Yeseterday in “Dr. Wilson’s cabinet” I began my discussion of Professor R.J. Pestritto’s Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism. I had come to the point of noting Pestritto’s observation that Wilson’s Hegelianism — the belief, among other things, that all thought is historically conditioned — had led Wilson into a shocking deprecation of the principles of the Declaration and the Constitution.
An entire book could be devoted to Wilson’s comments on and criticisms of the Declaration and the Constitution (and to a significant extent that’s what Pestritto has done in the companion book of Wilson’s selected writings edited by Pestritto). In Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism, Pestritto quotes extensively from Wilson?s work to make out his fundamental hostility to them in the name of history and progress.
In Constitutional Government, for example, Wilson took dead aim at the Declaration: “No doubt a great deal of nonsense has been talked about the inalienable rights of the individual, and a great deal that mere vague sentiment and pleasing speculation has been put forward as fundamental principle.” The quote conveys both Wilson’s disparagement of the Declaration and the patronizing tone that pervades his comments on the Declaration and the Founders. One more Wilson quote on the Declaration (from “Government by Debate”): “When grave, thoughtful and perspicacious men all around us agree in deriding those ‘Fourth of July’ sentiments which were once thought to hallow the lips of our greatest orators and to approve the patriotism of our greatest statesmen, it will not do for us, personifying the American eagle, to flap wing and scream out incoherent disapproval.” Even the eagle can’t catch a break in Wilson’s work. Pestritto provides much more to the same effect regarding the Declaration of Independence in the book.
The Constitution fares no better in Wilson’s work. “Justly revered as our great Constitution is,” Pestritto quotes Wilson (from “Modern Democratic State”), “it could be stripped off and thrown aside like a garment, and the nation would still stand forth in the living vestment of flesh and sinew, warm with the heart-blood of one people, ready to recreate constitutions and laws.” I’m sure it sounds better in the original German, but Pestritto in any event demonstrates over and over how essential it was to Wilson’s mission precisely to persuade Americans to strip off and cast aside the Constitution, in the name of course of history and progress.
This he did most efficaciously in his advocacy of “the living Constitution” in his 1885 book Congressional Government, but also repeatedly elsewhere. According to Wilson, constitutions were necessarily organic documents, best conceived as Darwinian and evolutionary creatures rather than Newtonian and fixed. Wilson’s advocacy of a living Constitution derived from his dissatisfaction with the actual Constitution bequeathed by the Founders.
Pestritto quotes Wilson portraying the Founders a little like Swift’s mad scientists of Laputa in the third part of Gulliver’s Travels. Wilson says of the Founders: “They constructed a government the way they would have constructed an orrery,–to display the laws of nature.” What won’t those nutty guys think of next? Wilson of course disputed the applicability of such “laws” to current circumstances. He thus opposed limited government, separation of powers, and checks and balances, all of which Pestritto demonstrates Wilson understood tolerably well as the Founders’ handiwork.
As distinguished from the chapters devoted to Wilson’s promotion of the separation of politics and administration, Pestritto mostly describes rather than evaluates Wilson’s historicism. At one point, however, Pestritto drily observes: “[W]hile the history of the twentieth century subsequent to Wilson might be cause for reevaluation, Wilson contended that modern democracy would not degenerate into tyranny, even though ‘many theoretical politicians the world over confidently expect modern democracies to throw themselves at the feet of some Caesar.’” The passage is striking because it implies one of Pestritto’s few judgments on Wilson in this context.
In Natural Right and History, Leo Strauss demonstrates in the space of a few pages that the historicist thesis is “self-contradictory or absurd.” He adds a few pages later: “The assumption of an absolute moment in history is essential to historicism. Historicism explicitly denies that the end of history has come, but it implicitly asserts the opposite.” And why, in any event, does history need our help?
The doctrine of the living Constitution has survived Wilson to do great damage. If not the father of the doctrine, he was certainly its most influential expositor. One can see the dead hand of Wilson at work, for example, in popular opinion represented by Thurgood Marshall’s perverse bicentennial lecture on the Constitution. In the debate between Lincoln and Douglas on the meaning of the Declaration, Marshall takes the side of Douglas, and, almost unbelievably, that of Roger Taney in the Dred Scott decision. The doctrine also lives on in the jurisprudence of such members of the Supreme Court as Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, as Paul Mirengoff and I tried to show in “From Hegel to Wilson to Breyer” (to which I contributed the Wilson quotes and Paul supplied the brainpower).
In the second half of the book Pestritto persuasively demonstrates the impact of Wilson’s political writings on the development of the administrative state, the state to which Hegel’s historicism is organically linked. I draw the conclusion from Pestritto’s book that Wilson’s liberalism is a poisonous ideology that has resulted in infringements on our freedom, and that promises to continue to do so. To borrow a Cold War foreign policy metahpor, Pestritto’s book should serve as a manifesto making the case for the necessity of rollback over containment.
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