Category: It’s Really Complicated
Term in office: 28th president, 1913-1921
Political Party: Democratic
Home State: New Jersey
I have been ranking presidents for almost ten years now and nobody, but nobody, has fluctuated more in my rankings than Thomas Woodrow Wilson. I’ve considered writing him off as an arrogant, inhumane cautionary tale. At other times, I was willing to upgrade him to a great but seriously flawed president. Wilson’s presidency is so complex, so nearly bipolar, so filled with far-sighted reform and short-sighted bigotry, that he nearly makes me want to give up on ranking presidents entirely. Instead, he almost single-handedly inspired the “It’s Really Complicated” category, and when the bad and the good are considered together, ranks perilously close to the middle.
Woodrow Wilson’s background is unusual among U.S. presidents. He was, for starters, the only born-and-bred Southerner elected president between Zachary Taylor in 1848 and Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Beyond this, he began his career as an academic, becoming one of the nation’s experts on the federal government, advocating a return to the strong presidential prerogatives of Jackson and Lincoln in his histories and commentaries. He is our only president with a Ph.D., although other doctors of philosophy like George McGovern and Newt Gingrich have tried to match his feat. As president of Princeton, he attempted a degree of reform for this most elite of institutions, working to stifle the role played by eating clubs, for without belonging to one of these aristocratic enclaves, a Princeton undergraduate could not hope to take part in campus life. Presaging his approach to domestic legislation and Versailles, Wilson tore into the cause with righteous fervor, and disowned any faculty or trustee who dared oppose him. With this reformist record, New Jersey’s Democratic Party put his name forth for governor, and Wilson was elected to the post in 1910.
Two years later, he became a compromise candidate for the presidency, acceptable to Southerners and reformers alike. After 46 agonizing ballots at the Democrats’ convention, Wilson was thrust into the national election of 1912, one of the most memorable in American history. Three past or future presidents competed: T. Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson, each claiming a certain amount of progressivism, and flanked on the left by a Socialist Party led by Eugene Debs that secured nearly a million votes. The 1912 election was, as Wilsonian scholar Arthur Link put it, “twenty years of revolt against a state of affairs that granted political and economic influence to the affluent.” In such a chaotic environment, Wilson squeaked into the presidency with only 43% of the vote, due to a very badly divided Republican Party, split between Taft stalwarts and Roosevelt Bull-Moosers. In victory, Wilson was in charge of an unwieldy Democratic party with little holding it together: unreconstructed Southerners, big-city machine-politics Northeasterners, Far West progressives, and the odd leftover Bryanite populists.
Wilson did so well in getting effective legislation out of this motley crew that the case for him is pretty straightforward. Woody functioned not so much as president, but as a prime minister, part and parcel of his admiration for the English way of conducting government. In practical terms, that means he took a more active role in shaping and pushing for, specific legislation, seeing the presidency as almost an extension of Congress, rather than a distinct and discrete branch. He even delivered his State of the Union address in person, a truly parliamentarian action, and was the first president to do so since the equally Anglophilic John Adams.
Accordingly, his first term, especially, saw a number of significant and long-overdue reforms. The Adamson Act mandated eight-hour work days for railroad workers, in many respects paving the way for the standard work day today. The Clayton Act was no less important, validating the cause of labor and circumscribing the various ways workers movements had been kept in check: injunctions, contempt cases, and even, absurdly, antitrust laws. He even played a large role in the 16th Amendment enacting an income tax. While nobody likes paying income taxes, it needs to be said that this was a much fairer system than the previous manner of funding the government through tariff duties: an income tax put the greatest burden on those who were most able to pay, as it should be.
It should be said that progressivism in the early 20th century was not an especially radical force in society. Progressives tended to be distinctly upper-middle-class, and often legislated at, rather than for, the rest of society. Not uncommonly, reforms were written in conversation with the very industries, banks, and other special interests that were being regulated. Consider the creation of the Federal Reserve, charged with imposing order on an unwieldy monetary supply. Ron Paul people hate the Fed with a limitless depth, but less impassioned observers regard it as a complex, but necessary, stabilizing force in an unwieldy market. Even so, the banking industry was awarded a strong role in the daily operation of the Fed, a good example of how progressivism operated in conversation with, and often approval from, the very forces being regulated.
So, you can see that the case for Wilson as a very good president has its strengths, and it is largely on those merits that Wilson was consistently rated a “near-great” in the first few decades of president ranking. He often cracked the top 5 with Washington, Lincoln, FDR, and Jefferson. As Wilson’s wartime record on civil liberties and backwards views on race became better known, he slipped a bit, and I would actually argue that Wilson needs to be brought down a few rungs further. There were some very serious flaws in his execution of World War I, his treatment of opponents, and his overly righteous modus operandi that should realistically demote him.
Laudably, he tried to keep the U.S. out of World War I as long as it was realistically possible. Keeping the peace was even the fulcrum of his very close 1916 re-election campaign: “he kept us out of war.” I cannot state enough how difficult this course was, given the bellicose voices in American society at the time, with Theodore Roosevelt leading the chorale. Wilson was accused of every manner of cowardice, and for a long time, he held firm. Yet, get into war Wilson did, as residual anger of Germany’s U-Boat policy grew to epic proportions, and Germany botched its last-chance efforts at diplomacy. Still, it is difficult to see clear lines of right and wrong in early World War I. I’m not happy about what Germany wrought upon neutral Belgium, but Britain’s attempt to use its navy to starve Germany into capitulating is every bit as much of a war crime. Wilson arbitrarily chose our side in the conflict based more or less on his own lineage and his own love of Burke and other English political philosophers. On this flimsy thread, when the U.S. did enter the war, it was won relatively quickly, and the ground was established for the unjust peace at Versailles, prostrating and humiliating Germany, allowing even more sinister forces in the vanquished empire to gain a voice.
It is equally difficult to abide by the crackdown on civil liberties, both during the war and in its revolutionary aftermath, overseen by Wilson’s nefarious attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer. The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 created broad discretions to suppress the antiwar effort. Conscientious objection and treason were often willfully confused. The Committee on Public Information channeled the same efficient centralized power that guided the progressive reforms into the dissemination of patriotic, warlike, and anti-German information and imagery. The mail was scrutinized in the search for antiwar literature; Eugene Debs, the Socialist candidate for president in 1912, was tossed in jail; and mob rule often reigned against both German-Americans and critics of the war effort. An absurd level of paranoia took hold, to the point where Wagner was taken out of the orchestral repertoire, German language classes were removed from the classroom curriculum, and sauerkraut was christened “liberty cabbage.” Things took an even greater turn for the worse with the Red Scare immediately after the war, where all things foreign, especially strident labor organizations like the Wobblies, came under scrutiny, suspicion, and in time, persecution. All of these are what may be called “unforced errors” today. Lincoln, Madison, and others had successfully carried out wars without crackdowns of this kind. The First World War was not nearly so exceptional that these extraordinary measures were necessary. Wilson may have disapproved of the excesses of these crackdowns, but did precious little to stop them.
When it came to settling the aftermath of war, Wilson’s missionary diplomacy was almost always infused with a missionary’s arrogance. I was astonished, when working my way through Margaret McMillan’s Paris 1919 at how Wilson, Lloyd George, and Clemenceau remade the world’s boundaries in such a maddeningly arbitrary fashion during the postwar world. Wilson believed in sincerity that he, as a disinterested participant, could refashion the world in a way that preserved peace and expanded democracy. He saw his role at Versailles as a prophet of this new order, establishing modern nations out of long-defunct medieval kingdoms, and beating the sword of war into the plowshare of the League of Nations. Still, Wilson’s vision of this new order was strikingly Euro-centric, and he perpetually saw self-government as a privilege reserved for the privileged races. Oftentimes, especially when dealing with far-flung colonies, territories were swapped and reshaped without the voices of the colonized in the room, exacerbating the injustices of imperialism. Consider this– a young Ho Chi Minh sought a hearing at Versailles on the behalf of his fellow Vietnamese. Ho and his compatriots never even got through the antechamber; Wilson did not consider the Vietnamese capable of self-determination and took the part of their French overlords. It is an endlessly fascinating counterfactual, is it not, that with a more receptive mindset, Wilson might have allied the United States with the nascent Vietnamese nationalists.
Alas, viewing the political world as the white man’s prerogative was all too typical of Wilson, who brought the Southern view on race into the Oval Office in ways not seen since Andrew Johnson. “The South,” Wilson once said, “was the only place in the world where nothing has to be explained to me.” Wilson’s racism came from a gentlemanly and psuedo-scholarly place, rather than Johnson’s mean and visceral place. But it still took a nasty and cruel-spirited character. While we had plenty of pro-slavery presidents, Wilson was our only truly pro-segregation president. He played a singular role as a historian in validating the Dunning School, which lambasted Reconstruction as a ruinous period of “Negro rule”. Worse, he approved a policy that segregated all government offices in D.C., and slowed down even the limited trickle of black federal appointees put through by McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft. As Alvin Felzenberg recounts in The Leaders We Deserved, when D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation was filmed, portraying a heroic role for the KKK, it did so with consultation from Wilson’s own historical scholarship.
Finally, Wilson’s presidency ended with sickness and failure. He desperately wanted the Versailles Treaty approved, and for his own nation to join his treasured ideal of the League of Nations. While his own party was largely in favor, his Republican opponents were, to say the least, skeptical. Now, what we often forget is that a great many Republicans were, in theory, open to the Versailles Treaty and even a League of Nations– if their concerns and reservations got a proper hearing. Wilson gave them no such hearing, refusing to take anyone in the opposition party with him to Paris in 1919, and spending his last years in office railing against them in a coast to coast speaking tour. This was sadly emblematic of how Wilson operated– when his party was in control and he could take the lead, smooth sailing was ahead. When he needed to persuade those who were not already aligned with him, Wilson could be prickly, self-righteous, uncompromising, and wholly unconvincing. Sadly, on that coast-to-coast tour to lobby for the League, Wilson was felled by a very serious stroke and never fully recovered. Today, there are provisions for removing a seriously ill president who cannot perform his duty, but there were no such contingencies in 1919. Like an aging and enfeebled monarch, Wilson clung to his office to the bitter end, often using his political neophyte wife as a mediatrix between the cabinet and the sickbed. The country would have been much better served if Wilson had simply resigned and let the more or less capable veep, Thomas Marshall, serve the last year and a half.
With all this in mind, Woodrow Wilson is something decidedly more nuanced than a “Flawed Great”– he is, rather, a mix of sinister contradictions. He dreamed big and had perhaps greater vision than almost any president, but his dreams had long-lasting consequences that Wilson, in his messianism, could not perceive. And we are still dealing with their repercussions today. Wilson’s sense of American exceptionalism, in particular, never really left us. Look at the arguments Wilson was making in the 1910s about making the world safe for democracy through war, viewing the American experiment as one that could be exported by bayonet. And then look at the arguments neo-conservatives made with some success in 2002 and 2003, with respect to Afghanistan and Iraq.
In the end, Wilson was the embodiment of the early 20th century progressive movement, in all its vicissitudes. He sought to rationalize and humanize the role of the state in ways that tempered the role of the corporatist, the trust, the businessman– but with the corporatists’ consent and cooperation. Some argue that he expanded the role of the state to dangerous levels, but I disagree– the state was thoroughly active throughout the Gilded Age, but it stood on the side of the powerful. Wilson merely changed its allegiance, and made it more accountable and responsive to the man on the street. Through all this, he also embodied the Progressive movement’s arrogance, especially toward dissidents and racial minorities, who often bore the brunt of Wilson’s absolute assurance that he was in the right. Ultimately, social justice plays a large role in my rankings, as I outlined in my criteria several posts ago. Wilson alleviated the lot of the industrial worker, and he reshaped the way in which government was funded through the most just of all means, the graduated income tax. For this, I cannot consign him to the basement of presidential failures, frauds, and scofflaws. Yet, for those on the underside of society, such as antiwar dissidents, black Americans, and foreigners, the Wilson years were an almost unparalleled nightmare, where I cannot, at times, even recognize my own country. Maybe making him #18 is an unsatisfactory way of resolving this, but how does one reconcile this erudite man of contradictions, this retrenched reformer, this pugnacious Presbyterian?