Wilson, Woodrow (1856–1924)

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WILSON, WOODROW (1856–1924)

Dr. Thomas Woodrow Wilson was both a scholar and an active participant in American constitutional development. Trained in history and law, Wilson became one of the first practitioners of the new academic political science that was born in America toward the close of the nineteenth century. He taught at Bryn Mawr College and Wesleyan University, and became a professor at, and later president of, Princeton University.

As a political scientist, Wilson urged fundamental reforms in the American system of government. In his first book, Congressional Government (1885), he argued that instead of the balance of powers envisaged by the Founders, American government was dominated by the legislative branch and, in particular, by a few powerful congressional committees. Wilson advocated cabinet government as he supposed it to exist in Great Britain, dominated by a strong executive. In Constitutional Government in the United States (1908), Wilson argued that under the Constitution the President had authority to exercise vigorous leadership of the whole American political system. In other works, Wilson advocated the scientific study of techniques of public administration and the training of a new class of civil servants who would be independent of political influence or control. Professional administrators, Wilson believed, should be left free to devise the most efficient means of carrying into effect the general policy decisions of the political branches of the government. (See progressive constitutional thought.)

A progressive Democrat, Wilson was elected governor of New Jersey in 1910, and President of the United States two years later, when theodore roosevelt broke with President william howard taft and split the Republican party. Wilson's platform called for a "New Freedom," characterized by a vigorous antitrust policy, reduced tariffs, legislation to benefit organized labor, and creation of the federal reserve banking system.

During Wilson's terms of office, the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and nineteenth amendments were added to the Constitution. But ordinary legislation did as much to change the distribution and use of governmental power as did formal constitutional amendments. The federal reserve act (1913) placed control of the nation's money and credit in the hands of an independent, semi-private banking system. The federal trade commission act (1914), brainchild of Boston attorney louis d. brandeis, created an independent regulatory agency with specific authority to make regulations having the force of law.

Among the least creditable achievements of the Wilson administration was the introduction of official racial segregation in executive departments of the federal government for the first time since the civil war. Wilson himself approved the change of policy, arguing that segregation was in the best interests of black federal employees, but he did not regard it as a matter of major concern.

Wilson asserted a broad conception of executive power in military and foreign affairs. In 1913 the United States assumed control of the foreign policy of Nicaragua and American marines put down an insurgent movement in that country. Wilson also deployed marines twice, in 1914 and 1916, to suppress insurrections in the Dominican Republic. Between 1913 and 1917 the United States intervened continuously, and ultimately unsuccessfully, in the internal politics of Mexico. For none of these military adventures did Wilson have specific congressional authorization; he relied instead on his power as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Although Wilson campaigned for reelection in 1916 on the slogan, "He kept us out of war," the United States entered world war i just one month after his second inauguration. The war emergency provided the rationale for a vast expansion of federal power. The Overman Act (1917) created a virtual presidential dictatorship over the machinery of the government; the railroad control act commandeered the private rail network and consolidated it under government auspices; the selective service act authorized the drafting of millions of young men into the military; and the espionage act and the sedition act provided a basis for controlling civilian dissent. In a sense, the war provided the essential basis—a strongly held vision of the public good—for many of the reforms the Progressives had long advocated. For at least two decades afterward, political activists and reformers would hark back to the sense of unity that World War I provided.

American intervention enabled Britain and France to defeat the Germans and their allies, and so the American government was entitled to a leading voice in dictating the peace terms. Wilson was unable, however, to secure ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations Covenant by the United States Senate. Republicans, led by Senator henry cabot lodge, opposed these measures, which seemingly would have subordinated American sovereignty to an international body and permanently involved the United States in European quarrels.

In 1919, exhausted by a national campaign to win support for the Versailles Treaty, Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke. For the last year of his presidency the erstwhile advocate of strong presidential leadership tried, and failed, to govern the country from his sickbed. The constitutional problem of presidential disability would not be resolved until passage of the twenty-fifth amendment.

Dennis J. Mahoney


Beth, Loren P. 1971 The Development of the American Constitution: 1877–1917. New York: Harper & Row.

Bragdon, Henry W. 1967 Woodrow Wilson: The Academic Years. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press.

Link, Arthur S. 1947–1974 Woodrow Wilson, 6 vols. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.