Tuesday, February 6, 2024

One of our worst Presidents

When I studied American history in high school and college Woodrow Wilson was presented as one of our best Presidents and Harding as one of the worst. That was how I taught them, too. I was wrong. In fact, Harding was pretty good and Wilson was terrible (I was wrong about Grant, too). From "There’s No Defending Woodrow Wilson" responding to an effort to rehabilitate his reputation:
.... Wilson openly scorned our constitutional system in his academic writings; he explicitly ran for governor of New Jersey openly pledging to be “an unconstitutional governor” who would burst restraints on his powers. He was elected president in 1912 with 42 percent of the vote almost entirely as a result of a third-party challenge that split his opposition — and both of his elections depended upon the mass disenfranchisement of black voters in the Solid South. ....

Wilson was not merely a man of his time who shared its common prejudices. He was notably racist even by the standards of the 1910s. Nor was he simply a man who looked the other way at racial injustice: He actively made things worse. In assessing the racism of Wilson’s time, he was not the led but the leader.

Wilson did not just refuse to rock the boat in the noontide of Jim Crow — although he did that, too, bluntly refusing to racially integrate Princeton on his watch — he bent federal law in a pro-segregation direction. He imposed rigid segregation on the federal government where it had not been before. His administration required photos on job applications to spot the black people. Even with hundreds of thousands of black Americans serving their nation in the First World War, Wilson’s policies compelled United States Army units to fight under French command because they were manned by black soldiers. This was a disgrace to the American flag.

Wilson employed, promoted, and allied himself with even worse people, such as the ardently pro-lynching Senator “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman. He did other racist things...including supporting legislation making interracial marriage a felony in the District of Columbia and putting government backing behind eugenic compulsion, decades before the Nazis did so. Wilson made Dr. Edwin Katzen-Ellenbogen the chief eugenicist of New Jersey, in pursuit of a campaign of forced sterilizations. Katzen-Ellenbogen ended up working at Buchenwald and was convicted of crimes against humanity in 1947. ....

The central conservative charge against Wilson is that he was, from the beginning to the end of his career, a critic, opponent, and subverter of our constitutional separation of powers. He preferred the unified executive and legislative power of Westminster-model parliamentary systems, such as exist in Britain and in Frum’s native Canada. It was Wilson who bequeathed to us the concept of a “living Constitution,” and who lauded and promoted the unrepresentative power of the administrative state — in the latter case, retracing the footsteps of the Confederacy. His malign influence on American constitutionalism is with us still. ....

Wilson’s record on civil liberties was abysmal, and while Frum leaves a lot of it unmentioned, he makes no effort to justify it. He was the closest thing we ever had to a dictator... Wilson saddled us with J. Edgar Hoover (first hired and promoted under Wilson), the Palmer raids, and the imprisonment of Eugene V. Debs, one of Wilson’s 1912 opponents. It took Harding to pardon Debs and dismantle Wilson’s oppressive apparatus. .... (more)

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