- The Prim Presbyterian: the life of Woodrow Wilson
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- A Biography
- Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924)
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Like Pip, David Copperfield, and Nicholas Nickleby, he overcame a childhood of hardship and privation through the strength of his character, his ambition, and occasional assistance from others. His shiftless and intemperate father named the child after a wealthy bachelor neighbor in vain hope of inheritance. The boy grew to hate the name, and when he came of age had it legally changed to Henry Wilson, inspired either by a biography of the Philadelphia school teacher Henry Wilson or by a portrait of the Rev.
Henry Wilson in a volume on English clergymen. The Colbaths lived from hand to mouth; "Want sat by my cradle," he later recalled. When the boy was ten years old, his father apprenticed him to a nearby farmer, binding him to work until his twenty-first birthday.
The apprenticeship supposedly allowed one month of school every year, so long as there was no work to be done, but he rarely had more than a few days of school at any time. Lacking formal education, he compensated by reading every book in the farmhouse and borrowing other books from neighbors.
He read copiously from history, biography and philosophy. Also as part of his self-improvement efforts, at age nineteen he took a pledge of total abstinence from alcohol, which he maintained thereafter. In he reached twenty-one and was freed from his apprenticeship. Long estranged from his parents, the newly renamed Henry Wilson set out for new horizons.
He hunted for employment in the mills of New Hampshire and then walked one hundred miles from Farmington to Boston. Just outside of Boston he settled in the town of Natick, where he learned shoemaking from a friend. The ambitious young cobbler worked so hard that by his health required he get some rest.
Gathering his savings, Wilson traveled to Washington, D. His attention was caught instead by the sight of slaves laboring in the fields of Maryland and Virginia and of slave pens and auctions within view of the Capitol Building.
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He left Washington determined "to give all that I had. Wilson committed himself to the antislavery movement and years later took pride in introducing the legislation in Congress that ended slavery in the District of Columbia.
The Prim Presbyterian: the life of Woodrow Wilson
Home from his journey, he enrolled briefly in three academies and then taught school for a year, falling in love with one of his students, Harriet Malvina Howe. They were married three years later, in , when she turned sixteen. Although he harbored political aspirations, Wilson returned to the shoemaking business. Even during the economic recession that swept the country in the late s, he prospered.
Abandoning the cobbler's bench himself, he hired contract laborers and supervised their work, vastly increasing his production. As a factory owner, Wilson was able to build a handsome house for his family and to devote his attention more fully to civic affairs. An active member of the Natick Debating Society, Wilson became swept up in the leading reform issues of his day, temperance, educational reform, and antislavery, and these in turn shaped his politics.
Although the Democratic party in Massachusetts appealed to workers and small businessmen like Wilson, he was drawn instead to the more upper-crust Whig party because it embraced the social reforms that he supported. At a time when the Whigs were seeking to expand their political base, Wilson's working-class background and image as the "Natick Cobbler" appealed to the party. During the s and s, the Whigs ran him repeatedly for the state legislature, and he won seats in its upper and lower houses. Unlike many other Whigs, Wilson mingled easily in the state's factories and saloons.
He gathered political lieutenants around the state and invested some of his shoemaking earnings in the Boston Republican, which he edited from to He also joined the Natick militia, rising to brigadier general and proudly claiming the title "General Wilson" through the rest of his long political career. As a self-made man, Henry Wilson felt contempt for aristocrats, whether Boston Brahmins or southern planters.
In Massachusetts, the party split between "Cotton Whigs," with political and economic ties between the New England cotton mills and the southern cotton plantations, and the "Conscience Whigs," who placed freedom ahead of patronage and profits. Sensing the changing tides of public opinion, Wilson predicted that, if antislavery supporters in all the old parties could bind together to form a new party, they could sweep the northern elections and displace southerners from power in Washington.
In he abandoned the Whigs for the new Free Soil party, which nominated Martin Van Buren for president on an antislavery platform. The Free Soil party proved to be premature. Wary voters defeated Wilson in his campaigns as the Free Soil candidate for the U. House of Representatives in and governor in Sadly disappointed in at the defeat of a new state constitution for which he had labored long and hard, Wilson responded by secretly joining the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, also known as the American or Know-Nothing party—an anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant, nativist movement.
Given the collapse of the established parties, the Know-Nothings flourished briefly, offering Wilson an unsavory opportunity to promote his personal ambitions—despite the party's conflict with his political ideals of racial and religious equality. At the same time, Wilson called for the creation of "one great Republican party" in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which threatened to open the western territories to slavery.
In , he ran as the Republican candidate for governor, but his strange maneuvering during and after the campaign convinced many Republicans that Wilson had sold them out by throwing the gubernatorial election to the Know-Nothings in return for being elected a U. Although Wilson identified himself as a Republican, his first Senate election left a residue of distrust that he would spend the rest of his life trying to live down. In the Senate, Henry Wilson was inevitably compared with his handsome, dignified, scholarly senior colleague from Massachusetts, Charles Sumner. An idealist and fierce foe of slavery, Sumner laced his speeches with classical allusions and gave every indication that he would appear quite natural in the toga of a Roman senator.
Henry Wilson would have seemed ludicrous in Roman garb or in attempting to match Sumner's grandiloquent addresses. Listeners described Wilson instead as "an earnest man" who presented "the cold facts of a case" without relying on flamboyant oratory. George Boutwell, who served with him in Massachusetts and national politics, judged Wilson an especially effective speaker during elections and estimated that during the course of Wilson's career he spoke to more people than anyone else alive.
Boutwell concluded of Wilson:. He was not learned, he was not eloquent, he was not logical in a high sense, he was not always consistent in his political actions, and yet he gained the confidence of the people, and he retained it to the end of his life.
The Presidency of Woodrow Wilson
His success may have been due in part to the circumstance that he was not far removed from the mass of the people in the particulars named, and that he acted in a period when fidelity to the cause of freedom and activity in its promotion satisfied the public demand. Despite their different backgrounds and personalities, Wilson and Sumner agreed strongly on their opposition to slavery and pooled their efforts to destroy the "peculiar institution. Massachusetts returned him to the Senate for three more terms, until his election as vice president.
During the s, Wilson fought from the minority. When the southern states seceded in and and the Republicans moved into the majority, Henry Wilson assumed the chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, a key legislative post during the Civil War.
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In the months that Congress stood in recess, impatient Radical Republicans demanded quick military action against the South. In July , at the war's first battle, along Bull Run creek in Manassas, Virginia, Wilson rode out with other senators, representatives, newspaper reporters, and members of Washington society to witness what they anticipated would be a Union victory. In his carriage, Senator Wilson carried a large hamper of sandwiches to distribute among the troops. Unexpectedly, however, the Confederates routed the Union army.
Wilson's carriage was crushed and he was forced to beat an inglorious retreat back to Washington.
Defeat at the "picnic battle," sobered many in the North who had talked of a short, easy war. In seeking to assign blame for the debacle, rumors spread that Wilson himself might have tipped off the enemy through his friendly relationship with a Washington woman, Mrs. Rose O'Neal Greenhow. When she was arrested as a Confederate spy, "the Wild Rose" held a packet of love letters signed "H. Greenhow knew many other senators, members of Lincoln's cabinet, and other highly placed sources of information.
Wilson went back to Massachusetts to raise a volunteer infantry, in which he wore the uniform of colonel. However, once the regiment reached Washington, he resigned his commission and returned to his Senate seat. Wilson also served as a volunteer aide-de-camp to General George McClellan, who commanded the Union armies.
Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924)
When he reported to the general's camp, he was ordered to accompany other officers on a horseback inspection of the capital's fortifications. As the Boston newspaper correspondent Benjamin Perley Poore observed, "Unaccustomed to horsemanship, the ride of thirty miles was too much for the Senator, who kept his bed for a week, and then resigned his staff position. The Radicals established a Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, in part to bypass Wilson's Military Affairs Committee in scrutinizing and attacking the various officers of the Union army.
Wilson at first defended the army, arguing that Democratic generals were opposed to the Republican administration but not to the war.
Over time, he grew disheartened by the protracted war and impatient with McClellan's overly cautious military tactics.