September 20, 2020

Crawley Pens Commentary on Woodrow Wilson for Great Presidential Lives

Professor Emeritus of History William B. Crawley offered commentary in The Free Lance-Star on the tragic life and presidency of Woodrow Wilson.


WOODROW WILSON, born in Staunton, Va., in 1856, became the first Southern-born president elected since the Civil War. He was the most highly educated, holding both a law degree and a doctorate in political science. He was the most overtly religious, save perhaps Jimmy Carter.

And he was also one of the most tragic.

In truth, Wilson was an unlikely candidate for the White House. Shy by nature and coddled as an only child by his mother, he did not attend formal school until he was 13. But despite his reserve and lack of popular rapport, he was highly ambitious.

The central and determining influence on Wilson’s life was, unarguably, religion. He came by it naturally, particularly through his Presbyterian minister father. From him, he imbibed not only religious conviction, but a penchant for eloquence of expression, both oral and written.

For Wilson, religion was his constant guide. He prayed daily and gave thanks before every meal. He read the Bible every day, wearing out several in the course of his lifetime. All of this had both positive and, to the minds of many observers, negative effects.

On the one hand, it sustained him in times of travail; on the other hand, it gave him an unbecoming (and often ineffective) sense of self-righteousness. Read more.

Great Presidential Lives: Announcing a New Online Mini-Series

With large in-person gatherings currently prohibited on campus because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Great Lives program is offering a mini-series of videotaped lectures focusing on several notable Presidents — an approach that seems particularly appropriate in this presidential election year.

Each lecture will be delivered by UMW Professor Emeritus of History William B. Crawley, who is the founding director of the Great Lives series. This year marks the completion of Professor Crawley’s 50 years on the Mary Washington faculty, during which he has won numerous awards for teaching excellence, focusing largely on political history.

All lectures will be pre-recorded and released on the dates listed below. They will remain posted throughout the series, after which they will be available in the Great Lives archives. Please refer to the schedule below and click on the media link to view the lecture.

Aug. 11 Thomas Jefferson: Paragon of Democracy or Racist Hypocrite?
Aug. 25 Theodore Roosevelt: The Patrician Progressive and the Bully Pulpit
Sep. 8 Woodrow Wilson: Self-Righteous Idealist or Far-Sighted Visionary?
Sep. 22 Franklin D. Roosevelt: Savior or Spoiler of American Democracy?
Oct. 6 Harry S. Truman: The Accidental President and the Triumph of True Grit
Oct. 20 John F. Kennedy: “Camelot” and the Question of Style vs. Substance


Crawley Announces Great Presidential Lives Online Series

Professor Emeritus of History William B. Crawley offered commentary in The Free Lance-Star on Founding Father and America’s third president Thomas Jefferson in advance of the Great Presidential Lives series, which launched on Aug. 11. The online series will be available at

Dr. Crawley also appeared on “Town Talk” with Ted Schubel on 1230AM/WFVA:


FLS Commentary: IN RECENT years, as biographers have reinterpreted the lives of significant historical figures, there has been a tendency toward denigrating the reputations of a number of previously hallowed individuals.

In this process—referred to, sometimes derisively, as “revisionism”—perhaps no figure in American history has suffered a greater decline in stature than Thomas Jefferson.

To be sure, the third president had enemies in his own times, including one who ineloquently referred to him as a “son of a bitch” and a “red-headed rascal.” Others, in contrast, revered him as the “Sage of Monticello,” emphasizing his immortal precept that “all men are created equal.”

In a letter to James Madison dated Feb. 17, 1826, Jefferson implored his friend and presidential successor to “take care of me when dead.” He need not have worried, at least for his immediate posterity.

Indeed, for more than a century following his July 4, 1826, death, the preponderance of historical opinion—either diminishing or ignoring altogether his involvement with slavery and his racist views—was so uniformly in Jefferson’s favor that one historian, writing in the 1940s, declared that “the enemies of Thomas Jefferson are all dead or else are in hiding.”

But with the coming of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s, biographers began to focus increasingly on his personal life, which presaged the end of Jefferson’s secular sainthood. One critic pointed out the irony that “the leisure that made possible Jefferson’s great writings on human liberty was supported by the labors of three generations of slaves.” Read more.

View the first Great President Lives video here: