The only thing new in the world is history you don’t know.
Harry S Truman
A great place to begin our study of the history of Progressivism is the story of a boy named Thomas. He was born in Staunton, Virginia in December of 1856, a young boy who would later tell associates and friends that his earliest childhood memory was of the terrible news that Abraham Lincoln had been elected president. His father was a Presbyterian Minister who had moved his family south from Ohio in 1851. Thomas’ parents, Joseph and Janet quickly became accustomed to Southern customs of the day and both owned slaves and defended slavery. When war broke out in 1861, they operated a hospital for Confederate soldiers in South Carolina where they had moved after Thomas was born.
Young Thomas was a frail boy who suffered from terrible dyslexia who had to be homeschooled and didn’t learn how to read until he was 10 years old. For the rest of his schooling, study was very difficult, for to overcome his disability, Thomas had to concentrate with great intensity on his reading. In this, we see an early example of his determination to succeed, for who would have expected that such a boy would grow up to be a famous academic, one of the best and brightest of his generation?
Yet this would come at a high price, for he would have few if any close friends, and he would suffer from terrible stomach problems, including chronic constipation, nausea and heartburn. Even so, he would become one of the leading voices of the Progressive Movement as an academic theorist and as an author of dozens of volumes, volumes that show the development of his theories over time. Yet there were many academics at the heart of the development of Progressivism, but only Thomas would struggle enough to actually be able to put his theories into practice.
You see, Thomas would become the 28th president of the United States, and his influence would stretch around the globe before he was finished.
No doubt by now you have recognized this young man, who always preferred his middle name which was Woodrow: Thomas Woodrow Wilson.
Wilson’s academic career began at Davidson College in North Carolina in 1873, but his time there was cut short by illness. In 1875, after another year of homeschooling by his father, he entered the College of New Jersey, later named Princeton University, to study history and politics. He excelled at the College of New Jersey, in part because of the high number of Southern Presbyterians enrolled there; he established the Liberal Debating Society, served as editor of the school newspaper and secretary of the football association. After graduation, he moved on to the University of Virginia to study Law in hopes of one day entering politics. Homesickness and a lifelong difficulty in making friends got the better of him, and he left UVA at Christmas his first year and returned home, where he finished his legal studies on his own and passed the Georgia Bar. After a brief time in legal practice, he decided that the Law wasn’t the right course for him, and eventually enrolled in the brand new Johns-Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he earned a Ph. D.
Wilson took a few academic jobs after that, but his primary focus was on his political writing, and soon he published his first volume, and 800 page book that was very well received entitled The State.
It wasn’t long after that that he returned to the one place he had felt at home, the newly renamed Princeton University where over time he would become its president.
Yet his moving to an academic path was not an alternative to politics for Wilson, but rather it was simply an alternative to the more customary legal one. Soon, he would move away from the rather narrow path of academic writing into popular political commentary that was geared to raising his political profile. We’ll take a look at some his themes in the next episode of our story, next week.
See you then!