A full-fledged review of John Milton Cooper Jr.’s biography of Woodrow Wilson will have to be attempted somewhere else. Anyone in conservative circles hoping to get a word in edgewise on the nation’s 28th President first has to contend with sentiments along the following lines:
Does anyone really think Wilson wouldn’t have been pretty sympathetic toward the Nazis? I think he would have considered Hitler’s dedication to eugenics an admirable goal.
[A]ny fair minded person of good moral standing would clearly see [Wilson] as an evil individual.
Woodrow Wilson was a slimy, racist, conspiratorial, arrogant rat bastard every day he drew breath….
I hate him. He was the biggest racist. He set this country back decades in race relations.
If you’re bound and determined to defend the most tyrannical fascistic president in history, go f**k yourself.
The above is a sampling from threads at HotAir and Zombie Contentions, and also at a Baltimore Sun on-line column covering Glenn Beck at CPAC this year. Beck has played a central role in popularizing such views, as his anti-progressive campaign frequently centers on Wilson, for whom Beck proudly and openly declares his hatred – “with all [his] heart.” In this cause Jonah Goldberg remains a stalwart ally, if a somewhat more restrained one – he merely calls Wilson a fascist. Other well-known anti-Wilson conservatives include George Will and the American Conservative Union’s David Keene, the latter having revealed during his introduction of Beck’s CPAC speech that his own Wilson animus goes back decades – to a college essay describing Wilson as “one of the three most dangerous people of the 20th century,” the other two being Lenin and Hitler.
Leading elements of this conservative attack on Wilson actually are familiar from the works of his leftwing critics, but that’s not the main reason I mistrust it. In addition to finding the emotionalism and excess of some of this stuff, 100 years after the facts, a little odd (though Will’s critique is odd in a different way), I find it difficult to reject Wilson or any consequential American president so completely. It’s the kind of stance that I would associate with revolutionaries and other pitiless radicals: The full-throated rejection of a critical moment in American history as an excuse to reject America itself.
Not that the Wilson haters don’t have any point at all. They simply lack any sense of balance or historical perspective. In contrast to the ideologues, Cooper can fault Wilson for his negligence on racial matters, for example, but is also able to conclude that “Wilson essentially resembled the great majority of white northerners of this time in ignoring racial problems and wishing they would go away.” In other words, Wilson didn’t just impose uniquely noxious ideas on an American racial idyll. He presided during the era of Plessy vs Ferguson (1896) – separate but equal – and it’s therefore not surprising that the Wilson Administration’s widely condemned segregation of the federal workplace, the leftist’s first-point-against for going on a century now, was initiated under prior presidents, and was expanded under Wilson’s successors. As the historian Samuel P. Hays explains in his standard work on Wilson’s era, the times were typified by a “general notion that Americans, as part of the Anglo-Saxon peoples of northern Europe, were racially superior.” Belief in the “Manifest Destiny of the White Race” informed attitudes across the cultural mainstream, and policy across a range of issues. Searching around in that epoch for politicians with a greatly different sensibility won’t typically lead you to Wilson’s right. You’d have better luck among figures that few conservative Wilson-haters would offer for emulation.
Though some rightwing anti-Wilsonism can be traced to left-liberal origins, much of it seems to follow from Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, the 2008 conservative bestseller that I have written on previously, focusing on Goldberg’s provocative claim that Wilson’s wartime government was the world’s “first fascist regime.” As I stated in the linked piece, I find it obscene for Goldberg to associate Wilson, a deeply reluctant warrior who quite literally nearly killed himself campaigning for a peace organization, with modern history’s worst warmongers. But Goldberg’s case for the historical prosecution focuses less on the war as fought than on the war at home – domestic security policies that, as Cooper acknowledges, entailed “egregious violations” of civil liberties. Goldberg’s charge of fascism is much stronger than Cooper’s charge of mere “violations,” however, and demands stronger support. To that end Goldberg produces an impressive, frequently quoted figure of 175,000 Americans arrested “for insufficient patriotism.” Yet this vague definition appears to be Goldberg’s alone, and he doesn’t reveal where his number comes from. Other sources tally around 2,000 arrested, 1,000 convicted under the federal Espionage and Sedition Acts, so Goldberg’s figure, assuming it has a firm basis, must include offenses prosecuted under other laws, perhaps at the local level. It may include draft resisters, for instance; it probably includes strikers and labor agitators; it may even include violators of quarantines during the influenza pandemic of 1918-9.
In sorting out the uncertainties, we can perhaps work backward from some numbers that unlike Goldberg’s are very hard and very precise: 48-26 and 293-1 – the votes by which the Senate and the House passed the Sedition Act in 1918. Vote totals on the earlier Espionage Act are unavailable – but that’s because it passed by acclamation, reflecting overwhelming support two months after the Declaration of War with Germany – which had passed 82-6, and 373-50. In other words, Wilson rode – and in some respects was overcome by – a wave of patriotism and war fever. Historians also generally note that Wilson supported the acts to compromise with those demanding more aggressive measures, while Cooper points out that in Wilson’s view a major aim of the acts was to prevent and pre-empt much harsher “extra-judicial” treatment of dissenters and German-Americans.
Before judging Wilson or his contemporaries too harshly for such actions, it’s also worth recalling that revolution really was in the air in those years. One great nation had fully succumbed to revolution, and others were undergoing revolutionary turmoil. In America, the assassination of President McKinley, by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz in 1901, was well within living memory. In the period of 1917-1920, radical agitation led to wildcat and general strikes as well as acts of outright sabotage, especially in the western U.S. Mail bombs were sent to various officials, including Wilson’s second AG, A. Mitchell Palmer, known for the subsequent Palmer Raids and Red Scare. Despite criticism, Palmer felt secure enough about his conduct to make it the basis of his own run for the presidency in 1920. Finally, on the narrow question of Wilson’s personal culpability, it should be noted that Wilson was the bedridden victim of a debilitating stroke and other serious illness during the Red Scare: As Cooper shows, Wilson “knew nothing about the central role [Palmer] was playing in those events.”
One quick word on Eugenics, another feature of the age that some wish to lay at Wilson’s door: Cooper never notes much interest in the subject on Wilson’s part. The case for hatred seems to rest on guilt by sympathetic association with certain Progressives; de-contextualized statements on race (see above) ominously linked to Hitlerism; and a bill that Wilson signed into law as governor of New Jersey, with provisions on the sterilization of the profoundly mentally ill – similar to laws in 30 other states at the time.
Against such weakly founded or heavily mitigated indictments, Wilson’s accomplishments as president, governor, educator, and public intellectual stand among the most consequential of any American figure: His books, especially Congressional Government, written when he was 29 years old, were important works in their own right, and are still read with profit today. His “New Freedom” legislation established the Federal Reserve System (whose enduring purposes are generally ignored by critics of particular Fed policies), the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, and the Federal Trade Commission. He was central to the negotiations that ended World War I, and, though the nation rejected his proposal for entry into the League of Nations, he led the United States onto the world stage as a major power, with a unique mission – not to construct an empire, but to foster trade, development, and popular freedom and self-determination among nations.
Other reforms sometimes attributed to Wilson, even though he opposed or had little to do with them, include the four constitutional amendments added during his time in office: the Income Tax (product of a national consensus going back decades), Direct Election of Senators (advanced by others, but his kind of measure), Women’s Suffrage (late switch to support – he had long thought it better left to the states), and Prohibition (opposed, even vetoing the enforcement legislation). But go ahead and credit him with or blame him for the amendments and every other major and minor reform undertaken during what Hays calls the Populist-Progressive Era, from the Interstate Commerce Commission to Mother’s Day (est. 1914); include ideas and causes Wilson advocated during his intellectual career – campaign finance disclosure, open deliberation of congressional committees, end of patronage in public administration, and so on; and, while you’re at it, hold him responsible for the presidents who followed in his footsteps from FDR to LBJ to BHO – and let’s garnish the historical smorgasbord with football, a sport that Wilson, a lifelong fan, defended against early attempts to have it banned: In ways large and small, the legacy of Thomas Woodrow Wilson and his era becomes virtually definitional for present-day political, social, and economic norms.
If, as the haters demand, we hold Wilson responsible for everything that took place during the period of his political ascendancy, then it would follow that we live in a country that Wilson molded. Considering the growth of the United States in population, wealth, power, and influence since Wilson’s time, it would be arguable that America in 2010 is as much or more the country that Wilson and the Progressives made than the one the Founders made. It would mean that, if you’re going to excise the Wilsonian progressive cancer down to the last cell, as per Glenn Beck, then, when you’re done with your surgery, you may have less of the patient left over on the operating table than you’ve discarded as hazardous bio-waste. Until such an act of national vivisection and disembowelment, we would be living in the Progressive States of America: One Cancer under God.
I don’t see how it can ever be a conservative objective to tear the nation, or its history (the two are inseparable), to lifeless pieces. How, when, and where to advance a project of reversal and re-conception would be something else – as would the much humbler attempt to assess fairly what Woodrow Wilson got right and what he got wrong. Those are tasks for those who love the country as it is, tumors and all, and who are ready to proceed with care, not ignorant fury.