Woodrow Wilson came to Washington in 1913, and he never left. He’s the only President buried in D.C. He became the first President since John Adams to personally address Congress, thus creating the spectacle that grew into the modern State of the Union address. And we’re all still living under an administrative state Wilson envisioned in his scholarly writings and helped to expand during his presidency.
In that vein, it’s fitting that the first paper in a new series from The Heritage Foundation brings the fascinating Wilson to life by detailing his personal as well as professional history. The “Makers of American Political Thought” series will include essays on many of the Founding Fathers, of course. But it will also focus on important leaders who took the country in the wrong direction.
Wilson did. The 28th President triggered a progressive revolution. “Much of his scholarship is devoted to a radical reinterpretation and critique of the political theory of the Founding,” Professor Ronald J. Pestritto explains. Along the way, Wilsonian thinkers have called themselves “progressives,” “liberals” and, these days, “progressives” again. But while the labels have changed, the goal hasn’t.
Most are familiar with Wilson because he was the 28th President of the United States, a presidency most known for its stewardship of American involvement in the First World War and for Wilson’s failed attempt to sign America on to the League of Nations. Wilson also served a partial term as governor of New Jersey before becoming President in 1913.
Prior to his political life, however, Wilson was a prolific scholar and successful academic for over two decades; he was, in fact, the only professional political scientist ever to become President of the United States. And while Wilson’s presidency certainly helped to launch a variety of landmark revisions in the framework of American government (the Federal Reserve and the income tax, to name just two), the ideas that came from his academic work were even more influential on future waves of liberalism in the course of 20th and 21st century American politics.
* Educated at a liberal Princeton. Studied law for a year at the University of Virginia, and went on to get his Ph.D. in History and Political Science from Johns Hopkins University in 1886.
* Professor at Bryn Mawr College, (again) Wesleyan University, and Princeton University (1885–1902).
* Author of The New Freedom (1912). He camPAINED on less government, but in practice as president he added new controls such as the Federal Reserve System and the Clayton Antitrust Act. The New Freedom, an edited collection of Wilson’s speeches from the campaign, remains one of the best-known expressions of Wilson’s brand of Progressivism.
Wilson’s political career began to take shape toward the end of his Princeton presidency. He became known in Progressive circles as a reformer—he gave a series of lectures at Columbia University in 1907, which were published in 1908 as Constitutional Government in the United States, that helped with this reputation—and was recruited by the New Jersey Democratic Party to run for governor in 1910.
The machine bosses (sound familiar?) in New Jersey clearly sought to use Wilson in order to curry favor with the growing reform element in the electorate and calculated (quite mistakenly, it turns out) that Wilson could easily be controlled once in office. Instead, upon his election, Wilson stuck to his Progressive ideas and helped to enact a legislative agenda in 1911 that was a model for Progressives around the country. This record in turn vaulted Wilson into the 1912 race for the presidency, where both parties were looking to win over Progressive voters.
While volumes of biographies have been filled with details of Wilson’s life—and especially of his time in public service—it was Wilson’s political ideas that made the most lasting mark on American political life. These are ideas that helped to shape the profound challenge offered by the Progressive Movement to the basic political principles that undergirded the American constitutional order.
Progressivism—certainly as expounded by Wilson—understood itself as presenting a rationale for moving beyond the political thinking of the American Founding. A prerequisite for national progress, Wilson believed, was that the Founding be understood in its proper historical context. Its principles, in spite of their timeless claims, were intended to deal with the unique circumstances of that day.
Wilson understood that the limits placed upon the power of the national government by the Constitution—limits that Progressives wanted to see relaxed if not removed—were grounded in the natural-rights principles of the Declaration of Independence. This meant, for Wilson, that both the Declaration and the Constitution had to be understood anew through a Progressive lens.