To See the Benches Smile
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.
Woodrow Wilson was a man of words. His actions weren't insignificant: he guided America onto a new plateau of social responsibility, and he led the nation to victory in a terrible war. But his legacy was his words, and though his steps faltered at his journey's end, his words lived on, inspiring later generations to achieve what he never could.
Wilson was from the South by way of the North, which went far toward explaining how he won the Democratic nomination for president in 1912. His forebears hadn't been long in America, with his mother an immigrant and his father the son of
immigrants. Scots predominated in his ancestry, although some kin had relocated to the north of Ireland, allowing Wilson to claim
Irish lineage when convenient. His father grew up in Ohio, where he met Wilson's mother, who had narrowly escaped being swept overboard by a rogue wave en route from
Liverpool. The couple married in 1849, two weeks before Joseph Wilson's ordination as a Presbyterian minister. They remained in Ohio long enough to have two daughters, but in 1854 a better pulpit became available in western Virginia, in the Blue Ridge town of Staunton. There Thomas Woodrow Wilson was
born on December 28,1856.
Yet Tommy, as the boy was called, never knew Staunton, at least not to remember. In 1858 the ambitious Reverend Wilson found another church, in Augusta, Georgia. At a time when the issue of slavery had grown explosively sensitive, Joseph Wilson followed many of his southern
colleagues-in-the-cloth in discovering biblical sanction for the peculiar institution. The Bible had less to say about secession, when that came, but Joseph Wilson had no difficulty rendering
Caesar -- or Jefferson Davis -- his due. During the Civil War, Wilson served briefly in the Confederate army before returning to his flock.
Had the Wilson family lived in Atlanta or on the route of Sherman's march to the sea, the war would have had a deeper influence on young Tommy. But Augusta was comparatively
sheltered, and the conflict often seemed something that happened to other people. This impression grew stronger in retrospect, for after the southern surrender, the northern roots of the family, combined with Joseph Wilson's religious calling, protected the household from the harsher aspects of Reconstruction.
Yet perhaps Tommy wouldn't have noticed the revolutionary events of the war and its aftermath even if Sherman himself had burned the Wilson house down. In youth he displayed an uncanny ability to view life as if from outside. Later, speaking of
children generally but almost certainly extrapolating from his own experience, he characterized the typical child as standing
"upon a place apart, a little spectator of the world."' Referring specifically to his own childhood, he said, "I lived a dream
The dreams of another Civil War child -- Theodore Roosevelt, who experienced the conflict from the relatively safe distance of New York City and whose life path would intersect Wilson's
significantly -- were filled with literary adventure, with tales of the heroes of history and romance. But not Tommy Wilson's, for the boy in Georgia didn't learn to read until he was ten years old. A later generation of pediatricians and educators likely would have diagnosed dyslexia, but in Tommy's time the boy just seemed slow. Had he been of a different family, he might have turned his back on the land of letters; but with a father whose vocation depended on translating the Word of God into the words of men, and who, by the evidence of every Sunday, excelled in the art, Tommy couldn't help being drawn in. He perceived letters and words as possessing a mysterious power, a power not easily captured and the more potent for its elusiveness and mystery. When he finally did decode the alphabet and enter the priest- hood of the literate, he felt an exhilaration that stayed with him his whole life.
At fourteen the family moved again, to Columbia, South Carolina. The Reverend Wilson was appointed professor of
pastoral theology at the Presbyterian seminary there, a position he supplemented by service as interim minister of the First
Presbyterian Church. Tommy received tutoring from one of the seminary's professors. Though his academic progress continued slowly, he became enamored of a system of shorthand he saw
advertised in a magazine. The ads touted the time-saving features of the
system -- an obscure variant of the more popular systems of the day -- for secretaries and stenographers, its obvious clientele. What doubtless intrigued young Wilson was its very obscurity. Having been so long mastering ordinary letters, Wilson by this leap could surpass that large majority of writers to whom the unusual system was not vouchsafed. (Although he couldn't know it at the time, he thereby complicated the labors of future archivists and editors who, in processing his papers, had to
decipher the hieroglyphics of the long-forgotten system.) The leap was a struggle; the young man required years to attain
proficiency. But he evidently thought the prize worth the toil, for he soldiered on.
At seventeen Tommy left home to pursue his education. He attended Davidson College of North Carolina, which was not so far away as to rule out occasional visits home, nor so selective as to prevent the admission of a student whose performance still lagged many of his peers', nor so secular as to eliminate the
possibility of the son's following the father's footsteps.
His classroom work improved, especially in the humanities. He discovered an interest in history and, to his surprise, a talent for writing. He also discovered a passion for public speaking. He joined the debating club and devoured the library's collection on rhetorical technique and great speakers of the past.
Davidson, however, proved a false start. Tommy stayed one year, toward the end of which his father moved yet again.
Doctrinal disputes and financial troubles forced the Columbia seminary to close and the Reverend Wilson to find another job, which he did in Wilmington, North Carolina. Had Tommy been more enamored of Davidson, the strain on the
family budget caused by the job switch and the household move might not have forced his withdrawal from the college; but as it was, he decided that a suspension of his higher education was in the
family's and his own interest. (The Wilson family's finances inspired a story often told about the Reverend Wilson. When someone remarked that the minister's horse was better groomed than the minister, Dr. Wilson replied, "That is because I care for my horse. My parishioners care for
Tommy Wilson spent the next year in Wilmington, polishing his shorthand, observing the arrivals and departures of ships in the harbor, reading the novels of Walter Scott, and wondering what life held for him. Yet one thing he knew, as he told a friend from Davidson: "I like nothing so well as writing and talking."
During this period the idea of going north to college took shape in his head. Dr. Wilson, who had attended seminary in Princeton, New Jersey, knew the man who currently headed the College of New Jersey, commonly called Princeton, located in the same town.
The college lacked the reputation to draw all the students its upkeep required, and its president, on one of his recruiting and fund-raising trips through the Carolinas, cast his eye on the son of his old friend. After a year under the parental roof, Tommy was ready to leave again, and in September 1875, three months before his nineteenth birthday, he boarded a northbound train.
He entered the life of the college with some diffidence. He joined one of the newer eating clubs, the Alligators, and played on the freshman baseball team. But his classes were uninspiring. "Study review in Xenophon's Memorabilia for examinations all the afternoon and evening," he jotted in the diary he kept in shorthand. "Very stupid work." Two days later he wrote, "Studied geometry from 8 to 10 -- very stupid work indeed."
Extracurricular rhetoric and persuasive writing were another matter. He helped organize the Liberal Debating Club, whose members held forth on crucial questions of the day.
* Endnotes omitted
Copyright © 2003 H.W. Brands