Woodrow Wilson: A Failed President
One of the most common ways of judging a president is to simply ask if there was peace and economic prosperity during his time in office? This is a useful analysis, but not entirely complete. The president isn’t the only reason there might be peace or prosperity. Thus, other criteria should be taken into account. What policies did the president pursue? What impact did they have? And how did the president use the power entrusted to him by the American public? By these criteria, Woodrow Wilson was a failed president.
While some historians have given Wilson high marks, their logic escapes me. I suspect it is because Woodrow Wilson was America’s first unabashedly “progressive” chief executive and America’s first “intellectual” president. Thus, liberal academics may have had some affinity “for one of their own” and felt the need to defend his poor record or recast it into a more favorable light. But if Wilson is judged by evaluating how he used and abused the power of the presidency, he is clearly one of the nation’s most dangerous politicians and among its worst presidents.
Some argue that Wilson plunged America unnecessarily into World War I. Wilson’s own Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan was of this opinion and resigned from office rather than support Wilson’s call for war. And while it is true that Wilson ran for reelection on the campaign theme of “He kept us out of the war,” only to change his opposition shortly after winning a very close reelection, it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the merits and demerits of World War I and America’s role in it.
Likewise, some argue that Wilson’s failed leadership and deeply partisan tactics at the Treaty of Versailles helped result in a treaty that harshly punished Germany saddling it with war reparations it could not realistically hope to repay and thus set the stage for the Second World War.
Regardless of one’s view of World War I or the folly of the Treaty of Versailles, the real reason that Wilson is a failed president is because he zealously and systematically sought, obtained and abused power. Perhaps the greatest hallmark of Wilson’s presidency is his disregard for the limits placed on government by the Constitution. This should not come as a surprise because Wilson was a vigorous critic of the Constitution — lamenting that it was a pre-modern approach to government. Additionally, he disliked America’s system of divided power and checks and balances. Ironically, Wilson’s presidency was a case study in why the Constitution was both wise and necessary.
While Wilson’s role in World War I and the Treaty of Versailles are debatable, it is not debatable that Wilson actively sought, obtained, and abused power in a way that would have made Richard Nixon blush. It is because of his abuse of authority and his ruthless use of the power of government to punish his enemies that Wilson is one of our nation’s worst presidents.
Once the U.S. was involved in the war, Wilson sought new powers and greatly expanded authority. For example, Wilson created the Committee on Public Information which was essentially a government propaganda bureau designed to manipulate public opinion. An advisor to Wilson, Edward Bernays, characterized the purpose of the Committee as “engineering of consent” and “the conscious manipulation of the … opinions of the masses.” Simply stated, WIlson created an Orwellian propaganda ministry.
But it wasn’t enough to have a propaganda ministry working to manipulate public support for his agenda. Wilson also tried to silence his opposition. Wilson pushed for laws forbidding Americans to question or criticize their own government during a time of war. Wilson pushed for the Espionage Act, which if it had only criminalized spying, would have been understandable. But it was also used to bully the press and prevent the publication of information that was uncomplimentary of the government. Interestingly, this law, which has seldom been used since Wilson’s presidency, has been abused by the Obama Justice Department to investigate, intimidate, and punish news organizations and journalists.
Wilson also pushed for, and obtained, passage of the Sedition Act. Under this law, Americans could not “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the government. Using this law, the Wilson administration prosecuted politicians who opposed the war, shut down scores of publications, and threatened other publications because of their content.
Wilson aggressively sought authority to overtly censor the press, but those provisions were not included in the bill. As a compromise, the bill included a provision that allowed the Wilson Administration to stop circulation of any “offending” publication by using the U.S. Postal Service to stop circulation. At the time, that was a very effective way to shut down those who disagreed with Wilson’s policies.
Speaking before Congress in 1915, Wilson ominously said, “The gravest threats against our national peace and safety have been uttered within our own borders. There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit … who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life; who have sought to bring the authority and good name of our Government into contempt….”
These words are troubling enough, but Wilson took action to punish those who he deemed “disloyal.” Using these laws, the Wilson Administration arrested thousands of Americans. Wilson’s Justice Department also created the American Protective League which was assigned the responsibility of stopping “seditious street oratory.”
Merely criticizing Wilson’s policies was grounds for arrest and imprisonment. Robert Goldstein produced a movie entitled The Spirit of ‘76 which not surprisingly portrayed the British in an unfavorable light, given that it was a film about the American Revolution. But because the British were an ally in World War I, the movie was deemed “seditious.” For this “crime,” Goldstein was sentenced to a ten year prison term.
Even after the war ended, the Wilson Administration continued to target its political adversaries. In what became known as the Palmer Raids (named for Wilson’s Attorney General, Mitchell Palmer) more than 10,000 peopled were arrested for seditious and disloyal speech. The raid became widely criticized as an outrageous unconstitutional overreach. Massachusetts Judge George Anderson, who was hearing the cases of many of those arrested, put a stop to the abuses and wrote,”[A] mob is a mob, whether made up of Government officials acting under instructions from the Department of Justice, or of criminals and loafers and the vicious classes.”
But Wilson didn’t limit his power grabs to using government power to silence and punish those who disagreed with him. Wilson also took what was then unprecedented authority over the economy. Wilson established the War Industries Board. Its stated purpose was to coordinate the purchase of war supplies, but it went well beyond its stated purpose. The board set production quotas and allocated raw materials. Through the Board and other government agencies, the Wilson Administration closely controlled commerce. Even those industries that were not essential to the war effort were heavily regulated. Grosvenor Clarkson, who was a member of the Board characterized the board as “an industrial dictatorship without parallel.”
When a president abuses authority, and takes to himself powers to which he is not entitled, and views the Constitution as an impediment to governing rather than the standard by which good government is to be judged, he makes himself a tyrant and a dictator, and an enemy of freedom.
Notably absent from my analysis of Wilson’s presidency are his failed foreign policy adventures like the League of Nations. Also absent are Wilson’s well-documented racial hatred and the policies he instituted which formalized racial discrimination in federal employment and instituted segregation in the federal workplace and the armed forces.
As a result of Wilson’s policies, segregation and discrimination grew dramatically and generations passed before the damage was undone. But even without these notable and odious deficiencies, Wilson’s systematic disdain for the limited government principles in the Constitution have contributed more than any other president to the dramatic reshaping of our Constitution and our system of government.
Read Woodrow Wilson’s, “The Study of Administration” here: https://constitutingamerica.org/?p=4350
George Landrith is the President of Frontiers of Freedom.
Wednesday, June 5, 2013