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Chapter 21

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.
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Chapter 23
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p228  Chapter XXII
The Human Side of Wilson

"He is respected, but he walks alone" — "My constant embarrassment is to restrain the emotions inside of me" — Had a passion for the mass of mankind — Thirteen was his lucky number — When he got best of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pershing — Enjoyed story at own expense

"Let us remind ourselves that to be human is, for one thing, to speak and act with a certain note of genuineness, a quality mixed of spontaneity of intelligence." — Wilson

"He is respected, but I observe he walks alone." That was the answer a Trenton hack driver made to a visitor in the early part of 1913 when Governor Wilson was closing his term as chief executive of New Jersey preparatory to his inauguration as President of the United States. Those nine words describe the man. He once said: "The leaders of mankind are those who lift their feet from the dusty road, and lift their eyes to the illumined future. Mr. Wilson was not a "good fellow" in what is meant by that term in popular parlance. He was reserved by nature and by his studious habits. From youth he set himself tasks that necessitated husbanding his time and practiced self-reliance that called for little aid.

"Does Wilson really love anybody outside his family?" a gentleman once asked a member of his Cabinet.

"Yes," was the reply. "To his chosen friends he  p229 gives his affection, and it is deep and genuine. Even as to them he would, except under some peculiar circumstance, regard display of his love as something wanting in taste. But," added the Cabinet member whose affection for the President was deep and who knew it was reciprocated, "while Wilson gives his love to few, he has a passion for the mass of mankind and is wholly devoted to their welfare." He loved to walk the streets, to see people enjoying themselves, and to feel a comrade­ship of interest and feeling if there was little comrade­ship of association. If he felt lack of association, he was buoyed up by the feeling that in spirit he was mingling with his countrymen. "I count it a fortunate circumstance," he once said, "that almost all the windows of the White House and its offices open upon unoccupied spaces that stretch to the banks of the Potomac and then out into Virginia and on to the heavens themselves, and that as I sit there I can constantly forget Washington and remember the United States."

Again, here is proof of the passion for the people when he said, "Down in Washington sometimes when the days are hot and business presses intolerably and there are so many things to do that it does not seem possible to do anything in the way it ought to be done, it is always possible to lift one's thought above the task of the moment, and, as it were, to realize that great thing of which we are all parts, the great body of American feeling and American principle. No man could do the work that has to be done in Washington if he allowed himself to be separated from that body of principle. He must make himself feel that he is a part of the people of the United States, that he is trying to think not only  p230 for them, but with them, and then he cannot feel lonely. He not only cannot feel lonely but he cannot feel afraid of anything."

No one can study his career without being struck by his tenderness of heart and his eagerness to be of service when there was a service needed. In his State papers and addresses there are repeated evidences of his lively solicitude for the weak and the unfortunate. In speaking in his inaugural address of the industrial achievements of the nation, he remarked: "We have not heretofore stopped thoughtfully enough to count the human cost, the cost of lives snuffed out, of energies overtaxed and broken." He emphasized the duty of "humanizing" every process of life. In the same address he advocated beneficent laws determining conditions of labor. And all through his speeches and writings on national affairs there was the thought of the duty of government to see that justice was done the weak. "This is no sentimental duty," he said. "The first basis of government is justice, not pity." But then he added: "These are matters of justice. There can be no equality of opportunity — the first essential of justice in the body politic — if men and women and children be not shielded in their lives, their very vitality, from the consequences of great industrial and social processes which they cannot alter, control or singly cope with."

Rev. James H. Taylor, D.D., pastor of Central Presbyterian Church, Washington, where President Wilson worshipped, in an article for the Sunday School Times, writes of Mr. Wilson: "He was very human in his relation­ships and had that wonderful gift of great men, in that he was able to make you feel at home in his presence. He would often talk about many matters of great interest  p231 and concern with perfect freedom. You felt as if you had been suddenly lifted to a position of importance by being treated with such unusual confidence.

"An example of his human feeling is illustrated in his deep concern for the soldier boys. When warned about undertaking the tour on behalf of the League of Nations, he replied in effect that if the boys could risk their lives in the trenches or go over the top, so he too should not hesitate to risk anything for the great cause. One soldier boy sent him a khaki-bound copy of the New Testament, such as the dough-boys carried into the trenches with them, asking him to read it every day. He kept this agreement, never failing to read this khaki-bound Testament, and no matter how hard he had worked during the day, or how late the hour at night, he read that Testament and kept faith with the boys."

"Tenderness, I think, was easily his outstanding characteristic," said Doctor Stockton Axson, brother-in‑law of President Wilson. Dr. Axson met Mr. Wilson for the first time when he had been engaged to his first wife for about a year. "My earliest recollections of him," he says, "are of his great kindliness of manner, his unfailing courtesy and consideration for others."

Macaulay's description of the great man fitted Wilson. He is the man, said the great Englishman, who is not influenced by those who are near to him and can do him some favor in return. Rather the truly great man is he whose heart and service go out to those who do not know him, may never see him, will never thank him and can never do anything for him.

In his address on Lincoln at the log cabin, where he was born — believed by many to be his best — Mr. Wilson is thought to have revealed his own feelings in difficult  p232 days. "There is a very holy and very terrible isolation," he said, "for the conscience of every man who seeks to read the destiny in affairs for others as well as himself, for a nation as well as for individuals. That privacy no man can intrude upon. That lonely search of the spirit for the right perhaps no man can assist."

Restraint of feeling and the reticence of expression and apparent aloofness are not incompatible with Wilson's own interpretation of himself: "I sometimes feel like a fire from an extinct volcano," and he added, "If the lava does not seem to spill over, it is because you are not high enough to see into the basin and see the cauldron boil." Again: "My constant embarrassment is to restrain emotions that are inside me." While there are few who ever saw "the cauldron boil" in the self-restrained Wilson, there are not a few who rested in the assurance of his affection, who received proofs of it in ways that were precious, and who cherish his words of affection. They kept these confidences in their hearts, but were ever troubled that his reserve and devotion to duty denied others the nearness which warmed their hearts. The truth is that Mr. Wilson had to conserve his strength. When urged to see more people, he would say: "I have just so much vitality. I see everyone who as a matter of importance to discuss. If I expend all my energy upon receiving people who call to pay their respects, there is too little energy left for the big task." Moreover, he never could understand why visitors to Washington wished to "see the President." Never in his life had he turned aside to shake hands with a President. He had never had a wish to see any man in high station except to discuss a policy. Why should they wish to see him? Why should he expend his nervous energy  p233 in receptions to folks who came to Washington when it was needed to keep him fit to serve the hundred million who never came to the National Capital? Moreover, he was never very robust. He always had to conserve his strength. He had come to the White House after two years of heavy strain in New Jersey. It was necessary to go South the first winter to gain strength.

Perhaps one reason President Wilson was called cold was the fact that he was utterly sincere. He did not know how to pretend to be what he was not. He did not flatter, he slapped nobody on the back to win favor by a familiarity not felt. He would not waste time in adulation or idle talk, but he always had time to show appreciation of real merit — plenty of time if the occasion required it.

The New York World tells a story which shows how far from the truth was the assertion that Wilson was selfish and lacking in human sympathy. In 1911, William Teal McIntyre, newspaper and magazine writer, lay dying of cancer in St. Vincent's Hospital in New York. He had been at Princeton when Wilson was President. In September, 1911, Mr. Wilson, then Governor of New Jersey, spoke in Jersey City. A friend of both men told him of McIntyre's condition and suggested that a letter would cheer the sick man. "I'll go see him," said Governor Wilson. The World then continues the story:

"Cancelling his plan to return to Trenton, the then Governor took a room in a hotel here and next morning called at the hospital. Mrs. Bessie T. McIntyre, her spirit saddened by months of hopeless watching at her son's bedside, greeted Mr. Wilson, already mentioned as candidate for President in the following fall's election.

"She led the Governor into the sick room, but the  p234 nurse held up a warning finger and whispered that McIntyre had just fallen asleep after a night of recklessness. The mother would have awakened him, but Governor Wilson held her back and said:

" 'I can wait. I'll come back in a couple of hours.'

"Bill was awake then — staring at the monotony of the ceiling. He turned his head to see who his visitor was, and beheld his former chief. What strength was in him was electrified into action and for the first time in weeks he sat bolt upright in bed.

" 'Hello, Prexy!' he said, and stretched out his hand.

"Two weeks later Bill McIntyre died. He never knew the heights to which 'Prexy' rose. He never heard his idol assailed as cold of heart."

No greater mistake was ever made than to say Woodrow Wilson was all mind and no heart. Was not the warmth of his heart one of the incentives to his marvelous achievement? He wrought tremendously for his fellow human beings because he loved them with a great love.

Sailors on the George Washington, on which the President journeyed to and from Europe, became his staunchest friends. They regarded him as their "shipmate" and one of the many newspaper accounts of his voyages speaks of "his many acts of kindness and attention in which he displayed a complete humanness."

MacQueen S. Wightman, secretary to Mr. Wilson from 1902 to 1904, had excellent opportunity to observe and in the intimate relations which reveal the real man. He writes:

"They say that Woodrow Wilson lacked human interest and understanding.

"Saturday is the big day during commencement at  p235 Princeton. The crowds are densest, the President entertains at luncheon and the alumni parade in the afternoon to the game. It is the day in the year on which the President most needs his secretary.

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Photo. International Newsreel

Alumni Day at Princeton

Woodrow Wilson marching at the head of the class of '79 in the annual parade of classes at Princeton

"I was filling that office at the close of my senior year and, as usual, I reported at Prospect, the President's house, at 9.30 o'clock, knowing that there were several important letters which had gone over from the day before, when Mr. Wilson had been in New York.

"But Friday night the seniors hold their farewell dinner, and in those pre-Volsteadian days senior dinners and parties which followed them were not conspicuous for their sobriety.

"I don't know how I looked as I dropped into a chair in the big, high-ceiled library that June morning, but if it was half as awful as I felt I might readily have served as the horrible example. Mr. Wilson came in a moment later, fresh, clear-eyed and serene, as one always found him in the morning.

"He chatted for an instant about the prospects for the day, seated himself at the table, and then for the first time really looked at me. His expression did not change, but a glint of comprehension came into his eyes. With a glance at the unanswered pile of letters, he pushed his chair back from the table.

" 'We are both going to be busy today, Wightman,' he said, 'suppose we let this correspondence go over until Monday.' "

"He was always serene and he seemed to me to get an immense amount of enjoyment out of life," his former secretary writes.

"Certainly three times a week, if not oftener, he had a new story before we began our day's work. I never  p236 learned where he found them, but he never repeated one, and they all seemed vastly entertaining and amusing, except when I tried to tell them myself."

To his secretary he used to divulge some of his theories on education, remarking once: "You can't educate a man; he must educate himself, and the way he must do it is by reading. The most we can do is to direct that reading."

"And that is the reason," Wightman added, "why the students' rooms which had heretofore been full of pipes and steins, became suddenly full of books."

"He was a man full of deep and warm feeling, in whom the heart often found it hard to yield to the demands of the intellect," declared Prof. Frank Thilly, of Ithaca, N. Y., who was a member of the Princeton faculty during Mr. Wilson's term as president. "And he was one of the most lovable men with whom I have ever come into contact, the kind of human being for whom one has genuine affection from the very beginning of one's acquaintance with him. There was a manly gentleness about him, a quiet, unaffected charm, an unobtrusive cordiality, a trustfulness and sincerity that marked him as an unusual personality."

Born in the South, Mr. Wilson never lost his touch with his colored friends or failed to understand them and to seek to help them. One of his last visitors was David Bryant, of Wilmington, N. C. Bryant nursed President Wilson's father in his last illness. Paul D. Satchwell, now living in Washington, D. C., sent a clipping to Bryant from a Washington paper and making reference to Bryant's attachment to President Wilson's father. In his answer, Bryant wrote that he had promised Wilson's father that if the son ever ran for President he  p237 would vote for him. Writing to Satchwell and repeating the promise, Bryant went on to say: "I did promise Dr. Wilson to cast my vote for his son if he was not living. So I did and am proud of it. He always allowed me $50 every month just to help me, I suppose, just because he knew I was the family servant when they lived here (Wilmington) and even in his father's last days I was his nurse." "Although I had known Bryant intimately for a long time," says Satchwell, "this was the first intimation that his loyalty and devotion to the late President was being so handsomely rewarded. Bryant typifies the noblest and loftiest virtues of his race in the South."

It was rare that Wilson did not have a story for Cabinet meetings, even in the stress of war. He was not a story-teller in the ordinary meaning. He did not save up stories to drag in. Rather they came spontaneously. They were apropos of the subject matter in hand, and they illustrated the point. Ludicrous situations appealed to him, and limericks stuck in his memory. Learning that he had a penchant for limericks, people sent them to him from even across the sea. He always had one for every occasion. They seemed to stick in his mind and come forth without effort. His associates were wont to vie with him and often half a dozen choice ones regaled the members of the Cabinet before weighty business was introduced.

Was he superstitious? Not in the least. His favorite number was thirteen. He had a penchant for remembering the number of good things that had happened to him on the thirteenth. "It is my lucky day," he was wont to say. There are thirteen letters in his name. It was the thirteen electoral votes of California that made his re-election possible. He was inaugurated in 1913. He landed in Brest on December thirteenth.

 p238  The saving grace of humor was pronounced in Mr. Wilson. He could enjoy jokes at his own expense. He greatly enjoyed this one and often told it:

Some years ago a magazine sent a correspondent to Hannibal, Mo., to try to obtain some stories of Mark Twain when he was a boy. He was referred to a half-witted man, the only one living there when Samuel Clemens was growing up. In order to lead up to his questions, the writer asked the ignorant old man:

"Did you ever know or hear of Tom Sayer?"

The old man scratched his head and after a pause, said "No."

"Did you ever hear of Huckleberry Finn?"

The pause was longer. The man searched his shallow mind, but could not remember.

"Did you ever hear of Pudd'n'Head Wilson?" was asked as a last shot. This was in 1913.

The dull man looked up. A ray of intelligence flashed and he answered confidently:

"Oh yes, I voted him last year."

It is doubtful if any man charged with grave responsibilities can stand great strain unless he can see the humorous side even in serious situations. Lincoln was saved by his love of fun, even when the unimaginative Stanton thought fun evidence of lack of greatness.

This incident explains one side of the man: One day President Wilson was accompanying General Pershing on a tour of inspection in France. Commenting on the efficiency of the soldiers' equipment, General Pershing picked up from one soldier's outfit a folding tent pole, and explained how it worked. When he had done with it he threw it across the laid out equipment, where everything was in its proper place.

 p239  "Are these boys not likely to be inspected further after we have passed?" Mr. Wilson asked the General.

"Yes, sir, they may be."

"One other thing, General. I am the commander-in‑chief of the army and authorized to give you orders, am I not?" queried the President.

"Certainly, sir."

"Then, General, you will replace that tent pole as you found it."

And the general, smiling, knelt, folded the tent pole and put it in its proper position. Some of the soldiers in the outfit said the President winked at them.

The author of "The Stroller," a department in the Portland (Maine) Express and Advertiser, thinks that if Wilson had been able to put through all the reforms he desired at Princeton he might never have entered politics. The writer was influenced to that belief by something Mr. Wilson said to him once. He writes:

"I happened to meet him in the book department of the Wanamaker store in New York City shortly after he was chosen president of Princeton. I had been one of his students and he greeted me cordially. I asked him what he was doing in the big city, thinking, perhaps, that he had run over to make an address at some gathering of Princeton men.

" 'Oh, I've just come to New York for a few days' rest,' he replied, 'but, as you see, I'm still browsing among books, as I suppose I shall always do, reading a lot and writing a little. New York is all right for a visit now and then, but I confess I prefer the quiet of Princeton to the bustle and hurry of this great city.' "

The same writer tells of a visit to Professor Wilson at the Nassau Hotel at Princeton, where he was living  p240 temporarily, his family being away. The visit was concerning the making up of some back work. Mr. Wilson cordially asked the student how he was getting on with his work. The reply was, "I think I am holding my own." Mr. Wilson indulged his fondness for illustrating with a joke, saying he hoped the student was "holding his own" better than a farmer of whom he had heard, and adding the story, which ran something like this:

A farmer and his wife, Samantha, were jogging along a country road, when they met a pedestrian going the other way.

"How far is it to Smithville?" asked the farmer.

"About six miles," was the reply.

The farmer whipped up old Dobbin and started on. After going several miles he stopped another farmer, who was plowing in a field by the road. He repeated the question and to his surprise the man in the field said:

"It's about six miles to Smithville."

Again, but somewhat discouraged, the farmer drove on, and after driving for a half hour or more he stopped another farmer.

"How far is it to Smithville?" he said.

"Well," replied the farmer, "I reckon it's about six miles from here."

The farmer in the buggy then turned to his wife and giving old Dobbin another crack of the whip, said:

"Well, thank goodness, Samantha, we are at least holding our own."

Arguing on his preparedness tour for a stronger navy, Mr. Wilson told one of his best jokes. He said the Navy was rated as fourth in strength, but when he went on board the ships and saw their equipment and talked  p241 with their officers he suspected that they could give an account of themselves which would raise them above the fourth class. He said it reminded him of the quaint saying of the old darky preacher, "The Lord said unto Moses, Come forth, and he came fifth and lost the race."

Mr. Wilson said he felt the Navy then would not come fourth in the race, but higher.

When Secretary Tumulty wrote him at Paris that he was likely to wreck his constitution if he went on at the pace he was going, Mr. Wilson replied, "Constitution? Why, man, I am already living on my by‑laws."

Wilson was not all tenderness, as his antagonists in the Senate and in other arenas discovered. He knew how to be cutting and severe. Alfred O. Anderson, publisher of the Dispatch, Dallas, Texas, and one-time student under Wilson at Princeton, said in a reminiscent article in his paper on the occasion of President Wilson's death: 'One day some of the boys in the back of the hall disturbed President Wilson as he was lecturing. He spotted them, but said nothing. The interruption recurred. Looking directly at the group, Professor Wilson quietly said: " 'Gentlemen, don't be any less gentlemen than you cawn't help.'

"That was all, but it was plenty."

Mr. Wilson had a keen and ready wit and often evinced it in his relations with newspaper correspondents at Washington. On one occasion Andrew Carnegie had visited the President.

"What did Mr. Carnegie want?" a correspondent asked at the weekly meeting with the newspaper men.

"As I understand it," Mr. Wilson replied, "Mr. Carnegie is beyond want."

 p242  Wilson's heart warmed to some people, and intuitively became frigid toward others. Speaking before a Sunday School convention at Pittsburgh while he was President of Princeton, he told of how some men attracted him and others repelled him. "I cannot sit in a railroad station comfortably," he said, "because men will come in whom I want to kick out, and persons will come in whom I want to go up to and speak to, and make friends with, and I am restrained because when I was small I was told that it was not good form, and I would not for the world be unlike my fellow men. So I sit still and try to think about something else, and my eye constantly wanders to some person whom it would, I am sure, be such fun to go and talk to."

"Woodrow Wilson was a man neither tall nor short; of medium weight, conveying the impression of leanness; walking with quick, firm strides, indicating health and vigor," said one of the vast number of articles written about him at the time of his death.

"Angular features marked his face, the long jaw showing determination and persistence. He wore eye-glasses over eyes that were thoughtful in expression and illuminated with interest when he spoke in a well modulated voice or when he smiled on friend or visitor and exerted that 'magic of personality' many noticed in him and which attracted the personal regard of hundreds.

"Of his personality this was said by a man who passed him one day in the streets in Washington:

" 'As I looked at him he turned his face toward me — and I found my hat in my hand. It was like saluting the flag.' "

"One who loves his fellow men."

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