The Hidden Agony of Woodrow Wilson

By Lynn, Kenneth S. | The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

The Hidden Agony of Woodrow Wilson

Lynn, Kenneth S., The Wilson Quarterly

To the remarkable list of modern American presidents whose characters were molded by a struggle against illness--Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and, to an extent only recently revealed, John F. Kennedy--scholars have added the name of Woodrow Wilson. The famous Wilsonian obstinacy and tendency to impatient judgment were symptoms of a cerebrovascular disease that he carefully concealed from public view for decades before the stroke that felled him during the epic battle over the League of Nations in 1919. As the late historian Kenneth S. Lynn shows in this excerpt from his unfinished book on presidential health cover-ups, Wilson's struggle with physical affliction may have been admirable, but its secret nature compromised Wilson's own values--and raises the question of how different history might have been had the American public been told the truth.

In a letter of 1911 to his special lady friend, Mary Peck, Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) confessed that in his childhood he had "lived a dream life (almost too exclusively, perhaps)." Both his father and his mother had helped to enrich that life by regularly reading aloud to him from the works of Charles Dickens and Walter Scott, the collected essays of Charles Lamb, and James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. The boy adored those books, yet he was unable to identify all the letters of the alphabet until he was nine years old, and he was 12 before he learned to read. Aside from buying him a pair of eyeglasses, which proved to be unnecessary, the senior Wilsons could think of no way to help their son--and no wonder. During the years of mounting concern about their son's laggard literacy, they lived in a quiet southern town far removed from the nation's centers of medical activity. They did not know that pioneer observers had recently discerned a surprising pattern: In certain cases of stroke, the victim was unable to read but retained the ability to talk.

The strokes of Wilson's later years compel us to ask whether his helplessness as a young reader stemmed from unrecorded occurrences of the same trauma. In any case, his struggle with the disability was agonizing, and when it ended happily, he immediately discovered that he had other problems. The pace at which he was able to read, and to write accurately as well, proved to be unsatisfactorily slow. The young Wilson sought to compensate for his slowness as a reader by focusing with such intensity on whatever text lay before him that he eventually developed an almost photographic memory. At 15, he attacked his writing problem by mastering an intricate system of shorthand. A decade later, he purchased a typewriter, on which he learned to type at a furious speed despite the primitiveness of the newfangled machine. His most extraordinary exercise of self-discipline was to teach himself, during his student days at the College of New Jersey (as Princeton University was then formally known), to compose entire essays in his mind before committing them to paper.

At Princeton, too, he kept a diary, in shorthand, in which every entry concluded with the prayerful exclamation, "Thank God for health and strength." But his health was troubled. During the year he spent at Davidson College in North Carolina before transferring to Princeton, he had come down with a bad cold that would not go away. "My darling Boy," his alarmed mother wrote him in the spring of 1874, "I am so anxious about that cold of yours.... Surely you have not laid aside your winter clothing? ... You seem depressed--but that is because you are not well." Severe headaches bothered him at Princeton, as did worries about their meaning. At the end of his junior year, the worries crept into a brilliant essay he wrote on the British politician William Pitt (1708-78), who was known as Pitt the Elder. Wilson at 21 had already decided to have a political career someday, and in Pitt he recognized a godlike model. Energized by self-referential dreams, the essayist's salute to the great statesman soared: "His devotion to his country's service was as intense as it was entire; and the intellect whose every power he brought to bear upon the direction of her affairs composed its duty' with a vigor commensurate with its colossal proportions. …

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