The following is a highlighted summary, complete with personal commentary of the book, Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism, written by Ronald J. Pestritto and published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. The statements below are key points of the book as determined by James Altfeld and have been made available at no charge to the user.
Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism
Ronald J. Pestritto
For Wilson, the Civil War represented a major step forward for America; it marked the country’s moving from an historically inferior, decentralized system of government to a true national system. It was no the union over states rights.
“Washington was neither an accident nor a miracle. Neither chance nor a special Providence need be assumed to account for him. It was God, indeed who gave him to us; but God had been preparing him ever since English constitutional history began.” Wilson
(I think at the heart of Wilson saying this was Washington’s not wanting to be named King or placed into office for his life time as Hamilton wanted him to be. While Hamilton loved Julius Caesar, Washington said he did not go to war against a tyranny to become one himself.)
“The best government is the one that reflects the spirit of a nation at a particular time and place. Government must represent not some ideal ethical form, but the current thought or will of the people.… institutions match the thought of the people to which they belong.” Wilson
Wilson felt that one’s participation in progress takes on the form of an obligation to God. “This was America’s Holy Mission.” “… America had been assigned a special civilization destiny by divine providence…”
In his The Study of Politics, Wilson wrote that the student will see the historical superiority of some races over others. That some races, by virtue of their historical superiority, deserve a more advanced form of government. Wilson was anti Reconstruction because the dominance of an ignorant and inferior race was justly dreaded. “Negro rule under unscrupulous adventurers had been finally put an end to in the South, and the natural, inevitable ascendancy of the whites, the responsible class, established.” Wilson
Written constitutions are misleading in that they appear to endorse the social compact concept of government, when in fact, government is always evolving. (I think Wilson neglects to see that the United States Constitution was CONSTITUTED to create a Republic, the likes of which had never been seen before. That the U.S. Constitution was a unique document unto itself and not just another sheet of paper with a bunch of words on it. Overall, I find Wilson’s take on the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence more than a little bit insulting.)
We are not bound to adhere to the doctrines held by the signers of the Declaration of Independence: we are as free as they were to make and unmake the governments. We are not here to worship men or a document. But neither are we here to indulge in a mere rhetorical and uncritical eulogy. Every Fourth of July should be a time for examining our standards, our purposes, for determining afresh what principles, what forms of power we think most likely to effect our safety and happiness. That and that alone is the obligation the Declaration lays upon us.” Wilson
A necessary condition for lasting democracy, Wilson argued, is “homogeneity of race and community of thought and purpose among the people.”
For Wilson, the focus is not on individual rights, but on the unity of national will.
Wilson felt that it is not important to understand the particular founding intention behind the form of the Constitution. Intention merely reflected the particular spirit that permeated the founding era; the organic will of American society, however, has evlolved well beyond that stage.
“Justly revered as our great constitution is, it could be stripped off and thrown aside like a garment, and the nation would still stand forth clothed in the living vestment of flesh and sinew, warm with the heart blood of one people, ready to recreate constitutions and laws. “ Wilson
Since the real force or sovereign in any society is its organic will, government – whatever its particular form – is the creature of that will. (A Case for God and Government.)
Government “is no more evil than is society itself. It is the organic body of society; without it society would be hardly more than a mere abstraction.
Every society gets the kind of government that best reflects society’s particular historical spirit. “Government is the indispensable organ of society.” Wilson
“Government does not stop with the protection of life, liberty and property as some have supposed.” Wilson
The individual is to have liberty insofar as that liberty does not interfere with the interests of the state. (This is Anti-Hobbs and anti-Nature.)
Wilson saw his progressivism as a natural development or outgrowth of the new historical spirit. It was a way of transforming the government away from its founding principle and toward a new, energized role that would enable it to meet the demands of the current epoch. Socialism, Wilson explained, is simply the logical extension of genuine democratic theory – it gives all power to the people in their collective capacity to carry out their will through the exercise of governmental power, unlimited by any undemocratic idea like individual rights.
“In fundamental theory socialism and democracy are almost if not quite one and the same. They both rest at bottom upon the absolute right of the community to determine its own destiny and that of its members. Limits of wisdom and convenience to the public control there may be: limits of principle there are, upon strict analysis, none.” Wilson
“The difference between democracy and socialism is not an essential difference, but only a practical difference – is a difference of organization and policy, not a difference of primary motive. Democracy has not undertaken the tasks which socialists claim to have undertaken; but it refrains from them, not for lack of adequate principles or suitable motives, but for lack of organization and suitable hardihood; because it cannot see its way clear to accomplishing them with credit.” Wilson
“Why may not the present age write, through me, its political autobiography?” Wilson
Wilson’s methodology means that one must study not the American Constitution’s forms or ideas, which are a historical and do not reflect living reality, but instead the history of the development of the American state. The key to American democracy, according to Wilson, is that it has been lived, not theorized. Politics should be contingent upon the current will or spirit of the people, not on the static theories of what government ought to be.
(My Comment: Unless the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence remain constant, every standing president would have the right to re-interpret those documents to his or her own choosing and as they see fit. According to Wilson, these documents should be left to his own interpretation while acting as president. Which means the same would be true for every president after him, leaving America bouncing around like a pin ball every 4 to 8 years. No! The Constitution is what makes America, America. Change it and you’ve changed America. If you want a changed America, go find another country. If you don’t like a certain religion, go find one you do like. You do not change the existing religion, you either create one that suits you or find an existing one that suits you. This concept is ludicrous.)
The Civil War did away with the old order of fragmented localism and ushered in the age of national unity. Add to that the Westward movement of 1829 and beyond and everything truly began to change. The settlement of the West meant progress because as a nation grows, it must overcome nature. “For the creation of the nation the conquest of her proper territory from Nature was first necessary.” Wilson
In his Constitutional Government writing, Wilson stated that the most important fact to know about the American Constitution is that its meaning is contingent upon history, and that its meaning and our understanding of it had changed and grown significantly since the time of its establishment. America has escaped the narrow individualism of the founding and had grown into a genuine nation. It was not by sticking to its original principles, but by submitting to progress and growth, by adopting new methods and new political ideas to meet new historical circumstances. It was HISTORY that would create a true and complete nation. “Unquestionably we believe in a guardian destiny!” Wilson
What became most important in national politics was not the Constitution’s protection of individuals, but its ability to put into action “the passionate beliefs of an efficient majority of the nation.” Wilson
In his political writings, Wilson often pointed to the Civil War as evidence that the particular historical purposes for which the original Constitution had been instituted had been superseded. “The construction of the Constitution is settled now, settled once and for all by the supreme arbitrament of war.” Wilson
In his mind, the outcome of the Civil War lead to the adoption of superior principles.
The founder’s primitive, individualistic liberalism – while outdated for the present circumstances – had been historically necessary. It was part of history’s overall plan for the progressive development of American into a modern state. The founders political principles would not carry over into modern times. (This makes no sense to me. First off, the founders’ were learned, well read men. The Federalist Papers alone prove this to be true. Much of their thinking stemmed from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. They also obviously read Hume, John Locke and Reid among others. The American colonists were far more well read than their English compatriots as evidenced by the fact that more books were being sold in the Colonies than in England itself. There is even a section within the Federalist Papers that addresses their concern for Wilson’s kind of thinking.)
According to Wilson, the first half of the Nineteenth Century was an American struggle between originalism, which kept the country fragmented, and the forces of union, which advocated progress.
Secession was not an attack on the Constitution, it was a movement of reactionary forces who wanted to restore the original constitutionalism in a fight against progress.
“… Constitutions are not mere legal documents: they are the skeleton frame of a living organism; and in this case the course of events had nationalized the government once deemed confederate.” Wilson
The great crime of the South, according to Wilson, was not because slavery violated the natural rights of the slaves, but because the South itself resisted progress. Wilson saw the Civil War as a fight between two principles – between the principles of reaction and old traditions on the one hand, and the principles of progress, growth and development on the other.
“The national government that came out of the Reconstruction was not the national government that went into it. The civil war had given leave to one set of revolutionary forces; Reconstruction gave leave to another still more formidable. The effects of the first were temporary, the inevitable accompaniments of civil war and armed violence; the effects of the second were permanent, and struck to the very centre of our forms of government.” Wilson
Any person who would stand in the way of America’s progress as a united nation, is not truly an American. Americanism, he wrote, is “above all things, a hopeful and confident spirit. It is progressive optimistically progressive, and ambitious of objects of national scope and advantage. It is unpedantic, unprovincial, unspeculative, unfastidious, regardful of law , but as using it, not as being used by it or dominated by any formalism whatever.” Wilson
Wilson emphasized that what matters in government is not the forms on which it is legally constructed but the understanding of it in the public mind.
Wilson conceded that the original intention of the Constitution was to have been to reserve significant power for the states. Government would have to adjust to allow a much greater sphere of administrative authority for the national government than the Constitution seems to allow on its face. It could be done by “wresting the Constitution to strange and as yet unimagined uses.” Wilson
(First, I find it interesting to note that Obama is following the Wilson concept in spite of Wilson being an absolute and complete bigot. Secondly, one of the things with states is that I can leave them. I can always move out of a state I disagree with. I have a hard time moving out of the United States, however. Where am I going to go? Which means with a state, I have a choice. With the US Government, I don’t. I’m stuck.)
Each generation is to abandon older understandings of politics for new ones. Wilson wanted the Federal Government to take on more authority because his opinion of state legislatures was low. He felt them to be narrow minded and overly focused on particular issues. (Note: What would he say about today’s US Congressmen?)
“As the life of the nation changes so must the interpretation of the document which contains it change, by a nice adjustment, determined, not by the original intention of those who drew the paper, but by the exigencies and the new aspects of life itself.” Wilson
What this meant was the onus would be on the judiciary to interpret the laws and deem them to be Constitutional or not, which by Wilson’s standards, would have to be done based upon a historical spirit. To reflect what it is that each generation wants out of government, and not to be stuck on an outdated understanding of the purpose and role of the government.
Wilson feared the judiciary because he felt that lawyers tend to become obsessed with the technical details of the law at the price of missing its overall organic character. Which is why he felt a legal education should include a great deal of history.
To Wilson, a constitutional government is one which is constantly adjusting itself to the will of the people. Since the public mind continually changes and evolves, so too must our understanding of what government should do. “A constitutional government is one whose powers have been adapted to the interests of the people.”
A true constitution represents a “common political consciousness.”
Wilson felt that some citizens of this country have never gotten beyond the Declaration of Independence.
For Wilson, the separation of powers was the source of much of what was wrong with American government. The separation of powers only served to impede genuine democracy. Wilson felt that the separation of powers was irresponsible because it made it difficult for the government to implement new public policy, even when the new policy reflected a clear new direction in public opinion. Wilson wanted no separation between the legislative and executive branch and that the legislative branch should actually be the president’s cabinet members. (NOTE: With so much divisiveness and so many different factions, how would he interpret the will of the people? Which is why the Constitution MUST be the one document we unalterably adhere to. Leaving that document to interpretation based upon the whim of the current president and generation of the time, only diminishes and weakens America.)
Wilson’s broad vision for the transformation of American politics remained consistent: politics had to embody, and be guided by, the historically conditioned and unified will of the people. Only in this way could the government and the principles upon which it rested be constantly adjusted to fit the changing demands of historical progress.
Wilson felt that the president was better suited than Congress to beome the emobidment of the historically conditioned will of the people and consequently, to lead the political arm of government.
Wilson reasoned that the Senate was not formed to be a legislative, law creating branch of government, but an advisor to the President, only. That it was up to the president to make the final decision based upon the advice and input he received from the Senate.
In modern times, it was more important for the president to be leader of the whole nation than it was for him to be the chief officer of the executive branch. The president’s role as popular leader means that he must, as the embodiment of the national will, coordinate and move Congress and the other parts of government.
“Governments are what the politicians make them and it is easier to write of the President than of the presidency.” Wilson
This is why a president’s expertise in public affairs is not as important as his possession of a forceful personality and other qualities of popular leadership. What America needs is “a man who will be and who will seem to the country in some sort an embodiment of the character and purpose it wishes its government to have – a man who understands his own day and the needs of the country.” Wilson
The president is the unifying force in our complex system and must not be relegated to managing only one branch of it.
I ASK YOU, WHO DOES THIS REMIND YOU OF?: Before he was even INAUGURATED, Wilson crafted what was to become Congress’ legislative agenda for 1913 and 1914 and his agenda was carefully implemented once he assumed office.
The Modern Presidency argument points to the founders fear of demagoguery, noting that the founders were careful to avoid the direct connection that popular rhetoric would create between the president and public opinion. Popular or mass rhetoric, which presidents once employed only rarely, now serves as on of their principle tools in attempting to govern the nation.” Wilson
Wilson focused on policy rhetoric, making it oral and delivered directly to the people, as opposed directly to Congress. He also introduced a new form of speech, where rhetoric was no longer constrained by Constitutional traditions. It was Wilson who introduced the visionary speech and the policy stand speech.
Wilson’s popularization of the presidency also raises the question of Wilson’s doctrine of leadership. In particular, is the presidential leader, as the embodiment of the public will, a follower or a shaper of public opinion? Is Wilson’s vision of leadership fundamentally democratic or elitist?
Parties aid in making the connection between the people and their governing institutions more immediate and direct. Through their electoral ejection or endorsement of the specific policy platforms of the parties, the people make known their will to the government and send officials to their jobs with a specific mission. Once in office, parties provide a means by which public officials can coordinate their efforts across different branches. Parties become a tool for unifying their unifying their members even while those members serve in different institutions. Wilson felt parties had to be transformed; they needed to serve the will of both the people and the will of those whom the people had elected to lead them.
Public officials were more concerned with retaining their friendship of the corrupt party bosses who controlled their access to the ballot than they were with responding to the public will. FDR flipped this reasoning during the depression.
The parties were designed more to perpetuate their own power than they were to carry out the peoples will.
Wilson complained that parties in America failed to stand up for clear ideas, and therefore the two parties did not offer the people two clear alternatives. “A man must nowadays either belong to a party through mere force of habit, or else be puzzled to know what party he belongs to. Party platforms furnish no sort of chart by which he can shape his political course.
Wilson contended that the force of history had changed America from a disorganized collection of particular and local interests into a whole, organic nation. There was now, Wilson believed, a unified, national sentiment, or national will. This national will was embodied in the national government which meant that it had been transformed by history into the organic whole of what Wilson called The State.
Parties were not responsible enough to the public. Unlike elected officials who were held accountable by those who elected them, party bosses didn’t face that problem. The Party determines who runs and the party determines the policy yet is not accountable for either.
It was Wilson, as Governor of NJ, passing the Geran Bill, who created the primary as a means to elect officials, taking the power out of the hands of the Bosses and placing the power into the hands of the people. Because of Wilson, the party has lost much control over the selection of the candidate.
Wilson was in favor of a partisanship that was a means of changing the fundamental principles of the regime and the basic understanding of the role of government. For Wilson, parties were of no use unless they served as tools for escaping the narrow constitutionalism of the founding generation. Wilson’s whole aim was to distance the nation from the constitutionalism of 1787.
NOTE: If you eliminate the parties, you eliminate the static and noise. You eliminate the distractions to the real issues. You get only the man no longer cloaked in a party veil, but naked, true and very transparent.
“The federal government is, through its courts, in effect made the final judge of its own powers…. The whole balance of our federal system, therefore, lies in the federal courts. It is inevitable that it should be so… Such a principle constitutes the courts of the United States the guardians of our whole legal development. With them must lie the final statesmanship of control.” Wilson
NOTE: Is our government up for interpretation with every administration that comes into office? I personally think NOT!
“It is true that their power is political; that if they had interpreted the Constitution in its strict letter, as some proposed, and not in its spirit… it would have prove a strait jacket, a means not of liberty and development, but of mere restriction and embarrassment.” Wilson
Wilson envisioned a weakened congress, more energy and power for the president, and greater freedom of movement for the bureaucracy. The presidency is brought closer to popular opinion, while the bureaucracy is insulated from it. So who is it that governs? Is it the people, whom a strong president dependent upon their will would seem to empower, or is it the bureaucratic experts, who are shielded from the meddling of politics and public opinion as they carry out the business of administration? The answer seems to lie in an important characteristic of Woodrow Wilson’s thought and in much of progessivism: the rhetoric is intensely popular and democratic, yet the reality of the argument is to put political power in the hands of governing elites who possess advanced knowledge of the spirit of the age and the course of history. Wilson reasoned that government can be administered in a businesslike or professional manner only if it is largely removed from politics and public opinion.
The president must interpret the spirit of the age, and in so doing must bring along not only the other institutions of government, but also the people themselves. Wilson wrote that the president will be a “man who understands his own day and the needs of the country, and who has the personality and the initiative to enforce his views both upon the people and upon Congress.” Wilson (Does this sound like Obama, or what?)
“A president whom the country trusts can not only lead it, but form it to his own views.” … “by giving direction to opinion.” Wilson
Wilson’s idea of leadership was to govern in accord with his interpretation of the public will. Wilson also believed that the public, more often than not, did not understand what its true will or spirit actually was. It was his job to discern it for them. The public wil is to govern, but only insofar as it is led by educated elites who see more clearly than anybody else where that will is actually going. (Sounds like Animal Farm…. Four feet good. Two feet bad. No, No, reverse that!!)
Someone Wilson admired was Bagehot who felt that for popular government to be a good government, the people must at least have enough sense to recognize that they should be ruled by someone wiser than they are, and to consent to such rule.
Wilson called for a popular leader who could succeed on the basis of his ability to move the masses through rhetoric. That the aim of rhetoric was persuasion and conviction –the control of other minds by a strange personal influence and power. Rhetoric must be seen as a tool – as a means to the practical end of influencing other men’s minds.
The leader must also have the ability to persuade the people that his vision of their future is, in fact, their future, and he must be able to mobilize them in that direction.
It is the will of the leader, not the opinion of the masses, that governs:
“His will seeks the lines of least resistance; but the whole question with him is a question of the application of force. There are men to be moved; how shall he move them? He supplies the power; others supply only the materials upon which that power operates… It is the power which dictates, dominates; the materials yield. Men are as clay in the hands of the consummate leader.” Wilson (YIKES!!!!)
“A great nation is not led by a man who simply repeats the talk of the street corners or the opinions of the newspapers. A nation is led by a man who hears more than those things; or who, rather, hearing those things, understands them better, unites them, puts them into a common meaning; speaks, not the rumors of the street, but a new principle for a new age; a man in whose ears the voices of the nation do not sound like the accidental and discordant notes that come from the voice of a mob, but concurrent and concordant like the united voices of a chorus, whose many meanings, spoken by melodious tongues, unite in his understanding in a single meaning and reveal to him a single vision, so that he can speak what no man else knows, the common meaning of the common voice. Such is the man who leads a great, free, democratic nation.” Wilson
Great passions, when they run through a whole population, inevitably find a great spokesman. The need for an indivisible leader stems from the reality that public opinion is often fragmented, and therefore requires a leader who can identify the genuine unity of public will that is implicit beneath the contentions on the surface.
“Whoever would effect a change in modern constitutional government must first educate his fellow-citizens to want some change. That done, he must persuade them to want the particular change he wants. He must first make public opinion willing to listen and then see to it that it listen to the right things. He must stir it up to search for an opinion, and then manage to put the right opinion in its way.” Wilson
“Robust as its Constitution has proved to be, the federal government cannot long continue to live in the poisonous atmosphere of fraud and malfeasance. If the civil service cannot by gentle means be purged of the vicious diseases which fifty years of the partisans spoils system have fixed upon it heroic remedies must be resorted to.” Wilson
“An intelligent nation cannot be led or ruled save by thoroughly-trained and completely-educated men. Only comprehensive information and entire mastery of principles and details can qualify for command.” Wilson
Wilson felt that the inefficient separation of powers should be replaced with the more efficient separation of politics and administration, which will enable the bureaucracy to tend to the details of administering progress without being encumbered by the inefficiencies of politics.
With government being contingent upon history, Wilson felt the government that the founder’s designed was appropriate for the historical spirit in which they lived, but not now.
In The Study, Wilson elaborated on his vision of history and his theory of administration. The first stage, according to Wilson, is Absolute Rulers. In stage two, “Constitutions are framed to do away with absolute rulers.” The third and final stage is one where the people abandon their fear of unchecked administrative power.
In the Study, Wilson made it clear that the increasingly complex business of governing a modern state had to be handled by a professional class of experts instead of by a multiplicity of politicians with narrow, competing and subjective interests.
Those who lead must have the keenest insight into what progress requires. They must also be able to convince the people that the leaders’ vision of what is required for progress conforms to the public’s own implicit will.
Wilson’s vision for an independent bureaucracy does not require only that administration be separated from politics; it requires, more fundamentally, that administrative power be considered separately from constitutional power.
“You know that it was Jefferson who said that the best government is that which does as little governing as possible… But that time is passed. America is not now and cannot in the future be a place for unrestricted individual enterprise.” Wilson
Wilson shared the Progressive conviction that the national government should be used as an active instrument of social progress through the exercise of regulatory powers. Hence we had The Federal Reserve Act (1913), Federal Trade Commission Act (1914), Clayton Antitrust Act (1914), Shipping Act (1916), Keating-Owens Act (1916), Child Labor Tax Act (1919), Transportation Act (1920), and Federal Water Power Act (1920).
Perhaps Wilson’s most significant instance of empowerment was his successful campaign for passage of the Underwood Tariff Bill – a bill that enacted the first national income tax. It was the first time that the federal government was to direct income redistribution around the country. The overall logic of the bill was to reduce protective tariffs and make up the lost revenue with the income tax.
In a nutshell, Wilson downplayed his belief in progressivism to which he long subscribed in order to become elected. Once in office, he reverted to and pursued policies that pushed forward all of the progressive principles he had been developing over the course of thirty years. (DOES THIS SOUND FAMILIAR?)
The general character and situation of a people must determine what sort of government is fit for them.
Regarding WWI, Wilson was inexperienced in foreign affairs and, as someone who had spent his life thinking and writing about American domestic politics, was unprepared for the role in which world events would thrust him. (Does this sound familiar?)
Final Note: I suggest we make a mental note to avoid putting academia-type people in office, especially the Oval Office. They have had far too much time to think.