Given the international status of the United States today, the home-bound nature of the presidency during the first century-plus of the nation’s existence is hard to imagine. The first president to venture beyond the western hemisphere was Woodrow Wilson, who in 1919 traveled to Europe at the conclusion of the First World War to participate in the negotiations that produced the Treaty of Versailles.
During his trip, Wilson and his entourage visited Belgium, touring Ypres and other areas that had been devastated by the fighting. An anonymous photographer attached to the US Signal Corps documented the president’s tour of the war-torn landscape. The resulting deep-focus sepia prints preserve the occasion on which Wilson first saw something of late war in which he and the rest of the nation had been engaged.
I’d been looking for an excuse to write about Woodrow Wilson when Monday’s presidential debate, with its exchange over “horses and bayonets” and the WWI navy, came along especially to encourage me.
An interesting cache of photographs put online by the Woodrow Wilson Library includes this one of Wilson casting his ballot in the presidential election of 1912. Wilson, then governor of New Jersey and the Democratic candidate for president, won the election in a landslide.
The photograph, with its mesh ballot receptacle, handwritten records, and air of social intimacy, casts doubt on some time-honored political verities. How free and fair were the elections conducted with this “technology”? Did our elective process, so often derided as “broken,” really work better in an earlier day?
In 1912, most black Americans were barred or discouraged from voting. Community norms and party interests inflected how election rules were applied. Until the ‘Australian’ ballot was universally adopted, casting a vote was a social act, not granted any privacy. And party loyalty was the grease that kept the machinery running: for much of the nineteenth century, “voting” typically meant nothing more than delivering to the poll a ballot that your party had already completed for you.
Wilson’s ascent coincided with a move toward a more participatory democracy. In 1912, US senators were still elected, not by the populace, but by the state legislatures. A Constitutional amendment changing that would be ratified the next year. The nominating conventions of 1912 were historic, because they were the first to include delegates chosen, not by party operatives, but by popular votes cast in the nation’s first presidential primaries.
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A scholar-statesman not unlike Barack Obama, Wilson, a noted professor of political science and former president of Princeton University, spent just two years as New Jersey’s chief executive before catapulting to the presidency.
His path to the White House was more than a little unlikely. The 1912 election pitted him against three other candidates: the Socialist Eugene Debs, incumbent President William Taft, and former president Theodore Roosevelt, the latter two representing the Conservative and Progressive wings of the Republican Party, respectively. Only deep divisions within the Republican Party enabled Wilson, the first Southerner to be elected to the White House since Zachary Taylor, to succeed. Wilson had been a dark horse in the fight for his party’s nomination, triumphing over the favorite, James Beauchamp Clark, a popular House Speaker, in the eleventh hour.
Wilson’s agenda was progressive and sophisticated, but the fractious political environment prevented him from realizing many of his cherished visions, dealing him some notable humiliations instead. In 1913, John McCutcheon drew this cartoon drubbing Wilson’s first-year performance, yet in the succeeding years Wilson presided over many liberal reforms (e.g. women’s suffrage) and fiscal innovations (e.g. the income tax) that shape our political landscape today. While Wilson’s approach to the Great War was adroit, he suffered a rebuke heard round the world when a Republican-controlled Senate jettisoned US participation in the new League of Nations and refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. (Unbelievably, Wilson was the first US president to make an official trip abroad when he traveled to Europe to negotiate the Treaty in 1919.)
I spend a lot of time looking at old photographs, often when I’m having trouble writing, when I’m tired or don’t know what else to do.
Historians struggle with the relative invisibility of the topics they write about; that’s why it’s so nice when there are visual vestiges. They feed and correct the imagination, and if you’re clever you can take what you see and use it to write more vividly.
Photographs also prompt discovery. I love this picture of James Beauchamp Clark, a Speaker of the House I’d never heard of before. Not just because it’s a well-composed photograph, with the vantage conveying its subject’s power; I love its realism, the way it’s slightly tattered, used-up, off-kilter. Politics back then lacked the cosmetics of today.
Clark (1850-1921) was a Democrat, a contemporary and sometime rival of Woodrow Wilson, with whom he is pictured below. According to a sketch by Lewis Gould in the American National Biography, Clark was born in Kentucky, the son of a traveling dentist and buggy-maker. He received scant education but nonetheless became a schoolteacher at age 15. Later matriculating to Transylvania University (in KY) he got expelled for shooting a gun at another student. Back in school (law school, by this time), he shortened his name to Champ Clark because it would better fit in a newspaper headline. These were just his beginnings.
He moved to Missouri and gradually became a power in the Democratic party as it struggled to regain supremacy after the glory years of Republican reign under McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, and Taft. Clark was more peaceful and anti-imperial than Wilson. I love this “casual” photograph of the two men together, don’t you?
Top: House Speaker James Beauchamp Clark in 1911, from this source.
Bottom: Woodrow Wilson and Champ Clark, from this source.