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Wilson the Worst

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The new biography of Woodrow Wilson by A. Scott Berg casts the 28th president as a great, if imperfect, political leader. Berg recently told Stephen Colbert that Wilson was the nation's best president and suggested that he was a role model for contemporary progressives. I disagree. In my view, Wilson was the worst president in U.S. history. He was the man largely responsible for leading Democratic liberalism into the wilderness of statism, elitism, and imperialism.

In choosing the worst chief executive, there are many good candidates, but I vote for Woodrow Wilson. Betrayer of the Jefferson-Jackson-Bryan tradition in the Democratic Party. Enemy of racial equality. Opponent of woman suffrage. Architect of centralized government. Bellhop of Wall Street. Father of the Federal Reserve. Enthusiast of World War I. Violator of civil liberties. Champion of the League of Nations. Mentor of Franklin Roosevelt. The damage he did to the nation and the world was immense.

Blessed with a fine education and considerable talent, Wilson generally used his powers for evil rather than good. It's fitting that Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize, while true peacemakers of their generation, men like Tolstoy and Bryan, were snubbed. Actual peace is not toasted among the fashionable set of the world. As Dylan puts it, "We live a political world, where peace is not welcome at all. It's turned away from the door to wander some more, or put up against the wall." Pseudo-piety is part of Wilson's longstanding appeal for certain types. War is peace. Power as service. Special interest masquerading as common good. Realpolitik cloaked in idealism.

Elected governor of New Jersey in 1910, he was running for president a year later. When presidents seemingly come out of nowhere, with little experience and no big accomplishments, something is afoot. There are powerful men behind the scenes who discreetly sponsor the fresh-faced dark horse who will embody more of the same while promising change.

That's another reason to detest Wilson. After 16 years of Republican presidents, a Democrat was elected . . . who then ruled like a Hamiltonian Republican. Another in a long line of bait and switch, but it came at a particularly crucial time in history. A real change was needed, but instead the unholy alliance between big government and big business was cemented, empire was solidified, and the opposition party was co-opted. This story, among others, can be found in Gabriel Kolko's Triumph of Conservatism.

George W. Bush was channeling Wilson when he launched wars and pledged to end tyranny in our world. Neoconservatives are neither new nor conservative. They are direct descendants of Wilson, with some Trotsky DNA thrown in for bad measure. When Julian Assange of Wikileaks is threatened with prosecution under the Sedition Act, that's a legacy of Wilson from 1918. Woodrow Wilson is the awful gift that keeps on giving.

Of course, it's easy to cast aspersions on a famous person's reputation by using quips and generalities. If I'm disagreeing with the conclusions of a large book (800+ pages), I should at least give some specifics. So I will pull some information from my large-but-somewhat-less-so book (600+ pages).

During the first decade of the twentieth century, writer Herbert Croly proposed a novel synthesis of ideology: use of Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends. While The Promise of American Life glorifies "democracy," Croly was more influential as a publicist on behalf of Hamiltonian government. Early in the book, he writes, "I shall not disguise the fact that, on the whole, my own preferences are on the side of Hamilton rather than of Jefferson." While conceding that Hamilton was responsible for baleful effects and theoretical perversions, Croly calls him, in comparison to Jefferson, "much the finer man and much the sounder thinker and statesman."

Croly's views affected both the Republican and Democratic parties, as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were influenced by his writings and counsel. The New Republic--edited by Croly and Walter Lippmann, founded by J.P. Morgan partner Willard Straight, and financed by Standard Oil heiress Dorothy Payne Whitney Straight--became the premier publication of this new type of progressivism in the mid-1910s. Jeffersonian purists rejected the Croly synthesis as oxymoronic and unsustainable, arguing that methods cannot be isolated from goals. To use an analogy: The vehicle you take and the direction you travel will likely determine whether or not you successfully reach your intended destination. In the judgment of old-school liberals, the new liberalism was likely to lead to self-delusion or frustration at best, co-optation or deception at worst.

While the names William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson are often linked in histories of the Democratic Party and annals of liberal politics, they were distinct entities who often clashed as a result of ideological differences. Thomas Jefferson had never been a hero for Wilson prior to his 1912 presidential candidacy. In 1906, Wilson declared, "[Democrats do not] seek to be governed by Jefferson's opinions or search among his policies for measures to suit our own times." Political scientist R. Jeffrey Lustig observes that the tenor of Wilson's career prior to the 1912 campaign "had always been closer to Hamilton's thinking than to Jefferson's." Historian Gabriel Kolko points out that President Wilson's reliance on Jeffersonian doctrine was "more verbal than genuine." Sociologist E. Digby Baltzell points out that Wilson "always called himself a Federalist in private."

Wilson was a conservative Cleveland Democrat until he reinvented himself in 1912 as a liberal in an attempt--ultimately successful--to woo Bryan Democrats and to undercut the candidacy of Champ Clark. Bryan played a key role in the nomination and election of Wilson in 1912 and 1916, and Wilson appointed Bryan to be his secretary of State. Nonetheless, philosophical differences between the two men caused problems for both throughout their political careers. Prior to making his decision to run for President in 1912, Wilson was an overtly anti-Bryan Democrat. He voted against Bryan in 1896 (voting instead for Palmer, the Gold Democrat), expressed the hope in 1907 that Bryan would be "knocked into a cocked hat," and refused to speak on the same platform with Bryan in 1908. Even as he courted Bryan and used him in his quest to gain the presidency, Governor Wilson felt disdain for the Great Commoner. Wilson was used by "Eastern conservative Democrats" to eliminate the threat of Bryan being nominated in 1912, and his nomination and election "represented the triumph of Eastern Democracy over Bryanism."

Wilson's 1912 and 1916 campaigns were largely financed by Wall Street and its corporate offspring. For the most part, rather than being hurt or restrained by the New Freedom, investment bankers and big businessmen grew in power and influence during Wilson's years in office. Bryan resigned from the cabinet in 1915 because he opposed Wilson's pro-war policies. In 1921, Bryan was asked to serve on a committee to raise funds for the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. He declined, saying that he could not "endorse with enthusiasm" Wilson's entire record. Among specific objections, Bryan mentioned Wilson's rejection of League of Nations reservations, militaristic stances, and "turning over the [Federal] Reserve Bank to the control of Wall Street."

During this same period, liberal ex-Senator Richard Pettigrew (R-SD) gave this assessment: "Woodrow Wilson was not a Democrat after 1896. In that year he left the party for the same reason that I joined it. He came back and voted for Parker in 1904, and for the same reason that led me not to vote for Parker. Wilson did not support Bryan in 1908. At no time was he an advocate of the principles of progressive democracy."

In his history of U.S. entry into World War I, Justus Doenecke mentions President Wilson's hand-wringing to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels. We are told that Wilson "warned" Daniels that if war came "Big business will be in the saddle." This anecdote comes from Daniels' memoirs. Daniels took Wilson's words at face value. But Daniels was a close friend and ally of W.J. Bryan. He was a populist and one of the more peace-minded members of the Wilson cabinet. It is possible that Wilson was telling Daniels what Daniels wanted to hear. To say that big business would be in the saddle implies that if the president became commander-in-chief he would have less power. That is the opposite of how the system works.

We know that big business, as exemplified by J.P. Morgan & Co., entered into an open partnership with the Wilson administration after the war began. One need only look at the events surrounding the Paris Peace Conference and Treaty of Versailles. Who allowed this to happen? Wilson. Wilson's argument that war would mean the loss of every gain since 1912 was also self-serving. It was predicated on the assumption that he had spent five years battling big business. The record does not indicate this. On balance, the big corporations were helped more than hurt by federal regulation under Wilson. The alternative to regulation was antitrust--restoring competition by breaking up the monopolistic corporations. In other words, being genuinely anti-big business. Despite the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, Wilson for the most part refused to go that route.

Rebutting Bryan's claim that the U.S. was being pushed into war by eastern financiers to protect loans to the Allies, Doenecke comments, "Wilson himself did not think in economic terms. Preserving Wall Street's stake in the Allied effort was far from his mind. He was no friend of big business, which had recently fought his reelection." In fact, we do not know what Wilson was thinking or what was far from his mind. How can any of us presume to know what is in someone's mind--especially someone as intelligent and politically savvy as Woodrow Wilson?

We do know the economic affiliations of the men who financed and managed Wilson's meteoric rise to power (i.e., major contender for president after serving only one year as governor--the first political position he ever held). Cleveland Dodge, Cyrus McCormick, Thomas Fortune Ryan, and George Harvey were examples of big business. Their friendship with Wilson was mutual. As the Wilson presidency unfolded, the affiliations of his friends grew even bigger: New York Federal Reserve Bank President Benjamin Strong (Bankers Trust), War Industries Board Chairman Bernard Baruch (Wall Street), Assistant Secretary of War John Ryan (Anaconda Copper), Assistant Secretary of War Edward Stettinius (J.P. Morgan), Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Russell Leffingwell (soon-to-be J.P. Morgan), Emergency Fleet Corporation Director General Charles Schwab (Bethlehem Steel), National War Savings Committee Chairman Frank Vanderlip (National City Bank), Paris Peace Conference Treasury Department Representative Thomas W. Lamont (J.P. Morgan), et cetera.

Wilson's mentor George Harvey, Whitney-Ryan-Morgan man, later reflected on the 1912 campaign by writing that big businessmen accepted his election "without serious misgivings" and "felt no animosity toward Mr. Wilson for such of his utterances as they regarded as radical and menacing to their interests." Why? According to Harvey, "He had simply played the political game."

In his classic 1960 journal article "Woodrow Wilson and the Political Economy of Modern United States Liberalism," historian Martin Sklar disagrees with Arthur Link's dividing of Wilson's presidency into two periods: the New Freedom of fighting big business and restoring competition, and then the post-1914 approach of embracing big business and regulating the economy: "Finding that Wilson's thought and policies often deviated from the ideal model, many historians have concluded superficially that Wilson was a 'hypocrite' or a conservative in liberal's clothing." Instead, Sklar sees consistency.

Wilson mirrored the thought of Herbert Croly throughout his presidency. The New Deal would also exemplify Croly in some ways. In other words, Wilson and his protégé FDR represented neo-Hamiltonianism. Sklar's is a compelling argument, although we must wonder if there was not an element of conscious bait-and-switch with the Wilson campaign of 1912. He would not have attracted the public support of Bryan and private preference of La Follette if he had campaigned openly as a Hamiltonian elitist. So his populist rhetoric does seem to have been new and possibly disingenuous.

The use of rhetoric by Wilson has been analyzed by political scientist Christopher West. According to West, Wilson's approach to presidential leadership was "akin to Federalism and the nineteenth century Whig movement" because it "married a hope in nationalism and state-building to a leadership cadre of virtuous trustees who, like Hamilton, sought to win over the parochial attachments of a democratic people to their more transcendent interests in the glory and security of the modern commercial republic." The competing approach was "a republican tradition with Anti-Federalist and Jeffersonian roots," which "favored local and decentralized authority structures, and distrusted the alienation of sovereignty to a distant representative, especially one with executive power."

West continues, "Wilson would see his mission as an attempt to inoculate the transformation of American democracy from the latter to the former with a conservative version of the rhetoric of Jeffersonians, Jacksonians and Populists." Never an actual Jeffersonian, Wilson referred to himself throughout his academic career as a "Federalist." Political scientist Ronald Pestritto notes that Wilson rejected the concept of natural rights as the foundation of government and argues that he redefined Jefferson according to his own terms.

West comments, "As Bryan and others called the people back to an old Jeffersonian understanding of society and its constitution, Wilson would call the people forward to a new one, but with the words and images of the old order." Like Theodore Roosevelt, "Wilson feared the populist and radical brands of democratic oratory that he saw in [Andrew] Jackson and his followers, and more immediately, in William Jennings Bryan." Referring to the scholarship of Robert Alexander Kraig, West writes, "As Kraig highlights in his study of Wilson's campaign rhetoric of 1912, he uses generously populist imagery and the imagery of the farm and small town employed by his targets of conservative ridicule: Jefferson, Jackson and Bryan. Here he co-opts the language of the Democracy , but now for chiefly Hamiltonian ends."

Regardless of Wilson's motivations or strategies, Sklar is certainly right in arguing that the Wilsonian and Theodore Rooseveltian variants of progressivism "signified, if not the birth, then the coming of age, of twentieth century liberalism, whose present-day fundamentals, converging upon large-scale corporate capitalism at home and economic expansion abroad, remain genetically true to the components of Wilson's world-view, their immediate parental source."

In comparison to traditional liberals such as Robert La Follette and William Jennings Bryan, modern liberals like Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt entered far more fully into the elite zeitgeist (spirit of the age). La Follette and Bryan were progressive in the sense of wanting to make the world a better place--specifically, more just, more free, and more peaceful--but they did not belong to the cult of progress in the same way as did Wilson and the Roosevelt cousins. La Follette and Bryan recognized that not every change is an advance and they knew that some of the best American political values are rooted in the past. Unlike many modern liberals, they were not willing to sacrifice morality for the sake of efficiency. Power was not an end in itself. The corrupting nature of power was recognized--whether private or public, it was a tool with great potential for both good and evil.

Early-twentieth-century elitist emphases on Social Darwinism, selective human breeding (eugenics), scientific management (Taylorism), economic modernization, and centralized government-approaching-totalitarianism were mostly missing in the thought and practice of Bryan and La Follette. La Follette was attracted to expertise but his belief in democracy and identification with the common people kept him from becoming an elitist. Wilson and FDR never personally identified with the common man so their elitism was natural and abiding. Historian Ronald Schaffer points out, "Wilson became the world's most celebrated champion of democracy. In private, he was a snob, bored by the ordinary citizens of his country. He told his fiancée during his first term that the great majority of people who came to his office, the majority or even the minority of congressmen, and most American voters were 'not of our kind.'"

A supporter of centralized power at home and abroad, Wilson presided over the creation of what Schaffer calls the "war welfare state." President Wilson, with the support of comparable-but-rival Republicans such as Theodore Roosevelt, pushed a reluctant if not resistant nation into World War I. Even after the U.S. entered the war, much of the country was unenthusiastic about "the war to end all wars," despite a steady stream of propaganda and repression from Washington, D.C. The marketing campaign and civil liberties violations were necessary precisely because the war was not particularly popular with the masses. This is why the Wilson administration had been so opposed to a proposal by liberal populists La Follette and Bryan to put the question of war to a vote by the American people through a nationwide referendum. Wilson insisted that "the world must be made safe for democracy" but was unwilling to subject his chosen instrument (war) to true democracy at home. Imposition of a military draft--the first ever used to wage war against a foreign power--was needed because relatively few Americans volunteered in the weeks after war was declared.

Finally, in an age when self-described American progressives have abandoned virtually every traditional progressive principle but "political correctness" still holds sway, it is surprising that educated Democrats can glorify an open bigot like Woodrow Wilson. (To his discredit, W.J. Bryan also absorbed the dominant white southern racial bias of his ancestors and had a poor record when it came to social and political inclusiveness for African Americans. However, the actual harm he inflicted was far less than that done by Wilson. Yet Wilson, as a "great man of history," is ultimately given a pass while Bryan remains discredited in the shadows for his popularity among rural rednecks.)

President Wilson brought Jim Crow to Washington, D.C. in a way that it had not previously known, including full segregation of the federal government. Wilson grew up in the South. His father, Joseph Ruggles Wilson, was a pro-slavery Presbyterian theologian who believed in white supremacy and supported the CSA. As a scholar, Wilson was an apologist for the original Ku Klux Klan. As president, he invited a showing of the pro-KKK film The Birth of a Nation in the White House. One of the title cards in the silent movie--based on the novel The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan by Thomas Dixon Jr. of North Carolina--was a pro-Klan quote from Wilson's History of the American People (1901). The film apparently helped to revive the KKK, which went on to wield great political power in the nation in the early 1920s.

To speak in cliché: Ideas have consequences. Patterns are important. History matters. Those of us who believe that small is beautiful, that community-based economics are good, that the Green Party value of decentralization has merit, that politics ought to be on a human scale, should not be looking to men like Woodrow Wilson as our role models. More often than not, big government and big business work hand-in-hand against the common good. Wilson was a pivotal part of the problem. Those of us who believe in natural rights, social justice, and world peace need to set aside convenient myths about power brokers and war makers. We need to seek inspiration elsewhere.