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The Lowdown on the Miscreant Who Got Us into this Mess: Woodrow Wilson

President Woodrow Wilson Presidential Portrait

Claremont Review of Books, the brainiest and best publication in the conservative world, published my review of a new biography of America's first progressive president, Woodrow Wilson. It's an honor to write for CRB, which kindly unlocked the paywall for my piece, entitled "The Great Resenter." CRB is the only political-intellectual journal that I read cover to cover. If you don't subscribe, you should.

Progressive historians present Wilson as a paper saint, but the man was a monster. He was an unreconstructed defender of slavery and a rancorous apologist for the Confederacy. His whole academic and political life was devoted to tearing up the Constitution and replacing it with a progressive dictatorship. This resentment against a Union that had crushed his native south in the Civil War drove his obsession with a world government with power to issue orders to the United States of America.

Some excerpts from my essay are below. Again, read the whole review here, and click here to subscribe.

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So utterly utopian was Wilson’s vision that it is unfair to characterize the internationalism of Bill Clinton or George W. Bush as “Wilsonian.” Clinton and Bush threw America’s weight around after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but they did not propose—as Wilson did—to replace America’s sovereign decision-making with a global council. Wilson’s League of Nations was closer to the conspiracy theorists’ notion of the United Nations. The commonplace belief that minor concessions on his part would have won ratification of the League of Nations treaty is untenable.

A definitive Wilson biography remains to be written. To make sense of his grand overreach in 1919, historians will need to give more attention to his rancor at the U.S. Constitution and his Southerner’s sense of aggrievement over the Civil War. His was a deep, abiding passion for the Lost Cause and a smoldering hatred for those who crushed it. Of the Confederacy, Wilson rhapsodized in his history of the United States:

...There is, in history, no devotion not religious, no constancy not meant for success, that can furnish a parallel to the devotion and constancy of the South in this extraordinary war.

That there was no “parallel to the devotion and constancy of the South” during the Civil War is quite wrong. The South lost nearly 30% of its military-age men in the war, a horrendous sacrifice that yielded a century of relative poverty, a predilection for Gothic literature, and a culture of enduring resentment. Napoleon killed as large a proportion of Frenchmen during his wars, by my calculation; so did France and Spain during the Thirty Years War. Wilson was born into the heart of the Confederacy; his father, the Reverend Joseph Wilson, hosted the breakaway convention of the Presbyterian Church of the Confederacy after the national Presbyterian body condemned slavery. The family moved to Columbia, South Carolina, “still a blackened wreck,” in O’Toole’s words, when Woodrow was 13.

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The elder Wilson was not merely an apologist for slavery, but an impassioned defender of the institution as an instrument for the salvation of Africans. He preached in an 1861 sermon that one “ought to look forward to the time when they [African slaves] will all be what the bible would make them; a race whose love for the Master above will spread through their rejoicing millions a measure of sanctification which will convert their services into the very first of home-blessings, and their piety into a missionary influence for saving the black man everywhere from the ruin of perdition.” O’Toole does not quote Joseph Wilson’s lurid encomia to slavery, but she does note that “[i]f Woodrow Wilson ever wrote an unkind word about his father, it did not survive. The son voiced his admiration often and at length, and always referred to Joseph as the finest of all of his teachers.” Like his father, Woodrow Wilson defended slavery, although a bit more cautiously:

Books like Mrs. Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which stirred the pity and deep indignation of northern readers, certainly depicted possible cases of inhuman conduct towards slaves. Such cases there may have been; they may even have been frequent; but they were in every sense exceptional, showing what the system could produce, rather than what it did produce as its characteristic spirit and method. For public opinion in the South, while it recognized the necessity for maintaining the discipline of subordination among the hosts of slaves, was as intolerant of the graver forms of cruelty as was the opinion of the best people in the North. The punishment of the negroes, when severe, was in most cases for offences which were in effect petty crimes, like the smaller sorts of theft. Each master was in practice really a magistrate, possessing a sort of domestic jurisdiction upon his plantation.

Wilson scholars have long observed that the future president shared John C. Calhoun’s view of the Constitution as a failing experiment, unable to prevent factious government. Calhoun believed, in the late Harry V. Jaffa’s summary, that good “[c]onstitutions are the result of mindless struggles in which chance adaptation to the constitutional forms results in the benefits which causes the form to be perpetuated.” Jaffa argued in A New Birth of Freedom (2000) that Calhoun was the original American Progressive. Wilson is evidence for that thesis.

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The constitution in Wilson’s reading had become a relic of a bygone era. He proposed to jettison this putatively archaic document in favor of a government less burdened by checks and balances. His first major publication in political theory, an 1879 essay titled “Cabinet Government in the United States,” preferred what he called the British Cabinet system to America’s separation of powers. What he advocated, of course, had nothing to do with the actual British Constitution, in which the monarchy restricts the capacity of a passing parliamentary majority to undertake drastic and permanent change. Wilson had proposed a sort of quasi-parliamentary dictatorship, with no appeal to natural or unchanging rights. Later he revised his views, resting his hopes on a strong executive Leader to direct the government and people into the future. Unfortunately, O’Toole barely mentions Wilson’s copious writing about political theory. Instead she writes that cabinet government appealed to him because he loved debating and oratory. In place of substance, the reader has a surfeit of personal detail about a rather vain, priggish, self-absorbed man whose favorite diversion was playing solitaire.

The same utilitarian criteria that Wilson applied to the Constitution guided his judgment about capitalism and socialism. He abandoned the personal God of his clerical antecedents in favor of the Social Gospel, to which he was introduced at Princeton by Richard T. Ely, a close friend and ally of movement founder Walter Rauschenbusch. As economists Clifford Thies and Gary Pecquet have observed, “Wilson believed that the difference between socialism and democracy was a matter of means rather than ends.” In an unpublished 1887 essay Wilson averred that socialism

proposes that all idea of limitation of public authority by individual rights be put out of view, and that the state consider itself as bound to stop only at what is unwise or futile in its universal superintendence alike of individual and public interests…. Applied in a democratic state, such doctrine sounds radical, but not revolutionary. It is only a [sic] acceptance of the extremest [sic] logical conclusions deducable from democratic principles long ago received as respectable. For it is very clear that in fundamental theory socialism and democracy are almost if not quite one and the same.

He eschewed mass expropriation of industry only because he thought it inefficient.

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...Only in a few asides to his five-volume A History of the American People (1902) does his passion pour out onto the page, denouncing the Civil War as a monstrous injustice against a Confederacy that did no more than defend itself and its decent and humane system of slavery. He spent his life in search of a mechanism to subvert the Constitution that had ushered in Northern dominance and Southern humiliation. That was the source of his obsession with a supranational entity capable of overriding what he saw as a catastrophically flawed American system of political deliberation... the lost battle for ratification of the League of Nations treaty was the last of the guerilla actions that elements of the Confederacy undertook against the victorious Union.

...The North was as disillusioned after the Civil War as the South was resentful. Louis Menand describes in The Metaphysical Club (2002) a generation of Boston Brahmins who marched to war as evangelical Abolitionists and returned as bloodied pragmatists, convinced that no idea was worth the awful sacrifice they had witnessed. America was ripe for Woodrow Wilson at the turn of the 20th century. It was our luck that this bearer of the Progressive standard was obsessive in his convictions to the point of political ineffectiveness.