Woodrow Wilson: Godfather of Liberalism

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Woodrow Wilson: Godfather of Liberalism

July 31, 2012 20 min read Download Report
Ronald Pestritto
Policy Analysis

Graduate Dean and Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College.

Woodrow WilsonIt has become fashionable today for those who once called themselves “liberals” to refer to themselves instead as “progressives.” This is a phenomenon evident both among our politicians and among our intellectual class.

In the 2008 presidential primary campaign, Hillary Clinton was asked whether she was a “liberal”; she distanced herself from that term (which still seems toxic to much of the electorate) and described herself instead as a “progressive.” When pressed, she made clear that she meant by this term to connect herself to the original Progressives from the turn of the 20th century. Similarly, what is arguably the most prominent think tank on the Left today is called the Center for American Progress, which has an entire project dedicated to preserving and protecting the legacy of America’s original Progressive Movement.

Citizens who are concerned with the battle of ideas today must therefore endeavor to come to terms both with contemporary progressivism and with its foundational principles from the original turn-of-the-century movement. In order to understand both the Progressive Movement itself and its influence on politics today, there is no more important figure to engage than Woodrow Wilson.

Most are familiar with Wilson because he was the 28th President of the United States, a presidency most known for its stewardship of American involvement in the First World War and for Wilson’s failed attempt to sign America on to the League of Nations. Wilson also served a partial term as governor of New Jersey before becoming President in 1913.

Prior to his political life, however, Wilson was a prolific scholar and successful academic for over two decades; he was, in fact, the only professional political scientist ever to become President of the United States. And while Wilson’s presidency certainly helped to launch a variety of landmark revisions in the framework of American government (the Federal Reserve and the income tax, to name just two), the ideas that came from his academic work were even more influential on future waves of liberalism in the course of 20th and 21st century American politics.


Born Thomas Woodrow Wilson in Staunton, Virginia, on December 28, 1856, Wilson moved with his family several times during his youth as his father was a minister in Augusta, Georgia, Columbia, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina. Wilson attended Davidson College, studied at home for a time, and finally attended Princeton, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1879. He also attended law school for a year at the University of Virginia; and though he studied there only a year, he moved to Atlanta after completing his studies at home, passed the bar exam, and set up a law practice.


December 28, 1856, in Staunton, Virginia, to Rev. Joseph Ruggles Wilson and Jessie Janet Woodrow [Wilson].


Graduated from Princeton University in 1879, studied law for a year at the University of Virginia, and went on to get his Ph.D. in History and Political Science from Johns Hopkins University in 1886.




Married Ellen Louise Axson in 1885, with whom he had three daughters: Margaret Woodrow Wilson, Jessie Woodrow Wilson Sayre, and Eleanor Randolph Wilson. Ellen died in 1914, and Wilson married Edith Bolling Galt a year later. They remained married until his death.


  • Professor at Bryn Mawr College, Wesleyan University, and Princeton University (1885–1902).
  • Author, Congressional Government (1885), The State (1889), Constitutional Government of the United States (1908), The New Freedom (1912), and three histories.
  • President of Princeton University (1902–1910).
  • Governor of New Jersey (1911–1913).
  • President of the United States (1913–1921).
  • Leads the United States into World War I (1917).
  • Negotiates the Treaty of Versailles, which formally ends the war (1919).
  • Nobel Peace Prize (1919).
  • Campaigns unsuccessfully for American membership in the League of Nations (1919).


February 3, 1924, in his Washington, D.C., home; buried at the Washington National Cathedral.

Notable Quote

“The Declaration of Independence did not mention the questions of our day. It is of no consequence to us….”

Wilson, however, was most interested in public service, and the legal profession had simply been the means most obvious to him for a career in public service. This is why the actual practice of law quickly soured him on the profession. He was more interested, he said, in the ideas and principles behind the law, and so he entered the new graduate program in history and political science at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland.

Hopkins had just been founded in 1876 for the express purpose of bringing German education and principles to the United States. In the decades before its founding, most Americans who wanted an advanced degree were going to Europe—and especially to Germany—to get it. Johns Hopkins quickly became influential in American higher education. It also became one of the ways in which the new German science of politics was imported into American politics with profound effect, and Wilson was among the most important figures in this movement.

While a student at Hopkins, Wilson wrote his first book, Congressional Government, which is still his best known academic work. Wilson’s professors subsequently allowed the book to count as his doctoral dissertation, as he soon learned that he needed the completed Ph.D. in order to advance in the Academy.

Wilson landed his first academic job, at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, in 1885, the same year he married the former Ellen Axson, with whom he would have three daughters. He quickly became dissatisfied at Bryn Mawr—his salary was insufficient, and he regarded his position as less than prestigious because all of his students were women—and moved on to Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, in 1888. Wesleyan was regarded as a better school; it encouraged scholarship by its professors, and while there, Wilson produced The State, his most comprehensive and penetrating treatment of the theory of government, in addition to several other important articles and essays on government and public administration.

This scholarship helped Wilson to establish something of a reputation in the fledgling discipline of political science, and he positioned himself to be appointed a professor at Princeton in 1890. He was eventually elected president of Princeton in 1902, propelled partly by a speech titled “Princeton in the Nation’s Service,” which outlined his vision for university-educated men to lead a newly empowered national administration. Wilson was given credit for modernizing Princeton; he established a graduate school and set up the preceptorial system—“a method of study whereby a small group of students meets in regular conferences with a faculty member”—that is still a distinguishing feature of the university.

It was also while he was president of Princeton that Wilson began going on solo vacations to Bermuda. Initially taken for health reasons, these vacations soon became occasions for Wilson to spend time with Mary Peck. The exact nature of the relationship between Wilson and Mrs. Peck has never been demonstrated definitively, though we do know that they had a long and affectionate correspondence and that their relationship was the cause of a rebuke from Wilson’s wife.

Wilson’s political career began to take shape toward the end of his Princeton presidency. He became known in Progressive circles as a reformer—he gave a series of lectures at Columbia University in 1907, which were published in 1908 as Constitutional Government in the United States, that helped with this reputation—and was recruited by the New Jersey Democratic Party to run for governor in 1910.

The machine bosses in New Jersey clearly sought to use Wilson in order to curry favor with the growing reform element in the electorate and calculated (quite mistakenly, it turns out) that Wilson could easily be controlled once in office. Instead, upon his election, Wilson stuck to his Progressive ideas and helped to enact a legislative agenda in 1911 that was a model for Progressives around the country. This record in turn vaulted Wilson into the 1912 race for the presidency, where both parties were looking to win over Progressive voters. The New Freedom, an edited collection of Wilson’s speeches from the campaign, remains one of the best-known expressions of Wilson’s brand of Progressivism.

Once elected President, Wilson helped to usher in the first wave of Progressive reforms that would later take full flower under the Administration of Franklin Roosevelt. While some assert that the expansion of the federal administrative state that originated in the Wilson Administration was due to the war mobilization effort, several key expansions came well before war mobilization was even on the horizon. Wilson, for instance, signed the national income tax into law in 1913 at the very outset of his Administration. In the same year, he pushed the Federal Reserve Act through Congress; early plans for this Act had envisioned a private board, but under Wilson’s leadership, the Federal Reserve was created as a government enterprise.

Furthermore, while Wilson had criticized Theodore Roosevelt in the 1912 campaign for the latter’s adventurous approach to foreign policy, Wilson himself certainly did not shrink from American military intervention. He intervened in Vera Cruz in 1914 and ordered the American occupation of Haiti in 1915.

In spite of this willingness to use the military as a tool of American foreign policy, Wilson campaigned for re-election in 1916 on the theme of keeping America out of the First World War, narrowly defeating Charles Evans Hughes. Shortly thereafter, Wilson led America into that war, launching the effort with his “war message” in 1917 and laying the basis for peace in the “Fourteen Points” a year later.

Wilson himself traveled to Europe to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles, and the end of his presidency was marked by his desperate attempt to secure ratification of the treaty and what he considered to be its central accomplishment: the League of Nations. It was on an exhausting speaking campaign on behalf of the League that Wilson suffered a stroke in September of 1919, becoming largely debilitated for the remainder of his presidency. His second wife, Edith Bolling Wilson, whom he had married in 1915 after Ellen’s death a year earlier, managed presidential affairs for the remainder of his term, and Wilson died in Washington, D.C., on February 3, 1924.

Critique of the Founding

While volumes of biographies have been filled with details of Wilson’s life—and especially of his time in public service—it was Wilson’s political ideas that made the most lasting mark on American political life. These are ideas that helped to shape the profound challenge offered by the Progressive Movement to the basic political principles that undergirded the American constitutional order.

Progressivism—certainly as expounded by Wilson—understood itself as presenting a rationale for moving beyond the political thinking of the American Founding. A prerequisite for national progress, Wilson believed, was that the Founding be understood in its proper historical context. Its principles, in spite of their timeless claims, were intended to deal with the unique circumstances of that day.

This interpretation of the Founding ran up against the Founders’ own self-understanding, as Wilson well knew. This is why much of his scholarship is devoted to a radical reinterpretation and critique of the political theory of the Founding. Wilson understood that the limits placed upon the power of the national government by the Constitution—limits that Progressives wanted to see relaxed if not removed—were grounded in the natural-rights principles of the Declaration of Independence. This meant, for Wilson, that both the Declaration and the Constitution had to be understood anew through a Progressive lens.

Wilson therefore sought a reinterpretation of the Founding—a reinterpretation grounded in historical contingency. To the Founding’s ahistorical notion that government is rooted in an understanding of unchanging human nature, Wilson opposed the historical argument that the ends, scope, and role of just government must be defined by the different principles of different epochs and that, therefore, it is impossible to speak of a single form of just government for all ages. This was a self-conscious reinterpretation, as Wilson even suggested that the Declaration ought to be understood by excluding from it the foundational statements on equality and natural rights contained in its first two paragraphs. In a 1911 address, Wilson remarked that “the rhetorical introduction of the Declaration of Independence is the least part of it…. If you want to understand the real Declaration of Independence, do not repeat the preface.”[1]

It was this assertion of historical contingency over the permanent principles of American constitutionalism that animated the main tenets of Wilson’s political thought. It is also the view that today pervades academia, where the idea of a permanent standard of right has been replaced by the ideologies of multiculturalism and “value-neutral” positivism.

Briefly put, those tenets rest on a coupling of historical contingency with a faith in progress. Wilson believed that the human condition improves as history marches forward and that protections built into government against the danger of problems such as faction therefore became less necessary and increasingly unjust. Ultimately, the problem of faction is solved not by permanently limited government, as it had been for the Founders, but by history itself.

In contrast to the permanent self-interestedness that the authors of The Federalist, for instance, believed to be at the heart of human nature, Wilson believed that history had brought about a fundamental unity in the public mind and that the problem of faction had been overcome due to an historical evolution in human nature. As a result of history’s achievement, he reasoned, government will not be a threat to the individual that has to be checked; rather, the state ought to be an organ of the individuals in society—“beneficent and indispensable.”[2] It makes no sense, Wilson wrote, to limit government in an effort to protect the people from the very manifestation of their own organic will. This need to unfetter the state so that its scope can become whatever the current historical spirit demands means undoing the various institutional limits that early American constitutionalism had placed on state power.

Wilson’s affinity for an historically contingent perspective on American government—one in which government was not grounded on certain unchanging truths about human nature but would instead evolve to fit ever-changing historical circumstances—can be seen from his earliest days of thinking about politics. During his legal education and then as a professor of jurisprudence, Wilson applied his evolutionary view to the question of how the law should be taught, adopting the approach of what is now called legal realism. Law, under this approach, is not so much a study of forms as it is a study of how the law evolves in response to changing historical realities.

This approach also helps to explain Wilson’s love for the British constitutional system, in which the role of government is not laid out in a single written document but instead comes from an ever-evolving set of laws and judicial precedents that are contingent on historical progress. It is not an exaggeration to say that Wilson was infatuated with the British system of government, and it is clear that he was deeply influenced by the celebration of Britain’s flexible constitutionalism offered in The English Constitution by Walter Bagehot, a leading liberal realist of the second half of the 19th century.

As a teenager and then in college, Wilson loved to read and remark upon the biographies and essays of great parliamentary statesmen, and he particularly enjoyed the speeches of Edmund Burke and John Bright. This experience is what seems to have led him, as a college senior, to write an article, “Cabinet Government in the United States,” proposing that the American separation-of-powers system be replaced by a parliamentary model. It was published in a prominent journal, and its ideas later found a place in Congressional Government, which excoriated the American Congress for its shortcomings when compared with the British parliament.

When Wilson himself entered government, he brought his cynicism about the separation of powers with him, seeing the chief executive (whether governor or President) as a kind of prime minister—not just an executive, but a legislative leader too. This is a perspective, of course, that is the standard view among American political scientists today. During his campaign for governor of New Jersey, Wilson even raised eyebrows by pledging to become an “unconstitutional governor,” by which he meant that he had no intention of keeping to the role outlined for the chief executive under the separation of powers. This was a pledge that he kept as Governor Wilson behaved very much like a prime minister in moving key pieces of Progressive legislation through the New Jersey legislature.

For Wilson, the separation of powers was the source of much of what was wrong with American government. As opposed to a democratic system that would efficiently translate the current public mind into government action, the separation of powers system, as Wilson understood it, was designed to protect the people from themselves by throwing up as many obstacles as possible to the implementation of their will. Such a system served only to impede genuine democracy, which Wilson wanted to restore by breaking down the walls between the branches, allowing them to work in close coordination for the purpose of constantly adjusting public policy to the current public mind.

Wilson’s animosity toward the separation of powers was at the heart of his various proposals not only for a cabinet or parliamentary form of government in the United States, but also for energetic popular leadership and broad administrative discretion. In general, he saw the separation of powers as fundamentally contrary to his understanding of government as a living, organic extension of the people’s own will.

After the fashion of today’s complaints about “gridlock” in Washington, Wilson argued that the separation-of-powers system was both inefficient and irresponsible. Separation of powers was inefficient because it prevented government from solving the problems of modern life in a coordinated way; instead, the various organs of government were busy attacking and struggling against one another. It was irresponsible because the system made it difficult for the government to implement new public policy, even when the new policy reflected a clear new direction in public opinion. Unlike parliamentary government, where changes in public opinion could very quickly effect a change in government and a change in policy, the separation-of-powers system prevented just that kind of responsiveness.

Progressive Political Ideas

Based on his objection to the separation of powers and his general objection to the Founders’ understanding of government, Wilson put forth a series of institutional proposals designed in one way or another to overcome the fixed notion of politics that is at the heart of limited government.

Wilson’s institutional substitute for the Founders’ separation of powers is best understood as the separation of politics and administration. The idea of separating politics and administration broadly defines the different institutional arrangements suggested by Wilson in his scholarship, although the specific institutional means for achieving this separation changed as his thought developed from his earlier to his more mature intellectual works.

Wilson’s separation of politics and administration also brings us to a fundamental paradox in his thought. His vision of government seems to be one in which the unified will of the public has a much more direct role to play in politics than the Founders had envisioned. Yet politics, while increasingly democratized in Wilson’s thought, also becomes much less authoritative. The emphasis in government shifts to administration.

The implications of this shift are profound: Consent of the governed comes in the realm of traditional politics. The disparagement of politics in favor of administration moves the focal point in government away from popular consent and into the hands of unelected “experts.” Such a shift marks the origin of American government today, where more policy is made by bureaucracies than by elected representatives.

The key to Wilson’s separation of politics and administration was to keep the former out of the latter’s way. Administration is properly the province of scientific experts in the bureaucracy. The competence of these experts in the specific technological means required to achieve those ends on which we are all agreed gives them the authority to administer or regulate progress unhindered by those within the realm of politics. Persons or institutions within politics can claim no such expertise.

Wilson’s understanding of politics and its separation from administration requires a transformation in traditional American thinking on legislative and executive power. Wilson proposed such a transformation, which can be seen in his commentaries on many different facets of American government. While a short essay precludes a discussion of most of these, the best example can be found in Wilson’s vision for transforming the American presidency.

The presidency became for Wilson a principal means by which the limits placed on government by the separation of powers could be transcended. His new institutional vision for the presidency required the President to look beyond his constitutionally defined powers and duties. Instead, Wilson urged that the President concentrate on his role as the embodiment of the nation’s popular will. In modern times, it was more important for the President to be leader of the whole nation than it was for him to be the chief officer of the executive branch.

Wilson contrasted the President’s duties as “legal executive” to his “political powers,” advocating an emphasis on the latter as a means of using popular opinion to transcend the rigid separation-of-powers structure of the old “Newtonian” constitutional framework.[3] As opposed to remaining confined to the constitutionally defined powers and duties of his own branch, the President’s role as popular leader means that he must, as the embodiment of the national will, move Congress and the other parts of government to act in a coordinated way.

The President’s new role in Wilson’s institutional plan is based on the President’s connection to public opinion. It is the duty of each President to adapt himself to the needs and interests of the day. The President is uniquely situated to adapt himself to changes in the public mood because he is the only official with a true national mandate through a nationwide election. The President “is at once the choice of the party and of the nation.” The President “is the only party nominee for whom the whole nation votes…. No one else represents the people as a whole, exercising a national choice.” The President is the “spokesman for the real sentiment and purpose of the country.”[4]

Wilson emphasized the person of the President, not his office. It is the man himself and his personality that come to embody the national will. “Governments are what the politicians make them,” Wilson wrote, “and it is easier to write of the President than of the presidency.”[5] This is why a President’s expertise in public affairs is not as important as his having a forceful personality and other qualities of popular leadership.

What America needs, Wilson wrote, is “a man who will be and who will seem to the country in some sort an embodiment of the character and purpose it wishes its government to have—a man who understands his own day and the needs of the country.”[6] As an embodiment of the public will, the President can transcend the government and coordinate its activities. This is why it is wrong to limit the President with the traditional checks of the Constitution. The President is “the unifying force in our complex system” and must not be relegated to managing only one branch of it.[7]

Many instances throughout Wilson’s academic and political careers demonstrate this focus on popular leadership. He was, as a young man, obsessed with nothing so much as the art of rhetoric. Not only did he delight in reading the speeches of great parliamentary orators, but he was also trained in rhetoric by his father, a minister who would put young Woodrow in the pulpit of his church when empty and have him practice delivering speeches. He participated in many debating activities while a student at Princeton and later, when he became president there, became increasingly convinced that leadership meant both having a unique ability to see the path of history and possessing the rhetorical art to convince others to follow this vision. Such a belief helped launch him into the presidency at Princeton, but it also caused him much trouble at the end of his tenure when he persisted in several plans—the abolition of the eating clubs, which still flourish at Princeton today, to cite just one example—for which there was insufficient support.

The most famous instance of Wilson’s overconfidence in his own righteousness and rhetorical powers of persuasion, of course, was his failed attempt to secure ratification of the Treaty of Versailles. Seemingly unconcerned with the constitutional necessity of winning over the Senate, Wilson embarked on a desperate attempt to go over the heads of Senators on a national speaking tour once it became evident that the constitutional requirement for ratification was going to be more than a simple formality. It is not unreasonable to speculate that the stress of this effort contributed to the President’s stroke and subsequent incapacity at the conclusion of his second term.

Democratized political leadership was, however, only part of Wilson’s vision for reforming American government. He had great faith, as has been said, in the possibilities for national administration. He wrote enthusiastically as a young man about the contribution to national affairs that could be made by himself and others who, like him, had elite university educations.

Yet the political corruption of the day caused Wilson to revolt against institutions such as Congress, which seemed incapable of legislating for the national good due to its being mired in self-interested electoral politics. Wilson thus envisioned a new kind of national administration—largely removed from popular consent and charged with making the policy requisite for national progress—that could be staffed by university men like himself, as opposed to the political operators of low character who populated the back rooms of Congress.

Because administration somehow had to be liberated from the constraints of politics if national government were ever to become an instrument of progress, Wilson’s most serious academic work focused on developing a new approach to administration. It is, in fact, fair to say that Wilson is in no small measure responsible for launching the discipline of public administration in the United States and for articulating the principles behind the modern administrative state with its sprawling web of agencies.

In doing so, Wilson relied heavily on European sources for his study of administration, precisely because his desire to liberate administration from politics and give it robust powers over the details of legislation was a novelty to American constitutionalism. Wilson placed administrative power and constitutional power on entirely different planes, and it is this sharp distinction between constitutional politics and administrative discretion that differentiates him from those earlier American thinkers who had also placed great importance on national administration.

Wilson explained that administration “stands apart even from the debatable ground for constitutional study…. Administrative questions are not political questions.” This is why he had to admit that it is difficult to conceive how one might place administrative discretion of the sort he had in mind within the traditional constitutional order: “One cannot easily make clear to every one just where administration resides in the various departments.”[8] He made a great effort to explain that his vision of administration was very different, because he believed that the quality of administration had been degraded by those who had conceived of it too narrowly—that is, conceived of it within the confines of the constitutional executive.

Wilson’s entire claim to charting new territory in his famous “Study of Administration” essay rests on this difference with the traditional understanding of administration. The problem with the old understanding, from a Wilsonian perspective, was that it still left Congress with the primary responsibility for legislating. In Congressional Government, Wilson even complained that the greatest problem with Congress was that it spent too much of its energy on the details of legislation when it should instead delegate the bulk of legislating to the administrative agencies that were expert at it.

It is in this way that we can see the influence of Wilson—and of Progressivism generally—on yet another central feature of American political life: Policymaking today, in many areas of national concern such as the environment, health care, and financial regulation, is done primarily by agencies within the bureaucracy to which Congress has delegated broad swaths of legislative authority. Recent battles ranging from rules for greenhouse gas emissions to benefits that must be covered by private health insurance plans have been fought not primarily in Congress, but in or against administrative agencies that are exercising the power given to them by Congress.

This reality leaves us to ponder the legacy of Wilson and the Progressive Movement: If their aim was to democratize American politics—to bring political institutions closer to the people whom the Founders had allegedly distrusted—then how can this be squared with their argument that most decision-making in government ought to be done not by the people’s elected representatives on the basis of consent, but rather by administrators shielded from electoral influence who govern instead on the basis of a claim to expertise?

Ronald J. Pestritto is Graduate Dean and Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College.

[1]Woodrow Wilson, “An Address to the Jefferson Club in Los Angeles,” May 12, 1911, in The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 69 vols., ed. Arthur S. Link (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966–1993), Vol. 23, pp. 33–34.

[2]Woodrow Wilson, The State (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1889), pp. 658–659.

[3]Woodrow Wilson, Constitutional Government in the United States (New York: Columbia University Press, 1908), pp. 66–67.

[4]Ibid., pp. 67–68.

[5]Ibid., p. 54.

[6]Ibid., p. 65.

[7]Ibid., pp. 59–60.

[8]Woodrow Wilson, “The Study of Administration,” November 1, 1886, in The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Vol. 5, p. 371. Available online as a Heritage First Principles Primary Source at http://www.heritage.org/initiatives/first-principles/primary-sources/woodrow-wilson-on-administration.


Ronald Pestritto

Policy Analysis