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George Will and Peter Beinart Take a Woodrow Wilson Quote Out of Context

George Will’s syndicated column of March 11 relies on phrases taken out of context to portray Woodrow Wilson as a rigid rationalist on the subject of love.

Will quotes Peter Beinart, from his forthcoming book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris. Woodrow Wilson, according to Will and Beinart, was impressed by the power of reason:

He even recommended to his wife that they draft a constitution for their marriage.  Let's write down the basic rules, he suggested; 'then we can make bylaws at our leisure as they become necessary.'  It was an early warning sign, a hint that perhaps the earnest young rationalizer did not understand that there were spheres where abstract principles didn't get you very far, where reason could never be king.

Wilson, a graduate student in political science at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, was writing on July 15, 1884 to his fiancée, Ellen Axson, who lived in Georgia.  He had just learned that Ellen would be moving to New York City to study at the Art Students League.  Woodrow was ecstatic.  After months of painful separation, he and Ellen would finally be close enough to see each other.  He wrote:

You assured my success last year beforehand by confessing your love for me, and now you are about to assure my success next year by proving your love for me. You are a truly delightful little person – my good genius! When you come we can plan the best way for making New York and Baltimore very close together.  We’ll organize an inter-State Love League (of two members only, in order that it may be of manageable size) which will be as much better than the Art League as – as love is better than art.  I’ll draw up a Constitution in true legal form, and then we can make by-laws at our leisure as they become necessary.
. . . I love you and long for you more and more every day. You are my own matchless darling, and I am

Your own Woodrow

This was a love letter; Wilson was playing.  Far from the somber, serious covenant of marriage suggested by Will and Beinart, the letter whimsically proposed an “inter-State Love League” with just two members to keep it of “manageable size.”

Woodrow Wilson was second to none in his open acknowledgement of the perplexing vagaries of love.  He described his own heart’s yearnings as “inexplicable” and “mixed.”

Wilson might have been rational and proud in his political life, but not when it came to love.