Founding Guard Against an Unchecked American Executive: World War I and Constraints by the U.S. Constitution on Presidential Powers
World War I, known as the “Great War” by contemporaries, tested whether a Constitution written in the 18th century could handle problems presented by the 20th. President Woodrow Wilson found himself frustrated by the constraints put upon him by the Founders—just as the Founders intended. By limiting the powers of the executive branch and creating structures rooted in pluralism, the foundational wisdom baked into the United States Constitution limited President Woodrow Wilson’s attempts to undermine and undo our political, diplomatic, and constitutional traditions. Although the executive branch has broad authority in foreign policy and during wartime, its powers are not limitless. Those constitutional limits became even more important when a war was global in scope and America had a President who resisted them.
President Wilson came into the presidency hostile to the idea of enacting the Constitution as written or intended. Unlike any previous President (save perhaps Andrew Jackson when grumpy), Wilson believed that the only limit on presidential power was “his capacity” and that his control of foreign policy was “absolute.” After his election in 1912, he could test those theories in earnest. When the Great War began in 1914, Wilson thought he had discovered a way to use the war to transform the world for the better.
According to Wilson, all wars could be prevented with a world association to protect borders, ensure government control of arms manufacturing, and prevent aggressive war for territorial gain. Believing that he could create world peace, Wilson stretched his constitutional wartime powers to their limits. His administration imprisoned political opponents, censored authors, closed newspapers, commandeered whole sectors of the industrial and agricultural economy, and planned for a future peace agreement at odds with our history, politics, culture, and Constitution.
Wilson’s plan (according to him) required the mandate of the American people in the 1918 congressional elections. With that in mind, he explicitly attacked his opponents and asked Americans to “sustain” him and “say so in a way which it will not be possible to misunderstand.” They answered, but their answer did not sustain him. Republicans took both houses of congress.
Undaunted by this rejection, Wilson negotiated the Treaty of Versailles and went to the Senate for its ratification. Congressional hearings revealed the unworkability and radicalism of the treaty. Americans had some common-sense questions about ditching their traditions. Would Americans be obligated to automatically fight and die in wars anywhere and everywhere to protect any border? Would the people and Congress no longer have a say in the declaration of war? Would foreign nations have sovereign authority over American foreign policy? Could foreign nations preclude the United States from maintaining military preparedness or anticipating threats? Would an international body interfere with the individual rights of Americans? As in any debate, good points mixed with frivolous and absurd ones as the politicians with varying interests delayed ratification. The treaty may have been ratified if Wilson had consented to protecting the Constitution, but he would not. Wilson had said he would “consent to nothing” and that “the Senate must take its medicine.” But that was simply not the case. Under the Constitution, the Senate would have its say.
President Wilson could command armies and negotiate the peace treaty, but the Constitution and its adherents ensured that he could not rule as a king or a dictator. The legislature—reflecting the conflicting interests and passions of the American people—used their constitutional powers to prevent Wilson from enacting his plans. In his last days in office Wilson lamented, “Men thought I had all the power. Would to God I had such power.”
Modern readers may recoil at the abuses of the Wilson administration during the war, but someone with a broader global perspective should understand that the proper question should be, “Why were they not worse?” The pluralism inherent in our Constitution does not prevent evil from existing in the world—doing so would require
abolishing freedom– but it does check the spread of evils. Would-be dictators claiming the righteousness of their causes will always claim it is worth it to sacrifice our commitment to pluralism in the service of a grand solution to a grand problem. Our Founders understood that perfection in governance is an impossibility, but as Wilson’s example shows, even the would-be dictators can have their abuses limited. Despite Wilson’s machinations to the contrary, the Constitution limited his ambitions and left the United States standing firmly on its old foundation while the Old World Order collapsed.
Stephen Tootle is a Professor of History at the College of the Sequoias in Visalia, California and Honored Visiting Graduate Faculty in History and Government at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio. His writings have appeared in National Review, Presidential Studies Quarterly, The Claremont Review of Books, The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, and other publications. He gives talks on politics and political history for the Ashbrook Center and the Bill of Rights Institute and is the co-host of The Paper Trail Podcast, a weekly public affairs podcast published by the Sun-Gazette.
 Walter McDougall, Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997), 132.
 Woodrow Wilson, in John Morton Blum, Woodrow Wilson and the Politics of Morality, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1956), 154-155.
 McDougall, 142.
 McDougall, 145.
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