Presidential History

What's Wrong With Woodrow Wilson?

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So asks Jill Lepore at the New York Times:

To the campaign to make "progressive" a slur, Wilson is useful. Much as many people admire aspects of his presidency, he has no natural constituency any more, right or left. He was opposed to female suffrage. He supported Jim Crow. He wrote about Anglo-Saxon racial supremacy. He makes a good bad guy. He was also an intellectual, the first U.S. president to hold a Ph.D., and not just any intellectual: he had a law degree, but, before he became president, he was an American historian, with a special interest in constitutional history.

This professor-president has convenient similarities to our current chief executive — a scholar of constitutional law, professorial, intellectual, even, in some people's eyes, effete (as, for instance, T.R. and F.D.R. were not). Also, given that Tea Party populism, at least as represented by remarks made by Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin over the last two years, is dedicated to the proposition that American history — the very study of the nation's past—has been stolen by elitist, leftist intellectuals, discrediting Wilson, broadly, as an intellectual and, specifically, as an American historian, is tactical.

Finally, of course, Wilson was indeed a progressive; he pursued progressive policies, and nominated progressives like Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, targeting Wilson is, to some degree not only arbitrary but also counter-intuitive; much that he wrote aligns very well with today's far right ("America was born a Christian nation," Wilson once said).

I can't speak for Glenn Beck, the Tea Party, or conservatives, but I'm not the least bit bothered by the fact that Wilson was an intellectual (it's the content of his academic writing that I find objectionable), and I don't really think he has all that much in common with Obama. But while the animus toward Wilson from the right is relatively new, or at least more pronounced than it's been in the past, Wilson has always drawn the ire of libertarians. Among the many reasons why:

  • He dishonestly led us into a pointless, costly, destructive war, and assumed control over huge sectors of the economy to wage it. He seized railroads, food and energy production, and implemented price controls.
  • He suppressed dissent and imprisoned war critics. Said Wilson, "Conformity will be the only virtue. And every man who refuses to conform will have to pay the penalty." He signed the Espionage and Sedition Acts, the latter of which made it a criminal offense to "oppose the cause of the United States." He retaliated against critical newspapers, and directed the U.S. Postal Service to stop delivering mail determined to be critical of the war effort.
  • Wilson not only continued existing racial segregation of federal government workers, he extended it.
  • He instituted the first military draft since the Civil War.
  • He signed the first federal drug prohibition.
  • He reinstituted the federal income tax.

A few more, from Gene Healy's book, The Cult of the Presidency:

  • Wilson believed in an activist, imperialist presidency. In his 1909 book Constitutional Government, he made the case against checks and balances and the separation of powers. The government, Wilson argued, is a living organism, and "no living thing can have its organs offset against each other as checks, and live."
  • He ordered unconstitutional, unilateral military interventions into Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. (He also oversaw military interventions in Panama and Cuba, and instituted American-favored dictators throughout Latin America.)
  • Wilson believed God ordained him to be president, and acted accordingly, boasting to one friend in 1913 that "I have been smashing precedents almost daily every since I got here." Every president since Jefferson had given the State of the Union in writing. Wilson reinstituted what Jefferson derided as the "speech from the Throne," and ordered Congress assembled to hear him speak, giving rise to the embarrassing spectacle the SOTU has become today.
  • He oversaw a massive domestic spying program, and encouraged American citizens to report one another for subversion.

Lepore is correct that some of these libertarian objections are actually points of similarity between Wilson and modern conservatives. But I think a more interesting question than Why does the right hate Wilson? is, given all of this, along with his belief in white racial superiority and opposition to women's suffrage, why do presidential historians seem to like him so much? Similarly, why do historians seem to be most smitten with the presidents who most exceed their constitutional authority?

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  1. I think a more interesting question than Why does the right hate Wilson? is, given all of this, along with his belief in white racial superiority and opposition to women’s suffrage

    Strawman much?

    1. You might want to re-read that sentence.

    2. You should finish reading that sentence.

  2. Praise for Wilson makes me want to cry on national TV.

    1. Yeah but anyone opposed to the war and the draft was a possible communist subverter of the state and should be spied on and arrested just in case.

  3. This professor-president has convenient similarities to our current chief executive ? a scholar of constitutional law

    Stop. Stop this at once. Barack Obama is not a “scholar of constitutional law.” He has produced no legal scholarship. He’s a non-practicing attorney who taught a non-rigorous law school class for a couple of years. He has written nothing of note other than two autobiographies (maybe).

    1. All I need to know about Obama’s knowledge of the Constitution I learned from his reaction to the Citizen’s United ruling. Anyone who wants to argue that the right to freedom of speech is only for individuals and does not extend to groups of individuals cannot be taken seriously as a Constitutional scholar.

      1. Aww. But what other doctrine will allow the coming Republican majority to muzzle the New York Times Company and national Public Radio, Inc.?

      2. Last I checked, CU wasn’t a unanimous ruling.

        1. Yes, there are idiots on the Supreme Court, too. That was your point, right?

      3. All I need to know is Obama’s concept of “positive rights”, and how he managed to say “negative rights” without anyone seeing spittle fly from his mouth on national television.

  4. given all of this, along with his belief in white racial superiority and opposition to women’s suffrage, why do presidential historians seem to like him so much?

    Largely the same reason that the left still adores Margaret Sanger, despite her racism embrace of eugenics.

    1. Jefferson owned black people and you guys worship him.

      1. This should answer both comments: We admire the good things that he did and stood for, not everything about him.

        1. Exactly, which is why the racial stuff can’t possibly be the main source of criticism against Wilson. He wasn’t great even for his time, but he still was a product of his time. I think the biggest complaint behind it all is the income tax and other progressive policies, that is, the stuff Wilson is generally praised for.

          1. But I’ve never really heard a liberal or progressive say a nice thing about Warren G. Harding, despite Harding pardoning Eugene Debs and all those other people, and getting the Alien and Sedition Acts repealed. Wilson was not just a product of his time, he was especially bad for his time on civil liberties and racism, and pushed the envelope in a bad way on those issues.

            Which means, Tony, that what you’re arguing is that all liberals and progressives really care about is the income tax and regulation, not civil liberties at all. That’s quite plausible, considering how civil liberties dropped of the radar as soon as President Obama took office.

          2. Exactly, which is why the racial stuff can’t possibly be the main source of criticism against Wilson.

            No you are wrong. Jefferson never took a step backward and as a founder he took many steps forward. Wilson when he re-segregated gave back hard earned progress.

            Go look up William McKinley who was president 20 years before Wilson and see a real President who actually moved the ball forward in terms of equality for blacks.

            ” It must not be equality and justice in the written law only. It must be equality and justice in the law’s administration everywhere, and alike administered in every part of the Republic to every citizen thereof. It must not be the cold formality of constitutional enactment. It must be a living birthright.[12] ”
            ” Our black allies must neither be forsaken nor deserted. I weigh my words. This is the great question not only of the present, but is the great question of the future; and this question will never be settled until it is settled upon principles of justice, recognizing the sanctity of the Constitution of the United States.[12] ”
            ” Nothing can be permanently settled until the right of every citizen to participate equally in our State and National affairs is unalterably fixed. Tariff, finance, civil service, and all other political and party questions should remain open and unsettled until every citizen who has a constitutional right to share in the determination is free to enjoy it.[12] ”

            Wilson was the worst sort of regressive and if you were not a complete hack you would hate him as well.

            1. I do not have a strong opinion of Wilson one way or the other. I know that he’s consistently ranked among the best presidents, and I also know he was far from perfect. I just don’t give a crap because he’s not relevant to anything, unless you’re a paranoid Glenn Beck devotee.

              1. Tony –

                “Who cares if he imprisoned innocent people, oppressed black americans and lied his way into a war. PHDs think he’s great and that all I care about.”

                1. Washington slaughtered Indians, Lincoln presided over a wasteful, bloody war and was a racist himself, Jefferson owned black people, FDR put Japanese people in concentration camps, and that’s most of Mt. Rushmore. Moral sensibilities have evolved considerably since over the centuries.

                  1. FDR isn’t on Mount Rushmore. Teddy Roosevelt is.

              2. He’s consistently ranked among the best presidents? By whom? He not only got us involved in World War I, which was a conflict we had no business entering, he also pretty well helped lay the groundwork for World War II with his insistence of the League of Nations at all cost versus a workable peace treaty. His other “accomplishments” have been cataloged in the article and by other posters. It’s hard to think of a reason to think he was even good, let alone among the best of our presidents. Can you offer up anything positive that would offset the numerous criticisms of him?

                As for his relevance, I would tend to agree with you, other than keeping in mind that we should learn from history in order to avoid repeating it. Sadly, we don’t seem to do that as a country.

              3. I do not have a strong opinion of Wilson one way or the other.

                That’s because you’re utterly devoid of any sense of decency. Maybe with a lot of work, you could learn to pretend that you have one, like so many of the politicians you admire.

                -jcr

            2. Go look up William McKinley who was president 20 years before Wilson and see a real President who actually moved the ball forward in terms of equality for blacks.

              I think you mean William Denali. They changed the name to the native version.

        2. This should answer both comments: We admire the good things that he did and stood for, not everything about him.

          The difference is that Jefferson’s slave ownership stands in marked contrast to his ideals of the equality of men.

          While Sanger’s advocacy for abortion and sterilization flowed directly from her eugenicist beliefs. They’re really not comparable at all.

      2. I’m not much of a Jefferson fan.

      3. Jefferson owned black people and you guys worship him.

        Jefferson increased individual liberty and limited the power of the state.

        Wilson limited individual liberty and increased the power of the state.

        Both were men of their times but there is a difference between taking a step forward and taking 10 steps back.

        1. Jefferson limited the power of the state by illegally doubling its territory.

          1. Bingo! Once President, Jefferson began exceeding his constitutional authority.

      4. Jefferson never purchased slaves. You should check your premises.

  5. Way back in the sixties, our history teacher was smitten with Wilson’s idea for a League of Nations: if the ideal had not been crushed by the U.S. refusal to participate, then maybe Hitler wouldn’t have come to power and
    he (my teacher) wouldn’t have had to spend a year slogging up the boot of Italy. So Wilson was a great president for trying.

    1. If Wilson hadn’t gotten us into WWI and brokered the punitive Treaty of Versailles, there wouldn’t have been a reason for Hitler’s rise to power.

      Germany only this year finished paying off its “reparations”.

      The League of Nations and its follow on the U.N. were the worst ideas ever. You can trace back the conflict in the Middle East directly back to the League of Nations and its adoption of the Balfour Declaration which is what put Jews and Arabs at odds with one another and continues to sew animosity even to this day.

      1. Arab-Jewish tension and violence goes back about 1400 years. So no on this.

        1. I think he means European Jew vs. Arab tension.

        2. Actually, your claim isn’t supported by the historical record. The BD made Arabs second-class citizens and failed to recognize that they too had claim to the land in the region.

          There was no “terrorism” between Arabs and Jews in the region until the British took over and announced that Jews had sole claim of the area. And Jewish terror groups started systematically, under the auspices of the new empire-backed policy, eliminating Arabs, sometimes entire villages.

          No, that sort of thing did NOT occur prior to WWI.

          There are of course many other problems with how the nations and maps were re-drawn by the Brits and US after the war was over. The main point is that Wilson’s actions gave us both the Nazis and the Palistine conflict. He was one of the worst Presidents ever to hold the office.

          The Neoconservatives LOVE Wilson. They have done their damndest to emulate and continue his legacy.

    2. If Wilson hadn’t gotten involved in WWI in the first place, Hitler almost certainly never would have come to power and your teacher never would need to dodge artillery in Anzio.

      Also, the Soviet Union never would have existed so we probably wouldn’t have had a Korean war, or a Vietnam war, or a Chinese revolution. And as Afganistan part un would not have happened in the 80s, we probably wouldn’t have an Afganistan part deux either after the 9/11 that probably wouldn’t have happened to begin with. This would make Iraq unlikely to have happened as well.

      You could argue that other things would have happened which might not necessarily be better then how things turned out, and I’m sure that is true, up to a point. But I don’t really see how this alleged history could be worse than the reality we have already experienced.

      1. What makes you think that Wilson was the primary driver behind the punitive sanctions on Germany? It’s my understanding that France led the way on that, and that America (through Wilson) was a moderating influence.

        Also, what does Wilson have to do with the existence of the Soviet Union?

        1. Perhaps you should read up on Wilson’s 14 points which made it into the treaty. The man virtually wrote the whole thing and threatened Germany with permanent occupation if they wouldn’t sign.

        2. What makes you think that Wilson was the primary driver behind the punitive sanctions on Germany? It’s my understanding that France led the way on that, and that America (through Wilson) was a moderating influence.

          Also, what does Wilson have to do with the existence of the Soviet Union?

          Because the war would have been ended in a stalemate had America not entered it. A peace treaty would have been signed and everyone would have went home. America broke that stalemate and put Germany on the defensive. Germany was so desperate that they tried something novel: they gave a bunch of money and supplies to someone called Vladimir Lenin to stir up trouble in Russia, which would hopefully take pressure off of them in the eastern front. It worked.

          1. Except that, even though the U.S. declared war on April 6, 1917, the doughboys didn’t engage the Germans until late November 1917, after Lenin had already come to power.

  6. “This professor-president has convenient similarities to our current chief executive ? a scholar of constitutional law, professorial, intellectual”

    BULLSHIT. Obama is a prefabricated and tightly-controlled media package that has zealously concealed records relevant to assessing the man, both intellectually and ethically.

    And he has never been a scholar, in any sense of that word. Show me one damned scholarly study the man published — even in so modest a form as one single peer-reviewed article.

    All you have to do is listen to him for a moment off script. No sentient person could mistake him for “professorial” or “intellectual.”

    1. Did you see him enter the fanatics den when he addressed the GOP caucus, unscripted, and *schooled* the assembly? His predecessor had a handful of press conferences with a cowed and sycophantic press core in 8 years. You need to drop the meme, it ain’t working.

  7. Wilson did all those bad things without the help or complicity of Congress or the Supreme Court? Wow. He really was a king!

  8. [W]hy do presidential historians seem to like him so much? Similarly, why do historians seem to be most smitten with the presidents who most exceed their constitutional authority?

    Because many of these so-called historians are actually romantics.

    1. And leftists in love with the idea of a powerful central government fixing all problems.

      1. Take a look at this compendium of historian rankings of US presidents, together with wars they started.

        Consistently in Top 10:

        Washington
        Jefferson
        Jackson – Trail of Tears
        Polk – Mexican War
        Lincoln – Civil War
        McKinley – Spanish-American War
        T Roosevelt
        F Roosevelt – WW2
        Truman – Korea
        Eisenhower – Nam

        Consistently in bottom 10:

        Tyler
        Fillmore
        Pierce
        Buchanan
        A Johnson
        Grant
        Harding
        Coolidge
        GW Bush – Afg, Irq

          1. Also forgot to add to “top 10” Wilson – WW1

            1. Grant has been undergoing a real reassessment among historians. Among other things, he was the best president on civil rights after Lincoln and LBJ. His negatives were often the product of Southern revisionist historians who glorified the Lost Cause, while claiming that the Civil War was about States Rights instead of what it was obviously about: slavery.

  9. Similarly, why do historians seem to be most smitten with the presidents who most exceed their constitutional authority?

    I had a history prof in the 90’s tell the class that the only way for a president to be judged great was to win a war and expand his powers. He didn’t say that was a bad thing, either.

    1. It seems the most interesting presidencies coincide with the most interesting periods of American History. Dull presidencies tend not to get much press, I guess.

      A hundred years from now, will anybody be able to say anything big about Clinton? Without a major war or upheaval, he will only really be known for getting impeached for having a sexual encounter.

      1. Please feel my pain.

        1. Umm, my pain is a little lower.

      2. Coolidge was president during the “Roaring Twenties” which I would certainly call interesting. A third of FDR’s presidency was during the awful and uninteresting Great Depression without a war.

    2. How else is politician going to exalt himself? And if you’re an expert on a subject, wouldn’t you prefer it to be an exalted subject?

  10. I find it interesting that Reason doesn’t mention the worst thing besides WWI that Wilson gave us: The Federal Reserve.

    Since 1913 the US “Dollar” has lost 96% of its original value. This is a stunning theft of the wealth of our citizenry.

  11. I’ll tell you exactly What’s Wrong With Woodrow Wilson: He’s fucking dead.

    1. I think that’s one of his good points.

      1. Maybe he means medically?

    2. Ah, but was he fucking sheep?

  12. I’d suggest that the real reason scholars tend to be so enamored of presidents who greatly expand the powers of the government (not just Wilson, but also Lincoln and the two Roosevelts) is because they’ve spent the majority of their lives inside the university environment — which is, of course, financed and controlled by the government. And you don’t bite the hand what feeds you, hey?

  13. Finally, of course, Wilson was indeed a progressive; he pursued progressive policies, and nominated progressives like Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court.

    Jill just answered her own stupid-assed question.

    much that he wrote aligns very well with today’s far right (“America was born a Christian nation,” Wilson once said).

    Perhaps Jill would improve herself to learn a little scripture so that she, unlike her hero B.O. Barackus, will avoid revealing her woeful ignorance of it.

    “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. -Matthew 7:21

  14. How does one get to be one of these so-called ‘intellectuals’ about whom so much has been written?

  15. I think Wilson is often mentioned as a “great” President by historians because they are using the word “great” differently than most other people do. Great can mean good, like “man, this ice cream is great!” But historians in theory are supposed to be objective evaluators of historical matters and so they will tend to not think of great Presidents in that way. Instead they likely are using great in the sense “of major significance or importance.” In that sense of great Wilson simply was great, in fact even his modern day detractors prove this fact (after all, if he was a minor leader who started little changes in America there would be little reason to hate him). This explains why Lincoln rubs shoulders with Jackson on these lists. While one had views more congenial to this day and age on things like race, both were “of major significance.” Ditto Wilson and others…

    1. That makes sense.

    2. Bullshit.

    3. that is a well written apology.

    4. By that standard, Hoover, Nixon, and Bush II should be on any “greatest” list. Hint: they’re not. (Bush II obviously only on the recent surveys)

      1. Other than getting pushed out what did Nixon do “of major significance” that would put him in with those other Presidents? Ditto for Hoover, and to be honest same for Bush II…Did any of them oversee structural changes that were as momentous as those the top rated historians oversaw?

        One reason you can tell that it is not just “liberal approval” of what the Presidents did is that Andrew Jackson and Polk are consistently in the top ranks despite how distasteful both are to modern liberals.

        1. I think Nixon deserves an uptick in approval, unlike the hagiography that’s built up around say Reagan. Nixon was after all the most liberal president until maybe Obama.

          A general point: great presidents are made by circumstances. The highest rated usually had the highest body counts, too.

          1. I think Nixon deserves an uptick in approval,

            Of course you do! MMMM, tasty boots to lick, aren’t they?

            -jcr

        2. what did Nixon do “of major significance”

          He reneged on the promise to pay gold for US dollars, setting off a wage of inflation like we hadn’t seen since the civil war. He also imposed illegal wage and price controls just like FDR did.

          Watergate was the least of Tricky Dick’s crimes.

          -jcr

  16. What a fucking bitch. I’ve had WW at the top of my shitty presidents list for at least ten years. For all the fucking obvious reasons. But according to her the reason I don’t like him is because he had too much “book-learnin” and Glenn Beck told me so. Fuck you elitist fucking bitch.

    1. Not bad, but you didn’t say “fuck” enough times. And not even one “douche”?

      1. Elitist fucking bitches don’t douche.

        1. Women shouldn’t douche anyway.

          1. You’re thinking too long term, man. Live in the now. Like, just because it’s bad for the goose doesn’t mean it’s bad for the gander.

  17. The answer to the headline would be everything.

  18. My grandfather did time in Atlanta for passing out anti-war literature. Woodrow Wilson was a goddamned traitor to the United States, and he should have died from a broken neck after a six foot drop on the end of a rope.

    No, scratch that. Wilson should have died from an agonizing strangulation by an incompetent hangman. To hell with that power-hungry son of a bitch.

    -jcr

    1. His death in real life doesn’t sound too pleasant from what I’ve heard. The last year or so of his administration his wife was pulling the strings while he was off drooling in a corner by himself.

      1. I’m sure she did a far better job than he did.

        -jcr

  19. He dishonestly led us into a pointless, costly, destructive war

    +100 Among all the lies explicitly and implicitly taught about US history, one of the biggest is that our intervention in WWI was some kind of great crusade.

    1. Who would you rather have had for President: Warhawk Teddy Roosevelt who would have called for entry in to the war sooner, or Wilson who only called for war after the sinking of the Lusitania, pressure from Roosevelt, the resuming of German unrestricted submarine warfare, and the discovery of the Zimmerman note?

  20. Wilson was beloved by many because he appointed Brandeis to the Supreme Court, making him the rare racist who was not an anti-semite, and boosting the pro-business-regulation and deference to Congress branch of the Court. His entry into WWI was important because of his attempt afterward to set up the League of Nations with the USA as a member. This made him beloved by the “progressive” Democrats and pro-business (NE) Republicans.

  21. guess its no surprise she is coming out with a new book “The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History” whose theme seems to be that the tea partier etc are misinterpreting american history.

    while I think Glen Beck and some tea party types are guilty of this, I don’t accept her interpretation of history as correct, either.

  22. He was also an intellectual, the first U.S. president to hold a Ph.D., and not just any intellectual: he had a law degree, but, before he became president, he was an American historian, with a special interest in constitutional history.

    He did *not* have a law degree. He studied for a couple of semesters in the “Department of Law” at the University of Virginia, but he never took his degree.

  23. If you remove the racist and sexist parts of the description, he sounds a lot like a combination of Obama and W Bush.

  24. Wilson also sent troops to intervene in the USSR and had citizens arrested for criticizing US policy in their own homes.

  25. Woodrow Wilson = George W. Bush.

    ? Domestic Spying
    ? Misguided Wars
    ? Empire Building
    ? Massive Expansion of Federal Power

    The Imperial Presidency indeed.

  26. Wilson’s presidency is eerily similar to George W. Bush’s presidency. What I find odd is that many of the people who supported Bush or who stood by silently (I’m talking about you, Libertarians) as Bush expanded the power of the presidency, are so vehemently anti-Wilson.

    1. Libertarians are generally in a bad place politically. Their ideology simply doesn’t resonate with many Americans, so they have to throw in with whichever party seems more likely to advance libertarian ideas.

      It never, ever works. Some libertarians remained silent during the Bush administration’s trashing of civil liberties and the constitution, believing it to be more “free-market” than the alternatives (it wasn’t).

      But those are (in my personal opinion) the same libertarians who believed that economic freedom mattered more than civil rights. Not all libertarians are that blind.

  27. Many presidential historians are really just cheerleaders. Wilson “won” a war, Americans like their presidents to be heroes, so he gets to be adore, though I do think he gets major points for the whole League of Nations thing. Quite frankly, as a liberal, I’ve never been quite comfortable with the guy.

  28. Plenty to dislike, though quite why we should be debating this with such vehemence NOW is probably a question best left to Glenn Beck and his imaginary friends.

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