Constitution 201: Woodrow Wilson and the Rejection of the Founders’ Principles

The Founders had argued that we were governed by unchanging human nature, permanent truths about the human condition. This led to the recognition of inalienable individual rights, and the responsibility of a just government to secure them. While our reason makes us fit for self government, we must also accept that our passions can be dangerous to its just realization. A constitutional framework must distribute power widely, and establish checks on those powers, to ensure our ultimate reliance on reason and to minimize negative effects from the passions of factions—even majority factions.

The Progressives have challenged the universalism of the Founders. Founding principles were fine for the problems we faced at the end of the eighteenth century. However, conditions change, bringing new problems. Government must evolve to meet new challenges, and the people must be free to adapt government forms to more easily resolve modern problems. There are no inalienable individual rights, but only rights and responsibilities as determined by society through the operation of government.

We can make no sense of our current politics without understanding the nature of the Progressive rejection of our founding ideas. We can ascribe to the Progressives, from late nineteenth century to modern days, our departure from the clear meaning of both Declaration and Constitution. The American left no longer calls itself “liberal,” (a mis-classification in any event), but now proudly waves the Progressive banner. In 2008, when asked whether she was a liberal, Hilary Clinton responded that she was a Progressive. She connected her views to those of the early twentieth century Progressive Movement. One of the most influential think tanks on the left is the Center for American Progress. The left no longer hides its intellectual tradition.

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Woodrow Wilson was a man of many talents. As an academic, he contributed major scholarly works in Progressive thought. As a practicing politician, he governed first New Jersey and then theUnited States with new ideas about the role of the executive in our system. We remember that he signed into existence the income tax and the Federal Reserve during his first year as President. Or that he was responsible for our troops in World War I. We think of his reputation as a liberal internationalist. He unsuccessfully tried to soften the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. He did manage to bring about theLeague of Nations, though he failed to win American participation in it. Yet, perhaps more important than all of this, the only professional political scientist to ever ascend to the Presidency left a legacy of ideas that has served as a foundation for modern Progressivism.

Woodrow Wilson was born in Virginia in 1856. He graduated from Princeton in 1879, and studied law at the University of Virginia. However, he found he was more interested in the ideas undergirding the law than in a law practice. He enrolled at Johns Hopkins University in their new graduate program in political science. Hopkins had opened in 1876, dedicated to bringing German educational principles to the United States. It was no longer necessary for scholars to travel to Germany for advanced education. Hopkins became the intellectual home for Progressives like Wilson and John Dewey. After Wilson received his doctorate, and much praise for his early scholarly work, he won an appointment at Princeton in 1890 and eventually succeeded to the presidency of Princeton in 1902. Wilson gave a series of lectures at Columbia in 1907, and these were collected into book form in 1908 as Constitutional Government in the United States. His reputation as a reformer made him attractive to theNew Jersey political machine; believing they could control him, they managed to get him elected Governor in 1910. They were quite wrong about that. Wilson pushed through a legislative agenda in 1911 that was considered a model for Progressives countrywide. This validated his ideological bona fides. Both parties were looking to win over Progressives in 1912. The Democrats nominated him for the Presidency, and he prevailed over both the Taft Republicans and the Roosevelt Bull Moosers.

Wilson’s clear break with the Founders may be found in almost every political speech and academic article. In 1911, he addressed the Jefferson Club of Los Angeles: “If you want to understand the real Declaration of Independence, do not repeat the preface.” He saw the list of grievances against the King that justified the Revolution as the important part of the Declaration. Those were the problems that burdened the people of those days, and justified their political action. The first part of the Declaration that speaks of inalienable individual rights and the responsibility of a just government to secure them was simply a construct for those times, certainly not binding on future generations facing different historical conditions. Wilson’s advice: “Make a new table of contents, make a new set of counts in the indictment, make a new statement of the things you mean to set right, and then call all the civilized world to witness, as that great document does, that you mean to settle these things in the spirit of liberty, but also in the spirit of justice and responsibility.” For Wilson, it always seemed that individual liberty would be sacrificed at the altar of “social justice.”

Progressive principles followed the German idea of historical contingency. Forms of government must be contingent on the problems pressing us at any given time in history. The scope of government must be significantly enlarged to solve problems created by an ever more complex society, where organization and association threatened the well-being of mostly powerless individuals. Government must be flexible enough to adapt to this new reality, should trade in the guarantee of individual rights for the protection of individuals and society from the many ills that might befall them. The regulatory and redistributionist state suggested by this new purpose may be seen today in the Obama campaign’s “Life of Julia,” where at every turning point in a woman’s life it is a government program that stands between her and disaster. As Progressivism has aged, it has become ever more convinced of personal inefficacy and of the need for government interventions.

The Founders certainly accepted that government would have to respond to new problems over time. However, they believed a just government would always remain the same in the basic aim of securing individual inalienable rights. If people are so unable to take responsibility for their own lives, how can they be trusted with self government? And where are the paragons so able to not only conduct their own lives, but also conduct the lives of everyone else? And aren’t there permanent truths about human nature that demonstrate the dangers of increased, unchecked power in the hands of one’s fellow men?

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The radical nature of the Progressive departure from the Founding may be seen in the comparison of Wilson’s thoughts on the Declaration with those of Lincoln in 1859: “All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” For Lincoln, as for our Founders, it was the “preface” of the Declaration that was of most importance. The universal truths were more important than the listing of a bill of particulars.

Wilson speculated on the real obligations presented by the Declaration: “We are not bound to adhere to the doctrines held by the signers of the Declaration of Independence: we are as free as they were to make and unmake governments. We are not here to worship men or a document. … Every Fourth of July should be a time for examining our standards, our purposes, for determining afresh what principles and what forms of power we think most likely to effect our safety and happiness. That and that alone is the obligation the Declaration lays upon us.” So, if we are to honor the Declaration, we must replace it. At least he was clear in his intentions.

The authors of The Federalist Papers defended the structure of the new proposed government as a way to address past failures in popular government—to get it right this time. Madison presented the problem of faction, and of majority tyranny—where passions of the moment harm not only the minority, but eventually the whole polity. Government need not be weak, but its power need be carefully restrained and checked so it may vigorously pursue only its proper ends. Be sober, not utopian, in the consideration of human nature. We have learned how to construct institutions to better deal with human nature, but we must recognize the unchanging facts of human nature. Faction is sown in the nature of man. Separation of powers is essential to protect men from the overreach of government. In our representative democracy, no person or group is to have all the power.

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It is this very principle of separation of powers that caused Wilson the most distress, and which he most frequently and intently criticized. Such divided powers are too limiting and mechanical, preventing the very flexibility required to deal with changes in the historical environment. Wilson loved the British system of government: an unwritten constitution that constantly evolved, a parliamentary form that combined the legislative and executive authority. In early essays and in his first book, Congressional Government,Wilson advocated major reductions in separation of powers.

In his campaign for Governor, Wilson promised to be an “unconstitutional Governor.” By this, he meant he would operate like a Prime Minister. That is, he would act as a sort of legislative leader as well as an executive. He kept this pledge as he moved a Progressive legislative agenda through the state legislature. He also presented a legislative agenda during his campaign for President. It is a standard view of both academics and politicians today that the President should drive a detailed agenda through the legislative process. We want to know that a candidate for President is not only likely to be an effective executive, but also a nationally focused visionary. This is all a legacy of Woodrow Wilson.

So what would Wilson’s critique of Constitutional separation of powers mean for the Presidency, the Congress, and the national administration of government? Stay tuned to our next lesson!

This article was originally published here on Hawaii Reporter.

Stephen Zierak, CPCU/ARM, graduated from Boston University with a BA in Political Science in 1969. After a forty year career in property casualty insurance underwriting, Mr. Zierak retired as a Vice President of Swiss Re America in 2010. At that time, he relocated to Hawaii, a move he had always wanted to make, but had delayed due to lack of appropriate professional opportunities here. Mr. Zierak plans to continue his studies in Political Science, never really abandoned even during his professional career, and to write on matters of public policy. Recently, he produced for Grassroot Institute summaries of Hillsdale’s ten part internet course on our Constitution. Stephen Zierak is married to the love his life, Teodora, and they reside in Honolulu.

This lesson is taught by Dr. Ronald Pestritto, Associate Professor of Politics and Dean of the Graduate School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College. Dr. Pestritto is a senior fellow at Hillsdale’s Kirby Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship. He teaches courses in American politics and political philosophy. Dr. Pestritto is also a senior fellow at Claremont Institute and an academic fellow of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He has published extensively, both books and articles, particularly concerning his main focus on the political thought of the Progressives. He received his BA from Claremont McKenna College, and his MA and PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University. This lecture was posted on the internet September 10, and those interested may register at constitution.hillsdale.edu. There is no fee.

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