The Strange Case of Woodrow Wilson


James Joyner did a post yesterday highlighting the fact that it’s easy to find “horrible quotes” from “beloved figures.” I thought it was odd that one of the beloved figures in question is Woodrow Wilson. Is he really that beloved? Gene Healy pointed out to me that of 13 surveys of scholars asking them to rank presidents, Wilson enters the top ten in 11 surveys, and is number 11 in the other two.

This seems slightly nuts to me. Wilson is obviously an important historical figure but he doesn’t seem to me to have been much of a president. For one thing, he was a huge racist. Noting racism on the part of past historical figures is sometimes a cheap shot—Abraham Lincoln said things that people would find repugnant today, but was very progressive for his time—but Wilson was a real racial reactionary who turned the clock backwards. He signed a bill banning miscegenation in the District of Columbia and segregating DC streetcars. He appointed white southerners to his administration who introduced segregation into their previously unsegregated departments, including the postal service which was a major employer. Grover Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt had African-Americans appointed to federal office, but Wilson did away with that.

His administration’s handling of the great influenza pandemic was disastrous, and his record on civil liberties was the worst in American history. On the pro column, Wilson’s tax policy (lower tariffs, higher income tax) was good and he did some good regulatory things. On the other hand, the switch from “trust-busting” lawsuits to attempting to use the FTC to establish regulatory cartels doesn’t seem to me to have been a great idea. Creating the central bank system was a good idea, but I don’t think it was distinctively Wilsonian.

On foreign policy, Wilson had some very important ideas about international institutions and global governance. But his actual policy implementation was a disaster. He joined World War One to get us a League of Nations, but then couldn’t get a League of Nations! And it’s worth noting that even if he’d had more success at this, his particular vision of the liberal internationalist project was fatally compromised by his run-amok racism.