A Brief History of Progressivism, Episode 3

Woodrow Wilson Evolves

“If any trait bubbles up in all one reads about Wilson it is this: He loved, craved and glorified power.”

Walter McDougall

As young Woodrow Wilson attended graduate school at Johns Hopkins University, his attitudes about the role government should play in the lives of people everywhere developed along the lines of his professors, most of whom had emigrated from Germany and had been influenced by the Chancellery of Otto von Bismarck. It would be no great surprise then that Wilson’s two great heroes were Bismarck and Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln seems an odd choice, for young Wilson, being as he was a son of the South, but it wasn’t Lincoln’s having Emancipated the slaves that attracted him, rather it was his use (or abuse) of power that Wilson found so fascinating. As for Emancipation… well his views of voting rights for black people pretty much make his views on such subjects clear: “ (they are) the foundation of every evil in this country”.

Young Wilson began to see Government as the instrument of God in purifying and building society into a cohesive unit which would be organic in its nature, a State in which all power would be centralized by the State for the good of the many. As he wrote in Congressional Government, “I cannot imagine power as a thing negative and not positive”. The problem that Wilson with American Government was that it contained an “antiquated” system of checks and balances put into place by men of the 18th century that made the consolidation of power virtually impossible, and if that system could not be an evolving one, then there could be little progress in the nation. Thus, the American system, and by extension the systems of many other Western nations as well, could not be seen as an organic, living and breathing entity, then its very framework, which is to say the U. S. Constitution, must be done away with.

As he viewed these things as a graduate student, he saw the greatest possibility for the concentration of State power to be in the Congress, which ironically, was similar to the view of the Founders themselves. Yet Wilson desired a change of system from that of the Constitution to a parliamentary system in which most all of the checks and balances could be done away with. Accordingly, as a 29 year old graduate student he published his well known book Congressional Government (1885). Of course, the very organic and evolving Mr. Wilson would soon change his mind.

In 1901, Theodore Roosevelt became America’s youngest-ever president upon the assassination of William McKinley, and not only was he our youngest president, but he was also our first Progressive president. TR’s political philosophy differed from nearly all of his predecessors in one crucial way: Unlike nearly all of those who came to office before him, Roosevelt believed that the powers of the president were not limited to those granted by the Constitution, but were only restricted by what the Constitution forbade the president to do, and TR took full advantage, using his “Bully Pulpit” to rally the people behind him as he strode briskly off into uncharted territory.

All the while, Wilson was watching…

By 1908, TR’s last year in office, Wilson published a new book entitled Constitutional Government in the United States in which he wrote, “The presidency is at liberty both in law and conscience to be as big a man as he can. His capacity will set the limit, and if Congress be overborne by him, it will be no fault of the makers of the Constitution …but only because the President has the Nation behind him and the Congress not.”

Could it be that our Mr. Wilson might be interested in running for president some day? By this time, he was already president of Princeton University, and he was about to embark on a run for Governor of New Jersey, which he would win in 1910. Of course, he wouldn’t actually seek to run for Governor, no of course not. He would be “persuaded” to accept the nomination of his party with great “reluctance” when the time came, but it is interesting to note that Harper’s had begun to print “For President Woodrow Wilson” on the cover of every issue right around this time.


I’d like to leave you with one more little tidbit, since the word count is rising, this from an essay written by Mr. Wilson, then a professor at Princeton…

“Only a very gross substance of concrete conception can make any impression on the minds of the masses, they must get their ideas absolutely put, and are much readier to receive a half-truth which they can promptly understand than a whole truth which has too many sides to be seen all at once. The competent leader of men cares little for the internal niceties of other people’s characters: he cares much  everything  for the external uses to which they may be put… He supplies the power; others supply only the materials upon which that power operates… It is the power which dictates, dominates; raw materials yield. Men are as clay in the hands of the consummate leader.” (from “Leaders of Men”, Essay, 1890)

Is anyone else uncomfortable with this kind of talk?


For further reading:

Congressional Government

Constitutional Government in the United States

“Leaders of Men

About Don Merritt

A long time teacher and writer, Don hopes to share his varied life's experiences in a different way with a Christian perspective.
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9 Responses to A Brief History of Progressivism, Episode 3

  1. Very insightful and appropriate to revisit, as we understand what is currently unfolding in our government.

  2. At least he was admitting it. Today, they run under the guise of “We’re going to take care of you. So, let us do all the worrying. Just depend on us.”

  3. Mel Wild says:

    Wilson was a pretty scary dude. Unfortunately, he’s right about the last quote you gave. People will believe anything if it’s said simply and with confidence; especially, if it’s what they want to hear. Our political system has proven our gullibility to such for a long time.

  4. daylerogers says:

    This totally freaked me out. It’s incredibly frightening to think of men with so much power who think so little of others, only seeking to mold them to their way of thinking. Come quickly, Jesus!

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