Review: Woodrow Wilson

Randall Balmer

Randall Balmer is Chair of the Religion Department and Director of the Society of Fellows at Dartmouth College.

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Randall Balmer, "Review: Woodrow Wilson," Journal of Southern Religion (19) (2017): jsreligion/vol19/balmer.

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Barry Hankins. Woodrow Wilson: Ruling Elder, Spiritual President. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. ix + 236 pp. ISBN 978-0-1987-1837-6.

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During the 1912 presidential campaign – which pitted Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic nominee, against the Republican incumbent, William Howard Taft, and Theodore Roosevelt, running as the “Bull Moose” candidate – the Roosevelt campaign came upon evidence of Wilson’s long-concealed extramarital affair with a woman, Hulbert Peck. Roosevelt, however, refused to use that information to discredit Wilson, remarking, “You can’t cast a man as a Romeo who looks and acts so much like the apothecary’s clerk” (175).

In the ashes following the slash-and-burn politics of the presidential campaign just past, it’s tempting to romanticize the relative gentility and restraint of an earlier era. But the lens of nostalgia too often distorts the past. Wilson’s views on race, though by no means a central part of Barry Hankins’s biography—in fact, he seriously underplays the issue—demonstrate that any hankering for the innocence of the past must be approached with an abundance of caution.

Woodrow Wilson: Ruling Elder, Spiritual President is the first volume in Oxford’s new Spiritual Lives series, edited by Timothy Larsen of Wheaton College. Hankins, who teaches at Baylor University, has crafted a worthy portrait of the twenty-eighth president, one that portrays Wilson as both profoundly stubborn and thoroughly southern.

Born into a long lineage of Southern Presbyterian clergy, Thomas Woodrow Wilson had his own religious awakening in 1873. The future president drafted theological treatises as a youth, but those interests waned in favor of political science as he moved from Davidson College to the College of New Jersey (Princeton), law school at the University of Virginia, and doctoral studies at Johns Hopkins, where he experienced firsthand the innovations of German-style doctoral study. Wilson’s teaching career began at Bryn Mawr College and continued at Wesleyan University before culminating at Princeton, first as professor of political science and then as president, where he displaced Francis Landey Patton, an Old School Presbyterian minister.

Wilson’s time at Princeton was marked by conflict and paradox. He famously lost his battle with Andrew Fleming West over the location of the graduate school. Wilson wanted it integrated into the hub of the Princeton campus, physically and intellectually, thereby underscoring the centrality of the liberal arts. West prevailed by setting the graduate college apart from the undergraduates. That battle contributed to Wilson’s departure as president of the university.

The paradox that frames Wilson’s university presidency is that this pious Presbyterian, according to Hankins, succeeded in secularizing the school. In 1905 Wilson had declared, “There is a mighty task before us and it welds us together. It is to make the United States a mighty Christian nation and to Christianize the world” (vii). At Princeton, however, Wilson effectively ousted Patton (who became president of Princeton Theological Seminary) in order to jettison the school’s explicitly Christian heritage. “Piety became extracurricular,” Hankins writes, “handled exclusively in chapel and the Y.M.C.A., while Presbyterian orthodoxy disappeared altogether, becoming something of an embarrassment” (98).

The juxtaposition here is mine, not Hankins’s; the “Christian nation” quotation appears in the preface, whereas the account of Wilson’s recasting of the university is handled in a discrete chapter—even though Wilson uttered his “Christian nation” sentiments while president of the university. That paradox, apparently, is lost on Hankins, which points not so much to a deficiency in the book as to a lost opportunity.

Similarly on the matter of race. This biography of Wilson appears at a time when students at Princeton, and the university itself, are contending with Wilson’s legacy as a racist. Princeton students have demanded that Wilson College (a residential college) and the venerable Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy be renamed. Hankins could not have known that this controversy was brewing as he was completing his biography, and that’s not the point. Hankins segregates (and thereby minimizes) Wilson’s execrable views on race into a discrete chapter, even though they were a constant throughout his lifetime—his childhood, his academic career, his tenure as governor of New Jersey, and as president of the United States. The effect here is to blindside the reader, who, solely on the basis of what is presented here, might be puzzled about why Princeton students have worked themselves into high dudgeon over Wilson.

A related paradox goes largely unremarked. Wilson, a Presbyterian and advocate of the Social Gospel who received more African-American votes than any Democratic nominee before him, and who promised before his inauguration that he would be “a Christian gentleman in the White House” and stand against segregation, nevertheless resegregated the federal government during his presidency (124). Hankins acknowledges that, “Wilson was always at his least progressive and most cognizant of the depravity of human nature when he addressed the race issue,” but the reader is left with the impression that the first time that Wilson, a southerner, even thought about race was as president (132).

It’s difficult to miss the next paradox: Wilson, the ardent pacifist, led the United States into World War I over the objections of his secretary of state (and fellow Presbyterian), William Jennings Bryan. Hankins handles this deftly in a chapter entitled “Pacifist Warrior.” Wilson’s storied idealism manifested itself most visibly in his push for a League of Nations, another lost battle, one that cost him his health and, arguably, his presidential legacy.

That someone so steeped in the Presbyterian doctrine of human depravity would stake his presidency on such idealism might be considered, well, paradoxical.