In Search of America: Transatlantic Essays, 1951-1990

By Marcus Cunliffe | Go to book overview

10
Woodrow Wilson's

George Washington

I was asked to supply an introduction for a 1969 reprint of Professor Woodrow Wilson's 1896 biography of George Washington. I may still have had in mind a review I had written ( Encounter, July 1967) of the bizarrely hostile and suppositious "psychological study," Thomas Woodrow Wilson ( 1967), a collaboration of sorts between Sigmund Freud and William C. Bullitt. Though I had never particularly warmed to Wilson, the Freud-Bullitt analysis seemed to deny to their subject any and every benefit of the doubt. My comments, while not highly laudatory, are I trust not devoid of sympathy for America's twenty-eighth president as he was in his Princeton chrysalis.

Woodrow Wilson's life of George Washington is no masterpiece. Yet apart from what it tells us about the first president of the United States, it also, unwittingly, reveals something of Wilson, the twenty-eighth.

The great work Wilson dreamed of during his academic years, on "The Philosophy of Politics," remained unwritten. Instead, having won an early success with Congressional Government ( 1885), he came dangerously close to being a hack author. He produced a flow of magazine articles, collected subsequently as An Old Master ( 1893) and Mere Literature ( 1896). His historical books were written at the suggestion of various editors; unlike his friend Frederick Jackson Turner, he was hardly a historian's historian. A harsh verdict would be that he published not because he had something to say, but because he felt he had to say something. An as-yet unfocussed ambition drove him on. Editors warmed to Professor Woodrow Wilson of Johns Hopkins ( 1883-85), Bryn Mawr ( 1885-88), Wesleyan ( 1888-90), and Princeton ( 1890-1902) for good editorial reasons: he

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