One hundred years ago this week Woodrow Wilson was sworn in as president. He was elected with only a 41.8 percent plurality because the Republican Party split between President William Howard Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt.
Many historians believe that Wilson’s election was a defining moment in American history. The former political science professor’s views on government and human nature (and our relationship to the state) became the foundations of Democratic Party liberalism. Historians also agree that Wilson had a dark side. He had a strong dislike of immigrants, particularly Catholics and African-Americans.
Wilson was a student of Hegel and held that history is a story of inevitable progress. To improve the human condition and to enhance progress, Wilson concluded that a “rational state” manned by expert “disinterested” public administrators was required. (That was in the innocent days before “public choice” theorists pointed out that administrators, like everyone else, always have their own special interests.)
Wilson argued for a “living constitution” that “must be Darwinian in structure and in practice.” Government for him was “not a machine but a living thing. . . .It is modified by its environment, necessitated by its task, shaped to its functions by the sheer pressure of life.”
The citizen must “marry his interests to the state.” Wilson, therefore, dismissed the Declaration’s assertion that rights are endowed by our Creator. Wilson lectured that, “If you want to understand the real Declaration of Independence, do not repeat the preface.” “The rhetorical introduction,” he declared, “is the least part of it.”
Wilson also rejected the Federalist Papers’ argument that checks and balances are needed because human nature is flawed and does not improve.
Political philosopher Ronald Pestritto has observed that for Wilson, “the separation of powers, and all other institutional remedies that the founders employed against the danger of faction stood in the way of government’s exercising its powers in accord with the dictates of progress.”
Wilson subscribed to the Social Darwinist view that survival was for the fittest races, and he supported the Eugenics movement. He believed there are “progressive races” such as Anglos and Aryans, who had superior and enlightened governments, and “stagnant nationalities” – Eastern and Southern Europeans – who needed authoritarian governments to control them.
Wilson despised post-Civil War Southern Reconstruction, which promoted African-American participation in public life. “The white men of the South,” he wrote in his History of America, “were aroused by the mere instinct of self-preservation to rid themselves, by fair means or foul, of the intolerable burden of governments sustained by the votes of ignorant Negroes and conducted in the interest of adventurers.” As president, Wilson resegregated the federal government.
The Wilsonian Zeitgeist
As for the Catholic Church, Wilson described it as “an organization which, whenever and wherever it dares, prefers and enforces obedience to its own laws rather than to those of the state.”
Wilson objected to the new wave of Catholic immigrants coming through the gates of Ellis Island. He wrote that there was “an alteration in stock which students of affairs marked with an uneasiness.” The sturdy European stocks, according to Wilson, were being replaced by “men of the lowest class from the south of Italy and men of the meaner sort out of Hungary and Poland, men out of the ranks where there was neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence.”
During the 1912 campaign, the American Association of Foreign Language newspapers struck a blow at Wilson: “No man who has an iron heart like Woodrow Wilson, and who slanders his fellowmen, because they are poor and many of them without friends when they come to this country seeking honest work and wishing to become good citizens, is fit to be President of the United States.”
These charges appeared to have had an effect. A poll of 2,300 Catholic priests in major inner-city Catholic strongholds revealed that 90 percent of the Italian and 70 percent of Polish priests intended to vote for Bull Moose candidate Theodore Roosevelt.
Throughout his presidency Wilson had rocky relations with Roman Catholics. When Wilson recognized the Mexican government of President Venustiano Carranza, many Catholics were livid. The hierarchy forcefully complained that the United States should not support a government that restricted the public practice of Catholicism. The Jesuit magazine America condemned Wilson and described Carranza “as a villain, destroyer, liar and murderer.”
Catholic historian Theodore Maynard reported that Wilson was also rude to members of the hierarchy:
It was a distinct shock to the eighty-three-year-old Cardinal [Gibbons] when he called upon the President to be dismissed in a few minutes without even being asked to sit down. When [Archbishop] Ireland, who had heard of this, was about to call at the White House he said, “Well, he won’t treat me in that way” – but he got just the same treatment.
When President Wilson left for Europe in 1919 to establish a new world order at the 1919 Versailles Conference, European Catholics were justifiably concerned about the treatment their former homelands would receive from the victorious allies.
The hopes and dreams of Catholics, however, were soon dashed. To save his precious League of Nations, Wilson abandoned his mighty rhetoric and ideals at Versailles and managed to alienate almost every Catholic by surrendering to the demands of the crafty, vengeful leaders of the victorious allies. He planted the seeds of World War II when he rearranged the boundaries of Eastern Europe without regard for the ethnic or religious origins of millions of people.
A century ago Woodrow Wilson laid the foundations for a nanny state that has no use for God and uses “every means. . .by which society may be perfected.” And today Wilson’s ideological heir, Barack Obama, is carrying out his grandiose plan that declares the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution relics of the distant eighteenth century and seeks to bring everyone and everything, including religious groups, under control of the state.