Imagined Power: The Secret Life of Colonel House

By Esposito, David M. | The Historian, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Imagined Power: The Secret Life of Colonel House

Esposito, David M., The Historian

Woodrow Wilson, the twenty-eighth president of the United States, served during the tumultuous years from 1913 to 1921 that saw the buildup to the First World War, the war itself, including U.S. engagement as of April 1917, and the Treaty of Versailles that ended the war in 1919. He is credited, among other achievements, as the father of the League of Nations. Wilson, a Democrat, embraced a clearly articulated liberal philosophy and an international world view. Although Wilson established the policies of his administration, often in the face of isolationist opposition from Congress, he entrusted much of the actual implementation to his aides and advisors, prominent among whom was Colonel Edward M. House.

Many historians have used the House papers as a window into the mind of the president. As Wilson's trusted advisor, chief confidant, and sometimes unofficial representative to foreign leaders, House exerted a significant influence on Wilson and on U.S. foreign policy. Still, he remains a controversial figure for historian's of American foreign relations. Scholars have noted discrepancies between what House told Wilson and what he recorded in his diaries and told to others. Further ambiguous aspects of House's character have become apparent in recent years, but most scholars have considered his lapses prior to 1919 as of little historical significance.(1)

The president relied on House for a variety of tasks and appreciated his interpersonal skills and personal devotion, though he noted in a letter to his wife that "intellectually he is not a great man. His mind is not first class."(2) House cultivated Wilson and seemed to ask nothing in return for himself. Wilson apparently had little reason to doubt House's loyalty until the Conference at Versailles in 1919, where House's duplicity became so obvious and counterproductive that Wilson dismissed him permanently. A careful review of House's writings, assembled in the House collection at Yale University, discloses habitual dissimulation and calculated mendacity on a previously unrecognized scale. Sometimes he lied for the historical record and sometimes he seems only to have fooled himself. The present paper examines the fantasies that House used to deceive both himself and those around him and how he tried to transform those fantasies into real life.(3)

Edward Mandell House was born in Houston, Texas, in 1858. His father was one of the wealthiest men in the state, with holdings in sugar and cotton plantations. At school House was an indifferent student, but in his teens he became fascinated with politics. Lacking the looks, charisma, and oratorical gifts needed to win office, House became an advisor to political aspirants. He enjoyed networking, knew important people, and had sufficient wealth that he needed no financial support. His cultured, courteous, soft-spoken demeanor and agile mind were flattering to the powerful, whom he manipulated with extraordinary success.(4)

In 1892, at the age of 34, House organized a successful reelection campaign for Texas reform Governor James Hogg. Hogg credited House with his uphill victory and in return made him a colonel in the Texas militia, although House never saw any military duty. House served as an advisor to a succession of Texas governors over the next ten years, but turned his attention to national politics when former president Theodore Roosevelt challenged incumbent William Taft for the Republican presidential nomination. The Republican schism created a perfect opportunity for a Democrat to be elected. Woodrow Wilson, then governor of New Jersey, met House for the first time in November 1911 and appears to have been immediately taken with the Texan. He later stated that he felt as though that they had known each other always.(5)

House wrote his brother-in-law immediately after the meeting that "It was just such a chance as I have always wanted, for never before have I found both the man and the opportunity. …

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