One hundred years ago last March, Woodrow Wilson assumed the office of President of the United States. His was a unique path to that office, never duplicated before or after his tenure. Wilson remains our nation’s only career political science scholar to become President. He served his entire adult life in academia and less than two years as Governor of New Jersey before his victory in the presidential election of 1912.
Perhaps it is this unique life history that has made Wilson the subject of countless biographies. Professor Arthur Link of Princeton wrote a five-volume saga of Wilson’s life along with other books that delved into his foreign and domestic accomplishments. Wilson’s life has been chronicled in scores of historical works, and several new studies of his political career are forthcoming. If you are going to write about Thomas Woodrow Wilson, our nation’s 28th President, you need to write something special. WILSON by A. Scott Berg is that type of biography.
Exhaustively researched and wonderfully written, WILSON captures not just the life of a President, but also the essence of the Progressive Era that spanned the last years of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th. Wilson epitomizes that era with historic accomplishments that live today as well as bitter failures that still influence American diplomacy. Berg has written an important book that unfortunately reminds us that, although a century has passed since Wilson’s election, the world and our nation still face many of the same problems that confronted him.
"If you are going to write about Thomas Woodrow Wilson, our nation’s 28th President, you need to write something special. WILSON by A. Scott Berg is that type of biography."
Berg begins his narrative as Wilson, the victorious leader of a new world power, departs from New York Harbor to lead his diplomatic team across the Atlantic Ocean on a voyage of peace to Europe. Wilson would be the first American President to travel overseas. He sailed to Europe on the steamship George Washington, the same ship that transported the first 5,000 American troops to Europe to fight the war “over there.” Wilson left New York Harbor to the cheers of his countrymen, with their admiration for his leadership along with their dreams for the future of the world. Their dreams would never be, and the “war to end all wars” would instead be the first of many wars.
Berg traces Wilson’s career as a scholar and an author of important works of political theory. He would advance in the academic world to become President of Princeton University. In that position, he advocated many changes in traditional education. The world of university academics is a world of politics that makes traditional partisan politics tame by comparison. Wilson confronted many challenges to his academic goals, and it was perhaps the frustration he met that caused him to enter the political world as New Jersey progressives slated him to run for Governor in 1910. Wilson promised to be independent of party bosses, and after his election, he was successful in creating open political primaries, worker’s compensation laws and utility reform. The Democrats nominated Wilson for President in 1912. He owed his election to the fractures in the Republican Party, where President William Taft was challenged by former President Teddy Roosevelt. While Wilson received only 41% of the popular vote, he had a solid 435 votes in the Electoral College.
Wilson was the first President to address the Congress personally in his State of the Union address. Among his first-term accomplishments were the creation of the Federal Reserve, passage of strong anti-trust legislation, and the nomination of Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court. Berg’s writing is quality biography. He captures not just the life of Wilson, but also the spirit of the Progressive movement in vivid portrayals of many actors in the era. Roosevelt, Taft, Bryan and countless other historical figures are presented as critical actors in the Progressive Era.
History tells us that Woodrow Wilson’s dream of a world after the First World War would never be achieved. While his accomplishments as a progressive led to the New Deal and an America that became a leader of the free world, his failure to achieve his goal of a strong League of Nations had world consequences. This vivid portrait of Wilson and America has much to offer readers who understand that the world and our nation are still confronting many of the issues that Wilson faced in the White House a century ago.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on September 13, 2013