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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 32

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 34
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p344  Chapter XXXIII
The Invalid President

An intimate picture of his closing years as told by old schoolmate — "The road away from revolution" his last article — Honoring the Unknown Soldier — At President Harding's funeral — Message on Armistice Day broadcasted — His last reception — The better way

"That we shall prevail is as sure as that God reigns." — Wilson

"When Woodrow Wilson entered the White House as President his first anxiety was lest he should not be physically able to fulfil the duties of president," said Dr. E. P. Davis, physician of Philadelphia, schoolmate at Princeton and intimate friend of Wilson, a few days after his death, to the writer. "He had been a delicate child, had never excelled in muscular strength, but had courage and endurance, and had used his body relentlessly in his studies. During his most active literary work he seriously damaged one of his eyes. He suffered seriously from neuritis in the left arm and leg. During his Princeton days he had an operation for hernia. He was sent abroad by a consultation of physicians with a statement that his health was badly impaired, and consulted a distinguished Scotch authority who said to him: 'President Wilson, if the other University presidents of the United States are no worse off than you, there will be no vacancies in those high offices for an indefinite time.' He had the lack of  p345 digestive assimilation which brain workers often show, and came to the White House in good, but not in robust general health.

"Under medical advice he took up a régime which included golf as a medicinal measure, and to this régime he unswervingly adhered until his going abroad. He gained in weight and strength during his first administration. He once remarked that the legitimate duties of the Presidency are not a burden upon a man who works with system, and observation shows that it is politics and politicians, and not the duties of the Presidency which kill Presidents.

"His life as an invalid was characteristic of the man. Each morning, unless feeling unusually depressed, he breakfasted with Mrs. Wilson at nine, in the window of the dining room where the morning sun came in most abundantly; then to the office of his secretary, John Randolph Bolling,​a where he dictated answers to from twenty-five to forty letters, often walking back and forth, standing, or sitting on the arm of the chair while dictating. Then to his bedroom where he completed a leisurely toilet. A nap before midday meal. Then midday meal taken in his bedroom, a sunny room. Mrs. Wilson practically gave him his meal, and either read to him, or some visiting friend read to him about matters of information. After midday meal, a nap. At three o'clock he saw those whom he wished to see. At four, a drive. He had mapped out the vicinity of Washington into certain specified drives. One through Arlington, over into Virginia, sometimes across the Maryland border, and the Sunday drive was always through the Soldiers' Home and around 'the Hill' as the Capitol is sometimes called. As an invalid in driving, he was  p346 entertaining in his remarks and stories, in admiring the scenery, and in speaking of things which pleased him. When passing the flag he was accustomed to remove his hat, and, placing the hand holding the hat over his heart, to say that he wished the men of the country could feel as he did in honoring the flag.

"At times he would occupy the front seat of his car, where he was punctilious in showing courtesy to those who accompanied him. As in other things, he was punctiliously careful in observing the courtesy of the road. He was frequently recognized while driving and was especially pleased when children saluted him, which he invariably promptly returned.

"After the drive he rested, then came to the library where, in an armchair beneath a high electric lamp, he had his supper. Mrs. Wilson often read summary of the evening paper, or some friend with him would read to him something else. Then he played solitaire, Mrs. Wilson keeping his score, and at ten o'clock was ready to rest for the night.

"Saturday evenings his diversion was going to Keith's theater. This came to be a Washington event for the populace. There was a side entrance to the rear of the theater by which he gained immediate access to seats on the last row. These were reserved for him. The managers were always present, plain-clothes men kept him from annoyance, and the people gathered in the street and in the theater to see him. They greeted him warmly, which he much appreciated. On leaving the theater the crowd was even greater, and his welcome and goodbye on theater nights, in spite of the weather, were always cordial and delightful.

"As an invalid he was uncomplaining and patient,  p347 doing cheerfully whatever he thought could be of use. From time to time he desired to know what he could expect in the way of convalescing, and whether he was doing his share. He had great faith in the recuperative powers of nature, and placed confidence in his physicians.

"January 5 was an anniversary in his wife's family. It was Saturday, and to honor the occasion, he drove in the afternoon, although the weather was cold. A friend remarked to him: 'It is cold for you to be out.' Says he: 'You know I am not a quitter.' To do full honor to the occasion the usual visit to Keith's was carried out. Next day, Sunday, being cold, he did not drive, but on Sunday evening at supper some one read to him the splendid poem of Francis Thompson's 'The Hound of Heaven,' which illustrates the overwhelming presence of God and the futility of human escape from the Divine Presence. He greatly enjoyed and appreciated this splendid poem.​b

"One of the most striking things concerning his passing from human life was his extraordinary appearance after death. Near the window in his bedroom in which the sunlight fell softly and freely, upon a couch lay Woodrow Wilson, in appearance thirty-five or forty years of age. His hair was prematurely gray for his features. The lines of care, of anxiety, and of weakness had disappeared. The outlines of the face were smooth and beautiful. It was as if a distant sunrise had touched the features."

This intimate picture, by one of the oldest and most intimate friends, of the daily regimen of the life of the invalid President sums up much of the thirty-five months after he left the White House.

The days were made cheerful when old friends  p348 would call, and they all went away with a sense of the triumph of the mind over bodily ailments. It cannot be said that he took excursions into new lines of thought, but his interest in the policies and principles which had interested him before his island was unabated. Indeed, the hope and faith that they would prevail upheld and sustained him.

In recent months he kept in touch with the outside world in a way, his radio set being a source of real enjoyment. He was glad to take advantage of the suggestion, that he broadcast a message to the people on Armistice Day. Quietly seated in his study, he addressed millions in audiences invisible to him. He spent hours in preparing the message — (did he know it was his last?) — and delivered it with unwonted emphasis. The Armistice Day address was in these words:​c

"The anniversary of Armistice Day should stir us to great exaltation of spirit because of the proud recollection that it was our day, a day above those early days of that never-to-be-forgotten November which lifted the world to the high levels of vision and achievement upon which the great war for democracy and right was fought and won.

"Although the stimulating memories of that happy time of triumph are forever marred and embittered by the shameful fact that when the victory was won — won, be it remembered, chiefly by the indomitable spirit and valiant sacrifices of our own unconquerable soldiers — we turned our backs upon our associates and refused to bear any responsible part in the administration of peace, or the firm and permanent establishment of the results of the war — won at so terrible a cost of life and treasure — and withdrew into a sullen and selfish isolation which is  p349 deeply ignoble because manifestly cowardly and dishonorable.

"This must always be a source of deep mortification to us, and we shall inevitably be forced by the moral obligations of freedom and honor to retrieve that fatal error and assume once more the rôle of courage, self-respect and helpfulness which every true American must wish and believe to be our true part in the affairs of the world.

"That we should thus have done a great wrong to civilization, and at one of the most critical turning points in the history of mankind, is the more deplored because every anxious year that has followed has made the exceeding need for such services as we might have rendered more and more manifest and more pressing, as demoralizing circumstances which we might have controlled have gone from bad to worse, until now — as if to furnish a sort of sinister climax — France and Italy between them have made waste paper of the Treaty of Versailles, and the whole field of international relation­ships is in perilous confusion.

"The affairs of the world can be set straight only by the firmest and most determined exhibition of the will to lead and to make the right prevail.

"Happily, the present situation of affairs in the world affords us an opportunity to retrieve the past and render to mankind the incomparable service of proving that there is at least one great and powerful Nation which can put aside programs of self-interest and devote itself to practicing and establishing the highest ideals of disinterested service and the constant maintenance of exalted standards of conscience and of right.

"The only way in which we can show our true  p350 appreciation of the significance of Armistice Day is by resolving to put self-interest away and once more formulate and act upon the highest ideals and purposes of international policy.

"Thus, and only thus, can we return to the true traditions of America."

From the front steps of his house, on Armistice Day, he addressed the waiting thousands in a brief impromptu talk concluding with these sentences:

"I am proud to remember that I had the honor of being the Commander-in‑Chief of the most ideal army that was ever thrown together — pardon my emotion — though the real fighting Commander-in‑Chief was my honored friend Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pershing, whom I gladly hand the laurels of victory. Just one word more. I cannot refrain from saying it:

"I am not one of those that have the least anxiety about the triumph of the principles I have stood for. I have seen fools resist Providence before and I have seen their destruction, as will come upon these again — utter destruction and contempt. That we shall prevail is as sure as that God reigns. Thank you."

From time to time friends and admirers would write asking his opinion about men and measures. Rarely after his retirement did he volunteer advice or counsel as to legislation or politics, but when his counsel was sought he wrote frankly, with a candor and directness that was characteristic. If he was asked about a candidate, who in the crucial fight for the Covenant had not given that Magna Charta of Peace his support, Mr. Wilson advised that he be not re-elected. People said these letters showed he was bitter in his illness. Not so. They showed he was so devoted to a cause he could not forgive  p351 those he felt had failed to advance it. Now and then he wrote a letter to some organization and summarized doctrines and called for consistency and devotion to ideals. He craved for his party a return to power, not as a partisan, but because he wished it to be the agency for carrying the Republic into the League of Nations. His brief letters were all in that spirit. And they all breathed confidence that the people of America would yet be found co‑operating with other nations to end war. He died with that faith undimmed.

Only once did Mr. Wilson in his retirement respond to the request that he write for the magazines. In the Atlantic Monthly of August 1923, the following article from his pen appeared. (It is published here by permission of the Atlantic Monthly Press, Inc.)

The road away from Revolution
by Woodrow Wilson

In these doubtful and anxious days, when all the world is at unrest and, look which way you will, the road ahead seems darkened by shadows which portend dangers of many kinds, it is only common prudence that we should look about us and attempt to assess the causes of distress and the most likely means of removing them.

There must be some real ground for the universal unrest and perturbation. It is not to be found in superficial politics or in mere economic blunders. It probably lies deep at the sources of the spiritual life of our times. It leads to revolution; and perhaps if we take the case of the Russian Revolution, the outstanding event of its kind in our age, we may find a good deal of instruction for our judgment of present critical situations and circumstances.

What gave rise to the Russian Revolution? The answer can only be that it was the product of a whole social system. It was not in fact a sudden thing. It had been gathering head for several generations. It was due to the systematic denial to the great body of Russians of the rights and privileges which all normal men desire and must have if they are to be contented and within reach of happiness.  p352 The lives of the great mass of the Russian people contained no opportunities, but were hemmed in by barriers against which they were constantly flinging their spirits, only to fall back bruised and dispirited. Only the powerful were suffered to secure their rights or even to gain access to the means of material success.

It is to be noted as a leading fact of our time that it was against "capitalism" that the Russian leaders directed their attack. It was capitalism that made them see red; and it is against capitalism under one name or another that the discontented classes everywhere draw their indictment.

There are thoughtful and well-informed men all over the world who believe, with much apparently sound reason, that the abstract thing, the system, which we call capitalism, is indispensable to the industrial support, and development of modern civilization. And yet everyone who has an intelligent knowledge of social forces must know that great and widespread reactions like that which is now unquestionably manifesting itself against capitalism do not occur without cause or provocation; and before we commit ourselves irreconcilably to an attitude of hostility to this movement of the time, we ought frankly to put to ourselves the question, Is the capitalistic system unimpeachable? which is another way of asking, Have capitalists generally used their power for the benefit of the countries in which their capital is employed and for the benefit of their fellow men?

Is it not, on the contrary, too true that capitalists have often seemed to regard the men whom they used as mere instruments of profit, whose physical and mental powers it was legitimate to exploit with as slight cost to themselves as possible, either of money or of sympathy? Have not many fine men who were actuated by the highest principles in every other relation­ship of life seemed to hold that generosity and humane feeling were not among the imperative mandates of conscience in the conduct of a banking business, or in the development of an industrial or commercial enterprise?

And, if these offenses against high morality and true citizen­ship have been frequently observable, are we to say that the blame for the present discontent and turbulence is wholly on the side of those who are in revolt against them? Ought we not, rather, to seek a way to remove such offenses and make life itself clean for those who will share honorably and cleanly in it?

 p353  The world has been made safe for democracy. There need now be no fear that any such mad design as that entertained by the insolent and ignorant Hohenzollerns and their counselors may prevail against it. But democracy has not yet made the world safe against irrational revolution. That supreme task, which is nothing less than the salvation of civilization, now faces democracy, insistent, imperative. There is no escaping it, unless everything we have built up is presently to fall in ruin about us; and the United States, as the greatest of democracies, must undertake it.

The road that leads away from revolution is clearly marked, for it is defined by the nature of men and of organized society. It therefore behooves us to study survey carefully and very candidly the exact nature of the task and the means of its accomplishment.

The nature of men and of organized society dictates the maintenance in every field of action of the highest and purest standards of justice and of right dealing; and it is essential to efficacious thinking in this critical matter that we should not entertain a narrow or technical conception of justice. By justice the lawyer generally means the prompt, fair, and open application of impartial rules; but we call ours a Christian civilization, and a Christian conception of justice must be much higher. It must include sympathy and helpfulness and a willingness to forgo self-interest in order to promote the welfare, happiness, and contentment of others and of the community as a whole. This is what our age is blindly feeling after in its reaction against what it deems the too great selfishness of the capitalistic system.

The sum of the whole matter is this, that our civilization cannot survive materially unless it be saved only by becoming permeated with the Spirit of Christ and being made free and happy by the practice which springs out of that spirit. Only thus can discontent be driven out and all the shadows be lifted from the road ahead.

Here is the final challenge to our churches, to our political organizations, and to our capitalists — to everyone who fears God or loves his country. Shall we not earnestly co‑operate to bring in the new day?

On every Armistice Day (to him it was a holy day, for it was the end of the war) and on his birthday gatherings  p354 of friends and admirers would assemble at his home on S Street to do him honor. These visits were grateful to him, with a hint, however, of sadness that he could not greet them as before he was stricken.

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Kadell & Herbert, N. Y.

The last home of Woodrow Wilson

Mr. Wilson is speaking to the crowd in front of the house in S Street, Washington, to which he moved on his retirement from the Presidency and which, for four years, was regarded by the nation as the shrine of world idealism

On the day the body of the Unknown Soldier — the brave lad Wilson had called to battle — was carried with fitting ceremony down Pennsylvania Avenue from the nation's Capitol to Arlington, the sincerest man to uncover in his honor was Woodrow Wilson, the Known Soldier and Executive.

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© Underwood & Underwood

Mr. and Mrs. Wilson
in the funeral procession of the Unknown Soldier

The first appearance of the ex-President in public after the inauguration of President Harding

"It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war," he said on that memorable April evening.​d "It was his regret," said his life-long friend, Dr. Davis, "that he could not personally enter the army." He was comrade to every man who wore the country's uniform in the great war. Therefore he followed the Unknown Soldier as one who in perfect comrade­ship of spirit had shared his hardships, slept with him in the mud, and charged through the deadly barrage.

The great concourse, seeing the feebleness of the former Commander-in‑Chief as he rode toward Arlington, paid their tribute first to the Unknown Soldier, and then to the broken body of ex-President Wilson. Perhaps no American has received a tribute so spontaneous, mingled with the feeling of the people that Wilson, too, was a war casualty, and not many days hence would be borne to rest with the boys he had called to fight the battle of world freedom.

The ceremony over, the steps of thousands turned to S Street in pilgrimage to Wilson's home. The dead hero could not hear their tribute. The living hero heard and saw, his eyes blurred with tears.

When President Harding died, his predecessor joined  p355 the ranks of mourners, and gave evidence of his respect for the dead and tender sympathy for the living.

The last reception given by Woodrow Wilson was at his home of January 16, 1924, to the members of the Democratic National Executive Committee. They had met in Washington to fix the time and place for the next Convention, and their first act was to send greetings to the leader, who had twice borne their banner to victory. They called in a body, and he welcomed them, not as the militant champion they had loved to follow in 1912 and 1916, but as the leader broken in body at the end. But his spirit was as dauntless, even as he received them sitting in his great armchair in the library and shook hands with them. He gave personal greeting to those he knew well, and welcome to all. These party associates, who had hoped against hope that he might recover and again lead the hosts to victory, left the home saddened. "He plainly showed the effects of his long illness," said one. "He has aged perceptibly; his hair has grown whiter, and his face was stamped with marks of pain. His left arm, limp at his side, rested against the cushions of the chair. His right hand was raised with an effort to clasp the hands of his callers. It was with difficulty the women kept back their tears."

He talked of the League of Nations with friends not long before the end, and said, "I am not sorry I broke down." They were surprised and told him what a great personal triumph it would have been for him to have led it to universal acceptance. "But," said Mr. Wilson, "as it is coming now, the American people are thinking their way through, and reaching their own decision, and that is the better way for it to come."

Faith to the end.

Thayer's Notes:

a Mrs. Wilson's brother.

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b The poem, once a great popular favorite, and still read today, may be found in several places online, among them here; a sympathetic biography of the poet at Patheos Catholic.

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c An audio recording of this speech, very slightly truncated, was once online at Michigan State University's Vincent Voice Library, but has disappeared.

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d That is, in Wilson's message to Congress on April 2, 1917; not on the day of the funeral of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington, which was November 11, 1921. Excellent text and photographic coverage of the funeral is provided at ArlingtonCemetery.Net.

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Page updated: 8 Sep 14