Born in Virginia in 1856 to a Presbyterian minister of modest means, Thomas Woodrow Wilson first flowered as an academic. He joined the faculty of Princeton University in 1890, became one of the school’s most beloved professors and was elevated to its presidency 12 years later. Throughout this period of intensive teaching and public lecturing, he published a torrent of magazine articles and books on government and history. It did not take long for New Jersey’s power brokers to recognize in Wilson the radiant raw material of a first-rate politician.
Wilson’s aspirations ranged elsewhere, too. He was a romantic. First he fell in love with a cousin who gently rejected him, despite a barrage of pleas, flowers and love letters. Then came his equally passionate courtship of and marriage to Ellen Axson, to whom he remained devoted until her death in 1914. Devastated by her loss, he nonetheless found love again with the widow Edith Bolling Galt, who became his wife, closest confidant and heart’s joy until his death in 1924.
Elected governor of New Jersey in 1910, Wilson had only two years to work his wonders on the Garden State before being snatched away to run for president. Despite his newness to politics, he triumphed over the incumbent William Howard Taft, former president Theodore Roosevelt and the high-profile Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debs. Generally progressive in his outlook and a vocal supporter of women’s suffrage, Wilson nonetheless turned his back on black Americans, permitting the Postal Service and Treasury Department to segregate the races.
A. Scott Berg understandably devotes most of his new biography to Wilson’s evolution from the man who “kept us out of war” in his first term of office to his full-fledged engagement in WWI during his second term. Always viewing himself as a peacemaker—and with good reason—he was nonetheless ruthlessly efficient when it came to raising troops, building war industries, turning the country in favor of war and punishing war opponents, including Debs, whose prison term he steadfastly refused to commute after the war. After spending six months in Europe trying to establish the League of Nations and minimize the rancor and disruption caused by the war, Wilson was outraged to discover he couldn’t sell the League or terms of peace to his own Senate.
Wilson is an epic, meticulously documented and immensely readable account of a truly thoughtful and forward-looking president who deserves more from history than he has yet received. This is a marvelous corrective.