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This webpage reproduces an article in the
Mississippi Valley Historical Review
Vol. 11 No. 3 (Dec. 1924), pp414‑419

The text is in the public domain.

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p414 [Book Reviews]

The True Story of Woodrow Wilson. By David Lawrence. (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1924. 368pp.)

The Life of Woodrow Wilson, 1856-1924. By Josephus Daniels. (Chicago, Philadelphia, and Toronto: The John C. Winston Company, 1924. 381pp.)

David Lawrence, in this little volume, has written to some extent in Boswellian vein, (as has also Secretary Daniels in his book). Denying any special tenderness toward himself on Wilson's part, he does claim the advantage which comes from such contacts as an active newspaper man was able to establish in the course of a practically continuous assignment near the late president's person from 1906 to 1924, eighteen most significant years. That period included the contest over the Princeton graduate school, the New Jersey governorship, and the presidency.

Lawrence was already a reporter while studying government at Princeton under Wilson, and he had many opportunities to interview the then college president on his educational policies. Later he attended him on his stumping tours in New Jersey; on the "swing round the circle" which was taken shortly before the Baltimore convention met; he was with Wilson on his great campaign tours of 1912 and 1916, on his preparedness tour earlier in the latter year, and his final League of Nations canvass in 1919. At Washington during the whole of Wilson's two administrations it was this reporter's business to cover the White House news, a circumstance that brought him into almost daily touch with the President himself or else with Secretary Tumulty or members of the cabinet. This reportorial intimacy was continued also during the President's visits to Paris on the peace mission. He was present at the dramatic scene in the national capital on March 4, 1921, when Woodrow Wilson laid down the burden of public office. From that point to his death, February 3, of the present year, Wilson was in seclusion, but the author was in Washington and was able to gather such news about the stricken statesman as penetrated beyond the walls of his home.

From the standpoint of familiarity with Wilson's views on subjects the handling of which constitute the chief interest of his public career, it would not be easy to find a biographer better fitted for the task Mr. Lawrence has undertaken. (The same remark applies to Daniels, with the reservations mentioned later.) As to the result, there will be various p415opinions, depending partly on the persistence of pro-Wilson and anti-Wilson prejudices in general, and especially on divergent views upon a few great issues such as America's entrance into the war. But to those who can read a life of Wilson dispassionately there must come a sense of gratitude for such a book as this, which obviously gives as true a reflection of Wilson's complex personality as can be hoped for, and brings us nearer to an understanding of his attitude toward those tremendous issues which have rent an entire world.

At this moment most of those who are willing to consider Woodrow Wilson at all, would probably agree in asking of a biographer definite answers to questions which his career thrusts into the foreground. Probably the following would be regarded as a fair representation of such questions: What was the secret of that popularity which enabled the Princeton president to win the governorship of New Jersey and elected that same governor to the presidency of the United States for two successive terms? What was the true reason for the break with Germany and America's entrance into the World War? Why did Wilson, against all precedent, attend the peace conference in person? Why did he accept the confessedly defective work of the Versailles conference? Lastly, why did he oppose ratification with reservations by the United States Senate?

The two books before us shed light upon each of these questions, but the discussion below refers to Lawrence only. The author revives the memory of Governor Wilson's vigorous reforming administration in New Jersey, in which he carried his seven-fold program through a reluctant legislature, using the people as his big stick. With the prestige of this solid political achievement and the wide reputation gained in non-partisan addresses from coast to coast, on the swing round the circle, his friends were in position to accomplish the seemingly impossible feat of securing his nomination at Baltimore. The reader is given some means of gauging Wilson's unique powers as a campaigner and some insight into his strength and weakness as a political organizer and strategist. One sees that he repeated, on the national plane, the tactics of his New Jersey legislative campaign, adding, however, touches, like the startling decision to read his messages to Congress in person, by which he felt he had "put one over on Teddy," who would have given a great deal to have thought of such a precedent-smashing device. Having gained the nation's confidence by forcing through Congress the tariff law, the currency-reform bill and other minor measures, Wilson, despite a growing division of sentiment on the European war and the hopeless Mexican imbroglio, was able to pass safely through the canvass of 1916 and to front the grim responsibility of leadership in war.

p416 Our biographer confirms the view, already widely held, that the President was not more neutral in spirit than were other Americans who sensed what had taken place in Europe since July, 1914. He believed, up to a certain point, that the true course for this nation was to be neutral in conduct in order that, the war once ended satisfactorily, we might the better aid in bringing the world to a just and lasting peace. But if he was convinced that no just or lasting peace would be possible if Germany were in position to dictate it. Her success in the war meant to Wilson that any practicable peace would be but a truce, to be quickly followed by another war. The existing war, therefore, must end in the overthrow of Germany's military autocracy, and when this result began to look distant or doubtful, then he resolved to let America's accumulated grievances against Germany speak for war. But he did so only for the sake of the permanent peace which he believed would be possible after that autocracy should be swept from power with America's aid.

The author is charmingly clear on a point which, just after the armistice, was to the editorial mind everywhere a great mystery — namely, why did the President wish to go to Paris at the head of the peace delegation? The reason for that decision, according to Lawrence, did not lie in his unwillingness to trust others, or in an egotism which blinded him to the political dangers of such a course, nor yet (as some believed) in the importunity of a socially ambitious wife! Wilson went to Paris because his theory of the president's responsibility for the diplomacy of the peace, so far as America was concerned, would not permit him to shirk the duty of doing so. The President was the prime minister to the people of the United States. The conference was a gathering of ministries, headed by the premiers of the states concerned. America's premier could not be absent and hope, nevertheless, to secure for our points of view the respect they deserved. Hence he must be there in person. Constitutional interpretation, whether we regard it as sound or not, likewise made it impossible for him to take members of the Senate with him. The executive department was responsible for negotiating treaties and had no right to influence the legislative branch, whose duty it was to pass upon the results.

The whole world knew from the first that the treaty of Versailles was a disappointment to Wilson in several respects, especially in the Shantung settlement and reparations. Why, then, did he insistently urge adoption intact? Briefly, as Mr. Lawrence points out, because some kind of peace had to be made, because the world could not wait for war passions to cool (as Wilson wished might be the case), and because he hoped that the League of Nations with America in it would serve the p417end of a continuing conference with influence to moderate the treaty in the direction of greater liberality.

The tragedy of the peace, from Wilson's point of view, was the refusal of the United States Senate to ratify it, thus destroying the very condition of its successful operation in the interest of an orderly world. Under these circumstances the President's conclusions that a rejection of the treaty was preferable to ratification with reservations has seemed to many of his supporters almost inexplicable. Mr. Lawrence says: "Had he retained his health, Woodrow Wilson, just as sure as day as follows night, would have accepted the Lodge reservations. . . . He was almost persuaded to do so on his sick bed but his illness induced a consciousness of incertitude which together with the exclusion of outside advice made him irritable and inflexible." Of course, this is only an opinion, but it is one of the most significant statements that the book contains.

The author, although a journalist by profession, does not write merely to gratify the reader's craving for news. On the contrary, he exhibits a genuine aptitude for interpreting contemporaneous events in the timeless spirit of the historian searching the records. His book is a Wilson document of the first importance, for the author, restricting his treatment closely to the portion of Wilson's career observed by himself, is one of the witnesses to whom the future historian will be obliged to appeal. But within those limits he treats his subject so comprehensively and with such seeming impartiality that the future historian will have little occasion to go farther afield for his materials, except with a view to checking conclusions. Lawrence reveals Wilson in his various and often contradictory personalities. Sometimes he is the brilliant scholar and lecturer, the charming companion and inimitable raconteur. Again he is the humorless disciplinarian pitting a pleading mother's life against the injury to Princeton of her son's continuance in the college. Now he was the objective historian looking upon passing events as from the vantage point of a remote posterity; at other times the proud, irascible party chieftain, resentful of the slightest deviation from his personal views. He was a man who generally sought and was grateful for all the light that others could shed upon his problems. But there were times when his mind was closed by prejudices the very existence of which he did not suspect, as when he permitted himself to be influenced against his faithful secretary and against his generous friend, Colonel House. With all his coldness of exterior, Wilson had in his nature a spiritual volcano as well as a logic mill. Such, at least, are the impressions which this extraordinary book leaves on one reader's mind.

p418 Much of the confirmatory and supplementary data which the historian, familiar with the Lawrence book, will want, is to be found in the volume by Ex-Secretary Daniels, though the questions posited above are not nearly so well answered therein. Like Lawrence, Daniels is a journalist; but unlike him, he was not content to write down merely a coördinated firsthand account of so much of Wilson's life as had come under his own observation. Mr. Daniels is a biographer of the more conventional type, one who must needs write the history of his subject fully, beginning with his Scotch-Irish ancestry. The first seventy-five pages bring the story down to "the battle of Princeton," Mr. Wilson's fight to make the college "safe for democracy," and another thirty pages are required to reach the Baltimore convention. From this point, the author's association with his subject became very close, first as a prominent director of the campaign to elect Wilson, and then as a member of his cabinet through the full period of his presidency and as a close and personal friend. Thus Daniels' opportunity to know Wilson the President was in some respects superior to that of Lawrence. The difference lies in this, that the latter observed him from the vantage point of a professionally independent, impartial representative of a news agency, while the former looked up to him as his official chief and the leader of his party.

This difference in attitude comes out strikingly in a comparison of the two books. To Lawrence, Wilson is tremendously worth while as a subject to be analyzed in order that his character, purposes, and achievements may be set forth for the judgment of his readers. While he reflects admiration for Wilson's acknowledged intellectual and moral gifts, a critical atmosphere pervades the book throughout. Whether rightly or wrongly, the reader feels that he is deriving from it not only a thoroughly informed but a detached point of view.

This feeling forsakes him promptly on perusing the Daniels book. The ex-secretary does not affect impartiality. He is under the spell of Wilson's genius for dominating men. It is in spirit the book of a hero-worshipper. Such a bias is but natural, if not inevitable, and its detection in the opening pages will not cause the judicious reader to lay the book down unread. For it is full of human interest; its pages glow with incident and anecdote. At the end he is bound to confess that the personality of Woodrow Wilson and the distinguishing episodes of his career have received clarification to a considerable degree. It contains some inside political history, about the campaigns, the cabinet discussions, about Wilson's shaping of policies and measures like the currency law. But there are no daring revelations such as any cabinet minister during p419such an administration could doubtless make if he considered the time ripe for them. A striking example of the difference between Daniels and Lawrence is the handling of the Bryan-resignation incident. On that point one derives vastly more light from the newspaper correspondent than from the secretary of the navy.

On the whole, one is disposed to suggest that the historian's chief interest in this book will be to obtain illustrative anecdotes about Woodrow Wilson. In these it is rich. If the book were notably weak in other respects, which it is not, it would still remain indispensable for that reason alone.

Joseph Schafer


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