October 28, 2014

our first Confederate president

Woodrow Wilson's first memory is standing in his front yard in Augusta, Georgia in 1860, at the age of 3, and hearing someone passing say that Abraham Lincoln had won the election and that war was coming. He ran inside to ask his parents who Abraham Lincoln was, and what war was.

Although Augusta was spared the destruction of many of the neighboring Georgia towns (a reprieve rumored to result from the fact that an ex-girlfriend of General Sherman lived in Augusta), the fact remains that Wilson grew up in the war-ravaged Deep South. (During the war his father, a Presbyterian minister, left to serve as a chaplain for soldiers in North Carolina.) A few years later, he would again stand outside and watch Jefferson Davis being marched through town under federal guard.

Every president from Lincoln to McKinley served in the Civil War. (All of them as soldiers except Arthur, who was a quartermaster, because of course he was.) Roosevelt and Taft were young during the Civil War but were fairly removed from it, but Wilson really lived it, and as a Southerner! It's fascinating to me that there's a US president who at one point, by many's accounting, was a citizen of the Confederate States of America.

There hadn't been a Southern president since Andrew Johnson 50 years before, and he was a grade A fiasco. But America hadn't actually elected a Southern president since Zachary Taylor in 1849! And he slid in by winning a war.

This fascinates me — partially because I had no idea Wilson was from the South, and because I'm interested to see how growing up in a marginalized region of the country at its lowest point affects his political life (of course, by the time he reached the presidency he'd lived most of his adult life in New Jersey). A. Scott Berg is clearly setting it up to be a founding principle.

And while I'm at it, it is a straight up pleasure to be in the hands of the inimitable A. Scott Berg for this biography. I wish he'd written all the biographies.

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations on making it to Wilson! In Joyce Carol Oates recent novel The Accursed (which takes place in Princeton, NJ where A Scott Berg went to college) there is an unflattering but fairly hilarious portrait of Woodrow, not to mention Upton Sinclair.