- Woodrow Wilson's House:The Hidden Hand of Wilsonian Progressivism
Few one-volume biographies are as comprehensive as this splendid offering from Charles E. Neu, now serving as Professor Emeritus of History at Brown University. One of the most respected historians of the past fifty years, Neu displays proficiency throughout as he deftly examines America's political landscape from the Gilded Age through the Progressive Era, using the life and career of Colonel Edward M. House as his primary focus. It was once said that House could appear to be "an intimate man, even when he was cutting your throat," which in the political realm, then and now, seems high praise indeed. Woodrow Wilson's closest friend for nearly eight years, Colonel House served as the president's chief political strategist and confidante, even representing Wilson overseas as his trusted envoy on several occasions during and after World War I. Their political collaboration became the stuff of legend; yet the frail, diminutive Texan never held an official post in Wilson's administration. Instead, House preferred to orchestrate from behind the scenes, ingratiating himself to the likes of Wilson, Edward Grey, and Georges Clemenceau, and then dispensing advice that affected millions over the course of the twentieth century. Professor Neu rightly characterizes House as not only a personal devotee of Wilson, but also a vital contributor to the Wilsonian brand of progressivism. In this vein, the life and times of Colonel House merit serious attention. His is a story worth telling, and Neu tells it thoroughly and well.
Scholars of the Progressive Era, especially those familiar with both Wilson and House, will certainly recognize the biographical set pieces of House's youth, the antecedents that paved the way for his future as a "kingmaker" in southern politics and later as an international statesman. While there is nothing essentially new in these early chapters, Neu effectively sets the stage for his narrative. Born in Houston, Texas, on July 26, 1858, Edward Mandell House belonged to one of the most prominent families in the state. He came of age during the latter stages of Reconstruction, and over the course of two [End Page 621] decades evolved from young business mogul to veteran political advisor. Tracing House's formal education to 1879, during his brief time as a student at Cornell, Professor Neu aptly conveys the genesis of House's fascination with politics. In essence, a boyhood interest in political history developed into something more in 1876, while House was a student at the Hopkins School, a college preparatory academy in New Haven, Connecticut. Here he befriended the son of Oliver Perry Morton, the U.S. Senator from Indiana who, at the time, was challenging Rutherford B. Hayes for the Republican Party's presidential nomination. Morton eventually lost to Hayes, who went on to become President of the United States after one of the most contested elections in American history. However, as Neu suggests, House's ringside view of the famous election galvanized his fervent interest in politics moving forward.
House tabled his political ambitions for years, instead finding time to marry and start a family, while concentrating on farming and ranching as well as land speculation, among other business ventures. Then, in 1885, the Houses relocated from Houston to Austin, ostensibly to seek stronger business connections, though improved access to the power base of Texas politics may have been an ulterior motive, as Neu rightly intimates. It was not long before House folded himself into a growing circle of elite acquaintances throughout the state. It was common for the Houses to either entertain guests at their palatial new home or hobnob elsewhere with business leaders and the political aristocracy.
While Edward House's later service to President Wilson is paramount to this work, it was in the crucible of Texas politics that House refined his political acumen. In 1892, the incumbent Texas governor, James W. Hogg, faced a staunch challenge for the Democratic nomination from George Clark, a well-funded...