Charles E. Neu. Colonel House: A Biography of Woodrow Wilson's Silent Partner. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Illustrations. xiv + 699 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-504550-5.
Reviewed by Bianca Rowlett (University of Arkansas)
Published on H-SHGAPE (June, 2015)
Commissioned by Julia Irwin (University of South Florida)
Presidential Partner and Proxy: The Life of Colonel Edward House
Charles E. Neu’s comprehensive biography of Edward “Colonel” House, the companion, confidante, and advisor to President Woodrow Wilson, provides important insights into the Progressive Era, a critical period in American history characterized by domestic reform and global war. Given House’s close association with the president and his influence on foreign policy, the bulk of Neu’s outstanding work is focused on the pivotal years of the Wilson presidency and specifically the diplomatic challenges that accompanied the outbreak of World War I. Although foreign affairs take center stage, the study is not limited to this area. Neu writes not only about House’s involvement in foreign policy but also about his earlier career, much of it outside of the inner circles of international diplomacy. Accordingly, the book should pique the curiosity of anyone interested in Reconstruction, Gilded Age politics in Texas, and Democratic Party politics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Edward House was born on July 26, 1858, into a prominent family in Houston, Texas. His father was an English immigrant who worked his way up from rags to riches, eventually owning the largest wholesale business in Texas. Following his father’s death in 1880, House took control of his share of the family businesses and moved to Austin. There, his investments in farming, ranching, money lending, and land speculation paid off and House became one of the most prominent businessmen in Austin. His wealth and position enabled him to meet and mingle with the political elite of Texas, including Governor James S. Hogg. In 1892, House received his first experience in the world of politics when he served as the campaign manager for Hogg’s successful gubernatorial reelection campaign. As a reward for his service, Governor Hogg commissioned House as a colonel on his staff, and from that point on, House retained the title. In 1894, the Colonel again ventured into Texas politics, this time running the campaign for Charles Allen Culberson, the Democratic nominee for governor. According to Neu, House found Culberson more malleable and more in need of reassurance than his predecessor, qualities that the Colonel found attractive. Neu describes House as having an unusual sensitivity to other people, an uncanny ability to understand the needs and aspirations of others. This intuition permitted House to act as a kind of therapist or close companion to powerful men, and allowed him to influence politics from behind the scenes. Indeed, the journalist Ray Stannard Baker maintained that the secret to the Colonel’s political success was his “‘genius for appealing to men’s vanity ... smooth people along: keep contacts: lay on vanities’” (pp. 432-433).
By 1902, House had become bored with Texas politics and the provincial nature of Austin. Moreover, the Colonel detested the heat and humidity of the South. Over the following years he began traveling more frequently, both abroad to Europe and north to New York. London and New York had much to offer: a cool respite from the warmth of Texas, sophisticated society, and an opportunity to find new political prospects on national and international levels. Eventually, the Colonel set up house in New York and began spending the majority of his time outside of the Lone Star State. While in New York, House brushed shoulders with the Democratic Party elite, and on November 24, 1911, the Texan met with New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson. The two hit it off and became fast friends. House was attracted to Wilson’s intellect and oratory skills, and saw him as the best hope for the Democrats to win the White House. The New Jersey governor suffered from cerebral vascular disease, headaches, and digestive issues, along with depression and emotional issues; as with Culberson, House unobtrusively offered companionship, comfort, and political advice to Wilson and helped with his 1912 presidential campaign. Following Wilson’s victory, House played a key role in advising the new president on matters of patronage and political appointments. Wilson offered him a cabinet position, but, like previous government positions offered to him by Hogg and Culberson, House turned the president down. Neu notes that throughout his life, the Texan feared the psychological and physical toll of political office and preferred the autonomy provided by his role as advisor and counselor.
When World War I broke out, House claimed to be uniquely qualified to mediate between the warring powers due to political connections he had forged on previous visits to the continent. Thus, he offered his services as a personal liaison between the president and European heads of state. Wilson accepted this proposal and trusted House to lead American efforts at arbitration and to provide Washington with accurate intelligence. Throughout the war, despite meeting with Sir Edward Grey, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Erich von Falkenhayn, Arthur Balfour, David Lloyd George, and Georges Clemenceau, the Colonel made very little headway. According to Baker, House was an amateur dabbling in professional diplomacy: “‘More & more he impresses me as the dilettante—the lover of the game—the eager secretary without profound responsibility. He stands in the midst of great events, to lose nothing. He gains experiences to put in his diary, makes great acquaintances, plays at getting important men together for the sheer joy in making them agree’” (p. 411). Indeed, Neu is careful to point out that House accomplished little during these visits. He notes that the Texan frequently offered Wilson inaccurate assessments of the war, exaggerated the extent of American influence over the British and French, and falsely assured the president that the Europeans welcomed American mediation and would accept the United States presiding over the postwar peace conference. Meanwhile, the Colonel promised Europeans that the United States would declare war by 1916—a move that House had desired since the sinking of the Lusitania but one not approved by the White House.
During the treaty-making process, tensions began to rise between the president and his silent partner. Believing himself to have superior diplomatic skills, and not wanting to play the role of subordinate, House tried to prevent Wilson from representing the American delegation in Paris. In addition, he resented the fact that the president did not take his advice on the location of the peace conference or in the selection of American delegates. Thus, when Wilson arrived in France and traveled to Great Britain, his long-time companion was curiously absent. Moreover, when the president left Versailles in the midst of the conference to return to the United States for a short while, House ignored the president’s orders in favor of his own agenda. He supported the harsher terms demanded by the French and did not report back to Wilson. “In the supreme moment of his career,” Neu writes, “House had failed his chief, succumbing to [Georges] Clemenceau’s flattery and his own conviction that he was the master of the negotiating process” (p. 422).
Utilizing a variety of sources—including the diaries and letters of House, his family, and those closest to him; memoirs and biographies of his peers; and materials from a number of archives—Neu has written the most thorough biography of House to date. Throughout the work, Neu manages to remain impartial by testing the plausibility of the Colonel’s description of events against other accounts whenever possible. Such detachment can be difficult, especially when immersed in the autobiographical materials of one’s subject. Overall, Neu’s beautiful, almost literary, writing style coalesces with meticulous research to provide a compelling narrative of Wilson’s silent partner.
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Bianca Rowlett. Review of Neu, Charles E., Colonel House: A Biography of Woodrow Wilson's Silent Partner.
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