George F. Will Continues to Take a Woodrow Wilson Quote Out of Context

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tags: Woodrow Wilson

Mr. Walsh is the Assistant Editor of HNN.

While on my ritual skimming of the Washington Post this morning, I came across George F. Will’s latest column, based entirely on Peter Beinart’s latest book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris.  Will draws on Beinart’s work to identify three types of hubris that have guided American foreign policy in the past century.  The first hubris, stemming from the progressive era, is what Beinart calls Woodrow Wilson’s “hubris of reason,” his overweening faith in science and progress to deliver solutions to the problems of state.

Will’s latest is, in many respects, a foreign policy-focused version of a piece he published back in March.  In that earlier column, Will also used Beinart’s book to make some critical points about the Wilson administration (and Obama’s professorial streak):

Wilson, a professor of political science, said that the Princeton he led as its president was dedicated to unbiased expertise, and he thought government could be "reduced to science."  Progressives are forever longing to replace the governance of people by the administration of things.  Because they are entirely public-spirited, progressives volunteer to be the administrators, and to be as disinterested as the dickens.

How gripped was Wilson by the hubris of reason?  Beinart writes:

"He even recommended to his wife that they draft a constitution for their marriage.  Let's write down the basic rules, he suggested; 'then we can make bylaws at our leisure as they become necessary.'  It was an early warning sign, a hint that perhaps the earnest young rationalizer did not understand that there were spheres where abstract principles didn't get you very far, where reason could never be king."

Will was so enamored with how Wilson’s love letter illustrates his excessively rationalistic side he brought it up again in his latest column:

…[Wilson] exemplified the hubris of reason, which supposedly could bring permanent, because "scientific," peace to Europe.  The political science professor told his wife they should draft a constitution for their marriage, then "make bylaws at our leisure."…

The problem is that this straight-faced interpretation of this quote has been taken out of context by both Beinart and Will.  Kristie Miller and Robert H. McGinnis pointed this out in an HNN article back in March.  Here is the full text of Wilson’s love letter, taken from Miller and McGinnis.  Let the reader judge the cold rationality of Wilson’s ardor:

You assured my success last year beforehand by confessing your love for me, and now you are about to assure my success next year by proving your love for me.  You are a truly delightful little person – my good genius!  When you come we can plan the best way for making New York and Baltimore very close together.  We’ll organize an inter-State Love League (of two members only, in order that it may be of manageable size) which will be as much better than the Art League as – as love is better than art.  I’ll draw up a Constitution in true legal form, and then we can make by-laws at our leisure as they become necessary.

. . . I love you and long for you more and more every day. You are my own matchless darling, and I am

Your own Woodrow

Granted, it’s not a love letter that plays to modern sensibilities, and Wilson’s passionate embrace of constitutional law as appropriate fodder for a love letter is a little strange, but it’s no more bizarre than a love letter a friend of mine wrote to his paramour about his exercise regimen.

Beinart may have misinterpreted the document for his book (which I haven’t yet read and will therefore abstain from further comment on the matter), but the real problem is that of all the evidence that one could amass about Wilson’s rationalistic mind—and there’s plenty—George Will continues to trot out a private, clearly playful love letter between Wilson and his wife as key evidence of his “hubris of reason” nearly four months after a rebuttal was published. 

Perhaps the next time Will waves the corny love letter, he should consult a historian.  After all, historians may not do breaking news (the Post’s Michael Leahy made this point rather bluntly in a July 6 article) but they do offer valuable context.  Like whether or not something is an appropriate piece of evidence in an argument.

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Maarja Krusten - 7/24/2010

Nice piece, Mr. Walsh. When it comes to public discourse among various people (pundits and the public included), I always look for who is interested in historical context and who has a favorite hobby horse to trot out. In punditry, there are a few who are open to learning -- but not very many, unfortunately.

It is an endless source of fascination to me how often people conflate walking a narrow, predetermined path with the type of confidence and attractive qualities that build fellowship. The problems lie more with political partisans (on the right and left both) than with historians but there are some historians who fall into the trap, too. (You did not with your piece here.) If only more people could write with a vibe of "come walk with me and us." One establishes that by saying at times, "hey, thanks, I didn't know that. I appreciate hearing the backstory (or getting a correction.) That so fewe can do that is a sign of the times, I think.

Lee Croteau - 7/24/2010

I’ll draw up a Constitution in true legal form, and then we can make by-laws at our leisure as they become necessary.

It's obviously meant playfully. "Make by-laws" at leisure is very sweet, and could mean flowers or a kind word every day, or hugs on demand.

Javier Ramirez - 7/19/2010

Why? First, I dont think any one here said he was a "total" rationalist, I personally dont think anyone is or can be one. However to your point, why is it so hard to see anyone putting their faith in "science and progress" as not capable of being a racist? Some of the greatest writings of racial superiority came from writers of the so called "Enlightment". I would highly recommend the book The Dark Side of Light which you can read partially here http://books.google.com/books?id=ZqhDEFLNebAC&;printsec=frontcover&dq=the+dark+side+of+light+enlightenment&source=bl&ots=5MTxJgVaei&sig=lwC-H7cmql99vVROChtYyhv-ucY&hl=en&ei=W8tDTKasOoG88gaWjb2jDw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CBwQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false

Racists have always tried to give justification for their ideology. Racism was, if you can believe it, seen as a progressive idea in some quarters.

Lisa Kazmier - 7/18/2010

How is that proto-fascist? Why do you think fascism is somehow machine-like when it's built on a Dionysus-like worship of a leader and hatred of a small population who allegedly "stabbed Germany in the back"? I don't get machine-like or robotic, etc. from that.

Clare Spark - 7/18/2010

Would anyone here argue that Wilson was an integrationist? I think not. Some of his (ambivalent?) successors in high policy making circles are quoted here: http://clarespark.com/2010/07/18/white-elite-enabling-of-black-power/.

Lisa Kazmier - 7/18/2010

I have a problem reconciling Wilson as total rationalist believing in science and progress with his endorsement of DW Griffith's Birth of a Nation and, implicitly, the racism of that film.

Javier Ramirez - 7/17/2010

I dont see where Will got this out of context. Perhaps he did misconstrue this as being a serious proposal but nonetheless I do believe that it does show that Wilson, even humorously, was enamored with reducing everything to scientific/rationalistic techniques. It is a reflection of his progressive philosophical worldview. It would be like a physicist writing to his wife about their relationship in terms of general relativity. No one would think he was serious, hopefully, but it would be an indication of what consumes his thinking and his beliefs. So yes Wilson was being tongue and cheeky but using the letter in the manner Will did is perfectly legit although with an acknowledgement that it was supposed to be humorous would have been more fair. As for Mr. Walsh's contenion that Will and others might consult historians, I dont think so. As HNN has demonstrated many times in the past many historians are guilty of worse academic crimes than Will. Historians can sometimes provide valuble context but they are not a modern day priestly guild that needs to be consulted.


Jeff Schneider - 7/16/2010

What is wrong with you guys, can't you see that this is a joke????

Clare Spark - 7/15/2010

I researched this for some time. Wilson was an organicist thinker and I spelled it out in an essay, linked here: http://clarespark.com/2008/05/03/margoth-vs-robert-e-lee/. Wilson's idea of "science" can be seen as protofascist in that he imagined society as a well-run machine, with little friction.