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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Life of Woodrow Wilson

Josephus Daniels

in the
Greenwood Press edition,
New York, 1971

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 2

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p19  Chapter I
The Epic Figure of his Era

In selecting its leaders "Nature does not run after titles or seek by preference the high circles of society" — Wilson won in "race between Wilson and Hindenburg" — he brought home the covenant which to him was the hope of the world — won the gratitude of mankind

"Hundreds of years hence Wilson's name will be one of the greatest in history." — Jan Christian Smuts, Premier of the Union of South Africa

An epic period is always represented by an outstanding and upstanding epic figure. Issues and ideas are made flesh and dwell among men. It is only when a noble ideal is incarnated in a great man that it can be truly interpreted. The period in which Woodrow Wilson was chief executive was marked by the breaking up of old systems and the ushering in of a new era. Old geographies became obsolete. Ancient boundaries were wiped out. New heroes appeared. Change was the order of the day in America's twentieth century epic — change by legislation, change by dynamic forces let loose, change by war, and change by the events following war. Old things passed away in the years when Wilson was America's commanding figure. He was a voice crying, "Make straight the path." This peaceful revolution was as apparent in the days preceding the war as in the grim months of struggle. It was felt also in the time of stress and uncertainty which made the after-the‑war challenge almost as difficult to  p20 meet as when the fighting was on. Indeed it seemed more difficult because the consecration and unity that cemented and glorified in war were gone.

No static man could have fitted into the period of 1913‑1921. It called for a man who had no worship of tradition, no slavish adherence to precedent, and who made no fetish of the God of Things as They Are. The times called for a man who had been making ready for such a time as this for over two score years and ten. No man could fitly typify the day who had not, long before the call to leader­ship, gone through the processes which turn out the great man for the great occasion. What are those processes? Never did the extremities of the race call for a man when God did not provide the Man. He has no patent process. The man may come out of favoring surroundings such as produced Washington, or the rude pioneer life of the West may furnish a Lincoln. He may be fashioned in the quiet home of a scholar­ly preacher, inspired by the men whose lives are Light Fountains. The resources of God in Nature are not greater than in His leadings which cause the man and the occasion to meet. Speaking of Lincoln, the epic man of his day, when the Lincoln cabin was presented to the Government as a shrine, Wilson said:

"Nature pays no tribute to aristocracy, subscribes to no creed or caste, renders fealty to no monarch or master of any name or kind. Genius is no snob. It does not run after titles or seek by preference the high circles of society. It affects humble company as well as great. It pays no special tribute to universities or learned societies or conventional standards of greatness, but serenely chooses its own comrades, its own haunts, its own cradle even, and its own life of adventure and  p21 of training. Here is proof of it. This little hut was the cradle of one of the great sons of men, a man of singular, delightful, vital genius who presently emerged upon the great stage of the nation's history, gaunt, shy, ungainly, but dominant and majestic, a natural ruler of men, himself inevitably the central figure of the great plot."

On the beautiful Fourth of March, 1913, when Woodrow Wilson took the oath of office, what seer could have envisioned the tragedies and conflicts awaiting the generation represented in the great gathering? He had come to the high office after the divisions in an old political party. He was the creature of no machine. He was free from all shackles. He was emancipated from all prejudices. To most people that cloudless day betokened nothing more than an auspicious harbinger. The sun shone on a new figure — was he an epic figure and were the days just ahead, mercifully shrouded, to be the epic period of world disruption and war of such magnitude as to dwarf all other conflicts at arms?

Others may have seen only the orderly passing from control by one party and the incoming of the agents of another party. Now we know its significance was deeper. Did the central figure of that day realize the road of thorns over which he was to lead the republic? It may be that, master of the lessons of history as he was, Woodrow Wilson sensed the tread of horses afar and heard the thunder of the guns that were to reverberate. If he had no premonitions of the grave issues ahead, who can explain the closing sentences of his inaugural? Reading the solemn, pregnant words in the light of what followed, who can say that it was not given the epic man to envision the grim days near at hand? Else why did Wilson say "men's lives hang in the balance"? Was it  p22 not prophecy of the shell-shock of the trenches? Was not world dependence upon America to promote world stability, after the debacle following the Armistice, foreshadowed in "men's hopes call upon us to say what we will do"? When gravely, seriously and bravely, never hesitatingly, he led this peace-loving nation into war, all minds went back to his words of "dedication" as he took the oath and declared, "I summon all honest, all patriotic, all forward-looking men to my side," adding, "Here muster the forces of humanity."

The "watchful waiting" in Mexico, which produced such a storm of criticism, was always regarded by Wilson as calling for the same qualities of devotion to his ideals as his "Force to the utmost" when he was the incarnation of military leader­ship. There was organized pressure for war with Mexico. Some of it was promoted by those who had or wanted oil and other concessions. Some of it was urged by the party of expansion voiced by the declaration of Henry Watterson that every foot of land to the Panama Canal ought to be annexed to the United States. The Huerta usurpation opened the way to send the Army to realize that dream. "No," said Wilson, and he added, "There will be no glory in such a war." He resolved to be true to the American ideal, which was being tested, "whether we be sincere lovers of popular liberty or not" and "can be trusted to respect national sovereignty among our weaker neighbors." He resolved, when the fury of popular wrath dismayed some close to him, to see to it that the attitude of the American government should be as just toward a weak neighbor as it would be toward a powerful empire. It was "weakness" said the critics, but when the World War came it proved that in devotion to the old-time  p23 American ideal he had been wiser than the critics. Was he less an epic figure when he defied the war-lust and territory-hunger and concession-selfishness, bidding him to war on defenseless Mexico, than when he led the nation in the War against War or when he was acclaimed by the people in Paris and Rome as the bearer of the torch of a new and larger liberty?

When the fate of mankind hung in the balance, Lloyd George compressed the thought of the world in this sentence: "It is a race between Wilson and Hindenburg." The hope of war-weary Europe was in Wilson. The race was won by the man whose wisdom and zeal in the prosecution of the war enabled America to play its great and decisive part in bringing the war to a victorious close. America, united and indomitable, mobilized in manhood and womanhood and resource, followed with faith and enthusiasm where he led. Wilson stood forth as the militant leader of a fresh nation, girding itself for victory.

It remained, however, for the conclusion of the World War for Wilson to meet the supreme test. The shibboleth of battle and the universal pledges of a lasting peace had caused the armistice to be hailed, not merely as an end of fighting, but as ushering in a warless world. Could that dream be fulfilled? To him, as he set sail on the George Washington for the Peace Conference, the vision of a world at peace, rebuilding on foundations where war could be prevented, was as clear as the glory John saw on Patmos.

At Paris were gathered the titled and the great of earth. All the hopes and hates and ambitions and jealousies of two thousand years centered there. Statesmen and diplomats were looking for national advantage.  p24 They were still pinning their faith to alliances and protection by guns. The vision of organizing for peace did not possess them. It was a language they did not speak. There were, however, great hearts there beating high in hope of the New Day. Glad were they to be comrades of America's President who, having seen the heavenly vision, never let it fade. Representatives of broken peoples and small nations, long enthralled by the powerful, plead for an opportunity to live their own lives unmolested. To them Wilson was the one hope. They had been heartened and cheered by what he had uttered in the great war. But far away from Paris and its Babel of tongue and confusion and intrigue, were the peoples of Europe — the people who had never known freedom and a fair chance. Living under conditions like those of the feudal system, oppressed by obstacles that impeded progress, hopeless and cheerless peoples confidently felt that the great American would bring their deliverance. They had heard echoes of his "self-determination" and "a fair chance for all," and his humane utterances. Somehow dumbly they felt his coming would open new doors of hope and opportunity to them. Those in high place fêted him, but it was the wistful yearning of the burden-bearers that lifted him to a new consecration as they cheered his entrance to Paris. In Rome the humble received him as if he were the earthly Prince of Peace. They would have touched the hem of his garments in thankfulness that in his heart he had come to Europe to hope them and such as they. The forgotten men and women sensed his spirit. It strengthened him and humbled him that the unlearned and the toilers understood his zeal for liberty for all while many in his own country  p25 and in Europe had thoughts only for selfish advantage or personal advancement. It steeled his heart to carry high the Covenant which to him had become the hope of the world. And he never forgot those who had given of their flesh and blood in war and who were upheld by the hope the ones they mourned had not died in vain. For weeks, in collaboration with kindred spirits out of all nations, he was the leader. One day at Versailles, his Treaty of Peace, buttressed by the League of Nations, came forth. It was the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. Woodrow Wilson had not failed the men who had fallen in the belief that their sacrifice would flower in a warless world.

In 1910 Theodore Roosevelt, in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize at Christiania, made a carefully prepared speech, in which he said: "It would be a master-stroke if those great powers honestly bent on peace would form a League of Peace, not only to keep the peace among themselves, but to prevent, by force, if necessary, its being broken by others." He added this significant prophecy: "The ruler or statesman who should bring about such a combination would have earned his place in history for all time, and his title to the gratitude of all mankind."

That is exactly what Woodrow Wilson, awarded the Nobel prize in 1920, accomplished. It is because of that crowning achievement he will live as the epic figure of his period. It detracts no whit from his "place in history" or his "title to the gratitude of all mankind" that the Senate of the United States failed to ratify the treaty all other nations signed. The "League of Peace" which Wilson brought from Paris is only deferred. His faith will yet be justified.

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Photo Int'l. Newsreel

The corner-stone of the amphitheatre at Arlington​a

This beautiful memorial amphitheatre at Arlington Cemetery was built as the final resting place of America's Unknown Soldier from France, who here holds his faithful watch forever.

 p26  If Elizabeth Barrett Browning had been writing of Wilson, his ideals, his dream of doing a great deed "to help a people's need," she could not have more accurately portrayed the inception, the creation, and the reception of the Covenant of Peace than she did long ago in these words:

A great man (who was crowned one day)

Imagined a great deed;

He shaped it out of cloud and clay,

He touched it finely till the seed

Possessed the flower: from heart and brain

He fed it with large thoughts humane,

To help a people's need.

He brought it out into the sun —

They blessed it to his face:

"O great pure deed, that hast undone

So many bad and base!

O generous deed, heroic deed,

Come forth, be perfected, succeed,

Deliver by God's grace!"

Then sovereigns, statesmen, north and south,

Rose up in wrath and fear,

And cried protesting by one mouth,

"What monster have we here?

A great deed at this hour of day?

A great just deed — and not for pay?

Absurd — or insincere."

* * *

But he stood sad before the sun

(The peoples felt their fate).

"The world is many — I am one:

My great deed was too great.

God's fruit of justice ripens slow:

Men's souls are narrow; let them grow.

My brothers, we must wait."

Thayer's Note:

a President Wilson laid this cornerstone on October 13, 1915. The New York Times article reporting the event reads:

Wilson lays cornerstone

Starts Memorial Amphitheatre at Arlington Cemetery.

Washington, Oct. 13 — President Wilson laid the cornerstone today of the memorial amphitheatre being erected in honor of the nation's soldier and sailor dead at Arlington National Cemetery. The President made no address, but personally spread mortar underneath the stone before it was lowered into place.

Secretary Daniels presided and delivered an address in which he said America loved peace, but loved liberty even more. Of the memorial Mr. Daniels said:

"It is a substantial symbol, expressive of the national appreciation of valor. It is a recognition of the grand democracy of the dead. It marks the eternal cementing of the republic, that the home of Lee is the burial place of the glorious company of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Grant's invincible army, and the equally brave soldiers who fought with Lee."

Other speakers included Judge I. G. Kimball, a member of the Memorial Commission, and Captain Charles W. Newton, past Commander in Chief of the United Spanish War Veterans.

A feature of the exercises was the planting of two trees in front of the memorial, one in honor of General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.George H. Thomas, known as "The Rock of Chickamauga," and the second in honor of General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.William T. Sherman.

Congress appropriated $750,000 for the construction of the memorial. It probably will be dedicated on Memorial Day, 1917.

The amphitheatre was dedicated on May 15, 1920.

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Page updated: 20 Feb 14