Over the last few weeks, I have been thinking about a Woodrow Wilson quote on failure.
“I would rather temporarily fail with a cause that will ultimately succeed than to temporarily succeed with a cause that will ultimately fail.”
At first, I thought, of course, everyone wants to succeed in the end if it means paying your dues. Then it began to occupy my mind a little longer.
Visiting The Sites Of Woodrow Wilson
In 2013, I visited Woodrow Wilson’s Presidential Library and Birthplace. I walked the streets of Staunton and experienced the Scots-Irish, progressive presidents life. The tour discussed his families influence. His father was a Confederate Chaplain and helped form the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.
A year later, I would visit the Alexandria Waterfront along the Potomac River. The Alexandria Shipbuilding Company built sub-chasers for World War I at Jones Point. I even visited the World War I National Memorial in Kansas City four times when I lived there from 2008–2012. All these places give a glimpse into the life of Former President Woodrow Wilson.
Influences and Experiences
As I reflect, I try to connect his words about temporary failure and eventual success to his life’s experiences. Wilson’s father was a Presbyterian minister along with his grandfather. At the age of 9, he moved to Augusta, Georgia where he experienced the Civil War. He would spend his time between Georgia and summers in Virginia.
He married Ellen Axson Wilson, a Savannah, Georgia Minister’s daughter. Another place I have visited recently. During his tenure as president, the 19th amendment passed, the Internal Revenue System created, and State of the Union reinstated.
Woodrow Wilson’s Failing Health
What is not well know about Wilson is his poor health. Masking a president’s health is not uncommon in presidential history. Wilson was a bit more fragile than most realize. Wilson did suffer a stroke while in the White House. The stroke occurs while seeking support for the Treaty of Versailles and America’s. He would disappear from most public life after that. Insiders reveal in their journals how his presidency limped along for the last 18 months.
When I learned about Wilson’s childhood, it brought more attention to temporary failures. Wilson could not read for the first ten years of his life. Some thought he might have had a learning disability. He overcame and would attend Princeton, John Hopkins, become Governor of New Jersey and President of the United States.
Overcoming Obstacles at Princeton and In Politics
Failure for Wilson was only a stepping stone to success. While he would appear successful, he also faced opposition in his academic career. At Princeton, his health was a topic of discussion where he suffered from minor strokes. He would have a controversy with Former President Grover Cleveland, a trustee, and Andrew West, the Dean of Grad Students. Wilsons’ behavior was impatient and intolerant. Some believed this lead to some errors in his judgment.
During the Democratic National Convention Wilson had opposition. It would take over forty ballots before he became the candidate for the Democratic Party. Some even say the split Republican Party over Taft and Roosevelt helped him win the White House.
After the loss of his wife in 1914 he suffered six months of depression. Shortly after falling in love with Edith Bolling Galt, she would reject his proposals. Even his political advisors petitioned him to hold off. Eventually, they got engaged and married three months later.
Success Requires Purpose and Persistence Over Failure
I never found the entire talk to his words about temporarily failing for a cause that will ultimately succeed. Looking back at his life, I can develop a greater appreciation for what he may have meant.
I did get an email back from the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library. Mrs. Elizabeth Shortt, the Head Archivist, states that the quote is from a talk Woodrow Wilson delivered to New York State Democratic Leaders in Syracuse on September 12, 1912. An attempt to use search engines did not come up with results for the talk, just some extracts. It can be found in The Papers of Woodrow Wilson published by Princeton University in Volume 25, p. 143–146 according to Mrs. Shortt.
Woodrow Wilson wanted us to understand something important with his words. You should never give up because failure is not fatal unless you quite. Grit and perseverance alone are not enough. Combining those qualities with a noble cause will likely see eventual success.