I wanted to get to Woodrow Wilson for some time on this presidential biography journey. I knew enough to know that he was incredibly influential in the direction that this country has taken in the last 100 years. Surprisingly, very few people are aware of his impactful presidency and know little more about him than any one of other dozens of forgotten presidents. Additionally, Wilson is an enigma to me. He is known for his Christian faith and in some ways is one of the fathers of a movement that has lead our nation far away from God. Let’s just say that I got what I needed from the incredibly well written biography by Scott Berg of Woodrow Wilson.
On the level of biography, this book was outstanding. To be sure, it was written as a biography, not a political treatise. Berg clearly appreciated Wilson but did not hide his flaws. Further, this biographer would probably not even conclude in any way similar to me about Wilson’s political legacy, yet this is one of the better presidential biographies that I’ve read.
Now for Wilson himself. One thing that I’ve tried to do in my presidential biography reviews that maybe no one else does is to make a concerted effort to probe the president’s religious background and corresponding influence upon his life. In the lives of several presidents I have discovered that there is very little religious influence. Wilson, however, was profoundly religious. Christian ideals that were peaking in some circles in his day were highly evident in him. Only in a careful reading of his life story can you put together his complex religious views. Again, that’s why this biography was so helpful to me.
His father was a prominent Presbyterian minister. Wilson was born in Virginia and his dad pastored churches in Georgia and South Carolina in his formative years. The effects of the Civil War and Reconstruction and the race relations in the south surrounding those events we’re deeply imbibed into his psyche. Though I hate how the term racist is thrown around in our day to the point that the concept becomes meaningless, Wilson had some racist views. These views led him to see Black people as inferior, yet his religious beliefs at least required him to treat them civilly though he always wanted them kept in their place.
Another factor in the person Woodrow Wilson is his academic career. He is the only president we have had who was truly a political scientist that possessed a PhD. he wrote influential scholarly works on history and politics and had an incredible career Princeton University that culminated in his ascendancy to the presidency of the University. He truly had a national influence even in that capacity. If you dig a little farther as I have done it matters that go beyond the scope of this biography, you will learn that Wilson rejected several concepts of our founding fathers. These rejections are neither subtle nor minor, and successfully birthed the progressive movement in our nation.
Wilson’s religious beliefs are paramount in this new direction. I’ve done much more reading in theology in my life and know that in the later 1800s Christian scholarship took a hard turn to the left because of German scholarly influence. Other similar influences were taking hold of universities and Wilson was similarly influenced. He went on record as saying that our government was founded on the Newtonian viewpoint but modern science has taught us that we should take a Darwinian viewpoint. Therefore, governments are to always be evolving and the needs of the current generation are unique and principles at the Founding cannot be a straight jacket to us.
To be fair to Wilson, he saw no incongruence with his Christianity and these beliefs. In many ways, he lived his life with fidelity to his Christian principles. In fact, he seem to hold tightly to Calvinistic doctrine and perhaps believed in redemption though this biography did not go that far. He kept the Sabbath, attended church faithfully, enjoy good sermons, and in many ways, he lived his life with firm adherence to his Christian principles and ethics. He seemed to love his wife until she died. He had a friendship with a lady that Berg went out of his way to argue that no physical adultery transpired. There is evidence that Wilson expressed regret about that friendship and after his first wife died he seemed to again truly love his second wife.
At times he may have even seen himself as a Christian crusader. Elements of his personality, perhaps, worked against him as well. He was so sure he was right that he almost never compromised or considered other viewpoints. What he thought was always right to his mind and his mission was to convince everyone else and lead them there. He lost the respect of several colleagues both in his university presidency and as president of the United States for this flaw of character. Both of those presidencies ended on a sour note after a period of soaring popularity and accomplishment. It seemed he was always ready to die on the hill of getting 100% of what he wanted.
While I vehemently disagree with both his political and religious philosophies, I must admit that I find him sincere. I would not feel that way about several who followed in his footsteps, but he believed in what he championed.
Back to the biography. Even the chapters that covered his career at Princeton were highly readable. I felt the only weakness of the book was its coverage of World War I. It seem to be viewed from a far, though by the limitations of that age, that is probably how Wilson lived it. The frustrations of the Versailles conference and Wilson’s inflexibility were tragic but well presented. Berg did a great job in eliciting pity for Wilson in the sad story of his life from the failure of getting his treaty passed and his League of Nations off the ground, all followed by an incapacitating stroke. Yes, the nation was misled by his wife and doctor, but fortunately no great harm came from it. Wilson died thinking himself a failure. Were he alive today, he might realize his progressivism with some changes thrives. What FDR gets credit for, could fairly be attributed to Wilson who FDR thought heroic.
Your assessment of Woodrow Wilson probably directly corresponds to your political opinions. Still, we can all enjoy this biography!