seas!" he answered, "I must tell you about that. It's a great joke on me. I left America thinking the freedom of the seas the most important issue of the Peace Conference. When I got here I found there was no such issue. You see the freedom of the seas concerns neutrals in time of war. But when we have the League of Nations there will be no neutrals in time of war. So, of course, there will be no question of the freedom of the seas. I hadn't thought the thing out clearly."
From that moment the decline began. Mr. Wilson had unwisely chosen to have his victory first and his defeats afterward, always bad general ship.
Compromise followed compromise, each one destructive. The fourteen points were impaired until Mr. Wilson hated to be reminded of them by Lloyd George, in the case of Dantzig and the Polish corridor. The dawn of a better world grew dubious. The ardor of mankind cooled. They were at first incredulous, then skeptical.
The President saw only slowly the consequences of that chaffering to which Mr. Lloyd George and M. Clemenceau led him. He was a poor merchant. He dealt in morals and could cast up no daily balance. He was busy with details for which his mind had no sufficient curiosity or energy. Mr. Keynes, in his remarkable description of Mr. Wilson making peace, says that his mind was slow.
Doubtless it was slow in political trading about the council table, just as a philosopher may be slow in the small talk of a five o'clock tea.
Mr. Wilson was out of his element in the conference; Mr. Lloyd George and M. Clemenceau were in theirs. Gradually the conviction entered Mr. Wilson's soul that what was being destroyed at Paris was Mr. Wilson. The figure of Senator Lodge began to rise across the Atlantic, malevolent and evil, the Lodge against whom he had wanted to appeal to the American people.
The strain was telling upon him. He had to sit beside his destroyers with that smiling amiability which Mr. Lansing records in his book. He had to deal with men on a basis of equality, a thing which he had run away from doing in his youth, which all his life had made too great demands upon his sensitive, arrogant nature.
One whose duty it was to see him every night after the meetings of the Big Three reports that he found him with the left side of his face twitching. To collect his memory he would pass his hand several times wearily over his brow. The arduousness of the labor was not great enough to account for this. M. Clemenceau at nearly eighty stood the strain and an assassin's bullet as well. Mr. Lloyd George thrived on what he did. But the issue was not personal with them. Neither was assisting, with difficult amiability, at his own destruction. The time came when he might have had back some of the ground he had given. Mr. Lloyd George offered it to him. He would not have it. What it was proposed to amend was not so much the peace treaty as Mr. Wilson himself, and he could not admit that he needed amendment.
The issue had become personal and Mr. Lodge, upon Mr. Wilson's return, with malevolent understanding, kept it personal. The Republicans made their fight in the one way that made yielding by the President impossible. They made it nominally on the League but really on Mr. Wilson. The President might have compromised on the League, but he could not compromise on Mr. Wilson. Of such involvement in self there could be only one end.
Like a poet of one poem, Mr. Wilson is a statesman of one vision, an inspiring vision, but one which his own weakness kept him from realizing. His domestic achievements are not remarkable, his administration being one in which movements came to a head rather than one in which much was initiated. He might have cut the war short by two years and saved the world much havoc, if he had begun to fight when the Lusitania was sunk. Once in the war he saw his country small and himself large; he did not conceive of the nation as winning the war by sending millions of men to France; he saw himself as winning the war by talking across the Atlantic. At the Peace Conference he did not conceive of his country's winning the peace by the powerful position in which victory had left it; he saw himself as winning the peace by the hold he personally had upon the peoples of Europe. Like Napoleon, of whom Marshal Foch wrote recently, "Il oublia qu'un homme ne peut etre Dieu; qu'au-dessus de l' individu, il y a la nation," he forgot that man can not be God; that over and above the individual there is the nation.
In politics he knew at first better than any other, again to quote Foch, that "above men is morality." This knowledge brought him many victories. But at critical junctures, as in his 1918 appeal to the voters and in the treaty fight, he forgot that morality was above one man, himself. He excelled in appeals to the heart and conscience of the nation, a gift Mr. Harding has not; the lesser arts of the politician, tact and skill in the handling and selecting of men, were lacking.
He forgot in his greatness and aloofness the national passion for equality; which a more brilliant politician, Mr. Roosevelt, appeased by acting as the people's court jester, and which a shrewder politician, Mr. Harding, guards against by reminding the country that he is "just folks" ; and in the end the masses turned upon him, like a Roman mob on a defeated gladiator.
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