CHAPTER XXIV. WOODROW WILSON
A definite account of the eventful years following 1913 can be written only after time has allayed partisanship; after long study of the social, economic and political history has separated the essential from the trivial; after papers that are now locked in private files have been opened to students; and after the passage of years has given that perspective which alone can measure the wisdom or the folly of a policy. It will be little less difficult to make a just appraisal of the chief American participants in those years, and particularly of President Woodrow Wilson. At present it is possible only to avoid partisanship so far as it can be done, read with open mind whatever documents are available, and refrain from either praise or condemnation. On all sides it is agreed that during his administration Wilson became one of the three or four world-figures, and for that reason his characteristics, as well as the events of his presidency demand unusual attention.
Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia, in 1856. His ancestors were Scotch-Irish and his father an educator and Presbyterian clergyman. After graduating from Princeton College he practiced law, studied history and politics, and taught these subjects at several different institutions. Subsequently he became a professor at Princeton and later its President. He was a prolific and successful writer. His book on Congressional Government, for example, went through twenty-four impressions before he became President of the United States. The State, an account of the mechanism of government in ancient and modern times, and some of his portrayals of American history were hardly less in demand. His election as Governor of New Jersey in 1910 and his election to the presidency two years later have already been mentioned.
The outstanding characteristic of Wilson is a finely-organized, penetrating intelligence. Somewhat like a silent chess-player he thinks many moves in advance, a fact which makes it difficult to judge a single act of his without a knowledge of the whole plan. Before coming to the presidency he had long pondered on the proper and possible function of that office, and had drawn in imagination the outlines and many of the details of the role which he was to play. Years of careful study had drilled him in the accumulation of facts. As a specialist in polities and history he was accustomed to make up his mind on the basis of his own researches, and to change his judgments without embarrassment when new facts presented themselves. His literary style is characterized by precision, a close texture and frequently by suppressed emotion. He thinks on an international scale and with a profundity that often dwarfs associates who are by no means pygmies themselves. An unbending will, an alert conscience, stubborn courage, restrained patience, political sagacity, a thoroughgoing belief in democracy and above all an instinctive understanding of the spiritual aspirations of the common people made him the most powerful political figure in America within a brief time after his accession to the presidency. On the other hand, his aloofness from counsel during the later part of his presidency exceeded that of Cleveland, and his abnormal self-reliance was greater than that of Roosevelt.
In reviewing the history of the years following 1913, it is necessary to have a sense of the immensity of the problems involved, as well as a restrained judgment and some knowledge of the chief actors. Beginning in 1914, the great nations of Europe were constantly menaced by appalling dangers; their leaders were daily confronted with decisions of the utmost importance. Because of the close commercial, industrial and financial bonds between the two continents, America could not fail to be affected. She too was compelled to take her part in a drama which was far greater than any in which she had before engaged. Both the President and Congress were confronted with problems the solution of which would vitally affect not only the people of America, but the people of the world; never before had their decisions been so subject to the possibilities of mistakes which would certainly be momentous and might be tragic.
When Wilson and his party came into power in 1913, as the result of the schism among the Republicans, their position was by no means secure. The President had been elected by a distinct minority in the popular vote and his practical political experience had been less than that of any chief executive since Grant. His party had been in power so little since the Civil War that it had no body of experienced administrators from which to pick cabinet officers, and no corps of parliamentary leaders practiced in the task of framing and passing a constructive program. The party as a whole was lacking in cohesion and had perforce played the role of destructive critic most of the time for more than half a century; its principles were untested in actual experience, and although its majority in the House was large, in the Senate its margin of control was so narrow as to suggest the near possibility of the failure of a party program. Wilson was under no illusions as to the circumstances of his election and he realized that both he and his party were on probation.
The appointment of the cabinet occasioned unusual interest. Bryan, the one Democrat who had a large and devoted personal following, became Secretary of State. His influence in nominating Wilson had been very great and the adherence of his admirers was necessary if the party was to be welded into an effective organization. Several of the other members of the cabinet proved themselves to be men of unusual capacity, and their ability to cooperate with one another provided the "teamwork" which the President was anxious to obtain.