Woodrow Wilson: The American Presidents Series: The 28th President, 1913-1921

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An acclaimed historian and Pulitzer Prize finalist offers a clear, comprehensive, and timely account of Wilson's unusual route to the White House, his campaign against corporate interests, and his decline in popularity and health following the rejection by Congress of his League of Nations.

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Nov 26, 2016

A President Of Words

The Distinguished Professor of History at Texas A&M University, H.W Brands, has a rare talent for writing accessible, and engaging works covering broad periods of American history. Brands has written, for example, biographies of diverse figures such as Benjamin Franklin and Franklin Roosevelt. He has written overviews of the Gilded Age and of contemporary American history which are informative and entertaining. His books about Aaron Burr and U.S. Grant are scheduled to be published this year.

Brands' short biography "Woodrow Wilson" (2003) is part of the American Presidents series edited by Arthur Schelsinger Jr. and Sean Willentz, and it shows both the strengths and weaknesses of his writing. The book has a lyricism and an immediacy that draws in the reader. It offers a good basic portrayal of its subject and of his importance. Brands organizes his book around a basic insight into Wilson which sees the president as a "man of words", an intellectual, and an idealist. The book works well as an overview and introduction which focuses on Wilson's strengths but at the cost of some simplification.

Wilson (1856 -- 1924) served from 1913 -- 1921 as the 28th American president. Before his election to the presidency, Wilson was an academic and intellectual with several important books on politics and American history to his credit. From 1902 -- 1910, Wilson served as president of Princeton University. In 1912, Wilson ran on Progressive principles to defeat his divided opponents, former president Theodore Roosevelt and incumbent president William Howard Taft. In a short opening chapter, Brands covers Wilson's early life, his career at Princeton, his election to the presidency, and the domestic achievements of his early administration. These achievements include the reduction of the tariff, the creation of the Federal Reserve, the strengthening of antitrust laws, and the creation of the Federal Trade Commission, among much else. There is a great deal of material to be absorbed and considered for a brief chapter.

The focus of Brands' biography is on WW I and on Wilson's role in the conflict. Wilson initially sought to keep the United States neutral. As a result of a complex series of events, he sought and received a declaration of war from Congress following his reelection. The book describes the tortured course which led to the War, its prosecution by the United States, Wilson's attempt to create a peace based upon the League of Nations, and the Congressional rejection of the League. This period of American history is difficult, complex, and controversial. Brands casts Wilson and his idealistic principles in a highly positive light.There is, however, a broad divergency of historical opinion about Wilson which Brands does not develop fully. Brands also tends to downplay the Wilson administration's attack on Civil Liberties during WW I together with the Administration's strong support, and strengthening, of Jim Crow. Most of the books in the American Presidents series focus upon the strengths of their subjects rather than on their shortcomings. This approach allows the reader to focus upon the goals of each president and upon that president's understanding of the United States and of leadership. On the whole, this approach is preferable to a deflationary approach, especially in an introductory study. But readers need to use judgment and reflection.

Brands, as well as his protagonist, are men of words. The words of both author and subject feature prominently in this account. For example, Brands sets the tone of his biography of Wilson at the outset:

"In the beginning was the word. And in the end was the word. And in between were words: beautiful words, soaring words, words that moved a nation and enthralled a world, words that for a wonderful moment were more powerful than armies, words that made the most terrible sacrifice seem part of a glorious struggle, words that echoed across the oceans and down the decades."

Brands quotes extensively from Wilson throughout the short book. He allows his subject to speak for himself to give the reader a feel for Wilson's intellect, passion, and idealism. Thus, the book opens with Brands' own summation, and it closes with a moving excerpt from Wilson's second inaugural address of March, 1917. Wilson said:

"We are provincials no longer. The tragic events of the thirty months of vital turmoil through which we have just passed have made us citizens of the world. There can be no turning back. Our own fortunes as a nation are involved whether we would have it so or not."


"The shadows that now lie dark upon our path will soon be dispelled, and we shall walk with the light all about us, if we be but true to ourselves -- to ourselves as we have wished to be known in the counsels of the world and in the thought of all those who love liberty and justice and the right exalted."

Brands' book offers an inspiring overview of an important American president and his ideals at a pivotal moment of history.

Robin Friedman

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