My Account

Warning: You are using a browser that does not support angularJS. Some site functionality will not be available to you. Please consider updating to a newer version.

Should We Follow George Washington or Woodrow Wilson?

Burton W. Folsom

George Washington believed that public morality and private morality were inseparable. If you were unethical in private situations, with family and friends, you would also be unethical in political life. Because the arena of political life was larger and more consequential, Americans should, Washington believed, elect to public office people of exemplary character in their private lives.

Woodrow Wilson disagreed. “There are so many men,” Wilson argued, “who are good in their private lives who are unwise in public affairs and purposes.” He concluded, “If there is a place where we must adjourn our morals, that place should be in what we call the private life. It is better to be unfaithful to a few people than to a considerable number of people.”

Wilson assumes that someone could be unfaithful to his wife (as he was) and duplicitous in dealing with colleagues (as some of Wilson’s Princeton colleagues accused him of being), but be virtuous, fair-minded, and full of integrity in public life. Did Wilson’s presidency succeed in this respect? No.

First, Wilson flip-flopped on many issues, often for political expediency. For example, in 1914 he insisted that “no child labor law yet proposed has seemed to me constitutional,” but he signed such a law when he needed to do so for his reelection campaign in 1916. Second, Wilson promised to be president of all the people, but he allowed many government bureaus to be resegregated during his presidency. The Post Office, for example, fired many black Americans and insisted that those blacks who remained had to be segregated behind screens so that whites would not have to look at them.

Third, Wilson did not respect the right of prosperous Americans to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As we’ll see, he believed wealthy Americans should pay extremely high taxes.

Wilson’s disagreements with Washington went further. Washington believed that even if the Americans elected men of sterling character, their power should still be limited. Why? Because human nature was flawed and even good people could make huge mistakes or be corrupted by power. The best chance to secure and perpetuate freedom, Washington argued, was to divide power among several groups, and then elect (or appoint) men of good character as political leaders.

Again, Wilson disagreed. As a Progressive he believed more in the perfectibility of man. Presidents, therefore, should be trusted with more power—so that they could overcome fragmented government, and thereby do more good for humanity. “[T]he only fruit of dividing power,” Wilson argued, “was to make it irresponsible.”

What Wilson wanted was a strong president who could translate his view of the interests of the people into public policy. Unlike in the founding era, Wilson believed that with the increase of knowledge in the 1800s and the training of experts, the modern State of the early 1900s was “beneficent.”

Thus once Wilson was in the White House he wanted to be bound only by what is now called a “living Constitution,” a document he could stretch to do good works. The written Constitution, for example, favors liberty of contract, the right of employer and employee to set wages and hours mutually agreeable to both sides. Wilson, however, liked the idea that he and other experts sometimes knew best the hours and wages workers should have. Thus he signed the Adamson Act, which required an eight-hour day for railroad workers.

He also signed the Revenue Act, creating a graduated income tax with a top rate of 7 percent. He saw this as an entering wedge for higher taxes later. In this case, rather than stretching the Constitution, he took advantage of an amendment to it that was ratified right before he took office. In 1916 he supported a hike in the top rate to 15 percent. By the end of his presidency, two years after World War I, the top rate was 73 percent. The limit on what some Americans had to pay in taxes was now determined by politicians, who weighed the programs they wanted against the income some Americans were seen as capable of paying.

In foreign policy Washington argued that Americans should always be neutral in European wars, but Wilson disagreed. To him World War I was a chance to intervene and do good—and perhaps, since man was increasingly perfectible, to put an end to war for all time. Once the war began, Wilson pretended to follow Washington and argued for U.S. neutrality. But behind the scenes Wilson sided with the British and even sent advisers to London to assure them of that.

When Britain barred ships from entering the North Sea—as part of a plan to starve Germany—Wilson never complained. The United States would oblige the British and avoid the North Sea. But when Germany retaliated by using submarines to sink British ships, Wilson protested vigorously that American passengers had the right to travel anywhere on British ships, even ships carrying arms and munitions. As the frustrated Germans starved under the British blockade, they began to sink armed British ships, some of which were carrying Americans. Wilson eventually led the United States into war.

Wilson believed American intervention was essential to fight the war to end all wars. He believed he would be the ultimate world peacemaker. But it didn’t work the way he planned. After more than 10 million deaths (over 100,000 of which were Americans), a vindictive peace treaty, and a flawed League of Nations, the world of the 1920s and 1930s became a more dangerous place.

Most American historians seem to agree that the U.S. government could have avoided World War I. George Washington would have at least tried to do so. If that had happened, the European nations perhaps would have negotiated a more stable peace—as they did after the Napoleonic wars a century earlier. If so, perhaps the world would have been spared the rise of Hitler and the expansion of both fascism and communism.

What we can say for certain is that World War I dramatically shaped American life. In the economy, for example, the national debt, which had steadily fallen for 50 years, skyrocketed from $1.2 billion in 1916 to $25.5 billion in 1919. And the taxes needed to pay just the annual interest charges on this new debt were so high they discouraged investment. Farmers, who had been urged to plant fencerow to fencerow during the war, watched helplessly as prices for their crops plummeted worldwide after the war. The Allied nations, which owed the United States about $10 billion in war loans, were soon in default. Unemployment in 1921 was almost 12 percent. The United States was in economic crisis. And much of this crisis came because we had followed Woodrow Wilson, not George Washington.

Related Articles


{{}} - {{relArticle.pub_date | date : 'MMMM dd, yyyy'}}