Two years ago on a panel sponsored by the Claremont Institute at the annual American Political Science Association convention I commented on Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism, by Ronald J. Pestritto of the University of Dallas. I think it’s an important book that is helpful to understanding the intellectual roots of contemporary liberalism. I’m posting it today and tomorrow in two parts.
Viewed biographically, as most of us have come to know him, Woodrow Wilson seems like a case study refuting the Peter Principle. He didn’t rise to the level of his incompetence, as set forth in the Peter Principle. After reaching it — and he reached it early — he refused to stay put, and he kept failing up.
After studying law at the University of Virginia, Wilson, in the words of Arthur Link, attempted an impoverishing practice in Atlanta. Why was it impoverishing? I’m pretty sure it was Wilson’s personality. Unhappy over his failure as a lawyer, Wilson proceeded to the study of political science and history at Johns Hopkins under Herbert Baxter Adams.
He came into his own as a teacher and writer at Princeton, but again rose to his level of incompetence when he was elected president of the university. After a few successful years as president of the university, he attempted almost singlehandedly to abolish the undergraduate eating clubs essentially in the name of progress. Princeton alumni and faculty rose up to smite him. This was a bitter defeat, Link writes, but the really bitter fight came a few years later over the establishment and control of a graduate school.
As the bitterness of the controversy mounted, according to Link, Wilson injected the personal note and claimed he was fighting for democracy. Wilson’s defeat at Princeton opened him up to a political career and the rest, you might say, no pun intended, is history. But it is the point of R.J. Pestritto’s brilliant book on Wilson that Wilson’s political career has obscured his most consequential political impact — the impact he achieved through his voluminous writings.
Wilson’s political career has not by itself acted to obscure his thought. Academic history and academic political science — but especially academic history — have viewed Wilson through the Progressive prism in which Jeffersonian ends find Hamiltonian means along lines suggest by Herbert Croly early in the Progressive era. Such history is itself partial to Wilson’s philosophic cause. Pestritto clears away the accumulated rubbish and brings Wilson’s political thought — as expressed in his vast body of academic and popular writings — into plain view.
I want to emphasize two points that Pestritto makes emphatically through the first half of the book. Pestritto relentlessly pursues these points, almost in the muckraking spirit of an Ida Tarbell or Upton Sinclair, and they are in fact shocking.
Point one: Wilson was a thoroughgoing historicist whose thought appears to have been most influenced, directly and/or indirectly by Hegel, the Hegel of The Philosophy of History and related works. As I understand it, Hegel’s doctrine was that all thought is historically conditioned, but that history had come to some kind of an end or fulfillment that allowed us to derive the insight of the contingent nature of prior political thought.
In Natural Right and History Leo Strauss postulated that, despite its battlefield defeat, Germany had imposed the yoke of its thought on its conquerors among the Western nations. Strauss left open the question whether this observation applied to America, but Pestritto leaves no doubt that the observation applies to Wilson.
Unlike Hegel, however, Wilson rarely avowed the doctrine of historicism expressly. Pestritto ranges through Wilson’s writings and demonstrates over and over again how the terms of Wilson’s judgments, recommendations, prescriptions, assertions, and conclusions are almost entirely Hegelian and historicist. On occasion the evidence is powerfully direct. For example, Pestritto quotes from Wilson’s essay “The Study of Administration” the proposition that “the philosophy of any time is, as Hegel says, ‘nothing but the spirit of the time expressed in abstract thought.'”
Pestritto also quotes Wilson’s praise of Hegel in an 1885 love letter to Ellen Axson. (Even Link acknowledges that Wilson was a strange guy.) In the letter Wilson comments that “Hegel used to search for — and in most cases find, it seems to me — the fundamental psychological facts of society.”
Well, so what, aside from the fact that the politicians of Wilson’s day seemed to have missed the opportunity to tar Wilson as a lousy Hegelian? Point two: Wilson’s historicism results in the most profound, shocking deprecation of the Founders, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the fundamental principles of the Declaration and the Constitution.
To be continued…
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