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Woodrow Wilson

WoodrowWilson: Godfather of Liberalism

By RonaldPestritto
July 31, 2012  

It has become fashionable today for those who once calledthemselves “liberals” to refer to themselves instead as “progressives.” This isa phenomenon evident both among our politicians and among our intellectualclass.

In the 2008 presidential primary campaign, Hillary Clinton wasasked whether she was a “liberal”; she distanced herself from that term (whichstill seems toxic to much of the electorate) and described herself instead as a“progressive.” When pressed, she made clear that she meant by this term toconnect herself to the original Progressives from the turn of the 20th century.Similarly, what is arguably the most prominent think tank on the Left today iscalled the Center for American Progress, which has an entire project dedicatedto preserving and protecting the legacy of America’s original ProgressiveMovement.

Citizens who are concerned with the battle of ideas today musttherefore endeavor to come to terms both with contemporary progressivism andwith its foundational principles from the original turn-of-the-centurymovement. In order to understand both the Progressive Movement itself and itsinfluence on politics today, there is no more important figure to engage thanWoodrow Wilson.

Most are familiar with Wilson because he was the 28th Presidentof the United States, a presidency most known for its stewardship of Americaninvolvement in the First World War and for Wilson’s failed attempt to signAmerica on to the League of Nations. Wilson also served a partial term asgovernor of New Jersey before becoming President in 1913.

Prior to his political life, however, Wilson was a prolificscholar and successful academic for over two decades; he was, in fact, the onlyprofessional political scientist ever to become President of the United States.And while Wilson’s presidency certainly helped to launch a variety of landmarkrevisions in the framework of American government (the Federal Reserve and theincome tax, to name just two), the ideas that came from his academic work wereeven more influential on future waves of liberalism in the course of 20th and21st century American politics.



Born Thomas Woodrow Wilson in Staunton, Virginia, on December28, 1856, Wilson moved with his family several times during his youth as hisfather was a minister in Augusta, Georgia, Columbia, South Carolina, andWilmington, North Carolina. Wilson attended Davidson College, studied at homefor a time, and finally attended Princeton, where he earned his bachelor’sdegree in 1879. He also attended law school for a year at the University ofVirginia; and though he studied there only a year, he moved to Atlanta aftercompleting his studies at home, passed the bar exam, and set up a law practice.


December 28, 1856, in Staunton, Virginia, to Rev. Joseph RugglesWilson and Jessie Janet Woodrow [Wilson].


Graduated from Princeton University in 1879, studied law for ayear at the University of Virginia, and went on to get his Ph.D. in History andPolitical Science from Johns Hopkins University in 1886.




Married Ellen Louise Axson in 1885, with whom he had threedaughters: Margaret Woodrow Wilson, Jessie Woodrow Wilson Sayre, and EleanorRandolph Wilson. Ellen died in 1914, and Wilson married Edith Bolling Galt ayear later. They remained married until his death.


§  Professorat Bryn Mawr College, Wesleyan University, and Princeton University(1885–1902).

§  Author, Congressional Government (1885), The State (1889), Constitutional Government of the United States (1908), TheNew Freedom (1912),and three histories.

§  Presidentof Princeton University (1902–1910).

§  Governorof New Jersey (1911–1913).

§  Presidentof the United States (1913–1921).

§  Leadsthe United States into World War I (1917).

§  Negotiatesthe Treaty of Versailles, which formally ends the war (1919).

§  Nobel PeacePrize (1919).

§  Campaignsunsuccessfully for American membership in the League of Nations (1919).


February 3, 1924, in his Washington, D.C., home; buried at theWashington National Cathedral.

Notable Quote

“TheDeclaration of Independence did not mention the questions of our day. It is ofno consequence to us….”

Wilson, however, was most interested in public service, and thelegal profession had simply been the means most obvious to him for a career inpublic service. This is why the actual practice of law quickly soured him onthe profession. He was more interested, he said, in the ideas and principlesbehind the law, and so he entered the new graduate program in history andpolitical science at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland.

Hopkins had just been founded in 1876 for the express purpose ofbringing German education and principles to the United States. In the decadesbefore its founding, most Americans who wanted an advanced degree were going toEurope—and especially to Germany—to get it. Johns Hopkins quickly becameinfluential in American higher education. It also became one of the ways inwhich the new German science of politics was imported into American politicswith profound effect, and Wilson was among the most important figures in thismovement.

While a student at Hopkins, Wilson wrote his first book, Congressional Government, which is still his best knownacademic work. Wilson’s professors subsequently allowed the book to count ashis doctoral dissertation, as he soon learned that he needed the completedPh.D. in order to advance in the Academy.

Wilson landed his first academic job, at Bryn Mawr College inPennsylvania, in 1885, the same year he married the former Ellen Axson, withwhom he would have three daughters. He quickly became dissatisfied at BrynMawr—his salary was insufficient, and he regarded his position as less thanprestigious because all of his students were women—and moved on to WesleyanUniversity in Middletown, Connecticut, in 1888. Wesleyan was regarded as abetter school; it encouraged scholarship by its professors, and while there,Wilson produced TheState, his most comprehensive and penetrating treatment of the theoryof government, in addition to several other important articles and essays ongovernment and public administration.

This scholarship helped Wilson to establish something of areputation in the fledgling discipline of political science, and he positionedhimself to be appointed a professor at Princeton in 1890. He was eventuallyelected president of Princeton in 1902, propelled partly by a speech titled“Princeton in the Nation’s Service,” which outlined his vision foruniversity-educated men to lead a newly empowered national administration.Wilson was given credit for modernizing Princeton; he established a graduateschool and set up the preceptorial system—“a method of study whereby a smallgroup of students meets in regular conferences with a faculty member”—that isstill a distinguishing feature of the university.

It was also while he was president of Princeton that Wilsonbegan going on solo vacations to Bermuda. Initially taken for health reasons,these vacations soon became occasions for Wilson to spend time with Mary Peck.The exact nature of the relationship between Wilson and Mrs. Peck has neverbeen demonstrated definitively, though we do know that they had a long andaffectionate correspondence and that their relationship was the cause of arebuke from Wilson’s wife.

Wilson’s political career began to take shape toward the end ofhis Princeton presidency. He became known in Progressive circles as areformer—he gave a series of lectures at Columbia University in 1907, whichwere published in 1908 as ConstitutionalGovernment in the United States, that helped with thisreputation—and was recruited by the New Jersey Democratic Party to run forgovernor in 1910.

The machine bosses in New Jersey clearly sought to use Wilson inorder to curry favor with the growing reform element in the electorate andcalculated (quite mistakenly, it turns out) that Wilson could easily becontrolled once in office. Instead, upon his election, Wilson stuck to hisProgressive ideas and helped to enact a legislative agenda in 1911 that was amodel for Progressives around the country. This record in turn vaulted Wilsoninto the 1912 race for the presidency, where both parties were looking to winover Progressive voters. TheNew Freedom, an edited collection of Wilson’s speeches from the campaign,remains one of the best-known expressions of Wilson’s brand of Progressivism.

Once elected President, Wilson helped to usher in the first waveof Progressive reforms that would later take full flower under theAdministration of Franklin Roosevelt. While some assert that the expansion ofthe federal administrative state that originated in the Wilson Administrationwas due to the war mobilization effort, several key expansions came well beforewar mobilization was even on the horizon. Wilson, for instance, signed thenational income tax into law in 1913 at the very outset of his Administration.In the same year, he pushed the Federal Reserve Act through Congress; earlyplans for this Act had envisioned a private board, but under Wilson’sleadership, the Federal Reserve was created as a government enterprise.

Furthermore, while Wilson had criticized Theodore Roosevelt inthe 1912 campaign for the latter’s adventurous approach to foreign policy,Wilson himself certainly did not shrink from American military intervention. Heintervened in Vera Cruz in 1914 and ordered the American occupation of Haiti in1915.

In spite of this willingness to use the military as a tool ofAmerican foreign policy, Wilson campaigned for re-election in 1916 on the themeof keeping America out of the First World War, narrowly defeating Charles EvansHughes. Shortly thereafter, Wilson led America into that war, launching theeffort with his “warmessage” in 1917 and laying the basis for peace in the “FourteenPoints” a year later.

Wilson himself traveled to Europe to negotiate the Treaty ofVersailles, and the end of his presidency was marked by his desperate attemptto secure ratification of the treaty and what he considered to be its centralaccomplishment: the League of Nations. It was on an exhausting speakingcampaign on behalf of the League that Wilson suffered a stroke in September of1919, becoming largely debilitated for the remainder of his presidency. Hissecond wife, Edith Bolling Wilson, whom he had married in 1915 after Ellen’sdeath a year earlier, managed presidential affairs for the remainder of histerm, and Wilsondied in Washington, D.C., on February 3, 1924.


Critique of the Founding

While volumes of biographies have been filled with details ofWilson’s life—and especially of his time in public service—it was Wilson’spolitical ideas that made the most lasting mark on American political life.These are ideas that helped to shape the profound challenge offered by theProgressive Movement to the basic political principles that undergirded theAmerican constitutional order.

Progressivism—certainly as expounded by Wilson—understood itselfas presenting a rationale for moving beyond the political thinking of theAmerican Founding. A prerequisite for national progress, Wilson believed, wasthat the Founding be understood in its proper historical context. Itsprinciples, in spite of their timeless claims, were intended to deal with theunique circumstances of that day.

This interpretation of the Founding ran up against the Founders’own self-understanding, as Wilson well knew. This is why much of hisscholarship is devoted to a radical reinterpretation and critique of thepolitical theory of the Founding. Wilson understood that the limits placed uponthe power of the national government by the Constitution—limits thatProgressives wanted to see relaxed if not removed—were grounded in thenatural-rights principles of the Declaration of Independence. This meant, forWilson, that both the Declaration and the Constitution had to be understoodanew through a Progressive lens.

Wilson therefore sought a reinterpretation of the Founding—areinterpretation grounded in historical contingency. To the Founding’sahistorical notion that government is rooted in an understanding of unchanginghuman nature, Wilson opposed the historical argument that the ends, scope, androle of just government must be defined by the different principles ofdifferent epochs and that, therefore, it is impossible to speak of a singleform of just government for all ages. This was a self-consciousreinterpretation, as Wilson even suggested that the Declaration ought to beunderstood by excluding from it the foundational statements on equality andnatural rights contained in its first two paragraphs. In a 1911 address, Wilsonremarked that “the rhetorical introduction of the Declaration of Independenceis the least part of it…. If you want to understand the real Declaration ofIndependence, do not repeat the preface.”[1]

It was this assertion of historical contingency over thepermanent principles of American constitutionalism that animated the maintenets of Wilson’s political thought. It is also the view that today pervadesacademia, where the idea of a permanent standard of right has been replaced bythe ideologies of multiculturalism and “value-neutral” positivism.

Briefly put, those tenets rest on a coupling of historicalcontingency with a faith in progress. Wilson believed that the human conditionimproves as history marches forward and that protections built into governmentagainst the danger of problems such as faction therefore became less necessaryand increasingly unjust. Ultimately, the problem of faction is solved not bypermanently limited government, as it had been for the Founders, but by historyitself.

In contrast to the permanent self-interestedness that theauthors of TheFederalist, for instance, believed to be at the heart of human nature,Wilson believed that history had brought about a fundamental unity in thepublic mind and that the problem of faction had been overcome due to anhistorical evolution in human nature. As a result of history’s achievement, hereasoned, government will not be a threat to the individual that has to bechecked; rather, the state ought to be an organ of the individuals insociety—“beneficent and indispensable.”[2] Itmakes no sense, Wilson wrote, to limit government in an effort to protect thepeople from the very manifestation of their own organic will. This need tounfetter the state so that its scope can become whatever the current historicalspirit demands means undoing the various institutional limits that earlyAmerican constitutionalism had placed on state power.

Wilson’s affinity for an historically contingent perspective on Americangovernment—one in which government was not grounded on certain unchangingtruths about human nature but would instead evolve to fit ever-changinghistorical circumstances—can be seen from his earliest days of thinking aboutpolitics. During his legal education and then as a professor of jurisprudence,Wilson applied his evolutionary view to the question of how the law should betaught, adopting the approach of what is now called legal realism. Law, underthis approach, is not so much a study of forms as it is a study of how the lawevolves in response to changing historical realities.

This approach also helps to explain Wilson’s love for theBritish constitutional system, in which the role of government is not laid outin a single written document but instead comes from an ever-evolving set oflaws and judicial precedents that are contingent on historical progress. It isnot an exaggeration to say that Wilson was infatuated with the British systemof government, and it is clear that he was deeply influenced by the celebrationof Britain’s flexible constitutionalism offered in The English Constitution byWalter Bagehot, a leading liberal realist of the second half of the 19thcentury.

As a teenager and then in college, Wilson loved to read andremark upon the biographies and essays of great parliamentary statesmen, and heparticularly enjoyed the speeches of Edmund Burke and John Bright. Thisexperience is what seems to have led him, as a college senior, to write anarticle, “Cabinet Government in the United States,” proposing that the Americanseparation-of-powers system be replaced by a parliamentary model. It waspublished in a prominent journal, and its ideas later found a place inCongressional Government, which excoriated the AmericanCongress for its shortcomings when compared with the British parliament.

When Wilson himself entered government, he brought his cynicismabout the separation of powers with him, seeing the chief executive (whethergovernor or President) as a kind of prime minister—not just an executive, but alegislative leader too. This is a perspective, of course, that is the standardview among American political scientists today. During his campaign forgovernor of New Jersey, Wilson even raised eyebrows by pledging to become an “unconstitutionalgovernor,” by which he meant that he had no intention of keeping to the roleoutlined for the chief executive under the separation of powers. This was apledge that he kept as Governor Wilson behaved very much like a prime ministerin moving key pieces of Progressive legislation through the New Jerseylegislature.

For Wilson, the separation of powers was the source of much ofwhat was wrong with American government. As opposed to a democratic system thatwould efficiently translate the current public mind into government action, theseparation of powers system, as Wilson understood it, was designed to protectthe people from themselves by throwing up as many obstacles as possible to theimplementation of their will. Such a system served only to impede genuinedemocracy, which Wilson wanted to restore by breaking down the walls betweenthe branches, allowing them to work in close coordination for the purpose ofconstantly adjusting public policy to the current public mind.

Wilson’s animosity toward the separation of powers was at theheart of his various proposals not only for a cabinet or parliamentary form ofgovernment in the United States, but also for energetic popular leadership andbroad administrative discretion. In general, he saw the separation of powers asfundamentally contrary to his understanding of government as a living, organicextension of the people’s own will.

After the fashion of today’s complaints about “gridlock” inWashington, Wilson argued that the separation-of-powers system was bothinefficient and irresponsible. Separation of powers was inefficient because itprevented government from solving the problems of modern life in a coordinatedway; instead, the various organs of government were busy attacking andstruggling against one another. It was irresponsible because the system made itdifficult for the government to implement new public policy, even when the newpolicy reflected a clear new direction in public opinion. Unlike parliamentarygovernment, where changes in public opinion could very quickly effect a changein government and a change in policy, the separation-of-powers system preventedjust that kind of responsiveness.


Progressive Political Ideas

Based on his objection to the separation of powers and hisgeneral objection to the Founders’ understanding of government, Wilson putforth a series of institutional proposals designed in one way or another toovercome the fixed notion of politics that is at the heart of limitedgovernment.

Wilson’s institutional substitute for the Founders’ separationof powers is best understood as the separation of politics and administration.The idea of separating politics and administration broadly defines thedifferent institutional arrangements suggested by Wilson in his scholarship,although the specific institutional means for achieving this separation changedas his thought developed from his earlier to his more mature intellectualworks.

Wilson’s separation of politics and administration also bringsus to a fundamental paradox in his thought. His vision of government seems tobe one in which the unified will of the public has a much more direct role toplay in politics than the Founders had envisioned. Yet politics, whileincreasingly democratized in Wilson’s thought, also becomes much lessauthoritative. The emphasis in government shifts to administration.

The implications of this shift are profound: Consent of thegoverned comes in the realm of traditional politics. The disparagement ofpolitics in favor of administration moves the focal point in government awayfrom popular consent and into the hands of unelected “experts.” Such a shiftmarks the origin of American government today, where more policy is made bybureaucracies than by elected representatives.

The key to Wilson’s separation of politics and administrationwas to keep the former out of the latter’s way. Administration is properly theprovince of scientific experts in the bureaucracy. The competence of theseexperts in the specific technological means required to achieve those ends onwhich we are all agreed gives them the authority to administer or regulateprogress unhindered by those within the realm of politics. Persons orinstitutions within politics can claim no such expertise.

Wilson’s understanding of politics and its separation fromadministration requires a transformation in traditional American thinking onlegislative and executive power. Wilson proposed such a transformation, whichcan be seen in his commentaries on many different facets of American government.While a short essay precludes a discussion of most of these, the best examplecan be found in Wilson’s vision for transforming the American presidency.

The presidency became for Wilson a principal means by which thelimits placed on government by the separation of powers could be transcended.His new institutional vision for the presidency required the President to lookbeyond his constitutionally defined powers and duties. Instead, Wilson urgedthat the President concentrate on his role as the embodiment of the nation’spopular will. In modern times, it was more important for the President to beleader of the whole nation than it was for him to be the chief officer of theexecutive branch.

Wilson contrasted the President’s duties as “legal executive” tohis “political powers,” advocating an emphasis on the latter as a means ofusing popular opinion to transcend the rigid separation-of-powers structure ofthe old “Newtonian” constitutional framework.[3] Asopposed to remaining confined to the constitutionally defined powers and dutiesof his own branch, the President’s role as popular leader means that he must,as the embodiment of the national will, move Congress and the other parts ofgovernment to act in a coordinated way.

The President’s new role in Wilson’s institutional plan is basedon the President’s connection to public opinion. It is the duty of eachPresident to adapt himself to the needs and interests of the day. The Presidentis uniquely situated to adapt himself to changes in the public mood because heis the only official with a true national mandate through a nationwideelection. The President “is at once the choice of the party and of the nation.”The President “is the only party nominee for whom the whole nation votes…. Noone else represents the people as a whole, exercising a national choice.” ThePresident is the “spokesman for the real sentiment and purpose of the country.”[4]

Wilson emphasized the person of the President, not his office.It is the man himself and his personality that come to embody the nationalwill. “Governments are what the politicians make them,” Wilson wrote, “and itis easier to write of the President than of the presidency.”[5] This iswhy a President’s expertise in public affairs is not as important as his havinga forceful personality and other qualities of popular leadership.

What America needs, Wilson wrote, is “a man who will be and whowill seem to the country in some sort an embodiment of the character andpurpose it wishes its government to have—a man who understands his own day andthe needs of the country.”[6] As anembodiment of the public will, the President can transcend the government andcoordinate its activities. This is why it is wrong to limit the President withthe traditional checks of the Constitution. The President is “the unifyingforce in our complex system” and must not be relegated to managing only onebranch of it.[7]

Many instances throughout Wilson’s academic and politicalcareers demonstrate this focus on popular leadership. He was, as a young man,obsessed with nothing so much as the art of rhetoric. Not only did he delightin reading the speeches of great parliamentary orators, but he was also trainedin rhetoric by his father, a minister who would put young Woodrow in the pulpitof his church when empty and have him practice delivering speeches. Heparticipated in many debating activities while a student at Princeton andlater, when he became president there, became increasingly convinced thatleadership meant both having a unique ability to see the path of history andpossessing the rhetorical art to convince others to follow this vision. Such abelief helped launch him into the presidency at Princeton, but it also causedhim much trouble at the end of his tenure when he persisted in severalplans—the abolition of the eating clubs, which still flourish at Princetontoday, to cite just one example—for which there was insufficient support.

The most famous instance of Wilson’s overconfidence in his ownrighteousness and rhetorical powers of persuasion, of course, was his failedattempt to secure ratification of the Treaty of Versailles. Seeminglyunconcerned with the constitutional necessity of winning over the Senate,Wilson embarked on a desperate attempt to go over the heads of Senators on anational speaking tour once it became evident that the constitutionalrequirement for ratification was going to be more than a simple formality. Itis not unreasonable to speculate that the stress of this effort contributed tothe President’s stroke and subsequent incapacity at the conclusion of hissecond term.

Democratized political leadership was, however, only part ofWilson’s vision for reforming American government. He had great faith, as hasbeen said, in the possibilities for national administration. He wroteenthusiastically as a young man about the contribution to national affairs thatcould be made by himself and others who, like him, had elite universityeducations.

Yet the political corruption of the day caused Wilson to revoltagainst institutions such as Congress, which seemed incapable of legislatingfor the national good due to its being mired in self-interested electoralpolitics. Wilson thus envisioned a new kind of national administration—largelyremoved from popular consent and charged with making the policy requisite fornational progress—that could be staffed by university men like himself, asopposed to the political operators of low character who populated the backrooms of Congress.

Because administration somehow had to be liberated from theconstraints of politics if national government were ever to become aninstrument of progress, Wilson’s most serious academic work focused ondeveloping a new approach to administration. It is, in fact, fair to say thatWilson is in no small measure responsible for launching the discipline ofpublic administration in the United States and for articulating the principlesbehind the modern administrative state with its sprawling web of agencies.

In doing so, Wilson relied heavily on European sources for hisstudy of administration, precisely because his desire to liberateadministration from politics and give it robust powers over the details oflegislation was a novelty to American constitutionalism. Wilson placedadministrative power and constitutional power on entirely different planes, andit is this sharp distinction between constitutional politics and administrativediscretion that differentiates him from those earlier American thinkers who hadalso placed great importance on national administration.

Wilson explained that administration “stands apart even from thedebatable ground for constitutional study…. Administrative questions are notpolitical questions.” This is why he had to admit that it is difficult toconceive how one might place administrative discretion of the sort he had inmind within the traditional constitutional order: “One cannot easily make clearto every one just where administration resides in the various departments.”[8] He madea great effort to explain that his vision of administration was very different,because he believed that the quality of administration had been degraded bythose who had conceived of it too narrowly—that is, conceived of it within theconfines of the constitutional executive.

Wilson’s entire claim to charting new territory in his famous “Study ofAdministration” essay rests on this difference with the traditionalunderstanding of administration. The problem with the old understanding, from aWilsonian perspective, was that it still left Congress with the primaryresponsibility for legislating. In CongressionalGovernment, Wilson even complained that the greatest problem with Congresswas that it spent too much of its energy on the details of legislation when itshould instead delegate the bulk of legislating to the administrative agenciesthat were expert at it.

It is in this way that we can see the influence of Wilson—and ofProgressivism generally—on yet another central feature of American politicallife: Policymaking today, in many areas of national concern such as theenvironment, health care, and financial regulation, is done primarily byagencies within the bureaucracy to which Congress has delegated broad swaths oflegislative authority. Recent battles ranging from rules for greenhouse gasemissions to benefits that must be covered by private health insurance planshave been fought not primarily in Congress, but in or against administrativeagencies that are exercising the power given to them by Congress.

This reality leaves us to ponder the legacy of Wilson and theProgressive Movement: If their aim was to democratize American politics—tobring political institutions closer to the people whom the Founders hadallegedly distrusted—then how can this be squared with their argument that mostdecision-making in government ought to be done not by the people’s electedrepresentatives on the basis of consent, but rather by administrators shieldedfrom electoral influence who govern instead on the basis of a claim toexpertise?

Ronald J. Pestritto is Graduate Dean and Professor of Politics atHillsdale College.