Woodrow Wilson (American Presidents Series)by H. W. Brands
A comprehensive account of the rise and fall of one of the major shapers of American foreign policy
On the eve of his inauguration as President, Woodrow Wilson commented, "It would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs." As America was drawn into the Great War in Europe, Wilson used his scholarship, his/b>… See more details below
A comprehensive account of the rise and fall of one of the major shapers of American foreign policy
On the eve of his inauguration as President, Woodrow Wilson commented, "It would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs." As America was drawn into the Great War in Europe, Wilson used his scholarship, his principles, and the political savvy of his advisers to overcome his ignorance of world affairs and lead the country out of isolationism. The product of his effortshis vision of the United States as a nation uniquely suited for moral leadership by virtue of its democratic traditionis a view of foreign policy that is still in place today.
Acclaimed historian and Pulitzer Prize finalist H. W. Brands offers a clear, well-informed, and timely account of Wilson's unusual route to the White House, his campaign against corporate interests, his struggles with rivals at home and allies abroad, and his decline in popularity and health following the rejection by Congress of his League of Nations. Wilson emerges as a fascinating man of great oratorical power, depth of thought, and purity of intention.
Read an Excerpt
To See the Benches Smile
In the beginning was the word. And in the end was the word. And in between were words: beautiful words, soaring words, words that moved a nation and enthralled a world, words that for a wonderful moment were more powerful than armies, words that made the most terrible sacrifice seem part of a glorious struggle, words that echoed across the oceans and down the decades.
Woodrow Wilson was a man of words. His actions weren’t insignificant: he guided America onto a new plateau of social responsibility, and he led the nation to victory in a terrible war. But his legacy was his words, and though his steps faltered at his journey’s end, his words lived on, inspiring later generations to achieve what he never could.
Wilson was from the South by way of the North, which went far toward explaining how he won the Democratic nomination for president in 1912. His forebears hadn’t been long in America, with his mother an immigrant and his father the son of immigrants. Scots predominated in his ancestry, although some kin had relocated to the north of Ireland, allowing Wilson to claim Irish lineage when convenient. His father grew up in Ohio, where he met Wilson’s mother, who had narrowly escaped being swept overboard by a rogue wave en route from Liverpool. The couple married in 1849, two weeks before Joseph Wilson’s ordination as a Presbyterian minister. They remained in Ohio long enough to have two daughters, but in 1854 a better pulpit became available in western Virginia, in the Blue Ridge town of Staunton. There Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born on December 28, 1856.
Yet Tommy, as the boy was called, never knew Staunton, at least not to remember. In 1858 the ambitious Reverend Wilson found another church, in Augusta, Georgia. At a time when the issue of slavery had grown explosively sensitive, Joseph Wilson followed many of his southern colleagues-in-the-cloth in discovering biblical sanction for the peculiar institution. The Bible had less to say about secession, when that came, but Joseph Wilson had no difficulty rendering Caesar—or Jefferson Davis—his due. During the Civil War, Wilson served briefly in the Confederate army before returning to his flock.
Had the Wilson family lived in Atlanta or on the route of Sherman’s march to the sea, the war would have had a deeper influence on young Tommy. But Augusta was comparatively sheltered, and the conflict often seemed something that happened to other people. This impression grew stronger in retrospect, for after the southern surrender, the northern roots of the family, combined with Joseph Wilson’s religious calling, protected the household from the harsher aspects of Reconstruction.
Yet perhaps Tommy wouldn’t have noticed the revolutionary events of the war and its aftermath even if Sherman himself had burned the Wilson house down. In youth he displayed an uncanny ability to view life as if from outside. Later, speaking of children generally but almost certainly extrapolating from his own experience, he characterized the typical child as standing “upon a place apart, a little spectator of the world.”1 Referring specifically to his own childhood, he said, “I lived a dream life.”2
The dreams of another Civil War child—Theodore Roosevelt, who experienced the conflict from the relatively safe distance of New York City and whose life path would intersect Wilson’s significantly—were filled with literary adventure, with tales of the heroes of history and romance. But not Tommy Wilson’s, for the boy in Georgia didn’t learn to read until he was ten years old. A later generation of pediatricians and educators likely would have diagnosed dyslexia, but in Tommy’s time the boy just seemed slow. Had he been of a different family, he might have turned his back on the land of letters; but with a father whose vocation depended on translating the Word of God into the words of men, and who, by the evidence of every Sunday, excelled in the art, Tommy couldn’t help being drawn in. He perceived letters and words as possessing a mysterious power, a power not easily captured and the more potent for its elusiveness and mystery. When he finally did decode the alphabet and enter the priesthood of the literate, he felt an exhilaration that stayed with him his whole life.
At fourteen the family moved again, to Columbia, South Carolina. The Reverend Wilson was appointed professor of pastoral theology at the Presbyterian seminary there, a position he supplemented by service as interim minister of the First Presbyterian Church. Tommy received tutoring from one of the seminary’s professors. Though his academic progress continued slowly, he became enamored of a system of shorthand he saw advertised in a magazine. The ads touted the time-saving features of the system—an obscure variant of the more popular systems of the day—for secretaries and stenographers, its obvious clientele. What doubtless intrigued young Wilson was its very obscurity. Having been so long mastering ordinary letters, Wilson by this leap could surpass that large majority of writers to whom the unusual system was not vouchsafed. (Although he couldn’t know it at the time, he thereby complicated the labors of future archivists and editors who, in processing his papers, had to decipher the hieroglyphics of the long-forgotten system.) The leap was a struggle; the young man required years to attain proficiency. But he evidently thought the prize worth the toil, for he soldiered on.
At seventeen Tommy left home to pursue his education. He attended Davidson College of North Carolina, which was not so far away as to rule out occasional visits home, nor so selective as to prevent the admission of a student whose performance still lagged many of his peers’, nor so secular as to eliminate the possibility of the son’s following the father’s footsteps.
His classroom work improved, especially in the humanities. He discovered an interest in history and, to his surprise, a talent for writing. He also discovered a passion for public speaking. He joined the debating club and devoured the library’s collection on rhetorical technique and great speakers of the past.
Davidson, however, proved a false start. Tommy stayed one year, toward the end of which his father moved yet again. Doctrinal disputes and financial troubles forced the Columbia seminary to close and the Reverend Wilson to find another job, which he did in Wilmington, North Carolina. Had Tommy been more enamored of Davidson, the strain on the family budget caused by the job switch and the household move might not have forced his withdrawal from the college; but as it was, he decided that a suspension of his higher education was in the family’s and his own interest. (The Wilson family’s finances inspired a story often told about the Reverend Wilson. When someone remarked that the minister’s horse was better groomed than the minister, Dr. Wilson replied, “That is because I care for my horse. My parishioners care for me.”)3
Tommy Wilson spent the next year in Wilmington, polishing his shorthand, observing the arrivals and departures of ships in the harbor, reading the novels of Walter Scott, and wondering what life held for him. Yet one thing he knew, as he told a friend from Davidson: “I like nothing so well as writing and talking.”4
During this period the idea of going north to college took shape in his head. Dr. Wilson, who had attended seminary in Princeton, New Jersey, knew the man who currently headed the College of New Jersey, commonly called Princeton, located in the same town. The college lacked the reputation to draw all the students its upkeep required, and its president, on one of his recruiting and fund-raising trips through the Carolinas, cast his eye on the son of his old friend. After a year under the parental roof, Tommy was ready to leave again, and in September 1875, three months before his nineteenth birthday, he boarded a northbound train.
He entered the life of the college with some diffidence. He joined one of the newer eating clubs, the Alligators, and played on the freshman baseball team. But his classes were uninspiring. “Study review in Xenophon’s Memorabilia for examinations all the afternoon and evening,” he jotted in the diary he kept in shorthand. “Very stupid work.” Two days later he wrote, “Studied geometry from 8 to 10—very stupid work indeed.”5
Extracurricular rhetoric and persuasive writing were another matter. He helped organize the Liberal Debating Club, whose members held forth on crucial questions of the day. He competed in public-speaking contests. He joined the staff of the Princetonian , becoming editor his senior year. In the pages of the paper he expounded on all manner of subjects: the mode of selecting the captain of the baseball team, the excess of visible skin in the gymnasium, the woeful inattention to the persuasive arts in the curriculum of the college. “Why shall a thorough course in elocution not be the next acquisition to the College?” he demanded in one issue.6 In another he instructed his readers on the aims and uses of oratory:
What is the object of oratory? Its object is persuasion and conviction—the control of other minds by a strange personal influence and power. What are the fields of labor open to us in our future life career as orators? The bar, the pulpit, the stump, the Senate chamber, the lecturer’s platform. 7
Public speaking and editorial writing led Wilson to politics. In the presidential campaign of 1876, he threw his support behind Samuel Tilden, the Democratic nominee. As a southerner, Wilson probably would have backed Tilden against any candidate the Republicans put forward, but Tilden’s reputation as a reformer, in contrast to the spoilsmen who dominated the party of Grant, gave the New York governor a particular appeal. “Tomorrow the nation makes its choice between Samuel J. Tilden and R. B. Hayes,” Wilson noted in his diary for November 6, 1876. “I most sincerely hope that it will be sensible enough to elect Tilden as I think the salvation of the country from frauds and the reviving of trade depends upon his election.”8 Yet with the sophistication of the college senior, Wilson refused to endorse the Democracy as a whole. “The Democrats will be very likely to abuse power if they get it,” he predicted. “Men are greedy fellows as a rule.”9 (The 1876 election also marked the political coming-out of Harvard undergraduate Theodore Roosevelt, who paraded for Hayes.)
The balloting was agonizingly close. “Oh for some decision one way or the other in the election!” Wilson moaned as the votes were tallied.10 When the results revealed that the voters had chosen Tilden but their electors Hayes, the outcome frustrated Wilson—as it did a great many Americans—and it piqued his curiosity as to whether this sort of thing happened in other countries. Looking to England, he became enamored of the great statesmen and orators of America’s mother country. He copied the speeches of Edmund Burke into his commonplace book; he praised the elder William Pitt for a poetic imagination that “set his words fairly aglow with beauty.”11 John Bright’s rhetoric revealed “the calmness of white heat.”12 William Gladstone’s style was “a two-edged sword that can split fine hairs of distinction with no less precision than it can search out the heart of an opponent’s plea, that can make the dexterous passes of dialectic fence with the same readiness with which it can cleave the defenses of prejudice.”13
With admiration for British statesmen came enthusiasm for the political system that produced them. Wilson won a minor reputation with an essay published in the International Review shortly after his 1879 graduation, calling for measures to make the American cabinet responsible to Congress, as the British cabinet was responsible to the British Parliament. He adduced various arguments in support of his recommendation, starting with the negative evidence of ongoing corruption in the American system. But his central argument was that exposure to Congress, and to the debates that took place there, would cleanse the cabinet of the moral rot that infested the unexamined executive branch. At the same time, regular exchanges between those who crafted the laws and those who executed them would have a vivifying effect on the electorate, now discouraged because so often kept in the dark. “Debate is the essential function of a representative body,” Wilson declared. “In the severe, distinct, and sharp enunciation of underlying principles, the unsparing examination and telling criticism of opposite positions, the careful, painstaking unraveling of all the issues involved, which are incident to the free discussion of questions of public policy, we see the best, the only effective means of educating public opinion.”14
Not for decades would Wilson’s contact with the world of politics be closer than secondhand, anything more intimate than the outside observations of the scholar. But these early assessments of the great statesmen certainly suggest a strong desire in the young Wilson to emulate those he admired. Gladstone, Bright, and the others won fame and influence by voicing the needs and desires of their countrymen. Throughout history, some men have gained power by the sword, others by the purse. Still others—the ones with whom Wilson identified—gained power by the compelling nature of their words.
In the editorial in which he had identified the vocations open to the orator, Wilson listed the bar first. Thus it was no leap for him to enroll in law school the autumn after his graduation from Princeton. He chose the University of Virginia, which, despite its reputation as the pride of the South, didn’t impress him. “I can’t say that my liking for life at the University increases as my acquaintance with it grows,” he told one of his Princeton friends midway through his first year. “My judgment of the place is about this, that it is a splendid place for the education of the mind, but no sort of place for the education of the man.”15
In fact, it was the law rather than the university that was the problem. The law, Wilson said, was “a hard task-master.” And dull.
I wish now to record the confession that I am most terribly bored by the noble study of Law sometimes … . I think that it is the want of variety that disgusts me. Law served with some of the lighter and spicier sauces of literature would no doubt be at all times to us of the profession an exceedingly palatable dish. But when one has nothing but Law, served in all its dryness, set before him from one week’s end to another, for month after month and for quarter after quarter, he tires of this uniformity of diet. This excellent thing, the Law, gets as monotonous as that other immortal article of food, Hash, when served with such endless frequency.16
Wilson stuck with law school for eighteen months. He would have quit earlier but for his father’s admonition to persist. After its promising start, Dr. Wilson’s career had bogged down, and he was feeling the midlife pinch of an unremunerative profession. He didn’t want his son to suffer a like fate. The younger Wilson’s answer was to plead ill health, which caused his mother to insist that he suspend his law studies and come home to recuperate. He did so in December of his second year (of a two-year curriculum) and never returned.
Living again with his parents was hardly the thing to excite a twenty-four-year-old. He grudgingly continued to study law on his own (“Stick to the law and its prospects,” his father declared, “be they ever so depressing or disgusting”)17 even as he moonlighted in subjects more in keeping with his ambition and his conception of what counted in life. He read history and politics and practiced elocution. He took voice lessons, to strengthen and polish his delivery. “I make frequent extemporaneous addresses to the empty benches of my father’s church in order to get a mastery of easy and correct and elegant expression, in preparation for the future,” he told a Princeton friend. “My topics are most of them political, and I can sometimes almost see the benches smile at some of my opinions and deliverances.”18
His familial claustrophobia peaked about the time he judged himself ready to try his luck as a lawyer. He moved to Atlanta in the spring of 1882 and became half of the firm Renick and Wilson. Business arrived slowly, not least since Wilson found the practice of law even more dismal than its study. “I am unfit for practice,” he said after several months. “I have had just enough experience to prove that. In the first place, the atmosphere of the courts has proved very depressing to me. I cannot breathe freely nor smile readily in an atmosphere of broken promises, of wrecked estates, of neglected trusts, of unperformed duties, of crimes and of quarrels.” He felt his soul shriveling and his heart hardening from constant exposure to the nether side of human nature. “But this is the least part of the argument,” he continued. “Here lies the weight of it: my natural, and therefore predominant, tastes every day allure me from my law books; I throw away law reports for histories, and my mind runs after the solution of political, rather than of legal, problems, as if its keenest scent drew it after them by an unalterable instinct. My appetite is for general literature and my ambition is for writing.”19
Far enough now from his father to ignore paternal remonstrance, Wilson elected to follow his instinct and ambition. A new graduate school had been established in Baltimore, endowed by the financial tycoon Johns Hopkins and modeled on the German universities that had served as finishing schools for ambitious American scholars. Wilson applied, was accepted, and in the autumn of 1883 enrolled.
At Hopkins he found a métier more congenial than law. He studied governments past and present and formulated his ideas into the book that served as his dissertation. Congressional Government (published in 1885) delineated the operation of what to Wilson was unarguably the most important branch of the federal government. Where his earlier essays had tended toward the prescriptive, this work stressed description. “I have abandoned the evangelical for the exegetical,” he informed a friend.20 Critics appreciated the distinction, praising both the book and its author. “The best critical writing on the American constitution which has appeared since the ‘Federalist’ papers,” said one especially enthusiastic reviewer.21
The book launched Wilson’s academic career. In 1885 he took a job at Bryn Mawr, where he taught the young ladies more than most of them wanted to know about the theory of government. (When reviewers had found fault with Congressional Government, they generally identified the author’s emphasis on constitutional theory at the expense of legislative practice—an emphasis no doubt partly explained by the fact that Wilson never visited Congress before dissecting its operation.) From Bryn Mawr he transferred in 1888 to Connecticut’s Wesleyan College, where he did the same to the men there. In 1890 his alma mater called him home, and he returned to Princeton.
Wilson’s second coming to Princeton differed decidedly from his first. For one thing, he had a new name. Not long after graduation, and for reasons that remain unclear, he had dropped his first name, Thomas, in favor of his middle name, Woodrow. He told a close friend that in doing so he was honoring his mother’s “special request.”22 Why she made this request, if in fact she did, after having apparently been satisfied with his use of Thomas for twenty-five years, he didn’t say. Perhaps the request was of longer standing; if so, his reticence concealed his reason for acceding to it at this time. Old friends still called him Tommy, but to the rest of the world he was Woodrow.
For another thing, he was now a rising academic star and public thinker. His second book, The State (1889), cast the American system of government in comparative light, holding it up against its classical predecessors and its European contemporaries. It became a classroom standard and was translated into several foreign languages. Wilson meanwhile received and frequently accepted requests to contribute to popular journals and to lecture around the country on topics of historical and current interest.
Princeton greeted him enthusiastically. More than half the junior and senior classes signed up for his elective course in public law during his first semester. He didn’t disappoint the young scholars and quickly gained a reputation as the best lecturer on campus. Upperclassmen raved about him to freshmen, who counted the semesters till they could take his courses.
His success at Princeton echoed around the university circuit. For several years he taught a short course at his other alma mater, Johns Hopkins. For a time he commuted weekly to New York to teach at the New York Law School. After two years at Princeton, the University of Illinois offered him its presidency. The University of Virginia did the same—apparently willing to forgive his abrupt departure from the law school there.
But Princeton wouldn’t let him get away. The trustees bumped up his salary till he was the highest-paid professor on campus. They adjusted his teaching schedule to suit his off-campus engagements. They gave him a leading role at the sesquicentennial of the college (at which it formally changed its name from the College of New Jersey and became a university). And in 1902 they voted unanimously to make him Princeton’s president.
In those days of fewer universities and greater deference to authority, the presidency of a major university conferred uncommon stature on the incumbent. In Wilson’s case, the office enhanced and ramified an already substantial reputation. Till now an expert on American and comparative politics, he became a spokesman for education and the molding of young America.
As it happened, the country was peculiarly attuned at this time to a marriage of politics and education. The first decade of the twentieth century witnessed the emergence on the national stage of progressivism, that congeries of reform which encompassed all manner of worthy causes, from conservation and corporate regulation to consumer protection and immigration restriction, from prohibition and workmen’s compensation to women’s suffrage and primary elections. What connected the sundry elements of this movement was an almost unquestioning faith in education as an instrument of democratic betterment. The education the progressives endorsed was broadly construed, starting in the schools but extending beyond the walls of the classroom. It included the exposés of the investigative journalists whom Theodore Roosevelt—the first progressive president, and the country’s chief executive when Wilson took over at Princeton—called “muckrakers.” It included the reports of the myriad commissions appointed to examine this aspect or that of municipal corruption, statehouse shenanigans, and other forms of incest among corporate and political power brokers. And it included the lectures, articles, and books of those persons who headed the great educational institutions of the country, men such as Seth Low at Columbia, Charles Eliot at Harvard, and Woodrow Wilson at Princeton.
As Princeton president, Wilson met many of the most influential individuals in America. J. P. Morgan, Mark Twain, and Booker T. Washington attended his installation. Theodore Roosevelt had marked the date on his calendar, but a trolley car accident prevented his coming; the president made it up by attending an Army-Navy football game played at Princeton, and bringing along Secretary of State Elihu Root and much military brass. Andrew Carnegie dropped by the campus to make a donation. George Harvey, the editor of Harper’s Weekly, which serialized Wilson’s successful and influential History of the American People (published in book form in 1902), introduced the author around New York.
And yet, even as Wilson earned a national name, trouble developed at Princeton. Academic politics are known for their pettiness, and to outside observers, the most bitter fight of Wilson’s presidency at Princeton did indeed seem small. The graduate dean, Andrew West, wanted to locate the graduate school some distance from the undergraduate college. He cited pedagogical reasons, but few observers doubted that beneath the rationale was his desire to maintain his independence from the rest of the university and from Wilson. Wilson had his own educational reasons for wanting the graduate school kept close to the college, but for him, too, the central issue was the independence of the graduate school, which Wilson wanted to limit. West was as clever as he was determined, and he lined up a donor to fund his freedom, thereby placing Wilson in the awkward position of looking a handsome gift horse in the mouth. The Wilson-West dispute split the alumni and the trustees. Eventually Wilson was forced to capitulate—although not to admit error. “The beauty about a Scotch-Irishman is that he not only thinks he is right, but knows he is right,” he said, joking at himself but not at his judgment. “I have not departed from the faith of my ancestors.” 23 West won his freedom, and Wilson began seeking an exit from Princeton.
He didn’t have to look long. Since the Civil War, the Democratic party had wandered in the wilderness regarding the presidency, with Grover Cleveland being the sole exception to a half century of Republican chief executives. Of late the Democrats had been reduced to renominating William Jennings Bryan, who had been a stirring stump presence in 1896 but in 1900 and especially in 1908 simply seemed stale. The problem was partly the Democrats’ lack of imagination but also the structure of national politics. The events surrounding the Civil War had made the South the stronghold of the Democrats, and while this was no handicap to the party in Congress—southern Democratic senators and congressmen held their own with Republicans from other sections—it hampered the party in presidential elections, in which candidates had to appeal to a national electorate. Tainted by secession and rebellion, the Democrats had difficulty fielding credible candidates.
After Bryan’s 1908 defeat, certain Democratic strategists began searching for a new kind of candidate—one young enough to have missed the war, one with a national reputation, although not necessarily a reputation acquired in the practice of politics, and one with southern connections but not so closely identified with the South as to tempt the Republicans to wave the bloody shirt one more time. As Wilson’s star rose above Princeton, and as his speeches and writings drew the approval of ever larger audiences, he seemed the answer to many Democratic prayers.
But was he interested? By all evidence, he considered the questions of American governance vital and compelling; but would he run for office? Editor George Harvey put the question directly: Would Wilson accept the nomination if it were offered? Without committing himself, Wilson responded that he would give the matter “very serious consideration.”24
This was all Harvey needed to hear, and he began talking Wilson up among the Democratic leadership. The party bosses required convincing. The last thing they wanted was some professor telling them how to manage their affairs. Yet others in the party saw Wilson as the Democrats’ return ticket from exile, as the one who could rescue the party from terminal Bryanism. They told the bosses that Wilson’s very inexperience would render him that much more pliable when elected. He would have no choice but to heed the wisdom of the men who made practical politics their calling.
Because 1910 was not a presidential year, the pro-Wilson forces had an opportunity to test their man on a small stage. They proposed to nominate him for New Jersey governor. New Jersey’s Democratic regulars, including boss James Smith, were still skeptical, so they sent a letter inquiring whether Wilson would disrupt the work they had done over many years. Wilson replied that he would not. “I would be perfectly willing to assure Mr. Smith that I would not, if elected Governor, set about ‘fighting and breaking down the existing Democratic organization and replacing it with one of my own,’” he said. “The last thing I should think of would be building up a machine of my own.”25
Wilson was duly nominated by the Democrats, whereupon he resigned the Princeton presidency. The campaign—for the governorship, but implicitly for the presidency—began with his acceptance address, in which he summoned his party to a higher politics. “Government is not a warfare of interests,” he declared. “We shall not gain our ends by heat and bitterness, which makes it impossible to think either calmly or fairly. Government is a matter of common counsel, and everyone must come into the consultation with the purpose to yield to the general view, the view which seems most nearly to correspond with the common interests.” Wilson sensed a new day in American politics. “We are witnessing a renaissance of public spirit, a reawakening of sober public opinion, a revival of the power of the people, the beginning of an age of thoughtful reconstruction that makes our thought hark back to the great age in which Democracy was set up in America.” And in the name of democracy he and those who thought like him would march forward to victory. “Is not our own ancient party the party disciplined and made ready for this great task? Shall we not forget ourselves in making it the instrument of righteousness for the state and for the nation?”26
The delegates loved the speech. Wilson tried to keep it short, but they wouldn’t let him stop. As the Trenton True American reported the next day, “The delegates were so deeply impressed by Dr. Wilson’s oratory and were so desirous of hearing more of it that he was greeted with many cries of: ‘Go on!’ and ‘You’re all right!’” So he extemporaneously amplified his remarks, concluding several minutes later with a stirring peroration:
America is not distinguished so much by its wealth and material power as by the fact that it was born with an ideal, a purpose to serve mankind. And all mankind has sought her as a haven of equal justice. When I look upon the American flag before me, I think sometimes that it is made of parchment and blood. The white in it stands for parchment, the red in it signifies blood—parchment on which was written the rights of men, and blood that was spilled to make these rights real. Let us devote the Democratic party to the recovery of these rights.
The True American described the denouement: “At the conclusion of this masterly effort Dr. Wilson was mobbed by the delegates, and he had to be rescued by the police, who went to his aid and cleared a way to the stage door where an automobile was in waiting.”27
Progressives in New Jersey thrilled to this new voice, even as reformers across the country eavesdropped excitedly. In certain respects, Wilson made a stronger national candidate than a state candidate. National progressives could revel in his rhetoric about democratic responsibility, while the local ward heelers had to wonder what they would do if the professor were elected. They wondered the more as the campaign continued, for, with the nomination safely in hand, Wilson—acting partly on instinct, it would seem, and partly on what he had learned from a career studying politics—distanced himself from the Democratic regulars as the election approached. The result was a resounding victory. In a heavy turnout, Wilson bested his Republican rival by nearly two to one.
Hardly had the votes been counted when Wilson’s backers began looking to 1912. The New Jersey bosses required only slightly longer to do the same. Wilson’s first order of gubernatorial business was to engineer the overthrow of boss Smith, whose support had been crucial in Wilson’s nomination but who symbolized the old style of politics Wilson had pledged to eliminate. Not unnaturally, Smith accounted Wilson an ungrateful wretch and asserted that the governor’s double cross was “striking evidence of his aptitude in the art of foul play.”28 Another member of the old guard, Democratic party chairman James Nugent, likewise got the boot and likewise felt misused; he called Wilson “an ingrate and a liar.”29 Those regulars who clung to power reckoned that their survival might well depend on promoting Wilson to Washington.
The object of their anger affected uninterest in higher office but nonetheless launched an informal presidential campaign. A cross-country speaking tour had nothing to do with the governance of New Jersey and everything to do with getting Wilson before the voters. In the South he was a Virginian; in the North and West he was a Jerseyman. Everywhere he was a stirring speaker, a teacher taking his lectures to the people. With practice his message sharpened; the lines that elicited the loudest applause were those that cast the struggle for reform in terms of the people against the interests. At first George Harvey and Harper’s hailed the hard-charging governor, but eventually Wilson’s attacks on corporate wrongdoing frightened even Harvey.
But by then the Wilson juggernaut had become nearly unstoppable. The election of 1912 was the first in which party primaries played an important role. On the Republican side, they prompted Theodore Roosevelt, who won most of the GOP primaries but lost the nomination to incumbent William Howard Taft, to bolt the Republicans and run as the candidate of the Progressive, or Bull Moose, party. The Democrats had no incumbent, and although the party regulars favored House Speaker Champ Clark of Missouri at the national convention in Baltimore, the Democrats’ two-thirds requirement for nomination enabled Wilson to fend off Clark while seeking allies beyond the ranks of recognized progressives. For ballot after ballot Clark and the regulars hammered Wilson and the upstarts; for ballot after ballot the progressives patiently enlisted reinforcements. The break came when William Jennings Bryan, judging the professor preferable to the politico, swung to Wilson. With Bryan’s backing, Wilson passed Clark on the thirtieth ballot and garnered the winning two-thirds on the forty-sixth.
The general campaign of 1912 was one of the great contests of American political history. Roosevelt’s rhetorical energy was a known fact of political life, and although he no longer commanded the bully pulpit (a phrase that, like “muckrakers,” “malefactors of great wealth,” and “the big stick,” he had already added to the American lexicon), he took the stump with customary verve. Roosevelt injected a further element of drama into the contest when, after an attempted assassination late in the campaign, he nonetheless mounted the dais and gave an impassioned speech even as his own blood stained his shirt a gaudy crimson.
Wilson couldn’t compete with Roosevelt on the Rough Rider’s terms and knew not to try. Wilson’s approach was cooler and more cerebral yet inspired by a passion of his own. The compelling question of the day, he said, was what to do about the trusts, the corporate combines that had squeezed the life out of business competition and were extorting excessive profits from the American people. Roosevelt also assailed the trusts, but where Roosevelt wanted to rein in the trusts by regulating them, Wilson demanded their destruction—their breakup into parts that would have to compete for customers’ favor rather than dictate the terms on which they would deign to deal with customers. “The center of all our economic difficulties is that there is not freedom of enterprise in the United States,” Wilson told a Detroit audience. For a generation the captains of industry and finance had conspired to strangle competition—which was to say, to strangle those enterprises that had long been the hope of the hard working and the promise of the American future. “The inventive genius and initiative of the American people is being held back by the fact that our industrial field is so controlled that new entries, newcomers, new adventurers, independent men, are feared, and if they will not go partners in the game with those already in the control of it, they will be excluded.” The business of the American government was not to accept the trusts as inevitable, as Roosevelt proposed, but to render them impotent by restoring real competition. “What I am interested in is laws that will give the little man a start, that will give him a chance to show these fellows that he has brains enough to compete with them and can presently make his local market a national market and his national market a world market, and put them to their mettle to do the business more intelligently and economically and systematically than he can.”30
As the campaign continued, Wilson returned again and again to this idea that the country must restore individual liberty, now threatened as it hadn’t been threatened since the American Revolution.
Here at the turning of the ways, when we are at last asking ourselves, “Can we get a free government that will serve us, and when we get it, will it set us free?” they say, “No, you can’t have a free government, and you ought not to desire to be set free. We know your interests. We will obtain everything that you need by beneficent regulation. It isn’t necessary to set you free. It is only necessary to take care of you.” Ah, that way lies the path of tyranny; that way lies the destruction of independent, free institutions.31
His opponent—Wilson leveled all his fire at Roosevelt, ignoring Taft—was determined to foist a new, twisted vision on the American people, Wilson said. He himself would stick with the traditional verities.
The vision of America will never change. America once, when she was a little people, sat upon a hill of vantage and had a vision of the future. She saw men happy because they were free. She saw them free because they were equal. She saw them banded together because they had the spirit of brothers. She saw them safe because they did not wish to impose upon one another. And that vision is not changed … . America will move forward, if she moves forward at all, only with her face set to that same sun of promise. Just so soon as she forgets the sun in the heavens, just so soon as she looks so intently upon the road before her and around her that she does not know where it leads, then will she forget what America was created for, and her light will go out, and the nations will grope again in darkness, and they will say, “Where are those who prophesied a day of freedom for us? Where are the lights that we followed? Where is the torch that the runners bore? Where are those who bade us hope? Where came in those whispers of dull despair?”32
Listeners responded to Wilson in a way he could only have dreamed of earlier, when he spoke to those imaginary audiences in his father’s empty church. A crowd at Madison Square Garden shouted and stamped for an hour before he spoke. (“It was a wonderful demonstration,” Wilson acknowledged, but it had a drawback. “The thing completely rattled me and I forgot my speech. I didn’t deliver the speech I had thought out so carefully.”) 33 Roosevelt had borrowed a slogan for his own program: the “New Nationalism.” Wilson riposted with an emphasis on the individual: the “New Freedom.”
Americans preferred Wilson’s formula, or at any rate they gave its author a plurality of their votes: 6.3 million for Wilson, to 4.1 million for Roosevelt and 3.5 million for Taft. The electoral college, functioning as it was designed to do, converted Wilson’s plurality into an electoral majority: 435 for Wilson against 88 for Roosevelt and 8 for Taft.
The circumstances of Wilson’s election presented him with a peculiar set of challenges. Having won but a minority of the popular vote, he could hardly claim a personal mandate. Yet he and the other reform candidate, Roosevelt, had polled an overwhelming majority together, indicating that Americans solidly supported new reins on big business, even if they differed on the brand of the bridle and length of the halter.
Wilson’s relationship with his own party was likewise problematic. “There has been a change of government,” he said in his inaugural address. “It began two years ago, when the House of Representatives became Democratic by a decisive majority. It has now been completed.”34 And so it had, with the Democrats adding control of the Senate and the presidency to their conquest of the House. But as Wilson’s observation suggested, he wasn’t the herald of change so much as its beneficiary. He liked to think, and had argued, that with a standpat candidate like Champ Clark, the Democrats would have gone down to defeat. And he was probably right. Yet the split in the Republican party had as much to do with Wilson’s victory as his own personal appeal. On March 4, 1913, the Democrats were happy to link arms in helping their new man move into the White House; but on March 5, those at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, including Clark, began reminding him that he wasn’t the only Democrat in town, and perhaps not even the most powerful.
The nature of the campaign Wilson had run didn’t help matters. All successful reform candidates confront a dilemma on entering office. Having promised to turn the rascals out, they have no choice but to make a start on the evictions. But no one wins major office, and certainly not the presidency, without help from the powers-that-be. Those powers expect compensation, and if they don’t receive it they can paralyze the new man.
Wilson struck a balance between reform and retention, a balance that dissatisfied—as such balances do—both the true believers among his partisans and the hard core of the holdovers. Wilson set the tone for what followed in a postelection huddle with William McCombs, the head of the Democratic national committee, who came to remind Wilson of the role of the party organization in his victory.35 “Before we proceed,” Wilson declared, according to McCombs’s recollection, “I wish it clearly understood that I owe you nothing.”
“I modestly suggested that I might be given credit for doing a little toward his nomination and election,” McCombs recalled.
“Whether you did little or much,” Wilson answered, in what McCombs characterized as a haughty tone of voice, “remember that God ordained that I should be the next president of the United States. Neither you nor any other mortal or mortals could have prevented that.”
Whether Wilson said these precise words is difficult to know; McCombs, as one of the ousted, had an ax to grind. But the quoted passage almost certainly captured Wilson’s general feelings on the subject, and the episode revealed something fundamental about the man who became the twenty-eighth president of the United States. Though Wilson had chosen a different career from his father, he was as orthodox a Presbyterian as the Reverend Wilson. From youth he had read the Bible daily and attended religious services faithfully; he still did so. During those periods of his life when he kept a diary, he commonly closed with “Thank God for health and strength.”36 He had been taught that nothing in the world happened without divine participation, and nothing in his experience of the world had caused him to question that conclusion. Because he typically believed that he acted according to God’s plan, he could evince a certitude his rivals found infuriating. They grew even more infuriated when he suddenly changed course, as he could do when a tactical reversal didn’t trespass on what he considered underlying principle. Mere mortals wrestled with doubt and confusion, but the self-assured Wilson possessed, to judge by his manner, a direct line to heaven. He wouldn’t have put it quite that way, but he did think God was usually on his side, and the alliance afforded him a moral serenity few could match.
Though Wilson might brush off McCombs, there was one representative of the party who had to be recognized. William Jennings Bryan’s support at Baltimore had been crucial in winning Wilson the nomination; moreover, despite Bryan’s three losses in presidential elections, the Great Commoner still exercised a powerful hold on rural rank-and-file Democrats. His continued support would be essential if Wilson wished to stamp his own imprint on the party’s program. For years Bryan had taken an active, if idiosyncratic, interest in foreign affairs, opposing imperialism and war and advocating arbitration of international disputes. Many in both parties considered him a lamb among wolves on matters diplomatic. But because Wilson didn’t think foreign affairs would play an important role in his administration, and because what little he knew about the world at large inclined him to hope that Bryan’s biblically inspired pacifism could become a blueprint for international relations, he gave the Nebraskan the premier cabinet appointment, as secretary of state.
Other appointments rewarded other constituencies. William McAdoo, a party wheelhorse from New York, became secretary of the treasury. Josephus Daniels, a North Carolina editor who had handled Democratic publicity during the campaign, was named secretary of the navy—a post that proved unexpectedly important before long. (Daniels’s assistant at the Navy Department was an athletic young man with a familiar last name: Franklin D. Roosevelt, the former president’s fifth cousin and nephew-by-marriage.) Conservative Texan Albert Sidney Burleson was selected for postmaster general.
From the start, however, it was apparent that this administration would be run from the White House. As his row with Andrew West at Princeton suggested, Wilson wasn’t much for delegation. He liked to keep the levers of power close. Besides, as a political newcomer and an avowed outsider, he had few friends or associates with the requisite qualifications for cabinet office. The men he appointed were all strangers to him. Perhaps he would learn to trust their counsel and judgment, but not easily or soon.
Yet every president needs advice, and for this Wilson turned to two men he didn’t initially appoint to office. One was Louis Brandeis, a crusading Boston lawyer and author who inspired a whole generation of progressive reformers, including Wilson. Politically, Brandeis was too hot for a new administration to handle; mere rumors that he might head the Justice Department and direct antitrust prosecution sent Wall Street’s blood pressure up and its share prices down. Wilson wasn’t worried about the cardiac health of the boardrooms, but he didn’t want to start his presidency with a financial panic, and he contented himself with making Brandeis an unofficial adviser.
Closer than Brandeis was Edward House. A wealthy Texan who appreciated the honorary title “colonel” bestowed by a grateful governor of the Lone Star state, House possessed a kind of ambition more common in Europe than America. He realized that he lacked the gifts required for election in his own right, so he aimed to be the Richelieu to someone else’s Louis. House grew aware of Wilson as the latter’s star was rising over the Delaware River, and he set about ingratiating himself to the New Jersey governor. The strategy succeeded brilliantly. “You are the only person in the world with whom I can discuss everything,” Wilson wrote in 1915. “There are some I can tell one thing and others another, but you are the only one to whom I can make an entire clearance of mind.”37 Wilson explained to a mutual acquaintance, “Mr. House is my second personality. He is my independent self His thoughts and mine are one.”38 On another occasion Wilson declared to House, “I would rather have your judgment than that of anybody I know.”39
Most observers wondered at this sudden intimacy. Surely, they surmised, the president must know that House was using him. House privately admitted that he was. “My physical handicaps”—his visage was sometimes compared to a rodent’s—“and my temperament make it necessary for me to work through other men. I was like a disembodied spirit seeking a corporeal form. I found my opportunity in Woodrow Wilson.”40
Wilson’s attachment to House is harder to explain. Part of it was political—or antipolitical. At a time when nearly everyone Wilson encountered wanted a favor or a job, House sought only the opportunity to give advice. Wilson had a sufficiently robust sense of himself to believe that he wouldn’t be corrupted by mere advice. The other part of the Wilson-House equation was personal. Wilson had few friends, and House certainly acted friendly. He was personable, intelligent, and discreet—a combination that would have appealed to any president, but especially one as nongregarious as Wilson.
The third of Wilson’s intimates was Joseph Tumulty, his private secretary. In those days before the metastasizing of the executive bureaucracy, Tumulty served simultaneously as chief of staff, director of communications, national security adviser, and counsel to the president. Irish by ancestry, New Jerseyite by birth, Democratic by decision, progressive by preference, Tumulty linked up with Wilson during the campaign for governor. He impressed the candidate, who rewarded his service with appointment as secretary and political adviser. When Wilson went to Washington, Tumulty joined him. Some observers puzzled at the partnership between the Presbyterian professor and the Catholic pol; especially in the South, where Rome rivaled Africa as the bête noire of the reviving Ku Klux Klan, Tumulty cost Wilson support. But Tumulty was efficient, firm with intruders on Wilson’s time, ruthless with tamperers against the president’s prerogatives, and sensitive to his superior’s needs and desires. No one served Wilson longer or more faithfully.
Elected on a pledge to free the American people from thrall to the trusts, Wilson at once set about redeeming his pledge. And he did so in a manner that, while natural to him, marked a minor revolution in American politics.
The Constitution specifies that the president shall from time to time report to Congress on the state of the Union and recommend legislation. George Washington and John Adams interpreted this charge literally and delivered their messages in person. Thomas Jefferson abandoned the practice as smacking of royal speeches from the throne. For the next century presidential messages to Congress were read by a clerk, nearly always without the energy and conviction their executive authors would have given them.
Wilson, enamored of oratory and confident of his persuasive abilities, decided to resurrect the eighteenth-century tradition. Shortly after the inauguration, Tumulty revealed that the president would be going to the Capitol in person to address the legislature. This break from long practice created a stir in itself, as Wilson intended. Critics aware of his admiration for British forms of government accused him of Anglophilia and perhaps megalomania. “I regret all this cheap and tawdry imitation of English royalty,” said John Williams, Democratic senator from Mississippi.41
Wilson ignored the carping. “I think that this is the only dignified way for the President to address the houses on the opening of a session, instead of sending the thing up by messenger and letting the clerk read it perfunctorily in the familiar clerk’s tone of voice,” he said.42 When Wilson got to Capitol Hill, he told the combined gathering of senators and representatives, “I am very glad indeed to have this opportunity to address the two Houses directly and to verify for myself the impression that the President of the United States is a person, not a mere department of the Government hailing Congress from some isolated island of jealous power, sending messages, not speaking naturally and with his own voice—that he is a human being trying to cooperate with other human beings in a common service. After this pleasant experience I shall feel quite normal in all our dealings with one another.”43
Not everyone in Congress found the experience pleasant. The House and especially the Senate had their own traditions, and the currently controlling Democratic leaders, including Clark, had their own plans. But they could hardly deny the president the opportunity to speak, as he well understood.
On this first visit Wilson let his mere presence make his point: that he intended to be no island of executive power, separate from the lawmaking authority of Congress. He had long advocated a closer link between the executive and the legislature; now that he headed the executive, he would become that link himself, leading Congress by his presence and by the power of his words. Again and again during the eight years of his presidency, Wilson rode from the White House up Capitol Hill to address the lawmakers under their own roof. In doing so he captured their attention—and the attention of the country, which was intrigued by the sight of the president instructing Congress on what the welfare of the nation required. This innovation—or rather this return to long-abandoned practice—was one of the hallmarks of the Wilson presidency, and one of his lasting contributions to American governance. Ever since Wilson, a president’s ability to take his message to Congress, and through Congress to the American people, has been one of his most potent tools; and the occasions on which presidents have addressed joint sessions have included some of the most memorable in American history.
The purpose of Wilson’s first visit—besides unveiling a new style of executive leadership—was to announce a plan to revise the nation’s tax structure. From the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth, the most important federal taxes were excise taxes and import taxes. The former were intermittently controversial, sparking, for example, the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, which caused George Washington to saddle up once more and lead federal troops against the rural Pennsylvania insurgents. Import taxes, or tariffs, were less visible to ordinary men and women, and therefore less likely to elicit violence, but they were for that reason more susceptible to pressure from lobbyists. The tariff advocates preached protection of domestic producers against predatory foreigners. This argument, which held a certain amount of water during America’s national and economic infancy, was leaking badly as the country became an industrial behemoth. But the protected producers stubbornly defended their preferences, which afforded them a profit premium at the expense of foreign producers and of consumers who had to pay the toll.
Yet the tariff was more than a guarantee of profits. Progressives like Wilson often argued that “the tariff made the trusts.” Their point was that the tariff sheltered big business from competition and encouraged the growth of monopolies. The tariff simultaneously fostered political corruption, as the monopolies sought to preserve their protected position. Import taxes were worth many millions to favored firms, which contributed regularly and heavily to the legislators responsible for writing the tariff laws. In taking on the tariff, Wilson struck a blow at once for consumers and for good government.
Wilson announced his position in his maiden speech to Congress. “We must abolish everything that bears even the semblance of privilege or of any kind of artificial advantage,” he declared, “and put our business men and producers under the stimulation of a constant necessity to be efficient, economical, and enterprising, masters of competitive supremacy, better workers and merchants than any in the world … . The object of the tariff duties henceforth laid must be effective competition, the whetting of American wits by contest with the wits of the rest of the world.”44
From the House chamber that day Wilson retired to the President’s Room of the Capitol, where he caucused with the Democratic senators for more than an hour. His style behind closed doors was more personal yet no less persuasive than in public forums. “We always come away feeling that we have been convinced not by Mr. Wilson, certainly not driven or bossed by him,” one Democratic lawmaker explained, “but with the feeling that we are all—President, Congress and people—in the presence of an irresistible situation. Here are the facts, he says; here are the principles; here are our obligations as Democrats. What are we going to do about it? He has a curious way of making one feel that he, along with all of us, is perfectly helpless before the facts in the case.”45
Wilson maintained the pressure for tariff reform during the spring of 1913. After Oscar Underwood of Alabama, the Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and a strong Wilson ally on tariff reform, introduced a measure sharply reducing rates on a wide array of imports, the tariff lobbyists counterattacked. The protection gang defended every ingot of steel, bolt of cloth, pair of shoes, sack of sugar, and bale of cotton as though the survival of the republic hung in the balance. Against the lobby, and over the heads of the lawmakers, Wilson took his case to the people.
I think that the public ought to know the extraordinary exertions being made by the lobby in Washington to gain recognition for certain alterations of the tariff bill. Washington has seldom seen so numerous, so industrious, or so insidious a lobby. The newspapers are being filled with paid advertisements calculated to mislead the judgment of public men not only, but also the public opinion of the country itself. There is every evidence that money without limit is being spent to sustain this lobby, and to create an appearance of a pressure of public opinion antagonistic to some of the chief items of the tariff bill.46
It was a risky maneuver: to claim that those who differed with him were paid agents of the pro-tariff forces. Some editors called him on it, complaining that he was trying to stifle free debate. But who could say for certain that the complainers weren’t part of the conspiracy? Conspiracy or not, Wilson summoned sufficient support to extract a landmark tariff reduction from Congress, the first in more than a generation. It was a great victory for the new president, and recognized as such by friends and foes alike.
As matters happened, however, a rider to the tariff bill had a larger impact than the tariff reductions themselves. The new tariff had hardly taken effect before the world war deranged Atlantic shipping and obviated much of the revised schedule. But the rate reducers, acting under the recently ratified Sixteenth Amendment, had included a provision instituting an income tax, designed to replace revenues lost to the tariff trimming. The income tax rates were very modest at first, starting at I percent on incomes over $4,000 and rising to 2 percent on incomes over $20,000. Yet they incorporated the progressive principle of increasing with income, and this, combined with the reduction of reliance on tariffs, which, as consumption taxes, tended to be regressive, shifted the burden of supporting the government from the worse off to the better.
No trust loomed larger in the progressive mind than the “money trust,” which was essentially impervious to tariff reform. To tackle the money trust—the interlocking directorate of investors and bankers that controlled the allotment of capital among America’s major enterprises—Wilson adopted a different strategy. Ever since Andrew Jackson had killed the second Bank of the United States in the mid-1830s, the country had been without a central bank. Hundreds of private banks furnished the financial needs of the nation’s burgeoning economy, but furnished them badly, by the evidence of the financial panics and depressions that recurrently prostrated the economy and seared the national consciousness. No central authority controlled the nation’s money supply or coordinated the actions of the private banks. In good times, this laissez-faire approach didn’t do much damage, but when something jolted business confidence, the tremor often rumbled through the entire system, wreaking havoc from coast to coast.
Nearly everyone agreed that something had to be done. The money men themselves wanted a central bank under private ownership and control but with government’s blessing to issue currency and otherwise direct the economy. William Jennings Bryan, who had cut his populist teeth campaigning against the big bankers, denounced this idea as giving the money men more power than they already had. Bryan and his farm-state supporters demanded that the banking system come under federal control.
If Wilson had known more about banking, he might have taken an early lead on the issue. But his knowledge of economics was thin and academic, and his grasp of practical finance even sparer. So he called in Louis Brandeis for a crash course in banking and money. Brandeis urged the president to hold out against the bankers. Participation in the new system might include private banks, Brandeis said, but ultimate control, especially over the money supply, must rest with the government. Wilson agreed.
The fight over the banking bill filled the summer of 1913. Wilson returned to the Capitol, where he told a sweaty session of Congress that the national welfare demanded action on the money front. “The control of the system of banking and of issue which our new laws are to set up must be public, not private, must be vested in the Government itself, so that the banks may be the instruments, not the masters, of business and of individual enterprise and initiative.”47
This formula—of banks as the instrument of individual enterprise, not its master—became the touchstone for Wilson and the reformers during the months that followed. The bankers and their legislative allies threw one hurdle after another in front of the president’s plan, calling it socialistic, proposing spurious amendments, obfuscating and delaying when defeat became inevitable. But finally Wilson won. Two days before Christmas he signed the Federal Reserve Act, which left ownership of the banks in private hands but vested oversight in a board appointed by the president. Although Wilson’s founding compromise was inspired by the political pressures of the moment, during the next ninety years it came to seem inspired by higher forces. The Federal Reserve system stumbled badly after the stock market crash of 1929, but with some tinkering it regained its feet and proceeded to manage the American economy remarkably well for the rest of the century.
The third prong of Wilson’s attack on the trusts—the third part of the New Freedom in action—was revision of antitrust law. The Sherman Act of 1890 had provided the basis for antitrust prosecutions initiated by the Roosevelt and Taft administrations, but despite some signal victories, including the 1911 breakup of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, the Sherman law allowed lesser or more artful monopolists to go free. Wilson determined to close the loopholes, and before Congress had caught its breath after the fight for the Federal Reserve, he was back on Capitol Hill, telling the legislature why the country needed stronger antitrust legislation and how the muscling-up might proceed. Shortly thereafter Henry Clayton of Alabama, the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, introduced a bill embodying Wilson’s recommendations. The Clayton bill specified various trade practices as illegally unfair, and, in a move designed to get the attention of the boardrooms, it authorized criminal penalties, including jail time, for directors of firms found in violation.
The bill got the intended attention, and business groups fought bitterly against it. So did other groups, for opposite reasons. Some progressives with experience in antitrust law predicted that an attempt to define unfair trade practices in statute would fail. Anything too narrow would be evaded by clever corporate attorneys; anything too broad would be rejected by the courts. Better, these reformers argued, to establish a federal trade commission empowered to determine, instance by instance and industry by industry, what constituted unfair practice.
Wilson at first opposed the idea of a commission, which was what Roosevelt had advocated in the 1912 campaign and Wilson had rejected. He didn’t think corporate attorneys were that much cleverer than the government’s counsel. “Surely we are sufficiently familiar with the actual processes and methods of monopoly and of the many hurtful restraints of trade to make definition possible, at any rate up to the limits of what experience has disclosed,” he asserted. “These practices, being now abundantly disclosed, can be explicitly and item by item forbidden by statute.”48
Yet the more he learned about the intricacies of antitrust law, the more he tilted toward giving the commission idea a chance. And when the economy slipped into recession in late 1913, he discovered additional merit in the commission approach. Business leaders were blaming him for the recession, citing the scare he had given business by his tariff and banking measures. Wilson denied responsibility but recognized that a serious downturn would damage the Democrats in the 1914 elections and perhaps himself two years later. Business distrusted him already; if utterly alienated, it might sabotage him even to its own detriment.
Consequently, when important business groups indicated a preference for the commission scheme over the more rigid Clayton bill, Wilson backed the former. Some of the business lobbyists expected to capture the commission, as commissions had been captured in the past (and would be in the future). Others, less confident, simply liked the idea of working with regulators who could say in advance whether a proposed merger was legal or not, as opposed to dealing with prosecutors and judges who withheld their opinions until after the fact. Wilson found this latter argument persuasive, and when Brandeis gave the commission idea his approval, the president was convinced. The substitute measure, which created the Federal Trade Commission, passed Congress and in September 1914 received the president’s signature. A somewhat weakened but still substantial Clayton bill likewise became law.
Surveying his handiwork in time for the 1914 congressional elections, Wilson pronounced it good. “Private control had shown its sinister face on every hand in America, had shown it for a long time, and sometimes very brazenly, in the trusts and in a virtual domination of credit by small groups of men,” he said. The favorite hideout of this cabal had been the tariff, but the new tariff law forced the conspirators into the open. “The reduction of the tariff, the simplification of its schedules so as to cut away the jungle in which secret agencies had so long lurked, the correction of its inequalities … were an indispensable first step to reestablishing competition.” The banking act had similar aims and was achieving similar success. “We have created a democracy of credit such as has never existed in this country before … . No group of bankers anywhere can get control; no one part of the country can concentrate the advantages and conveniences of the system upon itself for its own selfish advantage.” As for the new antimonopoly measures, they closed a crucial gap in antitrust law. “Before these bills were passed, the law was already clear enough that monopolies once formed were illegal and could be dissolved by direct process of law … . But there was no law to check the process by which monopoly was built up until the tree was full grown and its fruit developed, or, at any rate, until the full opportunity for monopoly had been created. With this new legislation there is clear and sufficient law to check and destroy the noxious growth in its infancy.”49
Copyright © 2003 by H. W. Brands
Meet the Author
H. W. Brands is distinguished professor of history at Texas A&M University. His previous books include the Pulitzer Prize finalist The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, The Age of Gold, and a biography of Teddy Roosevelt. He lives in Austin, Texas.
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