Woodrow Wilson was unpopular near his presidency’s end, but how would he be remembered by history? This 1920 article predicted he’d be remembered well. By 2017, a C-SPAN survey of historians ranked him the 11th-best president.
The 1920 article noted that Wilson was hated by many during his own lifetime, just like Washington and Lincoln… who would ultimately rank #2 and #1 in that same C-SPAN survey.
Indeed, so far as the printed page is concerned, it is hard to match even in the unrestrained public press of today in its treatment of Wilson the brutality, insult and viciousness of the newspaper attacks upon Washington, who, it might be supposed, had so far won the gratitude and admiration of his countrymen as to enshrine him forever in their affection and veneration. As for Lincoln, who preserved the nation which Washington had created, can we match in Washington’s day or in Roosevelt’s day or in Wilson’s day the sneers and contempt which dogged his footsteps until the day of his assassination?
So how would Wilson be remembered by history? The 1920 article predicted his ultimately strong historical reputation fairly accurately:
But if Washington’s one track led to the creation of the nation, and Lincoln’s one track led to its preservation from disunion, and Roosevelt’s one track led to its second preservation by stopping the corruption of its governmental sources — to what terminal point will history say that Wilson’s one track has led? Is it not reasonably probably that when history is written it will concern itself little with but one conclusion, namely, that Wilson was chosen — by God, or, if you please, by fate, or by national evolution — to see to it that the war did not end without the creation of some form of international legal organization around which should revolve, under the leadership of the United States, a bona fide effort to make wars of aggression difficult and unpopular; to combat the fool notion that war is a legitimate, if not a desirable, “out-of-door” sport for civilization, and to make it as unfashionable as public opinion has finally made the duel, the slave trade, the lottery and the drunkard — and that he “delivered the goods”!
That being said, Wilson’s reputation seems to be slipping. C-SPAN’s 2000 survey ranked Wilson #6, then in 2009 down three spots to #9, then in 2017 down another two spots to #11.
In other words, Wilson dropped five spots from 2000 to 2017. That ties Andrew Jackson for the second-largest drop of any president during that span. Rutherford B. Hayes and Grover Cleveland tied for the largest drop, falling six spots each. (Wondering which president improved the most? Ulysses S. Grant, jumping 11 spots.)
The Anti-Wilson ‘Mania’: Analyzed by One Who Finds the President as Lonely and Well-Hated as Lincoln in 1862
Published: Sunday, April 18, 1920