- Series: Signature Series
- Hardcover: 743 pages
- Publisher: American Political Biography Press; 1st edition (January 1, 2001)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0945707266
- ISBN-13: 978-0945707264
- Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.8 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 6 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,424,795 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Woodrow Wilson : A Biography (Signature Series) 1st Edition
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It wasn't that the book was poorly written, it just wasn't that interesting. This is something I found very hard to believe since WW was really one of the leaders of the Progressive movement and in a sense laid the groundwork for the U.N. with his plan for a League of Nations.
I got the feeling that the author wanted to be much more critical in his review of some of WW dealings but didn't feel like he had the freedom to do so. All of these Signature Series bios of Presidents that I've read don't get into controversy too much and steer clear of personal issues such as infidelity, character, etc., and that is too bad in my opinion.
The author of this bio alludes to the possibility of infidelity but never really confirms it. He also doesn't address WW handling of the Peace Negotiations with any negative thoughts pointed at WW who is to blame for some of the shortcomings of the Treaty of Versailles. He also doesn't address the disregard for the country's well being when WW's true medical condition was kept quiet for so long by his wife and physicians.
I was disappointed with this book. Probably why it took me soooo long to read it. I wouldn't recommend it and am glad I have put it behind me and will now revisit Wilson in a year or two with the Cooper bio.
I do commend the author for his research and organization. The book was easy to follow from a chronological and subject perspective but just too detailed and not any of the analysis that I would've enjoyed.
Heckscher persuasively argues that the first southerner elected to the presidency since Reconstruction wasn't really southern at all. In fact, with the exception of Andrew Jackson, no other American president had family roots so newly established in this country (his mother and all four grandparents were born in England). Although he was reared in the South -- born in Virginia, and spending his childhood as a Presbyterian preacher's son in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina -- his family was not a member of the Old South aristocracy, but rather missionaries of the church in what Heckscher implies was more or less a foreign land. He was, in short, no more a southerner in the White House than an American missionary returning from Africa is a Cameroonian.
Also, we learn little of Wilson's political consciousness as he progressed in his academic career at Bryn Mawr, Wesleyan, and finally Princeton. Why was he a Democrat? Because nearly all white men hailing from the South in post-bellum America were Democrats? Heckscher doesn't bother to explain. We hear nothing of Wilson's opinions of presidents Cleveland or McKinley, or other leading party statesmen of the day. Why did the Democratic Party's conservative wing consider Wilson to be "their candidate" in the 1910 New Jersey gubernatorial race? Because he was an inveterate foe of William Jennings Bryan, the Party's progressive standard-bearer? But he was also highly thought of at the time by Teddy Roosevelt, a "progressive's progressive."" Heckscher tries to shed a little more light on this question, but it is still far from clear how or why a liberal academic with Wilson's publications could have been pegged as a conservative Democrat.
Most surprisingly (and disappointingly), the implications of Wilson's devout Christianity and his now infamous racism are almost totally shunted aside. Heckscher notes that Wilson had something of an epiphany while a teenager and that henceforth his relationship to God was central to his character and subsequent behavior, but that relationship plays no major role throughout the rest of the narrative of his life. Based on other readings of Wilson's life, it seems to me that one can't fully understand Wilson without understanding his faith and how that faith shaped his worldview and his actions -- particularly in his fight for the League of Nations -- and Heckscher's work does almost nothing in that regard.
There is an ongoing debate about how much an historical figure should be held to modern standards of racial or religious tolerance and acceptance (Truman's anti-Semitism is a good example, and, of course, there are the slaveholding presidents of the 18th and early 19th centuries). Wilson has been one president excoriated for his racist views, which seem all the more grotesque because they came from one of the nation's most progressive and visionary leaders, and without doubt its most educated (Wilson dropped out of UVA Law School but passed the bar in Georgia, and received his Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins). Rather than taking this question squarely on and offering an explanation and assessment of Wilson's views on race, Heckscher just avoids it entirely. He says that Wilson personally favored promotion of civil rights for black Americans, but the passage of the New Freedom was the sine qua non of his administration's domestic agenda and for that to succeed he needed a united Democratic Party. The only way he could achieve unity was to abandon civil rights, which, Heckscher says, he did unhesitatingly, but with a heavy heart. There isn't a single reference to Wilson's many racist statements in this massive tome. If you'd read nothing more on Wilson, this biography would give you the impression that he was a moral crusader for black equality.
The Wilson that emerges from the pages of Heckscher's work is something of a pathetic figure, which is astounding because the author is so clearing sympathetic with his subject, as is often the case in presidential hagiographies. Wilson comes across as a politician who was not-quite-ready-for-prime-time. When confronted with political opposition -- whether as president of Princeton, governor of New Jersey, delegate to the 1919 Peace Conference, or as president trying to pass the League of Nations -- Wilson showed no art of political persuasion or ability to compromise. Rather, his visceral reaction was to go over the heads of his opponents making demagogic appeals to the people. His hope was always to crush his opponents under the strain of popular approval, but it almost never worked out that way. Moreover, he was quick to attack anyone not 100% with him as being in the enemy camp, which further eroded his ability to affect an outcome in his favor.
In the end, after a series of strokes left him an invalid, Wilson succeeded in alientating even his most ardent loyalists, such as Joseph Tumulty and Colonel House, with his erratic and vindictive behavior. Heckscher accuses Wilson's second wife, Edith Bolling Galt, with deliberately fostering animosity in the cabinet and making sure that Wilson would not resign for reasons of health despite the fact it left the country virtually rudderless in the stormiest of international seas. Many figures in the Wilson administration take a few lumps in this biography, but none more than Galt, to whom the author attributes no redeeming qualities or positive contributions.
What is most frustrating about this book is that it is so good in so many ways that its few notable shortcomings seem almost tragic. Neverthess, the good outweighs the bad, and it is to be recommended in spite of its warts.