The Revolution Devours Its Father

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Left-wing demonstrators and rioters have managed to achieve in a matter of weeks what courteous conservative thinkers failed to accomplish in a century:  Knock Woodrow Wilson off his progressive pedestal.

More than any other figure in American history, President Wilson embodied and popularized the 20th Century ideology known as Progressivism. Wilson’s eight years in the presidency created the template for the modern administrative state:  a powerful executive branch, an oversized bureaucracy, the increased centralization of government, an unending demand for so-called legislative reforms, and multiplying federal agencies regulating more aspects of life. 

Generally speaking, conservatives oppose such government activism as a threat to liberty, while liberals favor it as the means to greater equality. In a sense, the Wilson program of 1913 through 1921 drew the political battle lines which have broadly remained in place for the last century:  Democrats see big government as protecting smaller interests against larger interests and monopolies; Republicans see the same as the suppression of individual freedom and an impediment to widespread prosperity.

That’s why there’s a healthy irony in Wilson’s ejection from the liberal, elitist Princeton University. Why would today’s progressives turn their backs on the political progenitor of progressivism? One supposes for the very same reason the French Revolution guillotined its leaders, once they proved insufficiently pure to the next power-hungry group of more extreme radicals.

Up until recently Wilson was warmly regarded by most on the political Left. Among the Wilson Administration’s many innovations was the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC was the precursor to the wave of alphabet soup agencies proliferating during the New Deal and Great Society — Democrat administrations that followed Wilson’s government expansionism which he dubbed The New Freedom. One of his most far-reaching enactments was introducing the current income tax system through the Bureau of Internal Revenue, which yielded the most feared and intimidating of all alphabet soup agencies, the IRS. 

To complement the IRS in enlarging the bureaucratic state, Wilson implemented the Federal Reserve System, usually referred to as simply “the Fed,” in deference to its enormous power over the American people and economy. To demonstrate the superseding authority of the Fed and the IRS, one need only refer to Wilson’s original 1040 form demanding compliance among citizens who earned more than $3,000. Since then, the Fed has done its job masking government deficits with monetary inflation; a $3,000 annual income in 1913 is now the equivalent of at least $75,000 in today’s inflated Federal Reserve Notes. It would be political justice if the IRS required only those earning more than $75,000 to complete 1040s today. But the explosion of taxpayer-funded government programs under Wilson and his progressive heirs makes such equity impossible.

Yet, long before President Woodrow Wilson was reshaping America in a progressive fashion, he was doing the same for Princeton University. A native Virginian, Wilson moved to New Jersey, first as a Princeton student, then a professor, and ultimately president of the Ivy League institution for nearly a decade. Using Princeton as his political launching pad, the Democrat patrician Wilson was elected governor of New Jersey.

The most recent successor to Wilson at Princeton, Christopher L. Eisgruber, acknowledges the former president’s irreplaceable contributions to Princeton:  “Wilson remade Princeton, converting it from a sleepy college into a great research university. Many of the virtues that distinguish Princeton today — including its research excellence and its preceptorial system — were in significant part the result of Wilson’s leadership. He went on to the American presidency and received a Nobel Prize.”

Then he drops the blade:  “On my recommendation, the board voted to change the names of both the School of Public and International Affairs and Wilson College. As you will see from the board’s statement, the trustees concluded that Woodrow Wilson’s racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school or college whose scholars, students, and alumni must stand firmly against racism in all its forms.”

Along the way, President Eisgruber concedes, “These conclusions may seem harsh to some.”

Those “some” likely include Eisgruber’s and the Board of Trustees’ predecessors who named the school in Wilson’s honor in 1948. Since then, every Princeton administrator and most scholars apparently felt comfortable with the University recognizing its 13th president, who later became the nation’s 28th president. Wilson’s views on race hardly constituted a state secret, now or then.  

As president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson changed foreign policy nearly as much as domestic, so it seemed appropriate that Princeton honored him with his name on the School of International Affairs. In foreign affairs, Wilson represented a liberal preference for internationalism, interventionism, and low trade barriers, as opposed to the traditional American consensus to avoid foreign entanglements and protect industry and jobs with high tariffs.  

When serving as Secretary of State about 100 years before, John Quincy Adams encapsulated the essence of American foreign policy. “But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” said the Massachusetts statesman. “She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

Adams, product of an era when the Bay State produced wise politicians, and his contemporaries would have been stunned at Wilson’s reckless decision to bring America into World War I. In fact, Wilson, himself, had sought re-election to the presidency in 1916 under the banner “He Kept Us Out of War.” Accepting the Democrat re-nomination, President Wilson declared, “We have been neutral not only because it was the fixed and traditional policy of the United States to stand aloof from the politics of Europe and because we had had no part either of action or of policy in the influences which brought on the present war …”

That pledge lasted for exactly one month into his second term. In April 1917, keeping us out of war morphed into a declaration of war on Germany, fueled by a utopian globalism. “The world,” the progressive president intoned, “must be made safe for democracy.”

Summing up the progressive president’s opportunistic artifice, historian Michael Beschloss writes that Wilson “narrowly won reelection, campaigning under false pretenses with the slogan ‘He Kept Us Out of War.’ Privately, however, he knew it was quite possible that he would take the nation into the European struggle soon after starting his second term.” 

When the war drew to its inevitable bloody end, Wilson tried to apply his progressive principles to the peacemaking. His famed 14 Points drew derision from French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. ” The good Lord,” the French leader quipped, “had only ten!” And stateside, former President Teddy Roosevelt criticized Wilson’s pet post-war project, the League of Nations:  “If the League of Nations is built on a document as high-sounding and as meaningless as the speech in which Mr. Wilson laid down his fourteen points, it will simply add one more scrap to the diplomatic waste paper basket.”

Criticism of Wilson’s domestic and international agenda never dented his reputation among progressive historians and political scientists who routinely ranked him among the Top 10 American presidents, sometimes placing him as high as fourth on the list. And these scholars were certainly fully informed about Wilson’s many failures, including his racial views that have ignited the current controversy. 

You can be sure that this has come to a sorry end. Academics will never again rate Wilson among the top tier of presidents. As much as they may feel a certain sympathy for a former professor and Ivy League president, they will accede to the demands of the radicals in the street and the actions of Princeton University.
Now that they have figuratively removed their once-revered former president from his pedestal, the censorious Princeton Board of Overseers will have to find a new name for their prestigious school of Public Policy and Foreign Affairs. Luckily for them, they won’t have to look far. He’s sitting right on their faculty.  Peter Singer, the Australian utilitarian philosopher, is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the Princeton University Center for Human Values.

For today’s progressives, Professor Singer checks off all the right boxes. In an article headlined “The Most Dangerous Man in the World” for The Guardian, Kevin Toolis wrote, “But for Singer, not all persons are humans, and some humans are definitely not persons. An adult chimpanzee can exhibit more self-consciousness, more personhood, than a new-born human infant …  At one stage, the ever-practical Singer proposed a post-natal 28-day qualification period during which infants — non-persons at that stage — could be killed.”

According to Wikipedia, Singer “argues in favor of voluntary euthanasia and some forms of non-voluntary euthanasia, including infanticide in certain instances, but opposes involuntary euthanasia.” To top it off, the distinguished Princeton professor “argues that newborns lack the essential characteristics of personhood — ‘rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness’ — and therefore ‘killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living.’ ”

Now that former President Woodrow Wilson has gone out of style, Princeton must reclaim its place among forward-thinking progressives. That is assuming its feckless, supine members of the Board of Trustees manage to qualify as “beings who want to go on living.”


Joseph Tortelli is a freelance writer. Read other columns by Mr. Tortelli here.