Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson quotes

Quotes by and about Woodrow Wilson

(Continued from his main entry on the site.)

Wilson: "We read the classics and exclaim in our vanity: 'How modern! It might have been written yesterday.' Would it not be more true, as well as more instructive, to exclaim concerning our own ideas: 'How ancient! They have been true these thousand years'?"

Wilson: "[Do not be] credulous of quick improvement, hopeful of discovering panaceas [or] confident of success in every new thing."

Wilson: "It is all very well to talk of detachment of view, and of the effort to be national in spirit and in purpose, but a boy never gets over his boyhood, and never can change those subtle influences which have become a part of him, that were bred in him when he was a child."

Wilson: "I am much mistaken if the scientific spirit of the age is not doing us a great disservice, working in us a certain great degeneracy. Science has bred in us a spirit of experiment and a contempt for the past. It has made us credulous of quick improvement, hopeful of discovering panaceas, confident of success in every new thing."

Wilson: "It is plain that it is the duty of an institution of learning set in the midst of a free population and amidst signs of social change, not merely to implant a sense of duty, but to illuminate duty by every lesson that can be drawn out of the past. ... It is the business of a University to impart to the rank and file of the men whom it trains the right thought of the world, the thought which it has tested and established, the principles which have stood through the seasons and become at length part of the immemorial wisdom of the race."

Wilson: "He is not a true man of the world who knows only the present fashion of it. The world of affairs is so old, no man can know it who knows only that little last segment of it which we call the present. We have a special name for the man who observes only the present fashions of the world: and it is a less honorable name than that which we use to designate the grave and thoughtful gentlemen who keep so steadily to the practises that have made the world wise and at ease these hundreds of years. We cannot pretend to have formed the world, and we are not destined to reform it. We cannot even mend it and set it forward by the reasonable measure of a single generation's work if we forget the old processes or lose our mastery over them. We should have scant capital to trade on were we to throw away the wisdom we have inherited and seek our fortunes with the slender stock we have ourselves accumulated."

Wilson: "Men grow by having responsibility laid upon them, the burden of other people's business. Their powers are put out at interest, and they get usury in kind. They are like men multiplied. Each counts manifold. Men who live with an eye only upon what is their own are dwarfed beside them - seem fractions while they are integers. The trustworthiness of men trusted seems often to grow with the trust."

Wilson: "Every man must devise the means by which he is to make the most of himself. To make the most of himself means the multiplication of his activities, and he must turn away from himself for that. He looks about him, studies the fact of business or of affairs, catches some intimation of their larger objects, is guided by the intimation, and presently finds himself part of the motive force of communities or of nations. It makes no difference how small part, how insignificant, how unnoticed. When his powers begin to play outward, and he loves the task at hand, not because it gains him a livelihood, but because it makes him a life, he has come to himself."

Wilson: "No man that does not see visions will ever ... undertake any high enterprise."

Wilson: "I cannot imagine power as a thing negative and not positive."

Wilson: "We are not put into this world to sit still and know; we are put into it to act."

Wilson: "I should like to see something unusual happen, something that was never done before. ... There is no other way."

Wilson: "We have got to throw tradition to the wind."

Wilson: "We get tired of the old ways and covet the new ones."

Wilson: "I have a sense of power in dealing with men collectively which I do not always feel in dealing with them singly. ... One feels no sacrifice of pride necessary in courting the favor of an assembly of men such as he would have to make in seeking to please one man."

Wilson: "Power consists in one's capacity to link his will with the purpose of others, to lead by reason and a gift of cooperation."

Wilson: "There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right."

Wilson: "You cannot be friends upon any other terms than upon the terms of equality."

Wilson: "I have long enjoyed the friendship and companionship of Republicans, because I am by instinct a teacher and I would like to teach them something."

Wilson: "[Power] is the capacity to make effective decisions."

Wilson: "[I stand for] for the just use of undisputed national power ... for self-possession, for dignity."

Woodrow Wilson

Wilson [in a letter to his wife:] "I am too intense. ... I am as you have no doubt found out for yourself an excessively proud and sensitive creature. ... It isn't pleasant or convenient to have strong passions. ... I have the uncomfortable feeling that I am carrying a volcano about with me. My salvation is in being loved."

Wilson: "My constant embarrassment is to restrain the emotions that are inside of me. You may not believe it, but I sometimes feel like the fire from a far from extinct volcano, and if the lava does not seem to spill over it is because you are not high enough to see into the basin and see the cauldron boil."

Wilson: "I remember how I clung to [my mother] (a laughed-at 'mama's boy') 'till I was a great big fellow."

Woodrow Wilson

[His childhood friend:] "[He was] a boy of good moral character ... precise, slow-spoken, dignified and very orderly. He never, like the rest of the boys, went barefoot. When [we] went riding, [he] preferred a reliable nag to a more spirited ride."

[His schoolmate:] "[He was] extremely dignified. He was not like other boys. He had a queer way of going off by himself."

Steven J. Rubenzer: "Wilson's most prominent trait was his very high score on Openness to Feelings, indicating a very passionate, emotional man despite his achievement drive, order, control and self-discipline."


William Bullitt's Questionable Account of Woodrow Wilson

Bullitt: "[As a child] he liked to play with well-brought-up girls rather than boys."

Bullitt: "[He] tried always to be on the side of the angels. [He had] an endearing idealism. He was so serious about himself that others took him seriously. "

Bullitt: "He could turn on warmth of expression like an electric light. He could suddenly confront a person or a camera with momentary expression of almost lover-like understanding and affection. Then his face would fall back into its habitual astringence. He always addressed audiences with this turned-on, intimate warmth. It increased his power as an orator."

Bullitt: "Freud describes Wilson as a person for whom mere facts held no significance; he esteemed highly nothing but human motives and opinions. As a result, writes Freud, it was natural for him in his thinking to ignore the facts of the real outer world, even to deny they existed if they conflicted with his hopes and wishes."


Wilson: "Frederick the Great, stern and masterful as was his rule, still sincerely professed to regard himself as only the chief servant of the state, to consider his great office a public trust; and it was he who, building upon the foundations laid by his father, began to organize the public service of Prussia as in very earnest a service of the public."

Wilson: "Even if we had clear insight into all the political past, and could form out of perfectly instructed heads a few steady, infallible, placidly wise maxims of government into which all sound political doctrine would be ultimately resolvable, would the country act on them? That is the question. The bulk of mankind is rigidly unphilosophical, and nowadays the bulk of mankind votes. A truth must become not only plain but also commonplace before it will be seen by the people who go to their work very early in the morning; and not to act upon it must involve great and pinching inconveniences before these same people will make up their minds to act upon it."

Wilson: "It is better to be untrained and free than to be servile and systematic. Still there is no denying that it would be better yet to be both free in spirit and proficient in practice."

Wilson: "I would ... rather lose in a cause that I know some day will triumph than triumph in a cause that I know some day will lose."

Wilson: "There is a price which is too great to pay ... and that price can be put in one word: ... self-respect."

Wilson: "If you want to make enemies, try to change something."

Wilson: "The bulk of mankind is rigidly unphilosophical, and nowadays the bulk of mankind votes."

Wilson: "Politics I conceive to be nothing more than the science of the ordered progress of society along the lines of greatest usefulness and convenience to itself."

Wilson: "Man is much more than a 'rational being,' and lives more by sympathies and impressions than by conclusions. It darkens his eyes and dries up the wells of his humanity to be forever in search of doctrine. We need wholesome, experiencing natures, I dare affirm, much more than we need sound reasoning."

Wilson: "One cannot easily make clear to every one just where administration resides in the various departments of any practicable government without entering upon particulars so numerous as to confuse and distinctions so minute as to distract."

Wilson: "My constant embarrassment is to restrain the emotions that are inside of me."

Wilson: "Money cannot be made except by the most vulgar methods. The studious man is pronounced impractical and is suspected as a visionary."

Wilson: "I remember forming with [a college classmate] a solemn covenant that we would school all our powers and passions for the work of establishing the principles we held in common; that we would acquire knowledge that we might have power; and that we might have facility in leading others into our ways of thinking and enlisting them in our purposes. ... I still retain some of the faith than then prompted me."


Childhood Games

A. Scott Berg: "Up a wooden ladder, in the hayloft of the stables behind the house, [the young Wilson] conducted the Monday and Thursday meetings. ... There was a schedule for fines: a nickel for swearing, two and a half cents for lesser vulgarities; and absences cost a dime. 'We knew how to make motions and second them,' he recounted forty-five years later; 'we knew that a motion could not have more than two amendments offered at the same time, and we knew the order in which the amendments had to be put, the second amendment before the first.' Wilson granted that nothing important happened at these meetings; but, he recalled, 'I remember distinctly that my delight and interest was in the meetings, not in what they were for - just the sense of belonging to an organization and doing something with the organization, it did not matter what.'"

A. Scott Berg: "While [the young Wilson] stuck mostly to himself, he did venture into the town. He spent hours at the water's edge, musing about a life at sea. He fantasized ... about what he dubbed 'the Royal United Kingdom Yacht Club.' He even composed a constitution for his mythical flotilla, an elaborate list of rules and regulations for his make-believe organization, complete with details of officers' duties, times of meetings, fees for entrances, fines for absences, and requirements for bills and resolutions, which demanded the signature of the Commodore - himself."


John Morgan Cooper: "As a foreign policy president, he intervened in the world war, led the country through the war, pushed his peace program, and wrote his plans for a new world order into the peace treaty. Yet Wilson never saw himself as someone who did what doomed Icarus - he never saw himself as overreaching. His greatest inspiration as a student of politics came from Edmund Burke, and he steeped himself in Burke's anti-theoretical, organic conception of politics. He could admire lonely crusaders and inspired visionaries, but only from afar. He was a man of this world, who practiced the art of the possible and went in for practical, down-to-earth ideas."


Excerpts from Wilson's essay 'When a Man Comes to Himself':

Wilson: "The practicability of every reform is determined absolutely and always by 'the circumstances of the case,' and only those who put themselves into the midst of affairs, either by action or by observation, can known what those circumstances are or perceive what they signify. No statesman dreams of doing whatever he pleases; he knows that it does not follow that because a point of morals or of policy is obvious to him it will be obvious to the nation, or even to his own friends; and it is the strength of a democratic polity that there are so many minds to be consulted and brought to agreement, and that nothing can be wisely done for which the thought, and a good deal more than the thought, of the country, its sentiment and its purpose, have not been prepared. Social reform is a matter of cooperation, and if it be of a novel kind, requires an infinite deal of converting to bring the efficient majority to believe in it and support it. Without their agreement and support it is impossible."

Wilson: "It is this that the more imaginative and impatient reformers find out when they come to themselves, if that calming change ever comes to them. Oftentimes the most immediate and drastic means of bringing them to themselves is to elect them to legislative or executive office. That will reduce over-sanguine persons to their simplest terms. Not because they find their fellow-legislators or officials incapable of high purpose or indifferent to the betterment of the communities which they represent. Only cynics hold that to be the chief reason why we approach the millennium so slowly, and cynics are usually very ill-informed persons. Nor is it because under our modern democratic arrangements we so subdivide power and balance parts in government that no one man can tell for much or turn affairs to his will."

Wilson: "It is not that such men lose courage when they find themselves charged with the actual direction of the affairs concerning which they have held and uttered such strong, unhesitating, drastic opinions. They have only learned discretion. For the first time they see in its entirety what it was that they were attempting. They are at last at close quarters with the world. Men of every interest and variety crowd about them; new impressions throng them; in the midst of affairs the former special objects of their zeal fall into new environments, a better and truer perspective; seem no longer so susceptible to separate and radical change. The real nature of the complex stuff of life they were seeking to work in is revealed to them - its intricate and delicate fiber, and the subtle, secret interrelationship of its parts - and they work circumspectly, lest they should mar more than they mend. Moral enthusiasm is not, uninstructed and of itself, a suitable guide to practicable and lasting reformation; and if the reform sought be the reformation of others as well as of himself, the reformer should look to it that he knows the true relation of his will to the wills of those he would change and guide. When he has discovered that relation, he has come to himself: has discovered his real use and planning part in the general world of men; has come to the full command and satisfying employment of his faculties. Otherwise he is doomed to live for ever in a fool's paradise, and can be said to have come to himself only on the supposition that he is a fool."

Wilson: "A man is the part he plays among his fellows. He is not isolated; he cannot be. His life is made up of the relations he bears to others - is made or marred by those relations, guided by them, judged by them, expressed in them. There is nothing else upon which he can spend his spirit - nothing else that we can see. It is by these he gets his spiritual growth; it is by these we see his character revealed, his purpose and his gifts. Some play with a certain natural passion, an unstudied directness, without grace, without modulation, with no study of the masters or consciousness of the pervading spirit of the plot; others gives all their thought to their costume and think only of the audience; a few act as those who have mastered the secrets of a serious art, with deliberate subordination of themselves to the great end and motive of the play, spending themselves like good servants, indulging no wilfulness, obtruding no eccentricity, lending heart and tone and gesture to the perfect progress of the action. These have 'found themselves,' and have all the ease of a perfect adjustment."

Wilson: "Every man [has] both an absolute and a relative capacity: an absolute in that he hath been endued with such a nature and such parts and faculties; and a relative in that he is part of the universal community of men, and so stands in such a relation to the whole. When we say that a man has come to himself, it is not of his absolute capacity that we are thinking, but of his relative. He has begun to realize that he is part of a whole, and to know what part, suitable for what service and achievement."


Wilson: "In those countries in which public opinion has yet to be instructed in its privileges, yet to be accustomed to having its own way, this question as to the province of public opinion is much more ready soluble than in this country, where public opinion is wide awake and quite intent upon having its own way anyhow. It is pathetic to see a whole book written by a German professor of political science for the purpose of saying to his countrymen, 'Please try to have an opinion about national affairs'; but a public which is so modest may at least be expected to be very docile and acquiescent in learning what things it has not a right to think and speak about imperatively. It may be sluggish, but it will not be meddlesome. It will submit to be instructed before it tries to instruct. Its political education will come before its political activity. In trying to instruct our own public opinion, we are dealing with a pupil apt to think itself quite sufficiently instructed beforehand."

Wilson: "Let us remind ourselves that to be human is, for one thing, to speak and act with a certain note of genuineness, a quality mixed of spontaneity and intelligence. This is necessary for wholesome life in any age, but particularly amidst confused affairs and shifting standards. Genuineness is not mere simplicity, for that may lack vitality, and genuineness does not. We expect what we call genuine to have pith and strength of fiber. Genuineness is a quality which we sometimes mean to include when we speak of individuality. Individuality is lost the moment you submit to passing modes or fashions, the creations of an artificial society; and so is genuineness. No man is genuine who is forever trying to pattern his life after the lives of other people - unless, indeed, he be a genuine dolt. But individuality is by no means the same as genuineness; for individuality may be associated with the most extreme and even ridiculous eccentricity, while genuineness we conceive to be always wholesome, balanced, and touched with dignity. It is a quality that goes with good sense and self-respect. It is a sort of robust moral sanity, mixed of elements both moral and intellectual. It is found in natures too strong to be mere trimmers and conformers, too well poised and thoughtful to fling off into intemperate protest and revolt. Laughter is genuine which has in it neither the shrill, hysterical note of mere excitement nor the hard, metallic twang of the cynic's sneer - which rings in the honest voice of gracious good humor, which is innocent and unsatirical. Speech is genuine which is without silliness, affectation, or pretense. That character is genuine which seems built by nature rather than by convention, which is stuff of independence and of good courage. Nothing spurious, bastard, begotten out of true wedlock of the mind; nothing adulterated and seeming to be what it is not; nothing unreal, can ever get place among the nobility of things genuine, natural, of pure stock and unmistakable lineage. It is a prerogative of every truly human being to come out from the low estate of those who are merely gregarious and of the herd, and show his innate powers cultivated and yet unspoiled - sound, unmixed, free from imitation; showing that individualization without extravagance which is genuineness."

Wilson: "The great captains of the world have been men who were calm in the moment of crisis; who were calm, too, in the long planning which preceded crisis; who went into battle with a serenity infinitely ominous for those whom they attack. We instinctively associate serenity with the highest types of power among men, seeing in it the poise of knowledge and calm vision, the supreme heat and mastery which is without splutter or noise of any kind. The art of power in this sort is no doubt learned in hours of reflection, by those who are not born with it. What rebuke of aimless excitement there is to be got out of a little reflection, when we have been inveighing against the corruption and decadence of our own days, if only we have provided ourselves with a little knowledge of the past wherewith to balance our thought!"

Wilson: "The serenity of power; the naturalness that is nature's poise and mark of genuineness; the unsleeping interest in all affairs, all fancies, all things believed or done; the catholic understanding, tolerance, enjoyment, of all classes and conditions of men; the conceiving imagination, the planning purpose, the creating thought, the wholesome, laughing humor, the quiet insight, the universal coinage of the brain - are not these the marvelous gifts and qualities we mark in Shakespeare when we call him the greatest among men? And shall not these rounded and perfect powers serve us as our ideal of what it is to be a finished human being?"

Wilson: "No doubt a great deal of nonsense has been talked about the inalienable rights of the individual, and a great deal that was mere vague sentiment and pleasing speculation has been put forward as fundamental principle. The rights of man are easy to discourse of, may be very pleasingly magnified in the sentences of such constitutions as it used to satisfy the revolutionary ardor of French leaders to draw up and affect to put into operation; but they are infinitely hard to translate into practice. Such theories are never 'law,' no matter what the name or the formal authority of the document in which they are embodied. Only that is 'law' which can be executed, and the abstract rights of man are singularly difficult of execution. None the less, vague talk and ineffectual theory though there may be, the individual is indisputably the original, the first fact of liberty. Nations are made up of individuals, and the dealings of government with individuals are the ultimate and perfect test of its constitutional character. Liberty belongs to the individual, or it does not exist."

Wilson: "In government, as in virtue, the hardest of things is to make progress. Formerly the reason for this was that the single person who was sovereign was generally either selfish, ignorant, timid, or a fool - albeit there was now and again one who was wise. Nowadays the reason is that the many, the people, who are sovereign have no single ear which one can approach, and are selfish, ignorant, timid, stubborn, or foolish with the selfishness, the ignorances, the stubbornnesses, the timidities, or the follies of several thousand persons - albeit there are hundreds who are wise. Once the advantage of the reformer was that the sovereign's mind had a definite locality, that it was contained in one man's head, and that consequently it could be gotten at; though it was his disadvantage that the mind learned only reluctantly or only in small quantities, or was under the influence of some one who let it learn only the wrong things. Now, on the contrary, the reformer is bewildered by the fact that the sovereign's mind has no definite locality, but is contained in a voting majority of several million heads; and embarrassed by the fact that the mind of this sovereign also is under the influence of favorites, who are none the less favorites in a good old-fashioned sense of the word because they are not persons by preconceived opinions; i.e., prejudices which are not to be reasoned with because they are not the children of reason."

Wilson: "We have not kept our practices adjusted to the facts of the case, and until we do, and unless we do, the facts of the case will always have the better of the argument; because if you do not adjust your laws to the facts, so much the worse for the laws, not for the facts, because law trails along after the facts. Only that law is unsafe which runs ahead of the facts and beckons to it and makes it follow the will-o'-the-wisps of imaginative projects... If your laws do not fit your facts, the facts are not injured, the law is damaged; because the law, unless I have studied it amiss, is the expression of the facts in legal relationships. Laws have never altered the facts; laws have always necessarily expressed the facts; adjusted interests as they have arisen and have changed toward one another."

Trygve Throntveit: "Empirical yet empathetic; reformist yet restrained - what exactly was the nature of the progressive politics Wilson brought to the White House? His injunction against drawing-board reforms sounds like the creed of a conservative, while his rejection of ideological rigidity created a safe distance from the 'radicals' of his day. Yet his legislative accomplishments in office mark him as one of the most radical reformers to occupy the presidency. In fact, the sweeping changes he effected in office can only be understood as the product of a skeptical and deliberative yet creative and adaptive mind - as the work of radical empiricist in politics."

Walter A. McDougall: "In any trait bubbles up in all one reads about Wilson, it is this: he loved, craved, and in a sense glorified power."

Walter A. McDougall: "He [was both] a bold reformer and thorough authoritarian."

Herbert Hoover: "He was more than just an idealist; he was the personification of the heritage of idealism of the American people. He brought spiritual concepts to the peace table. He was a born crusader."

Steven J. Rubenzer: "Wilson is remembered as visionary, a man ahead of his time, whose dream did see eventual fulfillment in the United Nations."

Trygve Throntveit: "[Having a] deliberative yet creative and adaptive mind [he was a] radical empiricist in politics."

Theodore Roosevelt: "He is a doctrinaire ... with his personal ambition."