H.W. Brands has written ambitious biographies of American historical figures, including a major work on the life of Andrew Jackson. Here, in keeping within the format of the American Presidents Series, Brands has writtten a shorter, but nontheless, insightful work. Wilson might have been a great president but, he was flawed. He was stubborn and uncompromising. Although he suffered a major stroke in his second term, he evidentally had suffered other, less serious strokes over the years. It is difficult to say whether his physical condition led to his unwillingness to yield but, much that could have been accomplished through compromise never came to fruition.
An early sign of Wilson's concreteness appeared during his presidency of Princeton University. There was a dispute as to whether the graduate school should be located on the main campus or at another site. Wilson, a proponent of locating it on campus refused to negotiate a compromise and the project was stalled.
Wilson was a Virginian and his racial attitudes were that of the Jim Crow South. However, being president of Princeton established his credentials as a New Jersey resident and Democratic party leaders put him up for governor of that state. He was elected and he showed remarkable independence as he proposed reforms that disappointed the party leaders and led them to consider him to be an ingrate. Later, when he was elected President of the United States, he continued his reform path in domestic matters.
What defined his presidency was World War I and its aftermath. After the war, Wilson traveled to Europe to negotiate the peace treaty. On a tour of Europe, he was cheered wildly whereever he went. He was a genuine hero. However, in the negotiations England and France sought to impose harsh terms on Germany whereas Wilson sought more leniency. The heart of Wilson's Fourteen points proposal was a League of Nations. This League was included in the treaty and Wilson's next major battle was to get the Senate to ratify it. Here is where Wilson's stubborness did him in. Rather than negotiate with Republicans in the Senate, led by Henry Cabot Lodge, Wilson bypassed them and took his case to the people in a speaking tour. This was not the way to win favor in the Senate.
Wilson's most egregious error, probably compounded by his stroke, was his total unwillingness to yield on one point regarding the League of Nations; i.e. a clause that required members to come to the aid of other members militarily. Republicans in the Senate were concerned that this clause might weaken US sovereignty. They noted that under the Constitution, it was the Senate, not the President who decalred war. Paul Johnson, in his "History of the American People" noted that if one of Great Britain's colonial possessions, such as India, had been attacked, the treaty might require the United states to get involved militarily. Anyway, Wilson refused to allow a reservation which would clarify the United States' understanding of the clause to the satisfaction of Lodge and other concerned Senators. Accordingly, the treaty didn't pass the Senate.
The tragedy of the Wilson presidency is that so much more could have been accomplished. He was a great reformer on domestic issues and was a popular war president. However, his one major flaw kept him from achieving true greatness. Brand does a good job in capturing the essence of Wilson and I recommend this book.