Michael Kazin: The Forgotten PresidentRoundup: Historians' Take
tags: Michael Kazin, The New Republic, Dissent, progressivism, Woodrow Wilson
Michael Kazin is editor of Dissent and teaches history at Georgetown University. His latest book is American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation.
The first liberal Democratic president took office exactly 100 years ago this spring. So why aren’t contemporary liberals bestowing the same praise on Woodrow Wilson as they lavish on Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson? Granted, if he were running today, Woodrow Wilson wouldn’t win a single Democratic primary and would no doubt be heckled out of the race. Raised in the South, he smiled on Jim Crow and did not object when two of his cabinet appointees re-segregated their departments. A crusading Presbyterian, he vowed to “teach the Latin American republics to elect good men” and dispatched troops to Mexico and Haiti when they didn’t follow his advice. During World War I, he enforced new laws that effectively outlawed most dissent from government policy.
Yet Wilson, together with his allies on Capitol Hill, also laid the foundation for the 20th century liberal state. He signed bills that created the Federal Reserve and progressive income tax rates, secured humane working conditions for merchant seamen and railroad workers, restricted child labor and curbed the power of large corporations. After the U.S. entered the war in Europe, his administration began operating the railroads, lifting the hopes of leftists who had long advocated public ownership of what was then a rich and vital industry.
In 1916, Wilson accepted renomination with a speech that defined political conflict in terms that remain surprisingly fresh. Our programs, he told his fellow Democrats were “resisted at every step by the interests which the Republican Party … catered to and fostered at the expense of the country, and these same interests are now earnestly praying for a reaction which will save their privileges, for the restoration of their sworn friends to power before it is too late to recover what they have lost.” No wonder Glenn Beck and some Tea Party stalwarts have labeled Wilson the “President You Need to Hate.” In their imaginations, Barack Obama is only expanding the monstrous “socialist” programs hatched a century ago....