Trying to decide which president is the worst would make an interesting project. There are many contenders. Buchanan, Grant and Harding are all obvious choices.
But for my money, Woodrow Wilson was the worst. This may seem a startling statement at first blush. After all, Wilson is portrayed by historians as the great internationalist, defender of democracy and advocate for the League of Nations. He is also portrayed as a relative conservative in the midst of a progressive era.
But he was nothing of the sort. Wilson was an academic radical, a political scientist educated at Johns Hopkins and by turns president of Princeton and governor of New Jersey. His academic writings were extensive and betrayed an enthusiasm for Hegelianism and German historicist philosophy and a great impatience with natural law and its expression in the Declaration of Independence.
As a historicist, he believed that there were no eternal principles that successive generations were bound to uphold. All ideas and institutions were contingent and could be remade at will. While the nation’s framers assumed from history that people of every generation were flawed, fractious and ruled by self-interest, Wilson the progressive believed that humanity could evolve and that a constitution based on such a constrained view of human nature was flawed and should be rewritten – explicitly if possible and practically if not. Each age had its own morality and spirit, manifested in the particulars of the age – and the constitution should embody that zeitgeist.
And for Wilson the Hegelian, the ‘state’ was merely the expression of the peoples’ objective will into which individual will is absorbed. As Ronald Pestritto observes in his indispensible Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism, Hegel the political philosopher
makes clear that there can be no separation of powers in the American sense – no separation of powers in an effort to check or restrain the power of government. A separation of powers makes people suspicious of the state and sets them apart from it; it gets in the way of the state’s putting the objective will of the people into practice. All of these criticisms of social compact theory, abstract liberty, and the checking of government through the separation of powers are employed, in precisely the sames terms, by Wilson in The State, as well as other works.
For Wilson, therefore, the ‘state’ was the concrete expression of the peoples’ ‘objective will’. In his view – as in Hegel’s – the state and the people were one.
Clearly, Wilson’s notions were more Germanic than American and this same identification of the people with the state is the stuff of progressive theory – and fascism. It was his dislike of natural rights and traditional American individualism that colors both his political theory and his presidency.
But as we shall see in upcoming posts, Wilson’s views were hardly unique. Rather, they were part and parcel of the post-civil war progressive era – an era that coincided with the enthusiastic embrace by American academics of German theological, philosophical and political scholarship. And this embrace was considered the acme of academic respectability and became the foundation of a movement that intellectually revolted against the nation’s founders.
And Woodrow Wilson was helping to lead the charge.