Man of letters to his finger tips — Made history fascinating and political science interesting — His father taught him to think in definitions — That training and wide reading responsible for his elegant style — Made history as President as he had written it as citizen
"The historian needs consummate literary art as much as candor and common honesty." — Wilson
Long before he became President, Mr. Wilson had been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters whose constitutional qualification for membership is "notable achievement in art, music or literature." That honor came not because he was a professor of history and jurisprudence. It was awarded because his historical writings were literature in the highest sense of the word. He fully exemplified his own assertion that "the historian needs an imagination quite as much as he needs scholarship, and consummate literary art as much as candor and common honesty." "Whatever else he may be," said an English critic, "President Wilson is a man of letters to his finger tips — a man steeped in literary traditions, and possessed of fine literary gifts. He can make political science readable to the layman, and he can make history fascinating without imparting to it the cheap over-coloring of fiction or the hectic fervor of partisanship."
"Congressional Government," Mr. Wilson's first p85 published work, appeared in 1885, six years after his graduation. It had been prepared as the thesis required for his degree of Doctor of Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University. Most academic dissertations are soon buried in oblivion, but the brilliancy of this one raised it at once to the rank of a political classic, and brought its author an immediate reputation in the world of learning. It is an analysis of our legislative procedure, describing the American national system in contrast with the British. In vivacity and incisiveness of style it has often been favorably compared with Bagehot's famous work on the English Constitution.
Four years later came "The State: Elements of Historical and Practical Politics" (1889), a comprehensive manual tracing government to its origins and analyzing its ancient, medieval, and modern types. A pioneer work in the field of knowledge treated, it was one of the earliest examples of the new historical method applied to the subject of political science. Critics on both sides of the Atlantic gave it a warm welcome, a distinguished English scholar saying: "Mr. Wilson will be considered as the foremost of those who rendered possible an intelligent study of a department of sociology upon which the happiness and good government of the human race essentially depend."
"Division and Reunion, 1829‑1889" (1893), is an able summary of the larger features of American public affairs from the election of Andrew Jackson to the end of the first century of the Constitution. As a general history of political development during the period covered it shows extensive knowledge, unusual power of summarizing, an acute political sense, fine impartiality of judgment, and an admirable sense of proportion. His p86 insight into the tendencies of the times, the vivid manner in which the views of parties and contemporary political life are characterized show historical talent of a high order. The style is easy and flowing, striking phrases flash out brilliantly and often, and there are few if any other books on this important period which are so thoroughly enjoyable to read.
The "Life of George Washington" is a masterpiece of biography. The first President is shown in the proper setting of his own eighteenth century age and time — as the Virginia country gentleman, frontier-surveyor, and military commander. It is a history of the times written as an epic, the events being grouped about the personality of the hero but with the figures of the men who surrounded him also delineated with a sure and vivid touch. Again the narrative is one full of charm and the style singularly careful and polished.
President Wilson's best known and most widely read work, "A History of the American People" (1902), was written during the years of his Princeton incumbency. It originated in his desire to find a means whereby he might continue his study of governmental problems. The work is designedly popular in character and treatment of its subject, and was frankly intended for the general reader rather than for scholars and specialists in American history. But it is an able summary of American political history and none but a true man of letters could have given the book its fine literary flavor and form. The author sets forth the approved modern judgment of the great questions and great men of American origin; his frank democratic bias is never concealed, but it never disturbs his imperturbable fairness. Very few men, with his Southern antecedents, could have kept p87 such an admirable balance between extreme Northern and Southern views. President Wilson showed himself almost wholly devoid of sectional prejudice of any sort. Good judges consider the chapters dealing with the Jacksonian period the best of all. The dominating presence of masterful men is everywhere felt, and one catches the spirit of the time and the very atmosphere of its life from the glowing, vivid word-painting. It was the frequently expressed opinion that this "History" does for the United States what J. R. Green's "Short History" did for England. Like Macaulay, Froude, Motley, Parkman, and Green, Mr. Wilson never forgot that written history must be, if possible, literature as well as accurate assembling of facts. The opening paragraph of the chapter entitled "The Swarming of the English" illustrates the ease and pictorial quality of his narrative style:
"It was the end of the month of April, 1607, when three small vessels entered the lonely capes of the Cherokee, bringing the little company who were to make the first permanent English settlement in America, at Jamestown, in Virginia. Elizabeth was dead. The masterful Tudor monarchs had passed from the stage and James, the pedant king, was on the throne. The 'Age of the Stuarts' had come, with its sinister policies and sure tokens of revolution. Men then living were to see Charles lie dead upon the scaffold at Whitehall. After that would come Cromwell; and then the second cause, 'restored,' would go his giddy way through a demoralizing reign, and leave his sullen brother to face another revolution. It was to be an age of profound constitutional change, deeply significant for all the English world; and the colonies in America, notwithstanding p88 their separate life and the breadth of the sea, were to feel all the deep stir of the fateful business. The revolution wrought at home might in crossing to them suffer a certain sea-change, but it would not lose its use or its strong flavor of principle."
"Constitutional Government in the United States" (1908) exhibits Mr. Wilson's high quality as a thinker and is in many ways the most complete expression of his political ideas. Particularly in this work did he show his belief that the President of the United States, both by reason of the duties imposed upon him and by his relation to the rest of the government and to the people, must almost necessarily be the leader of his party as well as the leader of the nation. This carefully considered conclusion of Wilson the scholar will be borne in mind when judging the public acts of Wilson, party leader and president. In the latter capacities he was but following out the conclusions reached after prolonged study and thought in the quiet of his academic home.
Thoughtful readers will note another impressive and significant fact in the work of this scholar and historian. His "Constitutional Government," "Life of Washington," and "History of the American People" are all essentially studies in leadership, and throughout them all there runs a quiet consciousness of his own power. He writes, as afterwards he came to speak, as one having authority.
After entering public life he no longer had time or opportunity for sustained study and literary composition. As from time to time he was called upon to express himself upon the great political, social, and international questions of the hour, it was chiefly through the spoken word that he had to convey the conclusions and opinions formed in his richly stored mind. And yet, so thorough p89 was his knowledge of the subjects dealt with and so perfect his command of English, that many of the stenographic reports of his extemporaneous speeches read like finished examples of carefully composed written work. This is notably true of the addresses contained in "The New Freedom" (1913). There is not a page in it that a man of letters might not be content to have written at leisure; there is not a suggestion that the flowing sentences were spoken in the glare and heat and excitement of public platforms. And the subject matter is as good as the form, for, as Mr. Wilson himself said, "they are an attempt to express the new spirit of our politics and to set forth, in large terms which may stick in the imagination, what it is that must be done if we are to restore our politics to their full spiritual vigor, and our national life to its purity, its self-respect and its pristine strength and freedom."
With the coming of the Great War all the resources of his scholarship, his knowledge of history, and his gift of expression were drawn on to the utmost. The writer who had long labored in the still air of delightful studies now became the inspired spokesman of a great nation, and indeed of the masses of the peoples of other nations. No other President, probably, has accomplished so much of his work through the successful use of written and spoken appeals to the Congress, to the American people and to the public opinion of the world. They aroused the attention and extorted the admiration of the leaders of thought and affairs in all the allied countries. They shaped contemporary events not only in the current sense but in the larger aspects of history. Their remarkable literary quality would alone be sufficient to insure their being read by generations yet unborn. His incisive, p90 clear-cut, throbbing sentences and paragraphs helped to crystallize the vague longings of right-thinking men in all nations. They were the articulate expression of the hopes of the world, and for Americans the clarifying and vigorous definition of their national purposes and ideals in the war:
"Our object is to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power and to set up amongst the really free and self-governed peoples such a concert of purpose and of action as will henceforth insure the observance of these principles."
"We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and freedom of nations can make them."
Convinced belief in democracy runs through all the messages and addresses like a golden thread. In his mind, the means of bringing about democratic government comes from within, not from without, by moral, not by physical force. "I have not read history," he said, "without observing that the greatest forces in the world and the only permanent forces are the moral forces." That was ever his keynote, and if it had its origin in his ancestry, it had been reinforced through wide historical study and keen observation of the men and events of his own time.
In the domain of pure belles-lettres, Mr. Wilson's finest efforts are to be found in the two volumes of his literary and historical essays, "An Old Master" (1893) p91 and "Mere Literature" (1896). These essays indicate the wide range of his reading — "a thoughtful, brooding, vital kind of reading," Bliss Perry calls it — and show the windows from which he looked out upon the world and grew human by seeing all its play of force and folly. His pages breathe an intense love of literature and of the fine things of literature, the expressions of a broad and catholic humanity. The following is a significant passage: "There is more of a nation's politics to be got out of its poetry than out of all its systematic writers upon public affairs and constitutions. Epics are better mirrors of manners than chronicles; dramas oftentimes let you into the secrets of statutes; orations stirred by a deep energy of emotion or resolution, passionate pamphlets that survive their mission because of the direct action of their style along permanent lines of thought, contain more history than parliamentary pamphlets."
When he was fifty Wilson expressed regret that his style had not improved, though he had "sedulously cultivated" it. He knew, to quote from one of his own essays, that the ear of the world must be "tickled in order to be made attentive — that clearness, force and beauty of style are absolutely necessary to one who would draw men to his way of thinking; nay, to anyone who would induce the great mass of mankind to give so much as passing heed to what he has to say." Demosthenes would have made little impression on the Athenians but for his style; Cicero would not have been listened to in the Roman forum but for his style; it was the style of Burke that carried his words across the channel to France and across the ocean to America; the style of Rousseau started a revolution.
It was Wilson's style in which he dressed his appeals p92 for peace that helped him to reach the heart of men all over the world. To a remarkable style he added wit that was never lacking in appositeness and brilliancy. "For light on a dark subject," he said, "commend me to a ray of wit." He explained in "Mere Literature":
"Wit does not make a subject light, it simply beats it into shape to be handled readily. For my part, I make free acknowledgment that no man seems to me master of his subject who cannot take liberties with it, who cannot slap his propositions on the back and be hail fellow well met with them.
"Most of your solemn explanations are mere farthing candles in the great expanse of a difficult question. Wit is not, I admit, a steady light, but ah! its flashes give you sudden glimpses of unsuspected things such as you will never see without it. It is the summer lightning which will bring more to your startled eye in an instant, out of the hiding of the night, than you will ever be at the pains to observe in the full blaze of noon."
As a stylist few writers in his own field equal and none excel him. But that easy, graceful, unfaltering command of language that marked his middle and later years was the result of a long apprenticeship and assiduous practice in the art and craft of writing. President Wilson was accustomed to give his father the credit for his style of expression. "My best training came from him," he said. "From the time I began to write until his death in 1903 at the age of eighty-one, I carried everything I wrote to him. He would make me read my writing aloud, which was always painful to me. Every now and then he would stop me. 'What do mean by that?' I would tell him, and of course in doing so would express myself more simply than I had on paper. 'Why didn't p93 you say so?' would be his reply. And so I came to think in definitions."
But this, of course, was only part of his training. Another and principal part was his loving study of the best models of our language, especially his favorites — Burke, Lamb, Boswell's Johnson, Bagehot, Stevenson, and others. All combined to create that finished, sensitive, intimate style which he made such a masterly instrument of expression adaptable to any literary purpose. His language has all the elegance of classic English and yet it is shot through and through with the phrase and the feel of the man in the street. It was his books and his writings with which he was occupied when the lights in his Princeton study burned late, and the click of his typewriter was heard through the open window by neighbors and midnight wayfarers.
But those years of devoted labor gave back a rich fruitage. As scholar, historian, and man of letters his literary productions everywhere reveal a vigorous mind, a fine culture, high ideals, and a broad, sympathetic humanity, ideal qualities in the future leader of a great nation.
If Wilson's health had permitted, the volumes he intended to write would have made a history of his own times that would have been illuminating and invaluable. A few days before the war, speaking to an intimate friend, he outlined that after his term expired he intended to write. He sketched his plan with some detail and with enthusiasm. Some of the chapters, he said, would tell truths that "wouldn't be complimentary to some individuals."
Years before, visiting his father in Wilmington, N. C., during his illness, Mr. Wilson spoke freely and p94 intimately to Dr. James Sprunt, a cherished friend, of his hopes and ambitions. They centered in the books he hoped to write and the faith he hoped to make living on the printed page. But when illness fell upon him, he knew that those long cherished ambitions could not be realized.
He died with his greatest book unwritten.
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