A Biography of Woodrow Wilson

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Document ID 9510089
Date 01-09-1917
Document Type Periodical Extracts
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Citation A Biography of Woodrow Wilson;Chamber Journal, Part 81, September 1, 1917; CMSIED 9510089
Chambers' Journal
   seventh series
The Heart of things
by Henry Leach
London, yesterday.
 ... It happened that I was in different parts of the United
States, east and west, when Mr Wilson was in the full flood of
his first campaign for the presidency in 1912, and circumstances
inevitably led a wanderer to take a new and acute interest in
this once university professor, who at first glance and thought
seemed to be of even drier stuff than one of his opponents,
Taft, and to lack all the colour and impulsiveness thqt made the
other, Roosevelt, such an attractive figure. But the first
examination of the man and his career forced a revelation. Here
was a new creation in statesmanship, something not regarded
before, in the old world at all events, as being among the
possibilities or practicabilities. This man with a straight
American mouth, and one of the deepest, strongest chins to be
seen on any man of consequence, was a soaring idealist who
sternly bent his ideas to the practical cases of the time, but
in doing so discarded old conventions and broke old moulds,
making new ones for his purpose. Hitherto in his career he had
been springing surprises continually, causing commotions in his
communities, a disturbing element frequently; but invariably, by
common acceptance in the end, working with a mighty energy and
determination for the public good, loving democracy and
struggling always for the good of the people against those who
would oppress them, reforming without ceasing. Here, it seemed,
was a paladin for a new liberty. I followed his progress for a
time, and one Sunday in a great New York political club sat from
morning to night among the books he had written, in which some
of his principles were expounded. They showed a new way of
thinking; they gave a hint about a new possibility for the
future. One could not doubt that this man was meant to lead
America, and, with the Old World showing signs of a new
emancipation, of leading perhaps something more than America.
Only a few others had noticed in the past what a remarkable
personality and mind was here, and what its prospects might be.
First to do so was Colonel George Harvey, editor of the North
American Review, who nominated him for a future presidency in
1906, and five years later described him as 'Woodrow Wilson, the
highly Americanised Scotch-Irishman, descended from Ohio, born
in Virginia, developed in Maryland, married in Georgia, and now
delivering from bondage that faithful old democratic
common-wealth, the state of New Jersey.' This bright summary by
the American editor indicates an origin and early career of
peculiar interest; but there was none of that special romance
that it is the delight of a certain class of sentimentalists to
associate with the youth of those who were afterwards great.
Young Wilson was not a dreamer; no past president gave him a
dollar and told him that one day he would be president too; the
boy himself did not devote all his leisure hours to the study of
the lives of such as Washington, and he made no dramatic
declarations to his parents. And yet in the consideration of the
origins of Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States
there is romance enough. What an odd mixture he is!- Scots,
Irish, American, and so forth, as Colonel Harvey said. His
grandfather on the paternal side lived in County Down , Ireland,
and a hundred and ten years ago went to Philadelphia to better
things for himself. His other grandfather was the Rev. Thomas
Woodrow, a Scottish Presbyterian minister , who held an
appointment for a long time at Carlisle,and then moved first to
Canada, and afterwards to Ohio, where he held a pastorate. The
youngest of the seven sons of the Irishman turned towards the
ministry for a career, and was licensed to a post at
Steubenville Male Academy. There he, Joseph Ruggles Wilson, came
to acquaintance with Parson Thomas Woodrow's daughter Janet, who
was a pupil at the Companion Academy for girls. They became
friends, lovers and married. The president was their third child
, two daughters having come before, and he was born at Staunton,
Virginia, in the last week of 1856. The little family had moved
to Georgia at the time the Civil War broke out, Mr Wilson having
accepted a pastorate at Augusta. the boy Woodrow was only four
years old at that stirring time, and retainsbut few impressions
of it; but the earliest recollection of his whole life is that
of some men shouting in the streea outside his father's house
that Lincoln had been elected and there would be war. One day,
as he remembers, he saw a number of Confederates riding through
the town on the way to join the army, and he recalls Jefferson
Davis passing through in 1865 on his way to imprisonment. His
father was a staunch Southerner, but the family came little into
contact with the great struggle. It made no impression at the
time on this boy; but yet the civil war inevitably had a
tremendous effect on his mind, his temperament, his thoughts and
ideals. It wound up every spring in him, and set him alive and
burning for zealous action when the time came for him to go out
into the world a man. That was because by the time he was grown
up America was passing through that magnificent, inspiring
period of building and reconstruction under the new unity. The
great fabric of mighty and industrious America was being
prepared with amazing vigour. Young Wilson saw it at work, and
any man with a germof the statesman in him was bound to be
enormously impressed and stimulated. He was. And at the same
time he began to feel that destiny might have something for him;
he thought of the presidency, and he determined to direct
himself towards law and politics. His education was slow in
starting. His father did not believe in forcing these matters,
and he was past nine years of age before he could read; but the
pastor, in his careful companionship with the boy, had been
affording him training of no small value. They had long walks
together; they visited workshops and factories where great
object lessons were presented, and at other times in the
evenings the father read aloud to the members of his family
chapters from Scott and Dickens. Then, after four years at an
academy at Atlanta, South Carolina, he was sent to Davidson
Cllege, North Carolina, but left after a year through ill
health. In 1875 he proceeded to Princeton University, and there
a passion for the study of history and politics took hold of
him. He read deeply into Chatham and Burke, and in his fourth
year he was regarded as the best speaker and debater at the
Cllege. This led to a strange, and, some might say, a
significant incident. There was an annual debate at Princeton
between two rival debating societies , and that there should be
no preparation and that the full capacity of the participants
might be tested, both the subject and the debating part in it to
be taken by each side were chosen by lot. The rival societies
each put forth a champion , and then the subject and the side
were determined by hazard. Wilson was selected by his society,
and when the slips of paper were drawn it was ordained that the
question should be that of Protection against Free Trade, and,
further, that Wilson should urge the case of Protection against
the other. He would not do so much violence to his convictions,
even though it were but an academic exercise; he tore up his
commission and abandoned the debate.
                      *   *   *
   When his university career was completed he tried to settle
to the practice of the law, with a partner, but this arrangement
was soon abandoned. He determined to teach law instead, took a
postgraduate course, and was then appointed lecturer in history
and political economy at a women's college near Philadelphia.
Some time later he was appointed to the chair of jurisprudence
and politics at Princeton, and in 1902 he became president of
the university, a position of the utmost control and authority.
Now he entered upon his career as a reformer. He set about
changing the system of instruction, overthrowing traditions, and
abolishing abuses. Princeton at that time was a university
greatly controlled by the rich, where their sons, living at the
clubs they established, devoted themselves far less to
educational matters than was desirable. The new president set a
hoigher standard of efficiency, he made rules by which the
students found it necessary to study more than they had done,
and he established a system of groups, whereby numbers of
students were brought into close personal contact for purposes
of discussion and tuition with professors, and not left to their
own devices after merely attending lectures, as had been the
custom. His was a period of great reforming changes such as had
never been known before; but he found strong interests set
against him, especially when he attacked the system of the
residential clubs and essayed to substitute another that would
have made for more efficiency and less luxury. He had defeats to
bear; but in 1910 he ascended to a greater reforming task, for
then he was nominated, and was elected with a plurality of fifty
thousand votes, ot the governorship of New Jersey. 'Absolute
good faith in dealing with the people and unhesitating fidelity
to every principle avowed is the highest law of political
morality in a constitutional government,' he said at that time.
He purified and strengthened municipal government in his state;
he amazed the people by his boldness, his independence, and his
daring. The rest of the world was a little surprised when it
heard that one Woodrow Wilson was to be a candidate for the
presidency, but those knowing him and about him were not
surprised. At the great Democratic convention he was selected as
the candidate for the party after a sharp contest with others,
and, according to the custom at these remarkable gatherings, he
was cheered for an hour and a quarter. At the later trial, when
the Republican vote was split between Mr Roosevelt and Mr Taft,
with consequences fatal to them, he was an easy winner. He had
435 electoral votes, the plumping votes, from each state in the
electoral college, against the 88 that were given to Roosevelt
and the 8 to Taft. The election is not counted this way, but oit
is reckoned that he had 6,286,987 popular votes against
Roosevelt's 4,125,804, and Taft's 3,475,813. The electoral
figures take no account of minorities, but the others do. The
rest is familiar to most of us. Without doubt Mr Wilson's
re-election last year, near thing as it was, meant much for the
great cause of the best of the world.
                   *   *   *
   He is not a man to be judged by physiognomy. He looks cold,
hard, unemotional, far from humour, but he is not so. No man is
more devoted to home life; he has fine warmth of feeling and
rare powers of humour. He can tell a little story as well as any
American, and they say he commonly opens his meetings of the
Cabinet with an anecdote. He has none of the primary 'bad
habits' as we call them. There was a flutter in Washington when
he first went to the White House, and the rumour spread that
only grapejuice would be set upon the table. But all were happy
afterwards. He lives a clean life. He is fond of sports and
games; he is devoted to cycling, rowing and golf. At times of
great stress of mind during the war he has consistently sought
relaxation on the golf-course. But when grappling with a problem
he paces his study or the gardens of the White House in solitude
for hours. The war has aged the president somewhat, but yet his
vitality is enormous. It needs to be. On him, perhaps as much as
on any one now alive, does the fate of the world depend. He is
handling and controlling the most marvellous, most efficient,
and most gigantic force that mankind has ever known.