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Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism by R. J. Pestrito

R. J. Pestrito

Reviewed by:
On March 7, 2010
Last modified:October 13, 2012


R.J. Pestrito's Woodrow Wilson and Roots of Modern Liberalism is a short but thorough analysis of Wilson's political beliefs. It is not a polemical attack on Wilson, but rather an in-depth analysis of his philosophical underpinnings and the origins of modern liberalism.

Woodrow Wilson And The Roots of Modern LiberalismRonald J. Pestrito’s book is an in-depth, methodical analysis of Wilson’s political philosophy.  This dense, but relatively short 7 chapter volume is opened by placing Wilson in context with historical thinking and the founding of America.  In the introduction, Pestrito lays out the foundation for the book. He contrasts the fundamental difference between Wilson’s political philosophy and that of the Founders.  This difference stems from the framers’ core belief in inalienable, trans-historical truth and Wilson’s belief in historicism and the adapted tenets of German philosophers, notably Hegel. Like Hegel, Wilson contended in several of his lectures that government was

… the eternal, natural embodiment and expression of a higher form of life than the individual, namely, that common life which gives leave to individual life, and opportunity for completeness, – makes individual life possible and makes it full and complete.

Historicism is an almost religious (in Wilson’s case it was) belief in the predetermined end of history, which is the perfection of modern democracy and conversely the denial of permanent trans-historical truth.  Therefore, the Founders and their precepts, while suitable for the time in which they lived, were simply unqualified, and in fact showed great hubris in suggesting that the system they developed was suitable for use in perpetuity.  According to Wilson, their distrust of government was based solely on their understanding of the time and circumstances in which they lived.  Modern governance should not be shackled by the constraints specified by the Constitution, in particular the separation of powers, and the whole concept of checks and balances.  In Wilson’s view this was unnecessary, because in his enlightened times, the modern state was an organic entity and just like an organism, would not have its parts operate in contention with one another; neither should the apparatus of state do so.  Furthermore, these systems had become merely impediments that prevented the efficient administration of government.  Wilson’s dislike of what he perceived as the Founders’ if not child-like, simply historical, incapability of transcending their time is reflected in his writings:

No doubt a great deal of nonsense has been talked about the inalienable rights of the individual, and a great deal that was mere vague sentiment and pleasing speculation has been put forward as fundamental principle.  The rights of man are easy to discourse of … but they are infinitely hard to translate into practice.  Such theories are never “law” … Only that is “law” which can be executed and the abstract rights of man are singularly difficult to execute.1

To Wilson, real governments were founded to achieve practical ends and should constantly adjust their principles to current circumstances.  This in contrast to the Founders’ vision of abstract rights that remain true throughout history and do not go out of style or become outdated.

This book meticulously details the evolution of Wilson’s philosophy on government through his various writings on American history, congress, and the presidency.  Wilson had a vision of a government run by altruistic technocrats and very little respect for wisdom of the masses.  Consequently, he advocated for the bifurcation of governance into politics and administration.  These administrators/bureaucrats would be guaranteed lifetime tenure and generous compensation and separated from political influence.  What Wilson never addressed, was the potential for inherent self-interest that the Founders understood and incorporated into their system of checks and balances.

Wilson’s perception of leadership by the elite is evidently as some super-human, all-wise product of historical inevitability:

Men of strenuous minds and high ideals come forward, with a sort of gentle majesty, as champions of a political or moral principle…. The attacks they sustain are more cruel than the collisions of arms. Their souls are pierced with a thousand keen arrows of obloquy.  Friends desert and despise them.  They stand alone and oftentimes are made bitter by their isolation.  They are doing nothing less than defy public opinion, and shall they convert it by blows?  Yes, presently the forces of popular thought hesitate, waver, seem to doubt their power to subdue a half score dozen minds.  Again a little while and those forces have actually yielded.  Masses come over to the side of the reform.  Resistance is left to the minority, and such as will not be convinced are crushed.2

He also envisioned the role of government, initially Congress, and then as his thinking matured, the president, to educate, cajole and interpret the public will, even before the public knows what that will is.  The role of “democratic” leadership is to show the people that the single will of the ruler is, in fact, their own.  He is, after all, altruistic in his desire to do what’s best for the country.

Whoever would effect change in modern constitutional government must first educate his fellow citizens to want some change.  That done he must persuade them to want the particular change he wants.  He must first make public opinion willing to listen and then see to it that it listens to the right things.  He must stir it up to search for an opinion, and then manage to put the right opinion in its way.3

Does this sound familiar?  Consider the astronomical number of speeches given by President Obama, the harnessing of groups like Acorn, and the use of the National Endowment for the Arts to produce propaganda in support of his initiatives.

The book is not a polemic in the sense that the author calls out Wilson for his beliefs or even that he connects the dots between what Wilson believed and the core of modern liberalism.  Instead, Pestrito merely documents and clarifies what Wilson believed.  When he (the author) takes a stand in the book, it is to address some point of discussion about Wilson’s philosophy, rather than a value judgment on the ramifications, validity, or practicality of that philosophy.

Another thing that the author does not explicitly point out is Wilson’s elitism and arrogance. But his liberal use of  Wilson’s own words in speeches, lectures, and books cannot help but illustrate the 28th President’s exaggerated sense of self.  The extreme distaste he had for the country’s founding principles shows through in such quotes as this one, where he attacks even Thomas Jefferson as un-American!

It is [Jefferson's] speculative philosophy that is exotic, and that runs like a false and artificial note through all his thought.  It was un-American in being abstract, sentimental, and rationalistic, rather than practical.  That he held it sincerely need not be doubted; but the more sincerely he accepted it so much the more thoroughly was he un-American.4

He viewed (what was then) modern American bureaucrats and politicians as historically evolved and therefore superior in wisdom to its Founders:

… we used to say that the ideal government was for every man to be left alone and not interfered with, except when he interfered with somebody else; and the best government was the government that did as little governing as possible.  That was the idea that obtained in Jefferson’s time.  But we are coming now to realize that life is so complicated that we are not dealing with the old conditions.5

He did not restrict his condescension to the Founders.  When referring to the situation in the Philippines and the ouster of Spain and subsequent replacement by the United States in the role of governance:

We must govern as those who learn; and they must obey as those who are in tutelage. They are children and we are men in these deep matters of government and justice.6

One might excuse Wilson for his tone with the argument that such a statement about the Philippines was a product of the times.  However, his views about the necessity of an elite class to govern, even in his own country, is indicative of his thinking generally.

There is a great deal more in the book than can be touched upon in this brief review.  Interestingly enough, the book does not spend much time comparing the acts of the man as president to the philosophy he espoused.  Presumably, historical fact is sufficiently accessible to permit the reader to draw his own conclusions.  Pestrito does not engage in value judgements, he merely lays out a clear, in-depth exposition of Wilson’s beliefs.

When contemporary politicians label themselves as “Progressives” one has to ask the question: “Do they know what they are saying?”

Unfortunately, the answer to that question is largely: “Yes.”  Consequently, one must conclude that most Americans do not understand what the term “Progressive” entails.

1Constitutional Government, p16
2Leaders of Men
3Study of Administration
4Calendar of Great Americans
5The New Freedom p20
6The Papers of Woodrow Wilson Volume 12.


1 Todd Fletcher { 03.09.10 at 3:14 am }

Obama is very much the same sort of man. The Achilles heel in this elitist approach is simply that there’s nothing to keep them honest. A healthy skepticism about human motives is something we all need to cultivate.


2 Quinn Woodworth { 03.26.10 at 4:28 am }

I liked reading this review of Woodrow Wilson’s philosophy. I know little about him except what I learned when reading, Paris 1919.


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