Woodrow Wilson: A Frenzied Pedagogue

November 1, 2013 Topics: The PresidencyPolitics Regions: United States

Woodrow Wilson: A Frenzied Pedagogue

Mini Teaser: From Princeton to the presidency, he never doubted that he was right. He should have—and so should his biographers.

by Author(s): Amity Shlaes

But the impression of the War Between the States upon Wilson was not and could not be merely emotional. No, the environment was rich with contradictions that could not escape a perspicacious child. Wilson’s first schoolmaster was a veteran who called the Civil War the “War of Southern Independence.” Wilson came to chafe at the economic hypocrisy of the commerce-oriented North, which backed a tariff system that disadvantaged commerce of all kinds relating to agriculture. Moreover, Wilson was in Augusta, Georgia, when federal agents arrested Jefferson Davis, and he believed that the Civil War was not only about slavery but also about a subjugation of states and regions by a predatory national power. “A boy never gets over his boyhood,” the president explained, and “never can change those subtle influences which have become part of him.” Indeed. As president, Wilson approved of the extension of segregation in the federal civil service.

As boy and then man, Wilson often struggled. Wilson had trouble reading, suffering from what we today call dyslexia. Detached even as a youth, Wilson found his teachers and peers did not always recognize his brilliance or favor a youth they rated as prissy. The 1883 purchase of a typewriter changed his life. The young man first enrolled at the College of New Jersey, and then studied law at the University of Virginia. Disliking what he discovered of the practice of law, and unwilling to descend to the level of soliciting clients, Wilson determined to become a professor. Around the same time, his loneliness ended. He fell hard for Ellen Louise Axson, the daughter of another Presbyterian minister. She reciprocated Wilson’s ardor.

Berg is among the first to focus on the extensive epistolary exchanges between the two lovers. The intensity of their affection for each other quickly emerges: Wilson worshipped Ellen as though he had never had another friend. It was to Ellen that the young man revealed his greatest secret: “I do feel a very real regret that I have been shut out from my heart’s first—primary—ambition and purpose, which was, to take an active if possible a leading, part in public life and strike out for myself, if I had the ability, a statesman’s career.” Wilson’s passion is so great that the reader fears that Ellen will dump him. But she did not, and the pair married just as Wilson commenced teaching, lecturing at a women’s college, Bryn Mawr, and then at Wesleyan in Connecticut, before returning to the College of New Jersey.

There Wilson experienced some of his greatest triumphs.

As Berg notes, Wilson early on gravitated toward certain philosophies and shunned others. He was not a fan of moral complexities. The young teacher approved of the conservative authority of a monarch, at least as described by Edmund Burke. He respected democracy more than the Constitution, which, he wrote in an 1885 book, Congressional Government, was “only the sap center” of governance. In 1905, the Supreme Court struck down a New York state law limiting the number of hours a baker might work, arguing that the law compromised the “liberty of the individual” to make a contract.

The case, Lochner v. New York, outraged many progressives, Wilson among them. In a second book, published in 1908, Wilson warned that “the Constitution was not meant to hold the government back to the time of horses and wagons.” This lapidary phrase influenced future presidents, especially Franklin Roosevelt. After learning that the Supreme Court had rejected the labor rules of his National Recovery Administration, FDR acidly paraphrased Wilson and suggested that the new case, Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, was taking America back to the “horse and buggy definition of interstate commerce.”

Suspecting Congress, both Senate and House, of political mediocrity, Wilson also concluded that “the best rulers are always those to whom great power is intrusted.” The American system of checks and balances irritated the academic in Wilson. He wrote, “The federal government lacks strength because its powers are divided.” Wilson preferred the all-or-nothing and love-me-or-leave-me approach of the parliamentary system, where the prime minister rules until he loses the confidence of lawmakers.

EVEN AS he typed and argued, Wilson’s family grew. Soon he and Ellen could count three daughters, Eleanor, Margaret and Jessie, all of whom adored him. Wilson’s family formed a moat between him and the rest of the world. Wilson had little to do with the eating clubs and the social whirl of Princeton (as the college was renamed in 1896), later captured by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which he regarded with anathema and sought to anathematize. In the classroom, the firm-jawed, erect and pious Wilson inspired his students. Like his father, he relished preaching to his flock. In 1902, the college’s trustees named Wilson president, the first man to hold that job who was not an ordained minister. Wilson envisioned what he called “a Princeton in the nation’s service.”

Soon he would demand that America play a similar role for the world. His appreciation for the value of executive authority was heightened by his promotion. Working on an early speech to the Princeton community, Wilson confessed to Ellen, “I feel like a new prime minister getting ready to address his constituents.”

Reforming a university is a risky venture that can cost an unwary president his post. A few years later at Amherst College, another gifted president, Alexander Meiklejohn, flamed out in trying to lead his college toward “service” and away from the clutches of the Protestant Church. The trustees in the Connecticut Valley, including President Calvin Coolidge, ended up dismissing Meiklejohn, leaving their beloved school a mass of recriminations, embarrassments and tears. As Berg shows, Wilson moved with alacrity to extrude students who failed to work hard enough or who violated the Princeton honor code. The mother of a boy expelled for cheating wrote to Wilson and tried emotional blackmail: “I am to have an operation and I think I shall die if my boy is expelled.” Wilson would have none of it. “Madam,” he replied, “we cannot keep in college a boy reported by the student council as cheating; if we did, we should have no standard of honour. You force me to say a hard thing, but, if I had to choose between your life or my life or anybody’s life and the good of this college, I should choose the good of the college.”

A ferocious recruiter, Wilson went after his academic prey with the same single-mindedness Theodore Roosevelt exhibited in pursuing an African elephant. Wilson offered a young Chaucer scholar at Yale named Robert Root a salary of $2,000, on the high side, and interviewed him for only forty minutes, during which time, Root remembered later, “Wilson asked no questions but spoke only of his plans for Princeton.” By the end Root was spellbound, so much so that had Wilson asked him to “work under him while he inaugurated a new university in Kamchatka or Senegambia,” Root recalled, “I would have said ‘yes’ without further question.” Root added, “I think that no university in the country has ever, before or since, added to its faculty at one blow so large.”

Equally intrepid as a fundraiser, Wilson studied donors for their quirks. While not officially a minister like his father, Wilson approached his targets with an unapologetic missionary zeal. Many on Wilson’s list of likelies were Presbyterians, and, as Berg notes, Wilson had no trouble “shamelessly bagpiping Princeton’s heritage wherever he could.” Wilson worked hard to extract millions from Andrew Carnegie, the great industrialist-turned-philanthropist, boasting to the old boy that he himself was “of pure Scots blood” and that Princeton was “thoroughly Scottish in all her history and traditions.” Scot that he was, Carnegie stayed tight, coughing up not hoped-for millions but a measly $100,000 for the conversion of swampland into a lake for Princeton’s crew team. Wilson pocketed the money but expressed his disappointment: “We needed bread and you gave us cake.”

But under Wilson, Princeton became Princeton. Millions were raised, and those millions were spent well. The college got a real campus with quadrangles. It deepened its academic bench with respected scholars, and took its place among the serious universities. The New York Evening Post observed: “He has ruined what was universally admitted to be the most agreeable and aristocratic country club in America by transforming it into an institution of learning.” To be sure, there were moments of failure, even at Princeton. Wilson had been ferociously battling with his former chum Andrew F. West, dean of the graduate school at Princeton, over the establishment of a new graduate college with quads and tutorials based on the Oxford model. Wilson wanted it located in the heart of the college; West believed it should be separate. Wilson saw opposition to his plans not simply as an intellectual disagreement, but also as traitorous. He would not compromise. But his uncompromising stance meant that just as he would fail in the League of Nations debate, so he lost the conflict with West after a wealthy Princeton alumnus named Isaac Wyman left his estate to the college and named West as one of two executors. Wilson was finished. “We have beaten the living,” he told his wife, “but we cannot fight the dead. The game is up.”

Pullquote: Does the record of the twenty-eighth president actually warrant superstar status? Or was his record more mixed than his fans acknowledge?Image: Essay Types: Book Review