The Leader pp 133-178 | Cite as

Woodrow Wilson Revisited

The Prepolitical Years
  • Joseph A. Bongiorno


Woodrow Wilson has fascinated and puzzled generations of students and scholars. On the one hand, he was a man of remarkable strengths and talents. He was a respected historian and political scientist, a prodigious worker, and—at his best—a brilliant leader and innovator, first as president of Princeton University (1902–10) and later as governor of New Jersey (1910–12) and president of the United States (1912–20). He developed rich life-long friendships, he was capable of humor (including humor about himself), and he was a devoted son, husband, and father. On the other hand, beginning in adolescence, he suffered several emotional breakdowns and near-breakdowns. At his worst as a leader, he lost his humor, demanded complete loyalty and compliance, refused compromise, stubbornly adhered to his causes, and thereby contributed greatly to his own defeats.


Bryn Mawr Editorial Note Theological Seminary Yacht Club Spiritual Capital 
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    Although some of Weinstein’s evidence extends beyond Wilson’s prepolitical years, to which I have limited this paper, his major arguments are important and deserve summary. The letters Ellen wrote to Woodrow in the summer of 1908 while he was vacationing alone in Europe are missing. It is possible Woodrow or a family member destroyed them because they contained some reference to the affair. Early that same vacation, Woodrow ended a letter to Ellen with a profuse apology (he did not specify the offense), intensely reassured her of his love, insisted it was more than emotional, and assured her that if she trusted him, all would “come right”—including what she did not understand (again, unspecified) (WW to EAW, July 20, 1908, Papers, XVIII, pp. 371-372). In his speeches for years thereafter, he stopped referring to the white of the American flag as a symbol of purity. In 1914, a year after Wilson became president of the United States, Ellen died of chronic nephritis. After a deep depression, Woodrow met and quickly fell in love with Edith Boiling Galt, who became his second wife in 1916. During Wilson’s engagement to Galt, one of his aides received an anonymous letter stating that Mary Peck was going to publicize a loan Wilson had made to her and was going to release to his political enemies some of his letters. In a panic, Wilson met with Galt and discussed his earlier relationship with Peck. Later that same evening he wrote to Galt that his relationship with Peck was “a folly long ago loathed and repented of,” for which he felt guilty and punished and which he had tried to expiate “by disinterested service and honorable, self-forgetful, devoted love.” (WW to Edith Boiling Galt, September 19, 1915, Papers, XXXIV, p. 451) Galt forgave him, he felt wonderfully freed after his confession, and thereafter he resumed referring to the white of the flag as a symbol of purity (Weinstein, pp. 181-194 and 291-293).Google Scholar
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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1985

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  • Joseph A. Bongiorno

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