What if I told you that a president, routinely ranked among the greatest in United States history, jailed dissidents of his administration? And that he invaded Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Panama, all without congressional authorization? What if I told you that the same man refused to appoint black people to government positions and segregated the navy? And that he used an anti-war stance to get elected, only to reverse himself and involve the United States in one of the most pointless and destructive wars in world history?
Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the U.S. who served from 1913-1921, did all of these things and more. The presidency of John Adams is marred by the signing of the Alien and Sedition Acts, and the moniker “McCarthyite” is enough to disparage out of hand anyone who is and was too anti-communist — Wilson had his attorney general arrest and deport radicals and communists en masse, and signed the Espionage Act of 1917 and Sedition Act of 1918, which he used to arrest perennial Socialist candidate for president Eugene V. Debs (who, in one of the most OG moments of American history, ran for president in 1920 from prison). He praised D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation, saying it was “like writing history with lightning” — a racist film that perpetuated myths of Republican carpetbaggers and scalawags in the South and irresponsible blacks who were either too stupid to vote or yearned to rape white women. As governor of New Jersey, one year before his election to the presidency, he signed into law legislation that established a Board of Examiners of Feebleminded, Epileptics, and Other Defectives, which is as creepy and evil as it sounds: Under this legislation, the state could sterilize people convicted of rape as well as those whose minds were sufficiently “feeble.” (If this sounds similar to the policies of Nazi Germany, it’s with good reason — the man Wilson had draft this piece of legislation later moved to Europe, where he served “as a doctor to the SS in Nazi-occupied France and as an adviser at the Buchenwald concentration camp.”)
He oversaw passage of the 16th Amendment, the amendment giving the federal government the power to tax our incomes, giving the State the means to grow exponentially. He oversaw the passage of the 17th Amendment, mandating the direct election of senators, allowing the scourge of direct democracy to infiltrate our democratic-republic. (Look to California, whose citizens vote for low taxes, government health care, and High Speed Rail, for evidence of the insanity of direct democracy. Or, simply look to this year’s Republican primary process.) He allowed the United States to get sucked into World War I, which, on its own, would relegate Wilson to the bottom half of this list.
Indeed, why is Wilson considered a “near-great” president? Because he conceived of the League of Nations, a concept so haphazardly thought-up that the Allies used it to get Wilson’s support to carve up Germany and force upon it onerous reparations in the Treaty of Versailles, perhaps leading to the election of Hitler and World War II? Because the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote became enshrined into the Constitution over his own private objections? Because he ushered in the Federal Reserve System?
Is a progressive ideology sufficient enough to expiate one’s sins?
Recently, Woodrow Wilson has become newsworthy once again as Black Lives Matter folks and radical campus activists have campaigned to have Wilson’s name erased from buildings and programs that bear his name. While I am sympathetic to some of the BLM movement’s aims and grievances, the hordes of clueless politically correct students on university campuses across the country who shout down any opposition and cry for “safe spaces” are a disgrace to the institutions that are supposed to be the vanguard of our country’s intellectual future. Despite what despicable men like Wilson have done, what they have done is an indelible part of our history, including the fact that many in our country have seen fit to valorize and memorialize them through monuments. These representations of our historical memory should remain up and be supplemented with other kinds of memorials that contextualize these pieces of history. (See this powerful piece about Confederate monuments by Fresno State professors Ethan Kytle and Blain Roberts in The Atlantic for a similar take.)
So, however awful a human being and president Woodrow Wilson was, and however much it may pain my partisan self to say it, his name should not be scrubbed from either our history or our historical memory. He does, however, deserve all the opprobrium heaped upon him by radical liberals and libertarian conservatives. For Woodrow Wilson was indeed the worst president in the history of the United States.
2 thoughts on “42. Woodrow Wilson”
This is a good, critical look at Woodrow Wilson. The one part we’d suggest looking into is Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, his second wife, especially her role in his last year in office. It is known that he discussed a lot of policy with her. Further, while she maintains she didn’t act as anything but his steward, she directly controlled access to the executive branch for quite some time after his stroke. Great piece all-in-all.
I agree, Wilson’s wife’s story is a very interesting one. Thank you for your substantive comment.
And thanks for reading!