Friday, September 6, 2013

Woodrow Wilson reconsidered

As readers here know, I've been changing my mind a lot lately about some historical questions. A review article by Jill Lepore in the latest New Yorker [sorry, gated] reminds me why my views on Woodrow Wilson have become increasingly negative in recent years.

When I first started reading history, I saw him as a tragic figure, cut down by a stroke while trying to win the fight for the League of Nations. As a budding internationalist, I saw American isolationism after World War I as a dangerous error and I thought the UN was the precursor of a more peaceful world. The fact that he was the only President with a PhD earned him extra points in my estimation. So what's wrong with youthful idealism?

The more I have studied his presidency, however, the more flaws I see in Wilson. He probably could have won the Versailles Treaty fight if he hadn't been so stubborn. His interventions in Latin America were excessive and for the wrong reasons -- "to teach them to elect good men." The ways his wife hid his illnesses from Congress, the cabinet, and the public were indefensible and contrary to what we now see as the proper constitutional order. And he was an active racist, demanding the re-segregation of the federal government and the District of Columbia.

His record on domestic legislation is much more commendable and durable. [I'm not one of those who laments creation of the Fed and passage of a progressive income tax.]

The New Yorker piece does have one fact that I hadn't known before: in the 1916 election, where his main campaign slogan was "He Kept Us Out of War," his narrow Electoral College victory, 277-254, was probably determined by his winning 10 of the 12 states which had already granted women the right to vote.

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