Would the Real Woodrow Wilson Please Stand Up: Wilsonianism Then and Now
Woodrow Wilson was the only professional political scientist to become the president of the United States and, perhaps, it is in this way, as a “political scientist”, that he and his presidency has had such a tremendous impact on American politics. Wilson, it may be argued, cemented progressivism in American government, not only from a theoretical point of view, but also pragmatically - as evinced in his book, The New Freedom, which is, essentially, just a collection of 1912 campaign speeches. Wilson set out to change the political science of America, that is, our system of government on both the ground and on parchment. Some scholars claim he failed on both accounts, one even claiming Wilson’s 1912 victory as the decisive end of the progressive movement.1 On the other hand, this author and others2 believe that Wilson profoundly changed American politics in practice, if not on paper. The 1912 presidential election, a high point in the progressive movement, fundamentally changed American politics and government by ushering in Hegelian views of history and the state, ultimately, leading to expansive government and the modern administrative state. Hegel was, certainly, a huge influence upon Wilson3 and Wilson would be the man to bring Hegelianism into US politics and American Political Science. Although, as one will see, by no means in any direct, uncomplicated way. The result of Wilsonianism is a mixed bag in many ways.
As this paper will suggest, many of Wilson’s claims for a better America would, likely, result in a better America, but have they in fact? Wilson, unquestionably, had his finger on the pulse of American political problems in the early twentieth century - many of which still trouble us today. But, despite this reality, progressive liberalism is not very compatible with constitutionally limited government and, as a result, Wilson and every progressive politician since would be frustrated, if not outright haunted, by the Founders and the narrow confines of their republican design. This is not to say that progressivism has not taken hold in the United States, it has - but it has done so in a way that is incompatible with the formal design of our republican structure, leading to an ever-widening divide between how the nation is run on paper and how it is run in fact. This paper, fundamentally, seeks to illuminate the real Woodrow Wilson, the man and his thought, from the various 21st century characterizations spanning from the right’s “boogey man” - listed alongside figures such as Pontius Pilate, Hitler, and Pol Pot - to the left’s “savior of humanity”.4 In doing so, this author will seek to understand the thought that influenced Wilson, and assess his legacy in light of 21st century American politics and government. Did Wilson set America on a course that has benefited us and our society, indeed the world, over the past century, or did he open the floodgate to political incoherence, frustration, disenfranchisement and, ultimately, ineffectual government?
II. Wilson ’ s Progressivism
Wilson adamantly rejected the theory that animated the founding of the United States of America. Pestritto claims this rejection was self-conscious on Wilson’s part. Pestritto writes:
A prerequisite for national progress, Wilson believed, was that the founding be understood in its proper historical context. The principles of the founding, in spite of their claims of universality, were intended to deal with the unique circumstances of that day.
And so Wilson looked instead to what he believed to be the democratic spirit of the founding - one that launched national government as a work-in-progress, a government that would require continual adjustment to historical circumstances as it tried to fulfill the broad democratic vision of the founders.5
The question that seems to remain, after contemplating Wilson’s position, is whether or not the federal government for the founders really was a “work-in-progress” and whether they really intended future leaders to mold their constitutional framework to the times. As Span writes, “The criticism can sound fairly innocuous: “[...] Wilson contended that a system of government established in the late 1700s for a smaller, sparsely populated country had become inadequate in a world of industrialism, immigration, international tensions and other developments the founders couldn’t have foreseen. Government therefore had to adapt”.6 Or, as Wilson wrote in his own words, “The Constitution was not meant to hold the government back to the time of horses and wagons”.7 Sounds convincing, granted. Yet, so do the Federalist papers, the Declaration and the Constitution. Are all of these documents simply expressing a “democratic vision”, amenable to future times, or are they, indeed, a rigid framework the founders, in fact, intended to be universal and timeless - permanent? Much evidence points to the latter, including the fact that the founders believed human nature to be fixed and, therefore, that governments must be structured accordingly to protect the people from themselves.8 Pestritto claims Wilson knew well that his “interpretation of the founding ran up against the founders’ own self-understanding”.9 In this way, one must conclude that Wilson was out to make change, to intentionally reform the Constitution, whether on paper or in practice , and introduce progressivism not merely as just a sensibility, but as a doctrine - a new political science. Indeed, Wilson was at the front of an era that for the first time saw national leaders openly critical of the Constitution and the limited nature of our government.
So why did Wilson, as opposed to all the presidential candidate that came before him, choose to break rank and go after the Constitution and the limited government it espoused? The answer is not entirely straightforward. First, it should be noted that Roosevelt was “ramming through progressive legislation before Wilson ever entered politics”10, but what is more remarkable about Wilson is how he was able to effect progressive change from both a pragmatic and theoretical position. That is, he changed political science in America, not just politics. And so the questions remains, what inspired Wilson to follow this path? Why was a man, who’d been largely considered a conservative prior to 1910,11 suddenly thwarted into the center of liberal progressivism? For example, in Wilson’s A History of the American People, he “extolled individualism as the rightfully controlling factor in American history and politics”.12 Yet, in 1910 Wilson declared his unwavering support for the very progressive democratic platform. Following this he was elected the 34th governor of New Jersey and transformed the state into the most progressive state in the nation.13 Enter Hegelianism, albeit by an indirect route. Newman argues that Wilson was under great influence of Edward Caird, a Scottish intellectual often hailed as the “spiritual father of Hegelian Idealism in the English-speaking world of the late nineteenth century”.14 Although it is also believed that Wilson must surely have read Hegel, it is interesting to note that Wilson’s library, in fact, contains nothing by Hegel himself. This gap is believed to be a result of lost, missing or stolen books.15
1 Eldon J. Eisenach, The Lost Promise of Progressivism (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994), 3.
2 Ronald J. Pestritto, Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism (New York: Rowman &
Littlefield Publishers, 2005) & Thomas J. Knock, et. al., The Crisis of American Foreign Policy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), for example.
3 Ronald J. Pestritto, Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005) 8.
4 Paula Span, “How Did the Man Hailed as the Savior of Humanity Suddenly Become America’s Most Hated President?,” American History August 2011: 39.
5 Pestritto, Modern Liberalism, 2.
6 Span 39.
7 As qtd in Ibid. from Wilson ’ s Constitutional Government in the United States, 1908.
8 Pestritto, Modern Liberalism, 5.
9 Ibid. 3.
10 Span 40.
11 This opinion is argued by numerous scholars but perhaps in a most nuanced way by Simon P. Newman, “The Hegelian Roots of Woodrow Wilson’s Progressivism,” American Presbyterians 64 (1986).
12 Ibid. 193.
13 Ibid. 194
14 Ibid. 196.
15 Ibid. 196.
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- Political Science Woodrow Wilson American Politics Progressivism Political Theory Johns Hopkins University American Presidents