Title Reviewed:
A Crossroads of Freedom: The 1912 Campaign Speeches of Woodrow Wilson; Wilson: The New Freedom

Author Reviewed:
John Wells Davidson; Charles Seymour; Arthur S. Link

William M. Neil


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 53, Issue 4, pp 463-467

Article Type:
Book Review

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A Crossroads of Freedom: The 1912 Campaign Speeches of Woodrow Wilson. Edited by John Wells Davidson. With a preface by Charles Seymour. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956. Pp. xviii, 570. Frontispiece, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $6.00.)

Wilson: The New Freedom. By Arthur S. Link. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1956. Pp. ix, 504. Illustrations, bibliography, index. $7.50.)

In a Presidential campaign speech delivered at Detroit on September 19, 1912, Woodrow Wilson reminded himself and his audience of the impossibility of escape from history: "I think of that quiet jury sitting in those rooms surrounded by nothing but shelves and books and documents. I think of the anticipated verdict of another generation" (p. 212). Here in these very different volumes are two of the ways in which historians contribute towards that anticipated verdict. In the one, Wilson's own words are the weights placed carefully onto the historian's balance; in the other it is the matured judgments of a historian himself that are laid upon the scales. How far both of these incline the pointer towards greatness is for posterity to decide.

Mr. Davidson's meticulous edition of the recovered texts of Wilson's 1912 campaign speeches represents the editor's craft at its best. His prefatory settings for each speech are not only informative but entertaining, fitting introductions to speeches which are still surprisingly alive—something that is explained not only by the breadth of Wilson's mind, but also by his habit of speaking extemporaneously. In these speeches—from that of August 7 accepting the nomination, to the touching impromptu by torchlight delivered to the massed Princetonians on the news of victory—we have one of the most exciting accounts in print of one of America's most exciting campaigns.

Whether the picture revealed by the "lost texts" of these speeches will require historians to readjust the views they now hold about the campaign—for as Charles Seymour points out in his introduction to this book: "With a single exception, his speeches were delivered extemporaneously, and the impression they produced is often quite different from that of the advance copies given to the press, and far more compelling" (p. xii)—time alone will tell. Mr. Davidson believes that at any rate these texts should correct a tendency to overemphasize the economic aspects of Wilson's views at the expense of his concern for social justice, as well as clarify his concept of the federal government's role, a concept that laid far less stress upon the idea of laissez-faire than often is assumed.

In any event, here, expressed in Wilson's own vigorously eloquent language, is revealed the maturing of what Richard Hofstadter has called the "Conservative as Liberal."

Mr. Link's volume is representative of an interesting characteristic of American historical writing today—the large place given to substantial biographical studies. Nor do these biographer-historians lack for readers. For some time now biography has outsold all other categories of books save fiction. The public interest in biography does not, however, completely explain its present historiographical importance. While it is true that historians, like all writers, want to be read, it is also true that, like all scholars, they want to be significant. Once upon a time to be a significant historian meant to produce history in the grand manner—to seek out some lofty Everest from whose summit one could, like Parkman or Gibbon, gaze out over a whole world of human affairs. Today, however, history-writing in the grand manner, when viewed in terms of the rigorous demands of modern scholarship and the dimensions of what Allan Nevins has called the "mighty torrent of evidence," presents almost insuperable difficulties. The alternative—specialization, expressing itself through the monograph—has failed to appeal to many historians who still yearn for the satisfactions of a subject possessing breadth as well as depth. To many of these scholars the large scale biography has offered a means of escaping from the confines of the monograph while at the same time avoiding the pitfalls of the grand manner.

The writing of biography, however, poses a basic problem. Should the work be what Sir Edmund Goss defined as biography—"the faithful portrait of a soul in its adventures through life"—which implies a close psychological study; or should it forsake the minute analysis of the subject as a personality for a broader study as a personage—which leads to the "life-and-times" biography. This is a matter that can long be debated. Suffice it to say that most American biographer-historians, including Mr. Link in his present study, have chosen the life-and-times approach.

Mr. Link's book is the second of a projected multi-volume biography of Wilson. The emphases are upon "the major stages in Wilson's own personal and political growth and the development of his most important domestic and foreign policies from November 1912 to November 1914" (p. vii). The book has three main parts: the first concerns itself with Wilson's first months as President, and is essentially the story of the building of an administration, with all the interplay of personality and politics that underlie the complicated and often obscure maneuverings always associated with such a crucial undertaking; the second deals with the intra- and inter-party battles fought around the great Wilson reforms—tariff, monetary, business—that were the major objectives of the New Freedom; the third has to do with the formulation of foreign policy, with Latin America, especially Mexico, receiving the most attention. A final chapter rounds out the book, focusing on the unfortunate Jones-Warburg controversy, the national impact of the ferocious Colorado coal fields strike, and the unhappy results for the Democrats of the Congressional elections of 1914.

A book of this scope produces opportunity for many a scholarly debate. This reviewer is not a specialist in either Wilson or his period, and hence is not equipped to enter any such debate on either fact or interpretation. However, there are one or two minor points upon which questions might be asked. The author, it appears to this reviewer, makes an excessively reductive statement when he says that Colonel House, on the occasion of his 1914 trip to Europe, "might conceivably have saved the peace of the world, to the eternal credit of New Freedom diplomacy, if it had come a year before instead upon the eve of Armageddon" (p. 318). There is also what seems to be a contradiction of sorts in some basic remarks regarding the general nature of Wilson's Latin American policy. On page 328 the author says, "The most important cause of the disparity between Wilsonian promise and practice was the fact that New Freedom diplomacy was inadequate to insure the security of the United States in the western hemisphere." However, on page 330 he says the security factor "only partially explains the disparity … . for security considerations actually played a secondary role in the Wilson administration's most ambitious projects of intervention and control." Such criticism, however, by its very paucity underscores the generally high standard of scholarship that characterizes the book. At this date Mr. Link's volume must stand as the most solidly researched and up-to-date survey of Wilson's first two years as President.

However, to this reviewer it is somewhat less satisfactory as biography. The main setting of the book is Congress and the executive departments; the chief action is the implementation of the ideals of the New Freedom into public policy. To this setting, and in terms of this theme, the President regularly descends to succor his hard-pressed Myrmidons at some juncture; and, the crisis past, as regularly ascends to the aloofness of the White House. Actions are explained, details clearly given, confusions and complexities disentangled, but somehow through it all Wilson remains rather unilluminated in terms of the inner man. This is an almost unavoidable result of the life-and-times approach to biography: the times tend to swallow up the man. Perhaps this is the consequence of viewing the subject via a method primarily descriptive rather than analytic, that emphasizes externalities rather than the inner man, that is obliged to mass the facts of public life at the expense of exhaustively probing private relationships. Throughout The New Freedom there are many instances of cogent considerations of character and personality; but it is essentially a political history organized in terms of chapters which are primarily monographic-like studies of major episodes in a Presidential administration, and only secondarily biographical considerations of the places of these episodes in the life of Wilson.

The insidious tendency of the monographic approach to insert itself in this type of biography has also, at least to this reviewer, affected the literary aspects of the book. Mr. Link's narrative treatment makes for clear exposition at the expense of dramatic appeal; his style, while lucid, is a plain one with little or no use of metaphor, which advances in a sober, steady cadence. This kind of writing makes for easy reading and quick understanding, but also, in an extended work, it can skirt dangerously close to dryness. There is also present in the writing an undue dependence upon overworked expressions; fewer appearances in the future volumes of falls from grace, pressing concerns, wraths that are aroused, and devotions that are dog-like will make for more effective prose.

In summary, one can say, on the basis of Mr. Link's first two volumes, that here is the Wilson biography of our times. While it has its shortcomings—as what scholarly work of such scope does not?—as an example of good, solid historical writing it testifies impressively to the author's diligence, seriousness of purpose, and technical skill. It is a good example of the learned life-and-time biography so frequently produced today by American historians.

William M. Neil Indiana University

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.