John Milton Cooper, Jr., 2009
My U.S. history teacher back in eleventh grade had a set of posters hanging in his classroom featuring caricatures of the 20th-century presidents. The one for Woodrow Wilson showed him wearing a mortarboard cap. That was the thing we were supposed to know about him: he was the scholar turned president. Cooper tells of a bunch of Democratic Party operatives coming to Wilson's office to check out this president of Princeton University who wanted to run for governor of New Jersey. They looked around skeptically at the weighty tomes that lined the walls. How could someone ensconced in what looked like the very definition of an ivory tower ever connect with the people? "Do you read all these books, Professor?" one of them asked. "Not every day," Wilson replied. Everyone laughed, and they set to work getting him elected.
What I didn't know until I read this book was what Woodrow Wilson was a scholar of. Wilson's field was political science. The book that made his reputation was called Congressional Government — the thesis of which, as Cooper tells it, is that the system of government laid out in the U.S. Constitution is fundamentally inferior to parliamentary systems. Wilson wrote this book in the 1880s, in the middle of a run of weak presidents, and he found the weakness of the office of the chief executive disturbing. "Power and strict accountability for its use are the essential constituents of good government," Wilson attested. By these lights, the framers of the Constitution had instituted a system that made good government virtually impossible. To address national problems, first two different houses of Congress needed to pass legislation, then a separately elected president had to sign off on it, and then Supreme Court justices who had mostly been selected by the president's predecessors had to uphold it. And when getting all these stars in alignment proved difficult enough that problems weren't addressed, what were voters supposed to do? Vote the bastards out? Which bastards? Furthermore, some politicians were never going anywhere: congressmen from uncompetitive districts that were uncharacteristic of the nation as a whole. Wilson contended that the real power in the U.S. rested with these men, whose safe seats allowed them to attain enough seniority to take control of key committees. He wanted to see that power in the hands of the president, elected by the entire voting population of the country, rather than in those of such characters as the chair of the House Committee on Appropriations (elected by a few neighborhoods in east Philadelphia) or the chair of Ways and Means (elected by a handful of rural counties in western Illinois). "As at present constituted," he wrote in summary, "the federal government lacks strength because its powers are divided, lacks promptness because its authorities are multiplied, lacks wieldiness because its processes are roundabout, lacks efficiency because its responsibility is indistinct and its action without competent direction."
Wilson was a Democrat. He was a Democrat because he was a Southerner — he grew up in Virginia, both Carolinas, and Georgia — and being a Democrat was part of the package. Parties in this period were more indicative of demographic than political identity. When Congressional Government was published, the president was a Democrat, the laissez-faire goldbug Grover Cleveland; the next Democratic presidential nominee was the populist William Jennings Bryan, who disagreed with Cleveland about virtually everything. So Wilson made no apologies for holding views that were anathema to many of his fellow Southern Democrats. From his youth, he explicitly favored increased centralization and rejected the South's cry of "states' rights!": "I yield to no one in precedence in love of the South," he said, "but because I love the South, I rejoice in the failure of the Confederacy." In point of fact, the way Wilson spoke about the South was not always especially kind. While practicing law in Atlanta, he grumbled to a friend, "I can never be happy unless I am enabled to lead an intellectual life, and who can lead an intellectual life in ignorant Georgia?" To another friend he complained that "the South is a very conservative region — just now probably the most (possibly the only) conservative section of the country — and I am not conservative. I am a radical." Nor did he expect this to change, writing that "broad and generous ideas of governmental polity" were unlikely to take root "in agricultural communities or rural neighborhoods […] where every condition of disintegration, and not one of union, is present" and "men's thoughts run as slowly as their plows". So when Wilson bailed on his law career, he also bailed on the South. His careers in academia and government would take him to Maryland, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Jersey, and finally D.C., but never again would Wilson live in a former rebel state.
Wilson had dreamed of elected office very early on, but had concluded that he had no real shot at it: so far as he could tell, to mount a successful campaign you needed to have either lots of connections or lots of money, and while his family was well-regarded and well-to-do, he didn't quite qualify. But after working his way up to the presidency of Princeton and rubbing elbows with Theodore Roosevelt, he started to think that maybe he'd be a viable candidate. He began to give political speeches, making a name for himself… as a conservative. It seemed to be the best way to gain traction. When he secured the Democratic nomination for governor of New Jersey — i.e., when he had to appeal to voters rather than party bosses — he shook the Etch A Sketch (or 1910 equivalent) and ran as a progressive. "A politician, a man engaged in party contests, must be an opportunist," Wilson shrugged. "Let us give up saying that word as if it contained a slur." It might seem natural to assume that, as a political theorist by trade, Wilson would be more likely than most to adhere to a set of fixed principles, but his foremost principle was the importance of being pragmatic. He compared politicians to riverboat pilots. "Politics must follow the actual winding of the channel," he said. "If it steer by the stars it will run aground."
Wilson's positioning proved fortuitous, as it made him palatable to three-time Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. This became important at the 1912 Democratic National Convention, when frontrunner Champ Clark received the support of New York's notoriously corrupt Tammany Hall, leading Bryan to throw his support to Wilson. Wilson won the nomination on the 46th ballot. And with that, the hard part was over, as the split between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft assured the Democratic candidate of victory. As governor, Wilson had frequently met with Democratic legislators, becoming their de facto leader, much like a prime minister in the parliamentary systems he favored. As president, Wilson broke with more than a century of tradition and regularly spoke before Congress — hence the picture above — including delivering the annual State of the Union address in person. The point, he said, was to demonstrate that he did not represent "a mere department of the government hailing Congress from some isolated island of jealous power"; rather, he intended to serve as the leader of his party, which held the majority in both houses, and set its legislative agenda. And that agenda would be unabashedly progressive. Denouncing corporate lobbyists, Wilson announced that the tariffs they backed were to be cut, and the lost revenue replaced by taking advantage of the recently ratified 16th Amendment to place a tax on incomes over $100,000 ($2.3 million today). Control over monetary policy would be transferred from private banks on Wall Street to a new set of publicly controlled Federal Reserve Banks scattered across the country. And rather than continue Roosevelt's and Taft's practice of attempting to break up corporate trusts through the court system — a court system that was more inclined to turn antitrust legislation against labor unions — Wilson pushed through the Clayton Antitrust Act, which attempted to nip trusts in the bud by making illegal a whole host of anticompetitive business practices and establishing the Federal Trade Commission to enforce these measures. Wilson had also intended to deny patronage to conservative Democrats, but Albert Burleson, his postmaster general, convinced him to belay that plan. This turned out to be crucial, for Wilson soon found that in getting his legislative priorities through Congress, conservative Democrats proved better allies than progressive Republicans. They cared much more about getting a job for a cousin or a contract for a donor than they did about actually agreeing with the legislation they were voting on. "This administration is Woodrow Wilson's, and none other's," declared the Saturday Evening Post. "He is the top, the middle and the bottom of it. There is not an atom of divided responsibility. He has accepted every issue as his, has formulated every policy as his, and is insisting — and with success — on strict adherence to his plans. The Democratic Party revolves around him." It was what Wilson had called for in his previous career: presidential government.
"It would be an irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign problems, for all my preparation has been in domestic matters," Wilson mused as president-elect, and while in recent years the achievements above have garnered more attention — chiefly due to the right-wing noise machine decrying them — it is still the case that when I have asked my tutoring students what comes to mind when they think of Woodrow Wilson, they have automatically replied, "Fourteen Points!" But before Wilson drew up a set of principles upon which to settle World War I, he spent years resisting calls to get the U.S. involved. Let's look at some of the reasons why.
Bad experiences with military action. Before World War I had even started, Wilson found himself faced with a foreign crisis: civil war in Mexico. Taft's ambassador had helped to broker a deal wherein the commander of the Mexican army deposed the elected president — but days later, Wilson took office, and he considered the new regime illegitimate. Over the objections of the pacifist William Jennings Bryan, now his secretary of state, Wilson ordered the Marines into Veracruz to support the opposition. Bad move. In Mexico, both the military government and the opposition fiercely protested the invasion (as did the Mexican population at large), and at home, conservatives assailed Wilson as a bungler — not only had he misread the way an American intervention would be greeted, but he'd gotten 17 U.S. troops killed — and progressives called him a warmonger. This incident didn't completely turn Wilson against meddling in other countries — on his watch, the U.S. occupied several Caribbean nations! — but it did make him reluctant to engage in full-on warfare. In 1916, a band of Mexican insurgents under the command of Pancho Villa attacked the city of Columbus, New Mexico, killing 15 Americans. Wilson replied by sending a "Punitive Expedition" into Mexico to capture Villa, raising protests from members of his cabinet who wanted a declaration of war rather than a mere manhunt. Wilson refused. "I will not resort to war against Mexico until I have exhausted every means to keep out of this mess. I know they will call me a coward and a quitter, but that will not disturb me," he told his private secretary. "I have to sleep with my conscience in these matters and I shall be held responsible for every drop of blood that may be spent in the enterprise of intervention."
Public antipathy toward war. "It is not a difficult thing for a president to declare war, especially against a weak and defenseless nation like Mexico," Wilson noted. "In a republic like ours, the man on horseback is always an idol, and were I considering the matter from the standpoint of my own political fortunes, and its influence upon the next election, I should at once grasp this opportunity and invade Mexico." But as much as Wilson might have liked to take credit for standing on principle and refusing to send "some poor farmer's boy, or the son of some poor widow" off to die, if ever there was a time when plunging into a war would not have boosted a president's popularity, it was 1916. World War I was underway by then, and war no longer meant men on horseback; it meant men making hopeless charges into machine gun fire amid clouds of mustard gas. Letters sent to the White House and audiences that came to hear Wilson speak were close to unanimous in urging the president to steer clear of the conflicts engulfing the world. Even after 128 Americans were killed when German submarines sank the RMS Lusitania, a British passenger ship, few in the U.S. saw it as a casus belli: though opinion polling wasn't really a thing yet, a survey of newspaper editors revealed that only 0.6% of them — that's six out of a thousand — supported entering the war in response to the attack. Wilson was enough of an opportunist that, in a presidential campaign, he would surely have told the voters what he thought they wanted to hear, and his campaign theme in 1916 was "He Kept Us Out of War" — both in Mexico and in Europe. And this theme did turn out to be a winner. "If we go to war thousands of young men will lose their lives," Wilson said, and in his desire "to go to the extreme limit to prevent such mourning in American homes", he had a lot of company among the residents of those homes.
The fragility of the Progressive Era. Wilson feared that taking the U.S. to war would, in one stroke, erase everything his presidency had accomplished. "Every reform we have won since 1912 will be lost," he told his naval secretary, and "those whose privileges we have uprooted or started to uproot will gain control of government and neither you nor I will live to see government returned to the people. Big Business will be in the saddle. More than that — free speech and other rights will be endangered. War is autocratic." These words proved to be prophetic. When the U.S. did enter the war, the Wilson administration pretty much did away with civil liberties. Heavy censorship was imposed upon the mail, and socialists were rounded up and imprisoned — that is, when they were able to escape being lynched by local authorities. This, too, Wilson had predicted, despairingly telling a newspaper editor that "to fight you must be brutal and ruthless, and the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into the very fiber of our national life, infecting Congress, the courts, the policeman on the beat, the man in the street."
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong. There was never much question which side the U.S. would take if it did enter World War I; one estimate placed support for intervening on the side of the Central Powers at five percent. Still, it was much less clear-cut than in World War II that the Germans were the bad guys. They hadn't instigated the war; that had been a Serbian terrorist group who had assassinated an Austrian archduke. Germany did look very bad when it invaded and devastated neutral Belgium, the German chancellor scoffing that his country's promise to leave Belgium inviolate was just a "scrap of paper" — but Britain sparked a furor when it crushed the Easter Rising in Ireland, and there were a lot more ethnic Irish in the U.S. than ethnic Belgians. And while Germany provoked a number of crises with its submarine warfare, its goal was to break the British naval blockade, and the chief aim of that blockade was to prevent trade between the U.S. and Germany (even through neutral ports), which didn't sit well with American business. Many Americans, Wilson among them to a great extent, thought that the blame for the war lay with venal European power politics as a whole, in which both sides were deeply complicit. So neutrality wasn't just a code word for cheering for the Allies at a distance. William Jennings Bryan took neutrality seriously enough that he resigned as secretary of state when Wilson protested the sinking of the Lusitania without similarly protesting the British blockade that prevented American food shipments from reaching German civilians: "Why be so shocked by the drowning of a few people, if there is to be no objection to starving a nation?" So if Germany had played its cards right, the war might have turned out very differently. Wilson had made it clear that his goal was to see the war end, as soon as possible, with "a just and lasting peace" that would only be possible "if no nation gets the decision by arms"; he repeatedly offered the services of the United States as a neutral mediator, and Germany could have accepted one of these offers at virtually any time. Or it could have aimed to win the war by attrition. It worked on the Eastern Front: Russia was swept by revolution and withdrew from the war, ceding much of its territory. Meanwhile, French soldiers were beginning to mutiny, and the British faced a credit crisis that threatened the financing of the Allied war effort. The crucial plank of this strategy would have been to keep the U.S. on the sidelines.
But by 1916, Germany had become a de facto military dictatorship under the command of General Erich Ludendorff, and Ludendorff had no interest in a "shopkeeper's peace". He wanted to CRUSH THE ENEMY. And so, very stupidly, he broke Germany's previous agreements and resumed unrestricted submarine warfare. He knew that this would very likely bring the U.S. into the war, but he had a plan: get Mexico to attack the U.S., promising it Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas as a reward! The telegram to this effect was intercepted. And so, with a new goal — "to deliver the free people of the world from the menace and the actual power of a vast military establishment controlled by an irresponsible government" — Woodrow Wilson took what he called a "solemn and even tragical" step, appearing before Congress to announce that the time had finally come to declare war on Germany. He was taken aback by the enthusiastic response from the assembled legislators. "My message tonight was a message of death for our young men," he told his private secretary. "How strange it seems to applaud that."
As it turned out, despite the short duration of U.S. participation on the battle lines, it was a message of death for 116,516 of them. Wilson was determined that those deaths mean something more than a reshuffling of the European balance of power, no matter what the Allies — whom the U.S. did not formally join — might want. "England and France have not the same views with regard to peace that we have by any means," Wilson advised one of his envoys. He set about codifying his own views, coming up with the aforementioned Fourteen Points. Most of these dealt with the minutiae of allocating territory, but the most famous established general principles of international conduct — and unlike the conditions demanded by the Allies (accept total blame for the war! pay steep reparations!), they weren't aimed at Germany in particular. Reduction of national armaments? Wilson insisted that his goal was "not only to do away with Prussian militarism but with militarism everywhere". No more private international understandings of any kind? Just as much a condemnation of the Allies as of the Central Powers. Freedom of the seas? That plank was aimed directly at Britain — and Wilson warned the British that if they didn't like it, the U.S. would build the most powerful navy in the world and render their objections moot. The linchpin of the new world order Wilson hoped to inaugurate was a League of Nations, which would serve as a guarantor of world peace whose members would be sworn to defend, militarily, any other member who was attacked. No more "Serbia attacks Austria, Austria declares war on Serbia, Russia declares war on Austria, Germany declares war on Russia" nonsense: the rogue states of the future had to know that henceforth, "Serbia attacks Austria" would mean "every other country in the world declares war on Serbia", which, the theory went, would mean no attack in the first place (or at least a very short and one-sided war). Without such a league — not a mere "debating society", but a covenant of mutual defense — any peace that came out of World War I, Wilson argued, "would be without any guarantee except universal armament which would be intolerable."
This sounded great to the leadership of many small countries — British envoy Robert Cecil sniffed that "it is annoying to find all these foreigners quite keen for the guarantee" — but back in the U.S., Republicans thought they had finally found an issue they could use to nail Wilson. "The president is regarded as antichrist or something worse," the British ambassador to the U.S. marveled in a message to London, and when Wilson changed his position on an issue, Republicans took to changing theirs in order to continue to oppose him. When Wilson spoke of peace as "the healing and elevating influence of the world", Republicans such as Theodore Roosevelt assailed him as a coward, a weakling, a pacifist, and a poltroon, and demanded that he send American troops to Europe. Now that Wilson needed Republican senators to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, the prospect that joining the League of Nations might mean American troops someday returning to Europe was suddenly a dealbreaker for them. In response to Republican resistance, Wilson decided to go on a speaking tour of the U.S. in support of ratification.
Wilson suffered a stroke on that tour, and his presidency effectively ended. He could still putter around the White House and have brief meetings with visiting dignitaries, but from that point onward his cabinet secretaries — whom Cooper describes as having been selected "in a haphazard, almost sloppy way" — were left to their own devices. But I was struck by the dominant theme of Wilson's final speaking tour: his fear that the Republicans were setting the world upon a course that would lead to World War II. "The League of Nations is the only thing that can prevent the recurrence of this dreadful catastrophe," Wilson warned. If the Republicans wanted to keep the U.S. out of future European wars, he continued, they were doing exactly the wrong thing, for only accepting this treaty would assure that "men in khaki will not have to cross the seas again"; but if they followed through on their plans to spike it, "I can predict with absolute certainty that within another generation there will be another world war". He took to drawing his audience's attention to the little children among them, pleading that without the League of Nations, "there will be another and a final war, at just about the time these children come to maturity". Why "final"? Wilson urged his audience to think of the weapons that were being rolled out by the end of the war: the tanks, the airplanes, the "destructive gases", the "great projectiles" that "burst tons of explosives upon helpless cities"… all of these, he foretold, "were toys as compared with what would be used in the next war." Now, would American entry into the League of Nations really have prevented World War II? Enh, probably not — not without also heading off the Great Depression that prompted the collapse of the Weimar Republic and rise of Nazism. But even without endorsing the remedy, it's hard not to be impressed by the accuracy of Wilson's diagnosis. There was indeed a Second World War. It may not have been the final war of any kind, but as yet there has been no World War III. And the reason there hasn't been is that Wilson was right about the weapons. Those who hear warnings about alarming trends that require intervention and reflexively dismiss them as "doom and gloom" might do well to see a lesson here.
"If the history of society proves anything," Woodrow Wilson wrote in another of his books, The State, "it proves the absolute naturalness of government, its rootage in the nature of man, its origin in kinship, and its identification with all that makes man superior to the brute creation. Individually man is but poorly equipped to dominate other animals: his lordship comes by combination, his strength is concerted strength, his sovereignty is the sovereignty of union." With that kind of talk, it is hardly surprising that Wilson has become a piñata for today's right-wingers, who trace all the supposed evils of Big Gummint back to him. But around twenty years ago, I started to hear equal amounts of vitriol directed at Wilson from the left. "Woodrow Wilson was the worst president ever! He was a total racist! He segregated the government and screened The Birth of a Nation at the White House!" The first chapter of James Loewen's 1995 bestseller Lies My Teacher Told Me is largely devoted to a takedown of Wilson. And when I was tapped to write the new edition of the Princeton Review's AP U.S. History book, I dutifully added an inset box to the section on Wilson: "For all his progressivism in other areas, Woodrow Wilson was an outspoken white supremacist. He issued executive orders to segregate the federal government, struck a clause on racial equality from the Covenant of the League of Nations, wrote admiringly of the Ku Klux Klan, and told racist jokes at Cabinet meetings." If I were writing that inset box today, and had the space, here's what I might add.
Was Wilson a racist? You bet. In his role as a university president, for instance, he had declared that "it is altogether inadvisable for a colored man to enter Princeton", and instructed black applicants to further their educations at what are today called HBCUs, historically black colleges and universities. Compare this advice to that of Senator James Vardaman of Mississippi: "The only effect of Negro education is to spoil a good field hand and make an insolent cook." When African-American leader (and Harvard graduate) William Trotter came to the White House to protest the segregation of the federal government, Wilson blithely replied that he was just trying to make black employees' jobs easier by preventing "friction" with white employees, and that "if you take it as a humiliation, which it is not intended as", it would be their own civil rights organizations to blame for the upset. When Trotter insisted that, no, this was clearly nothing more than racial prejudice, and a betrayal of the black voters who had supported Wilson, Wilson cut him off, chided him for his tone, and dismissed him, saying, "You have spoiled the whole cause for which you came." Again, compare Wilson to Vardaman, whose response to an African-American leader visiting the president was to complain that the White House was "so saturated with the odor of the nigger that the rats have taken refuge in the stable." When the country exploded into racial violence in 1917 and, even more so, in 1919 — and by "racial violence", read "white mobs tearing around cities killing black people" — Wilson had no reaction other than a single brief statement denouncing lynching. Vardaman's take on lynching was that "if it is necessary, every Negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy." Wilson thought Vardaman and his ilk — what Wilson called "the reactionary element in the South" — were the chief obstacles to one of his foremost projects: remaking the Democratic Party into something more like Britain's new Labour Party, committed to active governmental involvement in improving the well-being of the people. And so, in the midterm elections of 1918, Wilson campaigned against Vardaman in the Mississippi Democratic primary, and against multiple incumbents in Georgia — and they all lost. It was a looooong process, but Wilson got the ball rolling in turning the Democratic Party into an organization in which racists weren't welcome.
My point here is not to excuse Wilson's own racism. My point is that Wilson considered himself a moderate on race, and for the time, he was. He was equally disdainful of Trotter's contention that segregation was "wrong, injurious, and offensive" and of Vardaman's virulent hatred of black people. And of the three positions, it is not Wilson's "sensible center" that we now see as correct. So those who disdain "radicals" should consider: on how many other issues will today's moderates come to look just as wrong as Wilson was on race?