Monday, April 21, 2008


The Books: Woodrow Wilson, A HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE in Five Volumes. Originally published in 1901; reprint c. 1915. Fine condition.
First read: still reading
Owned since: 2000

I thought these books were first editions when I bought them, but realized my error as soon as I started to read them; the author is credited as "Woodrow Wilson, Ph.D., Litt.D., LL.D., President of the United States," although the copyright dates are given as 1901 and 1902. But Wilson did not take office as President until 1913, so these books are reprints; and the pages had to be cut, which puts the reprinting date at the earlier side.

An expert could tell me, but I don't really care. I just like having these books, which are a historiographer's dream: antique copies of a history written by a man who based world-changing decisions on his understanding of this history. It's dizzying.

The five volumes cover the period before European colonization through the 1800's. With five volumes to cover 200 years, Wilson has the luxury of space to cover minute details of our nation's political history, which is sometimes tedious but mostly fascinating. These books were invaluable to me when I was doing some research for a historical novelist last year; for example, Wilson gives a blow-by-blow account of the Democratic presidential convention of 1856, which set the nation on an inexorable course to civil war.

Wilson left office a broken man -- crippled by a stroke and detested by his countrymen, who blamed him for leading them into a pointless European war and then insisting on continuing to meddle in the world's business. For better or worse, Wilson bears more personal responsibility than anyone else for the United States' self-appointed role as the world's policeman. He was also, arguably, the most intelligent man ever to hold the office; he was certainly the best-educated.

Anyone interested in American politics would do well to spend some time studying Woodrow Wilson and his Presidency. His fatal mistake was clinging to the belief that it was enough to be right; surely, he thought, people could just see that, and follow? Having written this history of the American people, he should have known better.

I bought these books on a perfect day in San Juan Capistrano, with my friends Allison and Ann Marie. If for no other reason, I'd keep these books as a souvenir of that day.

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