Guest Essayist: Professor Joerg Knipprath, Professor of Law at Southwestern Law School

Thomas Woodrow Wilson was dour, humorless, and convinced of the fallen nature of all but the elect few and of the need for strong leaders with proper principles who would provide the discipline and vision for the moral guidance of the weak at home and abroad. Calvinist in appearance, outlook, and family background, he perfectly matched the caricature of a Puritan. Those traits also made him a perfect Progressive.

Wilson was strongly influenced by 19th century German intellectual thought, especially Hegel’s views of the State as the evolutionary path of an Idea through history, and by contemporary adaptations of Darwinian theories to social science. He enthusiastically embraced the nascent ideology of the State. He characterized that entity as organic and contrasted his conception with the mechanical view of the 18th century framers of the Constitution. As he wrote in Constitutional Government, “The trouble with [the Framers’ approach] 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. It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton.”

The “organic” State tied to the people in some mystical union must not, and perhaps cannot, be shackled by a fusty piece of parchment and a system of checks and balances of power. If possible, an entirely new constitutional order must be created that would reflect the inevitable ascendancy of the State in human affairs. If that was not a realistic choice due to reactionary political forces or sentimental popular attachments, the parchment must be broadly amended. During Wilson’s first presidential term, constitutional amendments to authorize a federal income tax and to elect Senators by popular vote were approved, though they had been proposed before he was elected.

Beyond formal amendment of the Constitution, the various components of the government had to be marshaled into the service of Progressivism. Thus, the Congress had to be called on to pass far-reaching laws that increased state power at the expense of individualism, along the path of predestined political evolution to collectivism. The result was a series of federal regulatory laws in union-management affairs, antitrust, child labor, tax, and—through the creation of the Federal Reserve system—banking. That activism was replicated in many states. The era of big government had begun.

As usual, the Supreme Court took longer. Though the Court upheld many particulars of Progressive legislation, the organic theory of the state was not embodied forthrightly in its decisions until the later New Deal years and the post-World War 2 emergence of the “Living Constitution” jurisprudence. Adherents to the Progressive deification of the State, then and now, have sought to remake judicial doctrine by untethering it from formal constitutional structure in order to increase the power of the collective at the expense of the individual. Their efforts have focused on an expansive interpretation of Congressional powers, disregard of the prohibition against excessive delegation of power to bureaucracies, and a transformation of the Equal Protection Clause into a source of “positive” equality achieved through affirmative action and entitlement to welfare and other financial support paid by unwilling taxpayers. On that last point, success has been slow in coming. But since every political entity necessarily has a constitution, the Progressive “organic state” necessarily requires a progressive “living” constitution.

That left the Presidency. Wilson’s early works reflected his contempt for American separation of powers and urged constitutional change to a parliamentary-style Congress with centralized power and an expanding federal bureaucracy as the necessary prescription. Over the next two decades, his intellectual perceptions changed significantly. Wilson regarded the administrations of Grover Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt as exemplary. His last major work, Constitutional Government (1908), focused on the Presidency as the engine for change.

Wilson’s views of the Presidency were thoroughly 20th century. He viewed the formal constitutional powers of the office as minor matters and regarded its occupant as increasingly burdened by obligations as party leader and as executor of the laws and administrator of Congressional policies. That burden had become impossible for a single man, a refrain frequently heard before and since. This fact of political life would only become more pressing as the inevitable—and welcome—evolution to a more powerful and controlling State progressed.

Therefore, a president will and must leave the performance of those duties increasingly in the hands of subordinates. The appointment of trusted officials is more important than the selection of wise men of different opinion to give him counsel, as George Washington did, or of leaders of prominent factions within the party coalition, as was the practice of, among others, Abraham Lincoln. Instead, as Wilson wrote, presidents must become “directors of affairs and leaders of the nation,–men of counsel and of the sort of action that makes for enlightenment.”

Theodore Roosevelt’s “bully pulpit” construct of the Presidency was the new model. The traditional chief executive would deal with the congressional chieftains to influence policy as it emerged in response to the broadly-felt needs of the times. Instead, the modern president would bypass the ordinary channels of political power and appeal to the public to shape policy to his creative vision. Wilson wrote, “The President is at liberty, both in law and in conscience, to be as big a man as he can. His capacity will set the limit….” This Nietzschean conception of the Presidency as a vessel for its occupants to exercise their will to power is quintessentially fascistic, as Jonah Goldberg has amply developed in his book Liberal Fascism. The focus on the charismatic and messianic leader as the ideal of government and the vehicle for progress to a just society is a hallmark of American progressivism to this day and has also characterized the more virulent forms of collectivism. There are telling appellations:  Il Duce Mussolini, Der Fuehrer Hitler, Vozhd Joe Stalin, El Lider Castro, and North Korea’s Kims (Great Leader, Dear Leader, and Respected Leader). Personality cults inevitably follow Progressive-style leaders.

Such leaders set the political stage by their mobilization of the masses through speeches and personal appearances, but leave the formulation and administration of actual policy to others. Recent history continues to provide examples of what earlier Progressives, such as the Roosevelts and Wilson, practiced. Recent events also demonstrate that the lack of political accountability, which Wilson decried in the Constitution’s formal separation of powers, is enabled more in his system where the president is “above the fray” while little-known and uncontrolled subordinates carry out all manner of critical policies without, allegedly, his awareness.

Wilson’s descriptions of the Presidency and the reality of political practice have a core of truth, lest his prescriptions not be plausible. To get to those prescriptions, however, he sets ablaze many constitutional straw men. Though he pays lip service to the Constitution’s framers’ sagacity, he understates their practical appreciation of the office. They were not naïfs. Alexander Hamilton wrote several Federalist Papers that extolled the need for energy and accountability in the Presidency which he argued were furthered by the Constitution’s structure of the unitary executive. Through his Pacificus Letters, Hamilton is also the foundational advocate of a theory of broad implied executive authority on which later presidents have relied. George Washington shaped the contours of the Executive Branch by his actions within the purposely ambiguous contours of presidential powers under the Constitution. There were serious debates in the Washington administration about the nature of the president’s cabinet and the constitutional relationship between the president and the officers, debates that were generally resolved in favor of presidential control over those officers.

However, Wilson’s adulation of presidential leadership and power with few if any structural restraints is a call for a plebiscitary-style Presidency through popular votes and polling results. Eliminating structural barriers to presidential governance may to some degree enhance the speed and depth of political change. But it also removes a potent source of opposition to executive excess. As Madison wrote in Federalist 51, “A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” A century on, with the legacy of Wilsonian Progressivism still extant, and the bill increasingly steep, the need may be for stronger, not weaker, “auxiliary precautions.”

A couple of asides remain. Professor Wilson’s complained that presidents have been too reticent about fully exercising their constitutional powers and gave as an example their failure to shape national policy through their power (and duty) to deliver a “state of the union” speech to Congress. That practice was abandoned by Thomas Jefferson. President Wilson reinstated it.

Professor Wilson lauded the president’s constitutional and real dominance in foreign affairs. He declared that, despite any misgivings they might have, Senators are hard-pressed to oppose treaties made by the president. Yet, perhaps the greatest political failure of President Wilson was his inability to get his signature foreign relations efforts, the League of Nations Treaty, through the Senate.

Read The President of the United States by Woodrow Wilson here:

An expert on constitutional law, Prof. Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums. Read more from Professor Knipprath at:

Monday, June 3, 2013 

1 reply
  1. Barb Zack
    Barb Zack says:

    It’s like Obama used Woodrow Wilson’s writings as his own model of the Presidency, took a healthy dose of Saul Alinsky, and came up with the frightening and devious presidency he has today. A quasi-Marxist approach where the masses (us) are irrelevant to the State. HOW do we get this Nation back?


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