A couple days ago, at the Historical Society’s blog, Glenn Alan Cheney considered “How a Nation Reports its Grief” and the surprising amount of primary sources he found related to the nation mourning the death of the Abraham Lincoln. He wrote, “But I soon realized I was witnessing—not reading about but witnessing—the most traumatic moment in American history. The assassination of Lincoln had shocked North and South alike.”
Similarly, I never intended to focus on the death of a president in my own work. I thought my dissertation would concentrate on Woodrow Wilson’s second term in office (1917-1921), particularly those three years in which the United States entered the Great War and then attempted to negotiate the post-war terms of peace. While I do talk about those things, my first archival trip to the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Museum & Library added a few twists and turns. Not only did I encounter incredibly interesting sermons given in Washington, D.C., London, and even China following President Wilson’s death in 1924, but also I had new questions in front of me: precisely what was going on? Why were all of these sermons, in the United States and outside of it, comparing Wilson to Christ as a “Savior of Humanity.”
It did not take me long to realize that the death of the President revealed, among other things, the way in which Americans began to frame their recent past, their shared experience of the Great War. Take for instance, the official memorial service given by the United States Congress. Edwin Anderson Alderman, the President of the University of Virginia, contended–to a Congress newly controlled by Republicans as a result of public backlash to Wilson’s work at the Paris Peace Conference:
“As Lincoln with supreme wisdom planted his policy not on slavery but on union, Woodrow Wilson with a similar greatness tied his policy to the idea of the United States, the most powerful of states, should be a servant, a minister, a friend, not a master among nations. Never before in the history of mankind has a statesman of the first order made the humble doctrine of service to humanity a cardinal and guiding principle in world politics.”
While there is certainly pageantry and grandiose statements at play with the presidential funerals, Alderman’s assessments of Wilson as the nation’s President, along with similar assessments that occurred around the nation, illustrate how Americans wanted to view themselves as much as they wanted to remember Wilson. Even more remarkable are the numerous scrapbook pages compiled by Wilson’s widow, Edith, that document the telegrams, letters, calling cards, and other memorabilia sympathetic citizens sent to their former First Lady. These scrapbooks are but a fraction of the Library of Congress’ files related to the Scholar President, which explains why few have mentioned this portion of the archive. More consideration is certainly warranted, considering that Wilson is the only President entombed in a church, at Washington National Cathedral.