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Wilson | Synopsis

One hundred years after his inauguration, Woodrow Wilson still stands as one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century, and one of the most enigmatic. And now, after more than a decade of research and writing, Pulitzer Prize-winning author A. Scott Berg has completed Wilson—the most personal and penetrating biography ever written about the twenty-eighth President. 
In addition to mining the hundreds of thousands of documents in the Wilson Archives, Berg was the first biographer to gain access to two recently discovered caches of papers belonging to Wilson’s physician and to Jessie Wilson Sayre, the second of Wilson’s three daughters. From this material, Berg was able to add countless details—and even several unknown events—that deepen Wilson’s character and cast new light on his entire life.  
The result is an intimate portrait of a President, written with a particularly contemporary point of view. From the visionary Princeton professor who constructed a model for higher education in America to the architect of the ill-fated League of Nations, from the devout Commander in Chief who ushered the country through its first great World War to the widower of intense passion and turbulence who wooed a second wife with hundreds of astonishing love letters, from the idealist determined to make the world “safe for democracy” to the stroke-crippled leader whose incapacity and the subterfuges around it were among the century’s greatest secrets, from the trailblazer whose ideas paved the way for the New Deal and the Progressive administrations that followed to the politician whose partisan battles with his opponents left him a broken man and, ultimately, a tragic figure—this is a book at once magisterial and deeply emotional about the whole of Wilson’s life, accomplishments, and failings.

This is not just Wilson the icon—but Wilson the man.

Wilson | A Photographic Timeline

Thomas Woodrow Wilson, Princeton Class of 1879. After studying law at the University of Virginia, he moved to Atlanta to practice.


Before abandoning his career for graduate school in 1883, he did some legal work in Rome, Georgia, where he met Ellen Louise Axson, the daughter of the local Presbyterian minister. Before entering John Hopkins University in the fall, he proposed marriage, and she accepted.


Even before he had received his Ph. D., Wilson secured a teaching position at a new school for women, Bryn Mawr College.


Wilson taught at Princeton, becoming its 13th president in 1902.


In 1910, the New Jersey Democratic machine offered Wilson the opportunity to run for governor. He accepted, won, and, in two years, turned the state into a model of progressivism.


Governor Wilson became the Democratic candidate for President of the United States; and on November 5, 1912, he walked to his Princeton polling place and cast his vote. He won in a landslide.


March 3, 1913—the President-elect and Mrs. Wilson walked to the Princeton depot and then departed to Washington, D. C.


"I'm glad to be going," President William Howard Taft told Wilson upon leaving the White House, "—this is the loneliest place in the world."

March 4, 1913

Wilson met Cary Travers Grayson, M.D., a lieutenant in the Naval medical corps, at the start of his Administration. Over the next eight years, he became Wilson's personal physician and most loyal friend.


"My second personality," WIlson called Colonel Edward Mandell House. Unpaid and answerable to nobody but the President, he became Wilson's most trusted roving diplomat and advisor--for a while.


Ellen Wilson pouring tea, with her daughters Margaret, Eleanor, and Jessie—as painted by American impressionist Robert Vonnoh, one of Ellen's teachers when she studied at the Lyme Art Colony in Connecticut.


Wilson played more golf than any President in White House history--an estimated 1200 rounds while in office.


In June, 1914, the President "P-raded" with his Class of 1879 at their 35th Princeton Reunion.


The President and his Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan--the longtime standard bearer of the Democratic Party, who had lent his support to Wilson's nomination. Disagreeing with his handling of the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, Bryan resigned.


Ellen Wilson died in 1914, leaving the President despondent. The following year, he met and secretly courted a young Washington widow named Edith Bolling Galt. That October, they appeared together at a World Series game in Philadelphia; and in December, they married.


Less than a month after his second inauguration, Wilson stood before Congress and delivered a War Message, insisting, "The world must be made safe for democracy."

April 2, 1917

The Great War had been ravaging Europe since 1914, but the United States did not declare war until April, 1917. The isolationist country, with an army of a few hundred thousand, mobilized--shipping two million men to the Front. At home, citizens poured all their resources into the war effort--including the Wilsons, who kept a flock of sheep at the White House, to trim the lawn and to grow wool for the Red Cross.


America turned the war around; and on November 11, 1918, the Armistice was signed. The following month, Wilson went to negotiate the peace in Paris, where he received the greatest hero's welcome in history.

November 11, 1918

Wilson's nemesis in the Senate was Henry Cabot Lodge, who strongly opposed the Wilson Treaty, especially its provision for a League of Nations.


When Wilson found Senate resistance too great, he took his cause to the people—as seen here at the Greek Theater in Berkeley. Weeks later, he suffered a stroke, which Mrs. Wilson kept from the public for much of the President's last 17 months in office. During that period, she "ran the country."

September, 1919

The Wilsons left the White House but remained in Washington. The ex-President on his 67th birthday. Five weeks later, he died.

December 28, 1923

Wilson | Archives

December 28, 1856. Thomas Woodrow Wilson is born in Staunton, Virginia. His father, Joseph Wilson, is a Presbyterian minister and a founder of the Southern Presbyterian Church, which would split from the northern Presbyterians in 1861 over slavery. Young Tommy is raised mainly in Augusta, Georgia; Columbia, South Carolina; and Wilmington, North Carolina.

Fall 1873 – Spring 1874. Wilson attends Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina, for one year but withdraws for medical reasons.

September 1875. Wilson transfers to Princeton University as a freshman.

Summer 1876. Wilson and his father travel to Philadelphia to attend the Centennial Exposition of 1876, the first World's Fair to be held in the United States. Among the items on display are such brand-new marvels as Alexander Graham Bell's telephone, a Remington "Typographic Machine," Heinz ketchup, and Hires root beer.

Fall 1876. The contested and controversial Tilden-Hayes presidential election is the first to engage Tommy Wilson.

June 1879. Wilson graduates from Princeton, having established himself as an outstanding orator, debater, writer, and student, as well as a natural leader.

October 2, 1879. Wilson begins law school at the University of Virginia. (He drops his first name, Thomas.) That same year, he falls in love with a cousin, who rejects his proposal of marriage.

December 1880. Wilson withdraws from the University of Virginia's law school due to failing health, and returns to his family in Wilmington, North Carolina.

January 1882. Wilson starts a law practice in Atlanta.

May 1882. Wilson joins the law practice of a University of Virginia law school classmate, Edward Ireland Renick, in Atlanta.

October 19, 1882. Wilson passes the Georgia bar exam.

April 1883. Giving up on the practice of law, Wilson applies to the graduate school at the Johns Hopkins University. He will begin his studies there in the fall for a doctorate in political science and history.

Summer 1883. Wilson meets Ellen Louise Axson, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, in her hometown of Rome, Georgia, and ardently courts her.

January 23, 1885. Wilson receives two finished copies of his first book, Congressional Government, published by Houghton Mifflin of Boston.

June 24, 1885. Wilson marries Ellen Axson in Savannah, Georgia.

September 1885. Wilson begins teaching economics, politics, and history at Bryn Mawr College, a new college for women outside Philadelphia, in its inaugural year.

April 16, 1886. Wilson's first daughter, Margaret, is born.

May 29, 1886. Wilson secures his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins.

August 28, 1887. Wilson's second daughter, Jessie, is born.

September 1888. Wilson begins teaching at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

October 22, 1889. Wilson's third daughter, Eleanor (known as "Nell"), is born.

September1890. Wilson returns to his alma mater, Princeton, to teach law and political science.

May 1896. Wilson suffers pain and numbness in his right arm and hand that a doctor attributes to "writer's cramp," but later experts judge the cause to be a small stroke.

June 9, 1902. Wilson is elected the thirteenth president of Princeton University.

October 25, 1902. Wilson is inaugurated as Princeton's president and begins to push for a series of major academic and social reforms intended to curb social elitism and turn Princeton into a modern university.

January 21, 1903. Wilson's father, Joseph, dies at 80; Wilson is disconsolate for weeks.

May 28, 1906. Wilson suffers another small stroke, which leaves him temporarily blind in his left eye.

September 15, 1910. Wilson is nominated as the Democratic candidate for Governor of New Jersey.

November 8, 1910. Wilson is elected Governor of New Jersey in a landslide.

January 17, 1911. Wilson is inaugurated as Governor of New Jersey.

July 2, 1912. Wilson is nominated as the Democratic candidate for President of the United States.

August 7, 1912. Wilson accepts his party's nomination for President.

September 2, 1912. Wilson's first presidential campaign officially begins.

October 14, 1912. Theodore Roosevelt, running as the presidential candidate for the Progressive Party, is shot in Milwaukee but escapes serious injury. The incident leads him to boast, "It takes more than that to kill a bull moose," which spawns a new name for his party.

November 5, 1912. Woodrow Wilson is elected president after less than two years in public office. He soundly defeats Republican incumbent William Howard Taft, former president Theodore Roosevelt, and Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debs.

February 18, 1913. General Victoriano Huerta becomes president of Mexico after executing the elected president who had emerged out of the throes of the Mexican Revolution, Francisco Madero. After Wilson's inauguration, he refuses to recognize Huerta, declaring that relations between nations must be based upon the rule of law rather than arbitrary force, and that all legitimate governments must derive their authority from the consent of the governed – words that form the cornerstone of his foreign policy for as long as he holds office. U.S. troops later invade Mexico, beginning a series of major U.S. interventions in Latin America during Wilson's presidency, including in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Panama, and Nicaragua.

March 13, 1913. Wilson is inaugurated as the twenty-eighth president of the United States.

March 15, 1913. Wilson holds the first White House press conference, and will hold sixty more between now and December 16.

April 8, 1913. Wilson addresses a joint session of Congress, the first time a President has done so since John Adams in 1800, to argue for lower tariffs. This is the first item in Wilson's agenda of Progressive reforms that he calls the "New Freedom" – the most ambitious and successful program of political and social legislation in American history until Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

Summer 1913. Wilson allows the Postal Service and Treasury Department to separate their workers by race, institutionalizing Jim Crow segregation in the nation's capital and the federal government.

October 3, 1913. Wilson's signing of the Underwood-Simmons Act re-imposes a federal income tax after passage of the Sixteenth Amendment in February 1913. The act considerably lowers U.S. tariff rates.

November 25, 1913. Wilson's second daughter, Jessie Woodrow Wilson, is married to Francis Bowes Sayre in the White House.

December 23, 1913. Wilson's signing of the Federal Reserve Act creates the Federal Reserve System, the nation's central banking system, and grants it the authority to issue Federal Reserve Notes as legal tender.

May 7, 1914. Wilson's youngest daughter, Eleanor "Nell" Randolph Wilson, is married to Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo in the White House.

May 8, 1914. The Smith-Lever Act establishes a series of cooperative extension services in connection with the land-grant universities, to provide information to farmers that will help them increase production and efficiency.

June 15, 1914. At Wilson's urging, Congress repeals the Panama Canal Tolls Act of 1912 to ensure equal treatment for the ships of all nations using the Canal, and to end favoritism for U.S. vessels.

June 28, 1914. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is shot dead in Sarajevo by a Bosnian Serb nationalist.

July 27, 1914. Austria declares war on Serbia, setting in motion a chain of events that soon engulf most of the continent of Europe, as well as Europe's colonies, in war.

August 6, 1914. Ellen Wilson dies in the White House of Bright's disease, a kidney ailment, at the age of fifty-four. Wilson suffers from acute depression for months afterwards.

September 8, 1914. Congress passes the Federal Trade Commission Act, establishing a bipartisan body to curb unfair trading practices.

October 15, 1914. The Clayton Antitrust Act strengthens and clarifies existing antitrust legislation.

February 8, 1915. D. W. Griffith's film The Clansman (later titled The Birth of a Nation) is shown in the White House. Many contemporaries regard the film as deeply racist.

Spring 1915. Wilson meets and falls in love with Edith Bolling Galt, a prosperous Washington widow sixteen years his junior.

May 7, 1915. A German submarine sinks the British passenger ship Lusitania, killing nearly 1,200 people, including 128 American citizens. The incident horrifies the nation and increases the clamor for the United States to enter the war.

June 9, 1915. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan resigns, believing that his pacifist advice is being ignored and that Wilson's handling of the Lusitania crisis is overly harsh toward Germany.

December 18, 1915. Wilson marries Edith Galt in a small ceremony at her home.

June 1, 1916. Wilson nominates Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish Justice, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

July 16, 1916. The Federal Aid Road Act is enacted – the first piece of federal highway funding legislation, which is instrumental in improving America's primitive road system.

July 17, 1916. The Federal Farm Loan Act creates a federal farm loan board, twelve regional farm loan banks and many local farm loan associations, whose aim was to increase credit to rural family farmers.

September 1, 1916. Congress approves the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act, intended to regulate and limit child labor, including a prohibition on children working at night or more than eight hours a day. The U.S. Supreme Court rules the Act unconstitutional in 1918.

September 3, 1916. Congress passes the Adamson Act, establishing an eight-hour workday and overtime pay for interstate railroad workers.

November 7, 1916. Voters go to the polls to decide between Wilson and Republican Charles Evans Hughes. Pundits predict a Hughes victory, but Wilson wins very narrowly, with considerable help from women voters in the West. Not officially declared the winner until November 10, he is the first Democratic president elected to a second consecutive term since Andrew Jackson in 1832.

December 18, 1916. Wilson unsuccessfully offers to mediate peace between the Allies and the Central Powers.

April 2, 1917. After numerous German attacks on ships, resulting in the deaths of Americans, Wilson goes before Congress with his War Message, outlining Germany's transgressions, including German efforts to persuade Mexico to attack the United States. The speech includes the ringing declaration, "The world must be made safe for democracy." By an overwhelming margin, Congress declares war against Germany on April 6.

April 13, 1917. Wilson creates the Committee on Public Information to influence public opinion about the war and to exercise censorship.

April 24, 1917. Congress passes the First Liberty Bond Act to raise funds to fight the war. Three more Liberty Bond Acts are passed in 1917 and 1918.

May 18, 1917. Congress passes the Selective Service Act, instituting the nation's first military draft since the Civil War.

June 15, 1917. At Wilson's behest, Congress passes the Espionage Act – one of the most provocative pieces of legislation in American history. It represents both a great expression of patriotism and a significant suppression of free speech.

July 18, 1917. Wilson establishes the War Industries Board to coordinate the purchase of war supplies. In January, 1918, financier Bernard Baruch takes control of the board, which becomes a model of economy and efficiency.

November 2, 1917. Britain's Foreign Minister, Arthur James Balfour, writes a short letter that comes to be known as the Balfour Declaration, which expresses the British government's support for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Wilson supported the Balfour Declaration.

January 8, 1918. Wilson lays out America's war aims in a speech to Congress that quickly becomes known as the Fourteen Points. Expressing Wilson's idealistic vision of America's role in the world and of the international order, it introduces the idea of a League of Nations. Wilson hopes to make it the basis for the treaty that will end the war.

May 16, 1918. The Sedition Act extends the Espionage Act of 1917 to include a broader range of offenses and an even greater suppression of free speech and anti-war movements.

October 16, 1918. The Immigration Act of 1918 makes it easier for the Wilson Administration to detain and deport foreign-born anarchists and left-wing activists, under an extremely broad definition of anarchism.

November 11, 1918. An armistice is signed, ending armed conflict in World War I.

June 28, 1919. The Treaty of Versailles formally ends hostilities between Germany and the Allied Powers (but not the United States), precisely five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

September 3, 1919. Wilson sets out on a national speaking tour in an effort to drum up support for the Treaty of Versailles and U.S. entry into the League of Nations. Republican Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts leads opposition to the treaty in the Senate, arguing that it could infringe upon U.S. sovereignty by forcing the nation to go to war.

September 26, 1919. Wilson collapses outside Pueblo, Colorado. He is forced to cancel his tour and return to Washington.

October 2, 1919. Wilson suffers a serious stroke and becomes an invalid in the White House. , Edith Wilson becomes his de facto chief of staff and assumes full control of his schedule, limiting access to only a handful of people.

November 1919 – January 1920. Orchestrated by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, the highly controversial Palmer Raids result in the arrest of thousands of anarchists and leftists across the country, and the deportation of more than 500.

November 2, 1920. Republican presidential candidate Warren G. Harding and Republicans down the line win in a landslide by repudiating Wilson's Progressive policies and internationalist vision, in a return to "normalcy" and isolationism.

December 10, 1920. Wilson is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end World War I and his creation of the League of Nations.

March 4, 1921. Wilson and his wife Edith leave the White House, retiring to an elegant house in the Embassy Row section of Washington, D.C.

November 11, 1921. Wilson attends the opening ceremonies for the Unknown Soldier Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.

August 8, 1923. Wilson rides in President Warren G. Harding's funeral procession to the U.S. Capitol.

November 10, 1923. Wilson makes his last national address, speaking by radio from the library of his Washington home. The following day, Armistice Day, he speaks briefly to more than 20,000 supporters who gather outside his home.

February 3, 1924. Wilson dies as a result of a stroke and other cardiovascular conditions. Three days later, he is interred in Washington National Cathedral, the only president to be buried in Washington, D.C.

December 28, 1961. Edith Wilson dies in the home she shared with Woodrow Wilson after leaving the White House, on what would have been his 105th birthday. It was also the day she was scheduled to dedicate a new bridge across the Potomac River that was being named in his honor.

Wilson | Excerpt

Dawn broke that day on a new epoch, one that would carry the name of a man whose ideas and ideals would extend well into the next century.

Shortly after seven o’clock on Wednesday, December 4, 1918, the sun rose over Hoboken, just as the nine-car special train of the twenty-​eighth President of the United States chugged its way through the New Jersey city that fronted the western piers of New York harbor. One thousand soldiers and a Marine Corps guard of honor joined the local police in restraining the hundreds who stood in the chilly first light in hopes of catching a glimpse of the illustrious passenger. They wanted nothing more, wrote one observer, than “to cheer the president and to wish him God-​speed on his momentous voyage.” At last, the flag-​draped locomotive sputtered to a halt so that its central car—​named “Ideal”—stopped before a red carpet leading to Pier 4. A battalion of the 13th United States Infantry surrounded the train.

The passengers remained on board until eight o’clock, at which time President Woodrow Wilson and his second wife, Edith, stepped off the train, prompting a rousing rendition of “The Star​-Spangled Banner” from an Army band. Brigadier General G. H. McManus, commander of the Port of Embarkation, stepped forward to welcome his Commander in Chief. In the last eighteen months, McManus’s port had witnessed the deployment of two million “doughboys” (as American soldiers were called) who had gone off to fight “the Hun” and win the first truly global war in history. General John J. Pershing, who had led the American Expeditionary Force, had rallied his armies from the outset with the vow that they would be in “Heaven, Hell or Hoboken” by Christmas of 1917.

A year later than Pershing had promised, President Wilson tipped his hat and greeted the surrounding soldiers and sailors before proceeding through a huge shed, which was lined with three hundred Army Transport Service girls in khaki and infantrymen bearing fixed bayonets. Hundreds of flags, those of the United States and the Allied nations—​Great Britain, France, Belgium, and Italy most recognizable among them—​hung from the ceiling of this vast hall. Wilson walked beneath the glorious array and onto his home for the next ten days, the United States steamship George Washington. On December 4, 1917, that same ship had transported her first five thousand troops to fight in the war “over there.” Now the great vessel was about to convey President Wilson and his team of aides and experts on a voyage of peace to Europe—​not only to conclude what had been the greatest conflagration in the history of man but also to create a document that might guarantee that they had just fought “the war to end all wars.”

As the President and Mrs. Wilson ascended the gangplank, the naval band on board struck up “Hail to the Chief,” after which it reprised the National Anthem. Then the Wilsons settled into their flower​-filled accommodations. The President’s suite consisted of a green​-curtained bedroom and bath and a large office, with a mahogany desk on which sat a white telephone for shipboard calls; attached to a wall was a wireless telephone by which the President could communicate with Washington or the Pennsylvania, the lead escort ship. Mrs. Wilson’s bedroom—​decorated in ivory with a pink bedspread, curtains, and plump cushions—​connected to a large bath, a dining room large enough to seat six comfortably, and a sitting room with a writing desk, chairs, and a table. It was all to her liking, except for the soldiers outside their staterooms and patrolling the decks.

Never in history had so much security surrounded an American president. In addition to the military presence, eight members of the Secret Service were aboard the George Washington, with two more doing advance work in France. The ship, recalled agent Edmund W. Starling, “had been checked from bow to stern and from keel to masthead, and members of the Secret Service all over the United States had been busy investigating members of the crew. . . . ​There was not a fireman or cabin boy whose family and background had not been thoroughly looked into.” The hopes of the world were on board, and everything was being done to ensure the safety of the transport.

At 10:15 the twin-​stacked ship—​722 feet long and weighing twenty-five thousand tons—​backed into the Hudson River. Once its stern was sighted heading northward, all the vessels in the waters around the New York islands responded with bells and sirens and horns and whistles. Passengers on every craft jockeyed for rail position in order to wish Woodrow Wilson bon voyage.

Wearing a bearskin coat, the President, with his wife, joined Captain Edward McCauley, Jr., on the bridge. Wilson waved his hands and raised his hat to the crowds again and again in appreciation of the most spectacular send-​off in New York history. It was difficult to imagine in that moment of purely joyful noise, with thousands of flags and handkerchiefs waving in his honor, that he was one of the most polarizing Presidents in the nation’s history. As one of his earliest supporters, Oklahoma Senator Thomas Pryor Gore, once said: “Wilson had no friends, only slaves and enemies.”

British Parliamentarian Cecil Harmsworth would later observe that he did not know of “any historic personage . . . ​who so strangely attracts and repels” as Woodrow Wilson. This was possibly because—​as another Wilson acquaintance observed—“probably in the history of the whole world there has been no great man, of whom so much has been written, but of whom personally so little has been correctly known.” Yet another, who, as a college student, had first encountered him, never lost sight of the personal paradox that was the man: “Stern and impassive, yet emotional; calm and patient, yet quick-tempered and impulsive; forgetful of those who had served him, yet devoted to many who had rendered but minor service . . . ​precise and business-​like, and yet, upon occasion, illogical without more reason than intuition itself.”

Theodore Roosevelt, the greatest political personality of the day, took potshots at Wilson at every possible opportunity; and during the 1912 Presidential campaign—​which he lost to Wilson—​advisers urged Roosevelt to smear his opponent with the rumors of an extramarital affair with a mysterious woman known as “Mrs. Peck.” TR refused, fearing that would only give Wilson some allure—​as he looked like nothing more than “an apothecary’s clerk.” In this matter, however, TR’s political assessment was mistaken. For all the dour photographs of the very proper President, society doyenne Evalyn Walsh McLean insisted that the women of America found him extremely attractive, which made him the subject of much giddy Washington gossip. For his part, Wilson admitted his susceptibility “to all feminine attractions,” as “girls of all degrees of beauty and grace have a charm for me which almost amounts to a spell.” He was, by his own admission, extremely sexual, always aware of “the riotous element in my blood.” Beneath his stern ministerial appearance churned a turbulent emotional life.

In wooing his first wife, the ethereal Ellen Axson of Rome, Georgia, Wilson indulged in one of the most expansive love correspondences in history—​thousands of letters so passionate she said they kept her “in an almost constant state of intoxication.” Cultured, well-read, and a talented artist, she abandoned any professional aspirations in order to serve her husband and raise their three daughters. She enabled his ambitions—​all the way to the White House, in which she got to live only fourteen months before dying there. Bereft beyond words, he contemplated resignation.

But the war had just broken out in Europe, and what duty could not arouse in him, a friend did, by introducing him to a buxom, well‑to-do, young Washington widow named Edith Bolling Galt. The President fell in love at first sight. Despite the political and practical difficulties of courting from the White House, the President romanced her, again through sheaves of letters and private meetings. Less than eighteen months after burying the first Mrs. Wilson, he married the second. She worshipped him. And from that day forward—​in health and unexpectedly grave sickness—​she almost never left his side. Unwittingly, she would later enter into a conspiracy that ran the government and which would result in an amendment to the Constitution to prevent such an occurrence from happening again. Throughout their marriage, she monitored a twitch in his lower left eyelid and a throbbing in his cheek.

Despite numerous chronic ailments—​and a bad cold as he boarded the ship—​sixty-​one-​year-​old Woodrow Wilson appeared remarkably fit. He stood five feet ten and one-half inches and weighed a lean 170 pounds. Except for some youthful experimentation with mustaches and sideburns, he had always been clean-​shaven, with strong cheekbones and a prominent chin; he had a fine straight nose, and ears large enough to make some look twice. His hair had thinned, but he always retained enough to cut close and part neatly on the left. Although his vision was weak—​one eye virtually useless—​his deep gray eyes were as understanding as they could be piercing. A pince-​nez, which emphasized his erudition, became his trademark. That and a J‑shaped jaw were all a caricaturist needed to conjure the man. He had a well-​defined mouth, with full lips; and though the public mostly saw a solemn face, he had a toothy smile and a deep laugh, one generally reserved for intimate occasions. He told corny jokes, could not resist a pun, and always had a limerick at the ready—​the raciest of which was about “an old monk from Siberia” who “eloped with the Mother Superior.” He loved to sing, showing off his silvery second tenor voice. One adviser wrote, “I never knew a man whose general appearance changed so much from hour to hour.” His demeanor could change as well. “He seems to do his best to offend rather than to please, and yet when one gets access to him, there is no more charming man in all the world than Woodrow Wilson.”

More than the elegant profile and courtly mien contributed to Wilson’s authoritative stature. Diplomat and historian George F. Kennan—​who closely observed public figures throughout most of his 101 years—​noted, “No man in modern times, to my mind, ever better looked or acted the part of an American president.”

Twenty-​six men had preceded Woodrow Wilson to the White House. Each generally pursued one of three well-​worn paths, and sometimes a combination thereof: the earliest presidents especially rose through the ranks of state legislatures until they leapt to the national level, either in Congress, the Cabinet, or the diplomatic corps; a handful earned their stripes on the battlefield, where their leadership and heroism transformed them into national figures; several graduated from statehouses to the White House. Woodrow Wilson, it is true, did serve as Governor of New Jersey—​but so briefly that it barely distracts from his having blazed a trail to the Presidency that is utterly unique. Quite simply, he enjoyed the most meteoric rise in American history, one with a most unlikely origin—​a college campus.

Woodrow Wilson loved his alma mater, Princeton, with religious zeal; and as a professor and then its president, he not only reformed a country club college into a top-​tier university but also developed a pedagogical model that many of America’s institutions of higher education would subsequently adopt. His efforts to alter Princeton’s social structure, however, forced him to leave under a cloud and to consider a lesson he taught without fully grasping himself: “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.”

A career intellectual, he was the only President of the United States to have spent the majority of his life cloistered in academia. Like most of his predecessors, he studied the law; and he became the first President to earn a doctorate degree as well. As one of the nation’s leading historians and first political scientists, he had written a dozen books and numerous articles and delivered countless lectures and speeches—​often on matters that reached into the realm of public affairs. While advocating educational reforms at Princeton, he had fought against the injustices of privilege wherever he could, championing meritocracy. Wilson distinguished himself as a public thinker.

But he had spent most of his life in private frustration, half-​fulfilled, as he long harbored hidden aspirations he seldom voiced. His intellectual vigor masked a lifelong ambition to hold high political office—​to make history more than teach it. With Princeton’s trustees thwarting his educational revolution, the impeccable Wilson accepted an offer to run for Governor of New Jersey. In so doing, he disabled the “machine” of the most corrupt state in the Union, defying the very bosses who had selected him to be their puppet. Wilson would later say he left Princeton for government service in order to get out of politics.

No American statesman ever had a shorter second act. As late as October 1910, at age fifty-three and never having run for public office, Woodrow Wilson headed a small, all-​male college in a quiet town in New Jersey; in November 1912, he was elected President of the United States. He swiftly went from near obscurity to global prominence, becoming the most powerful man on earth. He would contend that it had all been choreographed—​not by himself, but by Himself.

“No man in supreme power in any nation’s life,” wrote the University of Virginia’s president Edwin A. Alderman, “. . . ​was so profoundly penetrated by the Christian faith. He was sturdily and mystically Christian.” Born in a church manse, the son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers, Wilson did not often preach Christianity from his bully pulpit, but he ardently practiced it, infusing all his decisions with a piety and morality that were never lost on his constituents. His devotion was genuine. Twice a day he genuflected in prayer, he said grace before each meal, and he read a chapter of the Bible every night. He referred to Sunday as the Sabbath. And he appointed the first Jew to the Supreme Court.

Beholden to nobody, he had risen to his position through brainpower. Wedding the complexity of his intellect with the simplicity of his faith, placing principles before politics, he followed his conscience, never first checking public opinion. He spoke only for himself, and he found much of the nation agreeing with what he had to say. Arguably the least experienced person to hold the highest political office in the land, he was the Presidency’s most accomplished student of American history and politics. As such, he proved to be an unexpectedly evolved political animal, with a tough hide and sharp claws. In 1912 he entered one of the most thrilling races in the nation’s history and beat two worthy adversaries—​a Republican incumbent, William Howard Taft, and the even more popular third​-party candidate, Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive from the Bull Moose Party.

Ambrose Bierce had recently defined politics in his Devil’s Dictionary as “the conduct of public affairs for private advantage.” But Wilson defied such thinking. In the middle of a period of great economic inequality—​when the nation’s richest 1 percent owned half its wealth—​he unveiled his Presidential program. His “New Freedom” worked honestly to protect the less favored 99 percent of his countrymen. In order to actualize his slate of progressive reforms, he brought a bold new approach to his office, one in which the executive and legislative branches co‑operated the government. He literally walked the walk, violating a century-​old tradition by appearing regularly before Congress—​not just to deliver his State of the Union messages but whenever he had an important measure he wanted passed.

“What I am interested in is having the government of the United States more concerned about human rights than about property rights,” he insisted. Toward that end, he lost no time in creating the Federal Reserve Board, reducing excessive tariffs, reforming taxation, strengthening anti-​trust laws, inaugurating the eight-​hour workday, establishing the Federal Trade Commission, developing agricultural programs, improving rural life, and making corporate officers liable for the actions of their companies. He even offered the first government bailout of a private industry in distress—​cotton. Without so much as a breath of scandal, his New Freedom served as the foundation for the New Deal and Fair Deal and New Frontier and Great Society to come. Future President Harry Truman said, “In many ways, Woodrow Wilson was the greatest of the greats.”

Wilson’s reelection in 1916 was an even more electrifying contest than his first, a legendary squeaker. He ran on his strong legislative record and the powerful message that “He kept us out of war.” He became the first Democratic President elected to two consecutive terms since Andrew Jackson in 1832.

And within weeks of his second inauguration, Woodrow Wilson returned to Congress to announce the most consequential shift in the history of American foreign policy, before or since. On April 2, 1917, he addressed a joint session of the legislature, with the Supreme Court, the Cabinet, and the diplomatic corps present as witnesses, in what one prominent journalist called “the most dramatic event that the National Capitol had ever known.” In speaking to an isolationist nation, one that had long adhered to a policy of avoiding foreign entanglements, Wilson summoned the American people less to a war than a crusade, declaring that the United States must help make the world “safe for democracy.”

In urging his countrymen to join in a war being fought an ocean away, to fight pre​-emptively for principles instead of retaliating for attacks against them, to wed idealism with interventionism, Woodrow Wilson initiated one of the most far-reaching precepts of American foreign policy. “Democracy” had long been America’s watchword. Wilson now added such terms as “self-​determination” and “collective security” to the battle cry.

A dynamic Commander in Chief, Wilson transformed an introverted country with minor defensive capabilities into a competitive military nation. “Perhaps the greatest foreign army that ever crossed a sea in the history of the world prior to the present war was the Persian army of a million men, which bridged and crossed the Hellespont,” wrote the Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker. Wilson instituted a program of selective service that would provide the potential to raise an army many times the size of that of Xerxes and would send millions of men across an ocean.

Throughout the war, Wilson’s mightiest weapon was his oratory. With a resonant voice and precise diction, honeyed with a drop of Southern gentility, he became one of the most celebrated speakers of his time. He could extemporize for an hour or longer without a pause or misplaced word. He thought in metaphors, spoke in perfect sentences, and composed entire paragraphs in his head, relying on a superior vocabulary. When speaking formally, he resorted to prepared texts and proved even more eloquent. Muckraker Ida Tarbell said, “I doubt if there is any man in America that can talk . . . ​with such precision and at the same time so like a human being.” He was the last President to compose all his own speeches.

Wilson codified his war aims—​his terms for peace—​into “Fourteen Points.” Walter Lippmann, who drafted some of them, said they “merely voiced the common aspiration of liberal men for a better world order. It was assumed that they would create an environment in which a decent and orderly settlement could be made.” The empires of four great dynasties had just toppled—​the Hohenzollerns in Germany, the Habsburgs in Austria, the Romanovs in Russia, and the Ottomans in Turkey: no longer did divine right rule in Europe or across most of the world. It now fell upon the American President to reconfigure the pieces of those fallen empires.

More than a crowning touch, Woodrow Wilson’s fourteenth point became his raison d’être, what he believed would be his sacred legacy. It was a concept under which all countries of the world might congregate, to avert war by settling disputes through pre​-emptive peace talks. Others before him had championed similar organizations, but Woodrow Wilson was the first to stake his life on the idea, forever affixing his name to that vision of a League of Nations.

Wilson was especially sensitive to all sides in the impending negotiations because he was the only President in the history of the United States to have been raised in a country that had suffered a defeat in war. Born in Virginia and raised during the Civil War and Reconstruction in the Confederacy, Wilson grasped the tragedy that overcame the South after the Civil War, in which the aftermath, at times, proved worse than the defeat. He comprehended the feelings of guilt, even shame, the lingering anger, and the contrition; he saw why Southern eloquence turned toward euphemism, especially when it came to talking about “the recent unpleasantness.” He had seen how racism stained the region; and he spent a lifetime sorting out his own feelings on that subject. His administration instituted segregation—“Jim Crow” laws—​in Washington, D.​C.

In asking his countrymen to engage in this first World War, he had insisted that Americans were fighting for what he called a “peace without victory.” Feeling as right as he was righteous, he hoped to show the world that foreign policy might have a moral component as well as political or economic objectives. “Never before in the history of mankind,” Edwin Alderman noted, “has a statesman of the first order made the humble doctrine of service to humanity a cardinal and guiding principle of world politics.” Nor had any President ever suppressed free speech to so great an extent in order to realize his principles.

The first sitting President to leave the territorial United States, “he enjoyed a prestige and moral influence throughout the world unequaled in history,” said John Maynard Keynes, a young economist who was part of the British delegation to the peace talks. Indeed, concurred his colleague Harold Nicolson, Wilson came “armed with power such as no man in history had possessed: he had come fired with high ideals such as have inspired no autocrat of the past.”

Nobody could predict the quality of his mercy. He had, after all, spoken of fairness and severity in the same sentence, as well as of penalties without being punitive. The world could but wonder whether those who sought revanche and retribution could sign the same document required of those who believed Wilson was the “one man who would see that Germany was not looted and destroyed; that she would get justice at his hands.” To his longtime secretary, Wilson had confessed before embarking, “This trip will either be the greatest success or the supremest tragedy in all history; but I believe in a Divine Providence. . . . ​It is my faith that no body of men however they concert their power or their influence can defeat this great world enterprise, which after all is the enterprise of Divine mercy, peace and good will.” In the end, Henry Kissinger has noted, “Wilson’s principles”—properly applied or -misappropriated—“have remained the bedrock of American foreign​-policy thinking.”

For all his towering intellect and abiding faith, Woodrow Wilson was superstitious—​especially about the number thirteen, which he considered talismanic. His first and last names comprised thirteen letters. In his thirteenth year of service at Princeton, he became the college’s thirteenth president. In 1913 he became President of the United States, whose thirteen original colonies received tribute everywhere in the symbols of the nation, from the number of stripes on its flag to the number of arrows in the eagle’s sinister talon on its national seal. Those close to the President knew that he had selected the date of the George Washington’s departure so that it would dock in France on December 13.

Wilson | Press


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"Berg, an elegant, prize-winning biographer whose fluent prose and honest sense of majesty have much in common with Wilson's own writing, is especially well suited to his subject." 

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“Succeeds magnificently in elucidating Woodrow Wilson the man. Quietly, methodically, intuitively, the author examines almost every aspect of his subject’s life, from the religious to the sexual and almost everything in between. His account…is nuanced and revealing.” 

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“No previous biographer has told [Wilson’s] story so well…Unlike his scholarly predecessors, [Berg] actually convinces you to like the man…[An] always graceful portrait.”


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“Accomplished biographer Berg emphasizes the extraordinary talents of this unlikely president in an impressive, nearly hagiographic account . . . Readable, authoritative and, most usefully, inspiring.”


“A thorough, entertaining account of our 28th president . . . [an] excellent biography.”