Woodrow Wilson: A Biography

Article excerpt

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

priority.

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. …