This excellent biography offers a much-needed adjustment of Woodrow Wilson's place in popular history.
Historians regularly rank Woodrow Wilson as a very good or even
excellent president who led the United States through World War I and
won approval of significant domestic policies. But the public, if
they think of Wilson at all, are more likely to see an obsessive
idealist whose unwillingness to compromise cost him his biggest
The difference in perspectives is partly because unlike the other
leading presidents of the 20th century - both Roosevelts, Truman,
Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan - Wilson has attracted
comparatively little attention from biographers.
John Milton Cooper Jr., a historian at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison, fills this enormous vacuum with Woodrow Wilson: A
Biography, a powerful, carefully researched, and insightful new
biography of the nation's 28th president.
Born in Virginia, the son of a Presbyterian minister, Wilson lived
in several Southern states before heading off to college at Princeton
University. He briefly (and unhappily) practiced law before earning a
PhD at Johns Hopkins University and authoring a greatly admired study
of congressional decisionmaking.
He took a teaching job at Princeton, where he eventually became
president of the school. He was a superb academic administrator:
Cooper gives Wilson great credit for making Princeton an outstanding
university. In 1910, he was elected governor of New Jersey as a
liberal opponent of the Democratic Party bosses and, just two years
later, became the Democratic candidate for president. In one of the
most important elections in American history, he defeated the
incumbent president, William Howard Taft, and a former president,
Theodore Roosevelt, to win the White House.
Cooper divides Wilson's eight years as president into three parts.
The first is largely devoted to the extraordinary record of domestic
success of his first term. Landmarks include the creation of the
Federal Reserve and Federal Trade Commission, the institution of the
progressive income tax and tariff reform, the first child labor laws,
the first federal aid to farmers, the first federal aid to education,
and the first law mandating an eight-hour workday for industrial
workers. He also appointed Lewis Brandeis to the Supreme Court, its
first Jewish member.
In the second part of his presidency, he led the US into World War I
and performed a "miracle of mobilization" that sent 2 million
soldiers to France, helping to bring the war to a swift conclusion.
The impact, according to Cooper, was profound: "He shortened World
War I, and hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people owed
their lives to him."
But it was the third part of his presidency - the Paris Peace
Conference and the unsuccessful effort to convince the US Senate to
ratify the Treaty of Versailles and join the League of Nations -
that defines his presidency. …