Conservatives and Woodrow Wilson
posted at 1:40 pm on May 10, 2010 by CK MacLeod
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 selection comes 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 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.
Main elements of this conservative attack on Wilson actually are familiar from the works of his leftwing critics, but that’s not the only reason I mistrust it. Some of the anger, especially from the commenters, is probably by proxy: It’s more acceptable to declare one’s passionate hatred for long dead enemies than for living opponents (though the former often leads to the latter). Yet even if I didn’t find the emotionalism of some of this stuff, 100 years after the facts, a little odd (though Will’s critique is odd in a different way), I would still find it difficult to reject Wilson or any other important 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.” Wilson didn’t impose uniquely noxious ideas on an American racial idyll. He presided during the era of Plessy vs Ferguson (1896) – separate but equal. 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 affected policy across a range of issues.
It should therefore be unsurprising to Wilson critics, on all sides, that the Wilson Administration’s widely condemned segregation of the federal workplace was initiated under prior presidents, and was expanded under Wilson’s successors. Conservatives in particular should bear in mind that the search for a greatly different early 20th Century American racial sensibility won’t often lead them to Wilson’s right.
If some conservatives have adopted a familiarly leftwing attack on Wilson, many more seem to be depending on Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, the 2008 conservative bestseller that I have written on previously, focusing on the author’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 rather 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 or even overseas within the military.
In sorting this all out, it might be helpful to work 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 – 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. Cooper and other historians also note that Wilson supported the acts to compromise with those demanding more aggressive measures, and to prevent and pre-empt much harsher “extra-judicial” treatment of dissenters and German-Americans.
As with racial matters, harshly judging Wilson and his contemporaries (i.e., our forefathers) for such actions requires us to impose present-day sensitivities on the past. 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 Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, known for the subsequent Palmer Raids and Red Scare. On the narrow question of personal culpability, it should be noted that Wilson was the bedridden victim of a debilitating stroke and other serious illness at the time: Cooper concludes that 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 stand among the most consequential of any American figure: His books and essays, especially Congressional Government, were important in their own right, and are still read with profit today. His “New Freedom” legislation established the Federal Reserve System, 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 League of Nations proposal, 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.
From income taxes to Mother’s Day, from child labor restrictions to saving football (Wilson was a lifelong fan, and a defender of the new sport against attempts to ban it), we could expand our view of Wilson’s influence virtually at will – especially if, as the Wilsonhitlerists seem to prefer, we credit him with or blame him for the entirety of what Hays calls the Populist-Progressive Era. At some point in this process, modern America would begin to look like an inheritance directly from Woodrow Wilson, passed down to us by those who followed in his footsteps – with the men who founded the country looking like distant ancestors on the family tree, necessary to our existence, but not very relevant to it.
Regardless of where that argument might lead, I wouldn’t want to be the one to make it: I don’t see how it can ever be a conservative project to tear the nation or its history – the two ought to be inseparable – to pieces. Isn’t that what radical constitutionalists accuse Wilson of attempting?
How, when, and where to reverse or re-conceive elements of Wilson’s legacy, what he got wrong or what the rest of us helped make wrong, would be something very different – as would any attempt simply to assess Wilson fairly. Those are tasks for people willing to grasp the whole story, and to proceed with care.
cross-adapted from Zombie Contentions