Critics of Woodrow Wilson strangely ignore the worst aspects of his presidency

I’m happy to see that disenchantment with Woodrow Wilson – the most bizarre candidate for the pantheon of great American presidents – is reaching a wider audience on the American Right. But this nascent critique of Wilsonian progressivism seems to have missed one of his worst legacies. Namely, Wilson’s blatant disregard for civil liberties (from Wikipedia – emphasis mine):

On the home front in 1917, he began the United States’ first draft since the US civil war, raised billions in war funding through Liberty Bonds, set up the War Industries Board, promoted labor union growth, supervised agriculture and food production through the Lever Act, took over control of the railroads, enacted the first federal drug prohibition, and suppressed anti-war movements.

To counter opposition to the war at home, Wilson pushed the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 through Congress to suppress anti-British, pro-German, or anti-war opinions. He welcomed socialists who supported the war and pushed for deportation of foreign-born radicals.[86] Citing the Espionage Act, the U.S. Post Office refused to carry any written materials that could be deemed critical of the U. S. war effort. Some sixty newspapers were deprived of their second-class mailing rights.[87]

Wilson is usually associated with a stirring ideological defense of democratic self-determination. In practice, this amounted to little more than crude ethnic partitioning, but more importantly, Wilson’s respect for the forms of Republican governance was severely lacking.

Perhaps Wilson’s enthusiasm for curtailing civil liberties was entirely unrelated to his progressive politics. But it’s hard not to see the same impulses that animated Wilson’s domestic agenda – a desire for control, rank disregard for individual liberty, confidence that the messy business of civil society can be micromanaged from Washington – behind his horrific record on civil liberties.

So my question for newly-converted Wilson-phobes is simple: If you’re concerned about government overreach, why restrict your criticism his domestic legacy? Why do torture, indefinite detainment, and the PATRIOT ACT get a free pass? Compared to his draconian wartime crackdown, many aspects of Wilson’s progressive agenda look downright benign, or even admirable, in retrospect. Wilson’s blatant disregard for civil liberties, on the other hand, remains one of the most enduring – and bipartisan – legacies in contemporary American politics.

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21 thoughts on “Critics of Woodrow Wilson strangely ignore the worst aspects of his presidency

    • what Mike said. And/or: Because it’s Jonah Goldberg. At the end of the day Goldberg is a Republican (not I would say a republican or even necessarily a conservative). Civil liberties and the neo-con democracy fetish are all still in style with the GOP.

      As if Wilson’s domestic arrogance had nothing to do with his international arrogance at Versailles. [To be fair to Wilson the British and the French were nothing but a hindrance to getting anything accomplished there].

      While people will claim a direct link from Wilson to neoconservatism (via “democracy promotion”), I think that is a misread of Wilson. What Wilson meant was to protect the already existing democracies against a rising tide of autocracy. He felt such an international scene would inevitably deteriorate the possibility for societies to be free (both internally and externally). In his better moments, he wasn’t talking about making everybody into a democracy or assuming that were some such situation to occur, the world would be peaceful.

      Wilson himself (as you point out Will) over-reached nonetheless domestically and brought “autocratic” elements into the fold. But I think, his practice notwithstanding, his basic internationalist sense (in the sense he meant it, not the neocon fantasy-land) was correct. iow, I’m not Ron Paul.

      I think all of the above would essentially be lost on Jonah Goldberg.

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      • Ahhh, let’s see here. We have

        1. National Review might sorta be racist.
        2. Jonah Goldberg might sorta be racist.
        3. In any case, Jonah Goldberg is wrong and/or stupid.
        4. This may or may not have something to do with the idea WW wasn’t as bad as we think.

        Wtf is your point here exactly? Or you can just throw a bunch of barely coherent s**t against the wall and that’s supposed to be ok?

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  1. “So my question for newly-converted Wilson-phobes is simple: If you’re concerned about government overreach, why restrict your criticism his domestic legacy? Why do torture, indefinite detainment, and the PATRIOT ACT get a free pass?”

    They don’t. First of all, there has never been much enthusiasm for Wilson on the Right. Historically the feelings toward Wilson among conservatives have been some mixture of disapproval and apathy.

    More than that, there is some explanatory value toward George W Bush, ie why the mainstream Right doesn’t hate W as much as most liberals or many libertarians. We look at the traditions of American executive power and the related jurisprudence, especially relating to Wilson, Lincoln and FDR, and we conclude that W was reasonably judicious in using the enormous powers that he had.

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    • We look at the traditions of American executive power and the related jurisprudence, especially relating to Wilson, Lincoln and FDR, and we conclude that W was reasonably judicious in using the enormous powers that he had.

      That explains why the mainstream Right has been so wrong.

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  2. For the record, the crazy folks out there have been yelling about Woody Wilson for a long time. His collusion with OWH (ptooey!) to give more and more and more power to The State was disgraceful.

    Schenck v. United States? Disgusting.

    Perhaps Wilson’s enthusiasm for curtailing civil liberties was entirely unrelated to his progressive politics.

    How do you reckon? Progressivism championed alcohol prohibition and eugenics, among other things. Of all of the things that go hand in hand with progressivism, “civil liberties” aren’t anywhere near the top. People might abuse them, after all.

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      • Wilson’s Progressivism was very much the progressivism of his day and to use gay rights (starting… when? The 70’s with the removal of homosexuality from the DSM?) or Civil Rights (*NOWHERE* near Wilson’s agenda, seriously)… leading us to the women’s movement as something that Woody reconciled himself to only after he realized that it would increase his power (please recall what happened to the suffrage protesters in front of the White House in 1917 before Woody realized that he could use their political clout).

        Even so, using “the womens movement, gay rights and civil rights movements” as a defense of eugenics and prohibition reads like giving a defense of that Austrian gentleman by pointing out his vegetarianism, teetotalling, and abhorence of tobacco.

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        • Huh….whatever. progressivism actually different today, and the last few decades, then it was a the beginning of the 20th century. Agreed.

          “Even so, using “the womens movement, gay rights and civil rights movements” as a defense of eugenics and prohibition” and if I had done that you would be correct.

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          • progressivism actually different today, and the last few decades, then it was a the beginning of the 20th century. Agreed.

            Is there any point at which we are allowed to discuss Woodrow Wilson’s progressivism without pointing out that, hey, homosexuality was removed from the DSM in 1973 so there?

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      • Greg, we’ve come a long way since the 1900’s. Yes every long lived ideology once had some reprehensible beliefs. Progressives once did support eugenics and prohibition (many still do on that latter issue though the conservatives are equally guilty or worse).

        Conservatives once supported slavery, inhuman working conditions for the working class, child labor, poorhouses and strict segregation of the classes. They don’t any more (for the most part) and progressives have similarly rejected their old nasty past. We don’t need to be defensive about it contra Goldberg’s empty windbaggery there is nothing inherent to progressivism that requires those policies.

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  3. I don’t have strong views on Wilson one way or the other, but the problem with the indictment seems to me that the examples all follow U.S. entry into World War I. To me, Wilson needs be judged objectively either in comparison with other war-time Presidents or by comparison with the other WWI belligerent. I’m not sure Wilson’s conduct stands out that much in either comparison.

    Perhaps Wilson was slightly worse on war time civil liberties than FDR or Lincoln, and it may stand some scrutiny as to whether the U.S. moved more quickly towards these restrictions than other belligerents.

    But Wilson’s segregation of the federal government was novel and revealing and had nothing to do with war.

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  4. I’d imagine part this separation is probably based on the fact that the civil liberties suppression was done against anarchists of a socialist stripe for the most part, including the anti-war radicals who seemed to think this was all a conspiracy to enrich the capitalist class. (Both Charles Schenck and Eugene Debs were members of the Socialist Party as an example.)

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  5. I don’t know which right you’re talking about, but the old right, Rothbard, Chodorov, ect, weren’t exactly enamored with any of Wilson’s policies. You might be right about the new right, but “nascent” is not correct when talking about the history of the right.

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  6. What irony! You yourself haven’t seen fit to mention the worst thing Wilson did: he ordered the racial segregation of the federal civil service, which lasted until 1964. (Source: “Lies My Teacher Told Me”)

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