Woodrow Wilson: An Interpretation


Woodrow Wilson: An Interpretation


Newman, Louis I. (Louis Israel), 1893-1972




1927 December


A sermon by Rabbi Louis I. Newman, in praise of Woodrow Wilson.


Eleanor Wilson McAdoo Papers, University of California, Santa Barbara


Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum


Religion and politics




Emanu-El Pulpit

Woodrow Wilson
An Interpretation

Rabbi Louis I. Newman
With an Appendix:
"The Wit and Wisdom
of Woodrow Wilson" 

Arguello Boulevard and Lake Street
San Francisco, California

Copyright, 1927
by Louis I. Newman

By Rabbi Louis I. Newman
Temple Emanu-El, San Francisco

"MY PRECIOUS SON," wrote the father of Woodrow Wilson in 1889, "there is one thing always sure, and this is that you are hour by hour in my thoughts and upon my heart:and what is just as certain is, that you deserve the place which you occupy within the house of my soul, and even a bigger place were it a bigger soul." When I write of the place which Woodrow Wilson occupies within the house of my own soul, his spirit walks with me and holds me in thrall as it has from the moment I came truly to know of him during my undergraduate days. It was not vouchsafed me to meet him in person; I saw him close at hand only when I heard him plead for the Treaty of Peace in his first public address on his return to America in 1919. But I have felt a sense of communion with him throughout the years. Happy are they, it is said, who know the great only by report. But the report of Woodrow Wilson has enshrined him imperishably within the sanctuary of my heart.
     When I was a university sophmore, a fellow-student told me with face aglow of the new Governor whom he knew at Trenton and who was remaking the political life of New Jersey. Together we organized a "Wilson for President" Club and won for him the campus straw ballot. The books, essays and addresses of Mr. Wilson became an inexhaustible storehouse of enrichment for me. It was as if deep called to deep across the distances. I learned by heart his favorite poems, among them "The Happy Warrior." I delighted in his wit; I responded to the challenge of his preachment. I sought to drink deep from the living waters which his mind and spirit nourished. He spoke and wrote of nobility, hope, faith, fair play, friendship, sportsmanship, unselfish public service; it was not surprising that I, like thousands of other youth of my generation, felt the immediate impact of his personality as an inspiration and a benediction. The mood of my first acquaintance in youth with Mr. Wilson has remained with me in manhood and will abide, I believe, throughout life. When my two sons are grown, I shall invite them to scan the career of Mr. Wilson, confident they will discover therein a sense of appreciation for the values which neither time nor death nor change can destroy. My faith in him bids me trust that the new generation whom he called his "clients" will be stirred by his influence in death even more than was I during his lifetime.
     Mr. Wilson has always been for me the matchless leader of men. He had the eight horses that draw the triumphal chariot of every leader and ruler of free men, force of character, readiness of resources, clearness of vision, grasp of intellect, courage of conviction, earnestness of purpose, instinct and capacity for leadership. He possessed the sensitive impulses of a thoroughbred; "he was high-spirited as a racehorse." The lineage of Wallace and Bruce, of Lochinvar and the Black Watch endowed him with unexcelled audacity; he calculated chances but feared no consequences. With pedigree more than royal because it was religious, he affirmed that the sources of power come from knowledge, not from birth. He was a fascinating raconteur, a lover of poetry, in its varied moods, discerning therein profound lessons of national politics, promptings toward the ideal personal life, and consolation in moments of trial and despair. He seemed to me great in the Emersonian sense of being what he was from nature, never reminding us of others.
     He represented in America the classic Greek ideal of culture and statesmanship. He had the historians accurate information and sense of perspective, viewing world affairs "sub specie aeternitatis"; he had the analytical power of the master-investigator, and the emotional appeal of the advocate, inspiring because he was inspired. He was Pericles of Athens and Demosthenes combined. In the end he was Aristides whom his fellow-citizens banished because he was too just. He conveyed to the masses in our democracy the self-education by which it can avoid the mistakes of its predecessors in history. For him democracy and efficiency were synonymous; he demonstrated that a republic could even prosecute a war more successfully than autocracies. He was the supreme educator, eliciting the best impulses of individual, national and international life; he spoke for them, directed them, and yet looked beyond them. He was the finished product of American civilization, blending the old world and the new. If our democracy can produce world-spirits such as he, its future is safe.
     I revere Mr. Wilson because he sought to live out in human affairs the character of the man of justice. He cherished high standards and strove to exemplify them in the "tasks of real life." He was the man of principle in action. No virtue seemed to him so godlike as justice; he aimed to make it a standing policy in civil and international society. "When you desert the right, the right deserts you." He despised the meretricious and battled against the corrupt. Property rights, said he, can be vindicated by claims for damages, but the fundamental rights of humanity cannot be. He hated industrial injustice which, swift, erect and unconfined before his advent, had swept the wide country; later he fought it as it swept the wide earth and trampled over mankind. He had a mystic faith in the ultimate triumph of righteousness. When he was lifted high, conspicuous object in the worlds eye, he could still say: "the right is more precious than peace." When haggard with weariness, a spent fighter, his words were: "the thing is right; it is true, and the right will prevail." "I have loved justice and hated iniquity," said an ancient leader, "and therefore I die in exile." Because Mr. Wilson loved justice too well for the ways of our world, he died betimes, "a broken piece of machinery."
     Both my heart and my mind were illumined by the teachings of Mr. Wilson. His principles moulded not merely my political philosophy, but my entire Weltanschauung. Liberalism today is in eclipse, but we who are laboring for its return in economics, politics, religion and social organization, turn to Mr. Wilson as the incarnation of the Liberal ideal. He conceived his mission to be

"to clarify the thought of his generation and to vivifyit, to give it speed where it is slow, vision where it is blind, balance where it is out of poise, saving humor where it is dry."

In the clash between organized public and organized private interest, Mr. Wilson always enlisted on the side of the poor and the weak. Both college and government "should be saturated," said he, "with the same sympathies as the common people." With uncanny clairvoyance into the popular will, he sought to achieve a moral regeneration in national and international affairs.
     His appeal to more than men of thought lies in the fact that he possessed a unique faculty of translating his knowledge of government into its administration. He immortalized his principles in precise and exquisite language and was then called upon to place them in operation in a world trammeled by the legacies of the past. He was the most potent tribune of the age. If results are the tests of eloquence and persuasion, no orator was more remarkable. His campaign speeches formualted a program of the new freedom, whereby a prosperous nation sought to emancipate itself from the fruits of special privilege and oppression. His war addresses united his country, divided against itself in respect to making war; they unfied the Allies and made them irresistible; they were as a flaming sword among his adversaries, splitting them in twain, until the hour of healing should dawn. He forged phrases, but with them he sought to forge a new human order. His sentences lit the torch of liberty for weak and poor peoples. The nations hung upon his words; the million paused in their fighting to heed them. They were only words, but they carried an "exalted hope for humanity and must some day find their guerdon in deeds." He had a "voice whose sound was like the sea, pure as the naked heavens, transcendant, free."
     These words became categorical imperatives which even statesmen could not ignore. The ideal seemed so intensely practical to Mr. Wilson that he demanded a concrete program for international cooperation, harmony and service.

"The hopes of mankind cannot be kept alive by words merely, by constitutions and doctrines of right and codes of liberty. The object of democracy is to transmute these into the life and action of society, the self-denial and self-sacrifice of heoirc men and women, willing to make their lives an embodiement of right and service and enlightened purpose."

     The tragedy of Mr. Wilsons closing years seems to me not only mankinds sorrow but a personal grief striking with immediacy and poignancy into the very vitals of every freemans spirit. High station and tumult created in Mr. Wilson the motif for great situations; he met and made great occasions; he bestrode the narrow world like a Colossus. But "censure is the tax a man pays to the public for being eminent." Mr. Wilson begged his countrymen not to break the heart of the world; they replied by breaking his own. The cataclysmic forces loosed by the war and its aftermath beat mercilessly upon him in his hour of physical frailty; they overbore his body, but they could not overthrow his spirit. He stood like a "solitary tower in the city of God" until the Lord said: "It is enough."
     The irony of his career lay in the fact that he, the peacemaker, by trick of circumstance, was compelled to resort to the bloody arbitrament of war against his fellows. "The terrible thing about war is that the young manhood of the world is sacrificed to the stupidity of the politicians; its my business to see that that kind of thing is stopped." He sought to salvage a fraction of good from the Wars wreckage. He struggled ceaselessly against the forces of reaction and revenge; he wrote into the treaty whatsoever it contains for the advancement of the race. But when the storm of controversy broke, he became the target for the combined resentment and rage of Tory and radical, of war-lovers and peace-lovers alike. Like Arnold von Winkelried he bared his bosom to every spearhead, and, like him, he fell.
     Not Wilson, but humanity, failed at Versailles. Mr. Wilsons errors of judgment may have been due to the temperament which was his destiny, but in the long run, he must be understood as the victim of the Wars passions, the mental and moral deficiences of old Europe, and the national selfishness which had crept aboard the Mayflower. General Smuts has said:

"It was not the statesman that failed so much as the spirit of the people behind them. The hope, the aspiration for a new world order of peace and right and justice, however deeply felt, was still only feeble and ineffective in comparison with the dominant national passions which found their expressions in the peace treaty." 

He would not withdraw, opening the door to chaos; he remained to gnaw out his heart in the agonized knowledge that his midwar hopes had been thwarted on every side.
     And so he died, and everyone knows that the Commander of the American Legion was justified in saying: "Our wartime President died for the cause he so fervently believed in, as surely as if his painracked frame had been found hanging limply on the barbed wire of Chateau Thierry. He was our comrade, our inspired leader, with universal peace as his hearts desire."
     His life seems to me built upon the titanic pattern of the Greek play or the divine drama of Job.

"They that stand high have many blasts to shake them, And if they fall, they dash themselves to pieces."

Though he spoke to the enlighted conscience of mankind out of his own and humanitys travail, he was laid low. Historians must analyze and determine the cause. Perhaps the epic grandeur of his capacities made him too impatient of the tedious selfish processes of human affairs and too vehement against the Liliputians who clung protestingly about his feet. He met the call of his own epoch, but he played for the verdict of posterity, drawing his last breath in confidence of heavens applause. "I would rather fail in a cause that I know some day will triumph than win in a cause I know some day will fail." He wished to give America the moral leadership of the world, but history will ascribe this leadership unto him. When the great and solemn referendum is taken, we who loved him believe we know what the decision will be. "Nothing can cover his high fame but heaven; no pyramids set off memories, but the eternal substance of his greatness." And so we, children of his spirit, say:

"Farewell, O Prince; farewell, O sorely tired!
You dreamed a dream and have paid the cost;
To save a people leaders must be lost,
By foe and followers be crucified.
Yet 'tis your body only that has died,
The noblest soul in Judah is not dust
But fire that works in every vein and must
Reshape our life, rekindling Israel's pride.
So we behold the captain of our strife
Triumphant in the moment of eclipse;
Death had but fixed him in immortal life,
His flag upheld, his trumpet to his lips;
And while we, weeping, rend our garment's hem,
'Next year,' we cry, 'next year, Jerusalem.'" 

The Wit and Wisdom of Woodrow Wilson
"When my Scotch personality is in the ascendancy, I feel withdrawn within myself. I dont want to talk to anybody. It irritates me to be approached. But this is not my personality most of the time. When my Irish blood is in the ascendancy, I feel like singing, kicking my heels together, or kicking my feet in the air and trailing my coat-tail down the plank turnpike. There is something in me which at time relieves my Scotch conscience and gives me moments of delightful irresponsibility."
(Quoted in David Lawrence, The True Story of Woodrow Wilson, New York, 1924, p. 20.)

* * *

"When the Lord wants to produce an oak tree, He takes a hundred years to do it, but He can grow a squash in one summer."
(Lawrence, Op. cit., p. 24.)

* * *

"There is a typical illustration of the erudition of an undergraduate, reported when this building (at Princeton) was being constructed. One student met another where we are standing, and pointing up said, Those are mighty fine gargoyles up there, arent they? The other student said, Now dont that beat the devil how fast things get around school. Just yesterday somebody called that a gargoyle and now it is all over college."
(Lawrence, p. 62.)
* * *

Describing the need to speed up the pace of progress, Mr. Wilson quoted from the Red Queen who took Alice of "Alice in Wonderland" by the hand and rushed along at a great pace. When they stopped, Alice looked around and said, "But we are just where we were when we started." "Yes," says the Red Queen, "you have to run twice as fast as that to get anywhere else." "That is also true of the world and of affairs. You have to run fast merely to stay where you are, and in order to get anywhere, you have got to run twice as fast as that."(Lawrence, p. 94.)
* * *

One of the last stories Mr. Wilson told was to a friend who was leaving Washington and who had called to bid him goodby. Some joking reference was made to the brevity of the visit, due to the fact that the callers wife was taking him on an errand.
     "That reminds me," said Mr. Wilson, "of the ancient monarch who summoned all his male subjects in the palace grounds and commanded all who obeyed their wives to stand on his right side. Every man present crossed over the to kings right side but one little, nondescript, puny fellow, who didnt look as if he had spunk enough to blow out a candle. "Do you not obey your wife?" asked the monarch of this once little man. "'Oh, yes, sire,' he replied. "'Then why do you not cross over to my right side.' "Because my wife always told me to avoid crowds.'"(Lawrence, p. 353.)
* * *

Once, just after Mr. Wilson had been nominated for President, when mail was pouring into Sea Girt more rapidly than his small clerical force could handle it, a newspaperman asked him how he was getting along with the piles of letters. Mr. Wilson replied:
"I am like the Irishman who was eating soup with his fork and someone offered him a spoon, but he waved it aside and said: 'Oh, it is all right; I am gaining on it."(Lawrence, p. 56.)

* * *

Mr. Wilson was always on the look-out for limericks, and when members of his family heard a new one it was promptly brought home. One of the most famous of these limericks was Mr. Wilsons about himself:

"For beauty I am not a star, there are others more handsome by far.
But my face-I don't mind it;
You see I'm behind it;
It's the fellow in front that I jar."

* * *

Another favorite of Mr. Wilsons was the following:

"A wondrous bird is the pelican;
His mouth holds more than his bellican;
He takes in his beak
Enough food for a week,
But I'm darned if I see how the hellican."

Still another favorite was:

"There was a young man so benighted,
He didn't know when he was slighted,
But went to a party
And ate just as hearty
As if he'd really been invited."
(Lawrence, pp. 125-6).

* * *

Rabbi Stephen S. Wise tells that Mr. Wilson rejoiced in the paraphrase of the classic stanza which made the rounds when the immigrant Cabotchniks, over the protest of the aristocratic Boston family, won the legal right to change their name to "Cabot":

"Here's to Massachusetts,
The land of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells won't talk to the Cabots,
Because the Cabots talk Yiddish to God."

* * *

"I remember a traveller telling me of being on a road in Scotland and asking a man breaking stone by the roadside if this was the road to do so and so; the man said, "Where did you come from"; he answered, "I dont know whether it is any of your business where I came from." "Weel," said the man, "it's as muckle as whaur yere ganging tae." There is a great deal of philosophy in that question asked by the roadside. If I am near a crossroad and ask if this is the road to so and so, it is a pertinent question to ask me where I came from."
(College and State, Edited by Baker and Dodd; New York, 1925, ii, 73-74; Robert E. Lee: An Interpretation.

* * *

"There is an interesting and homely story of Daniel Webster, how after one very tedious and laborious session of the Senate he returned to his home in Boston quite worn out and told his servant that he was going upstairs to lie down, and must not be disturbed on any account. He had hardly reached his room when some gentlemen from the little village in New Hampshire which had been his original boyhood home, called at the door and said they must see himthat a mans life was involved. They had come down as the neighbors of a lad in his old home, charged, as they believed falsely, with murder. They believed in the lad but were confounded by circumstantial evidence; and they thought that there was only one man in the United States who could unravel the tangle of misleading indications; and they had come to see Mr. Webster. The servant was afraid to call him but yielded to their urgency, and he came down in no pleasant humour. To all their appeals he replied, "Gentlemen, it is impossible; I am worn out. I am not fit for the service and cannot go." Seeing at last that it was probably hopeless, the spokesman of the little company at last rose and said, "Well, I dont know what the neighbors will say." "Oh, well," said Webster, "if it is the neighbors, I will go." There came to his mind the vision of some little groups of old men in that village where he had lived as a boy whose comments he could surmise, and that was the particular condemnation he could not face. So all great patriots have had a deep local rootage."
(College and State, ii, 65-66.)

* * *

"You remember the very interesting story told about Mr. Lincoln in his early practice as a lawyer. Some business firm at a distance wrote to him and asked him to look into the credit of a certain man who had asked to have credit extended to him by the firm. Mr. Lincoln went around to see the man at his place of business, and reported to this effect: that he had found the man in an office which contained one table and two chairs. 'But,' he added, 'there is a hole in the corner that would bear looking into.' That anecdote, slight as it is, is typical of Mr. Lincoln. He sometimes found the character of the man lurking in a hole, and when his speech touched that character it was illuminated."
(College and State, ii, 89; Abraham Lincoln: A Man of the People.)

* * *

Original Format






Newman, Louis I. (Louis Israel), 1893-1972, “Woodrow Wilson: An Interpretation,” 1927 December, WWP19631, Eleanor Wilson McAdoo Collection at the University of California-Santa Barbara, Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum, Staunton, Virginia.