Victor Nuovo: Woodrow Wilson, scholar, president
Editor’s note: This is the 59th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) was elected president of the United States in 1912. It was a moment of triumph for the Progressive movement, and it brought a sea change in the two-party system. Hitherto, the Republican Party was the party of progressive causes, while the Democratic Party tended toward conservative goals, especially social ones. In the deep South, the old Democrats persisted well into the 20th century, until mid-century, when Southern conservatives bolted the Democratic Party and became Dixiecrats. They subsequently became Republicans.
The change was also facilitated by Theodore Roosevelt, when he renounced the Republican Party and formed the Bull Moose Progressive Party. He did this, because his hand-picked successor to the presidency, William Howard Taft, had grown too conservative to his liking. In his bid for reelection, Taft finished third in the race after Wilson and Roosevelt, winning only Utah and Vermont. When Republicans returned to power in 1920, their candidates were Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, who were conservatives.
Wilson titled his political program “The New Freedom,” and pursued a progressive agenda that included free trade and government reform of commercial and financial institutions; he also expressed a deep concern for the human cost of American industrial growth and pledged to address it. He moved to the left of Roosevelt and stole his progressive fire. From then on, the Democratic Party would be the party of liberals and progressives, while the Republican Party continued on its conservative path.
Yet Wilson was an unlikely progressive. A Southerner by birth and heritage, sympathetic to the lost cause of the Confederacy, he was deeply religious and conservative by disposition. He was also afflicted with the American malady of racism, which caused him to see no wrong in pursuing a policy of racial segregation in the institutions of government, an ignoble legacy.
He did not set out on a career in politics. He first pursued a career in scholarship. In 1883 he entered Johns Hopkins University as a candidate for the Ph.D. Johns Hopkins had been founded only seven years previously, primarily as a research university, and was fashioned on the model of German universities. He took his degree in 1886 and began his academic career teaching political science. His specialty was the offices, institutions and powers of civil government. In 1890, following appointments at Bryn Mawr College and Wesleyan University, he was appointed professor of jurisprudence and political economy at Princeton University. In Princeton, he found his intellectual and spiritual home. In 1902, he became president of the university. His reputation of excellence as a teacher, scholar and reformer of higher education was spread far and wide.
His political rise was meteoric. In 1910, he was elected governor of New Jersey. Two years later, he was elected president of the United States. This was no accident. Wilson arranged it himself, with the assistance of seasoned political operators, who aided him but never managed him. He was guided by his own lights and propelled by his strong will. No president, before or after, entered office better informed of the institutions of government and better equipped to use them effectively. The achievements of his first term (1913–17) remain unrivalled and will be treated in this essay. The tragic end of his second term (1917–21) and events that led to it will be the theme of the next two essays.
Notwithstanding his racial prejudice, Wilson was a person of high moral principle and great moral courage. He was like Lincoln in this respect. It was the key to his success. Like Aristotle he regarded political theory as a continuation of ethics, and political practice as essentially moral and subject to moral rules. Party bosses and the moneyed interests of bankers and industrialists were to be resisted at every turn. As a politician, he endeavored to be true to his word, political promises were sacrosanct; they must never be idly made, and never be broken. It goes without saying, he was never boastful, and his public remarks were entirely free of malicious taunts, as I suspect his private ones were also. He was a man of consistent character. The contrast between Wilson and the present occupant of the White House is like night and day.
What did he accomplish? In his first inaugural, Wilson called attention to the great social cost of American economic and industrial growth. These were costs paid by the laboring class: cruel working conditions, minimal wages, and their social and health consequences. He successfully introduced legislation establishing the eight-hour workday. The first child labor laws were enacted during his first term; they prohibited the sale of products and materials whose production involved the labor of children, and in this connection, created the Federal Trade Commission. Under his leadership laws were enacted establishing the rights of labor against industry, thus empowering the rising labor movement. He introduced the graduated federal income tax. He created the Federal Reserve Bank as a means to regulate the interests of private bankers. And he sponsored a series of antitrust laws to counteract the growing power of industrial conglomerates.
All of these achievements led to the enlargement of government and the increase of its power. Unlike his fellow Progressive Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson’s scruples made him reluctant to proceed too forcefully in this direction. He feared the abuse of power. He was, after all, reared by Calvinists, and believed in original sin; he was sure of the truth articulated by Lord Acton, that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He especially feared the abuse of executive power. He never tired of reminding his audiences that the founding of this nation was a political response to the tyranny of the British monarch. To achieve his ends, he relied on the power of speech to persuade. In this capability, he was well gifted and, for a time, remarkably successful.
Postscript: In preparing this essay, I have relied on an excellent collection of Wilson’s writings: “Woodrow Wilson: Essential Writings and Speeches of the Scholar-President,” edited by Mario DiNunzio, which includes an informative introduction. Consult your local bookshop.
One of the effects of our children getting older is the fragmenting of our family. That so … (read more)
This Town Meeting, passing school budgets will be no sure thing. That’s largely because ta … (read more)
Because there is quite a bit of misinformation circulating about this bill, I am urging yo … (read more)