Woodrow Wilson's New Constitution

The centennial of Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 inauguration as the twenty-eighth president of the United States has been marked by substantial scholarly attention to his presidency and to Progressivism generally. Among the most recent works is A. Scott Berg’s massive Wilson, a detailed portrait of one of the most influential twentieth century presidents. Through prodigious research Berg provides an illuminating and exhaustively detailed account of Wilson’s improbable but meteoric rise to political power, first as governor of New Jersey and then as two-term president of the United States. Berg’s access to previously untapped sources on Wilson – one from a daughter, Jessie Wilson Sayre, the other, from his trusted personal physician, Cary T. Grayson, – has not led to significant new interpretations of Wilson’s presidency. However, Berg examines and clarifies some unknown or vague aspects of his life and administration, including his physical demise and the 1919 “takeover” of the executive by his wife, Edith, which fact was unknown by most of his closest associates, not to mention the American people, until 1920.

As a university student, Wilson’s intellectual development – largely, he said, realized through his own personal research and reading – was profoundly influenced by the life and writings of such figures as Edmund Burke, John Bright, and, above all, the English scholar Walter Bagehot, whose book, The English Constitution, confirmed Wilson in his belief that the English parliamentary system was vastly preferable to the “miserable delusion of a republic” under which the United States suffered. The United States, the Princeton undergraduate maintained, would “never celebrate another centennial as a republic.” It was while at Princeton that Wilson discovered his true love was politics rather than academia.

Fellow students (and several professors) saw a future leader in the studious but outspoken young man. Wilson was often able to capture positions of leadership in debate clubs and other student societies, demonstrating the affability and cunning that served him well throughout most of his political life. A proud Southerner who decried the suffering wrought by Radical Republicans during Reconstruction, he nonetheless embraced a flexible, expansive constitutionalism, unthinkable in the postwar South. Indeed, Berg argues Wilson was a fish out of water at the University of Virginia, his Hamiltonian Federalism, the author maintains, prevented him from appreciating the university’s connection to the Sage of Monticello.

Unfortunately, Berg makes no attempt to evaluate the basis for considering Wilson as Hamiltonian, for the two men clearly understood the legitimate application of governing administration in vastly different ways: Hamilton’s vision of administrative authority being confined to constitutional limitations; Wilson’s notion of administration went far beyond anything Hamilton suggested either in the Federalist or, subsequently, as Washington’s treasury secretary.

Nonetheless, Berg’s Wilson is transformed within eighty pages from Hamiltonian Federalist to the best representative of “the party of Jefferson”, as one attendee to Wilson’s 1906 address to the National Democratic Club of New York referred to him. That transformation was evidenced by Wilson’s contention that true Jeffersonians must harken to Jefferson “to renew ideals,” but not “to borrow policies.” New circumstances required new conceptions of government. Wilson explained in an address to the Jefferson Club of Los Angeles five years later: “If you want to understand the real Declaration of Independence, do not repeat the preface.” Thus Jefferson’s ideals, rooted in equalitarian democracy, could best be realized once Americans (or at least their political leaders) realized that a political regime, permanently rooted in the abstract ideals of natural rights, was hidebound, unable to respond to conditions unknown in late eighteenth-century America.

Wilson’s ideas for a new vision of government took shape, as previously mentioned, as an undergraduate at Princeton. In 1879, for example, he published his essay “Cabinet Government in the United States,” in the International Review. Clearly influenced by his reading of Bagehot, he denounced the inefficiency of the present government by “irresponsible committees” from a “legislature which legislates with no real discussion of its business.” As Wilson saw it, the separation of powers was an obstacle to good government, rather than a guarantor of the independence of its various branches: “To the methods of representative government which have sprung from these provisions of the Constitution, by which the Convention thought so carefully to guard and limit the powers of the legislature, “he wrote, “we must look for an explanation, in a large measure, of the evils over which we now find ourselves lamenting.” He proposed a solution: give the executive cabinet members seats in Congress and allow them to initiate legislation.

This line of thought was continued in Wilson’s Congressional Government, published in 1885. In it, Wilson confidently asserted that, if the delegates to the Philadelphia convention could have observed the working of their constitution over the subsequent century, “they would be the first to admit that the only fruit of dividing power had been to make it irresponsible.”

As he would argue nearly thirty years later in The New Freedom, the problem with the Founders’ attachment to natural law theory “is that government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life.” Such expansive, organic notions of proper government stood Wilson in good stead with progressive forces in New Jersey, where Wilson, as candidate for governor, addressed numerous political reform groups.

Despite his clear statements to the contrary, leaders of the Democratic machine in New Jersey believed Wilson would be pliable once elected – a puppet to be commanded. They could not have been more wrong. Governor Wilson immediately worked to dismantle the party machine and began a progressive assault on the status quo, speaking favorably of such progressive measures as the initiative, referendum, and recall as well as asking for legislation that would begin the regulation of public utilities in the state. As Berg notes, he began garnering attention from progressives of both parties as a future candidate for president.

As the eventual nominee for the Democratic Party in 1912, Wilson relished the divisions rampant in the Republican Party, which Theodore Roosevelt bolted in order to run as the Bull Moose candidate. Wilson was easily elected and Berg ably presents his domestic agenda of Progressive reform. Wilson, with a Democratic Congress at his back, steamrolled any opposition to his ambitious agenda, which included a substantial reform of the currency system via the establishment of the Federal Reserve Board; the proliferation of substantial new regulatory agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission; and the use of the graduated income tax to compensate for revenue shortfalls due to the revision of the tariff.

In the realm of foreign policy, however, Wilson demonstrated an inconsistency in practice and philosophy that Berg does not closely examine. With his predilection for organic adaptation of government to historically contingent events, and his hostility to universal principles of governance rooted in human nature, Wilson began his foreign policy in a seemingly predictable fashion. He openly expressed his hope that foreign policy, the subject with which he was least familiar and most uncomfortable, would not occupy much of his administration.

He was nonetheless inundated with major foreign policy issues from the beginning of his presidency until its end. And when it came to the practice of foreign policy, Wilson initially displayed a pragmatic liberal realism that stands in stark contrast to the high-toned rhetoric he employed in the context of World War I. He and his first Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, intervened frequently in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. An exasperated Wilson famously said he would “teach the South American republics to elect good men!”

It was not until much of the rest of the world looked to the United States and Wilson to win the war and the peace that Wilson’s idealism is clearly displayed. Whether it was “being too proud to fight” and calling on Americans to remain “impartial in thought and action” or, once the United States had entered the war, “making the world safe for democracy” in a war “without victors” that would hopefully “end all wars,” Wilson’s invocation of universal standards of right to be overseen by the League of Nations differed substantially from the liberal realism of his early administration.

For the general reader, Berg has written an engaging popular biography of the 28th president, oftentimes entertaining in its rich detail and anecdote. He notes, for example, that Wilson played more golf than any president before or after had while in office (a record Barack Obama is easily on track to break). More substantially, he details the almost unbelievable episode of Wilson’s difficultly clarifying his response to the sinking of the Lusitania and the subsequent deaths of 128 Americans because he was preoccupied with courting Edith Galt – writing several love letters to her daily even as that crisis unfolded. However, he does not contribute any significant new interpretations of Wilson’s ideas or his administration, but uncritically accepts Wilson as heir to Jefferson, though that interpretation has been brought into serious question by much recent scholarship.