A Tale of Two Progressives

I don’t remember the specifics of what I was told in school about Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States (1901-09), and Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president (1913-21), but I remember what I came away with—namely, the vague notion that while both men were leading lights of the turn-of-the-century “Progressive Era,” they were two very different figures.

Roosevelt, I was led to understand, was something of a bumptious macho clown who called the White House a “bully pulpit” and who charged up San Juan Hill on horseback during the Spanish-American War. By contrast, Wilson was a gentleman and a scholar—and a lover of peace—who crafted the Treaty of Versailles, invented the League of Nations, and was president of Princeton before he became president of the United States. 

Years went by before I learned the truth: namely, that Roosevelt was a brilliant polymath who fought corruption, broke up dangerous corporate monopolies of the sort now represented by Google and Amazon, won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War, built the Panama Canal, and wrote dozens of books on subjects ranging from travel and nature to politics and naval history. A passionate lover of the environment and believer in conservation, he established the National Park Service and authorized the creation of several National Parks. 

Woodrow Wilson, too, wrote several books, but by no means so many as TR. All of them were about politics and government, reflecting the fact that he was less of a “man in full” (as TR was) than a policy wonk avant la lettre. A strong believer in expanding the power of the state—he would have liked to toss out the Constitution (which he considered “antiquated”) and institute a parliamentary system—Wilson was the father of modern big-government liberalism, later manifested in FDR’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. 

Notoriously, Wilson oversaw the passage of the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, under which a staggering number of citizens were arrested for questioning his policies, and more than a thousand, including labor leader and Socialist politician Eugene V. Debs, were sent to prison. (Debs’s 10-year sentence, for criticizing the U.S. entry into World War I, was commuted by Wilson’s Republican successor, Warren G. Harding.)

The Realm of Race

But perhaps the major difference between TR and Wilson was in the realm of race. 

Roosevelt, for his time, was remarkably enlightened on the topic. In 1901, he famously invited Booker T. Washington and his family to dinner at the White House, the first time a sitting president had ever broken bread with black guests. When he first thought of extending the invitation, he hesitated, knowing that he’d get flak for it, but he was at once so ashamed of his own hesitation that he lost no time in arranging the dinner. The event caused immense controversy that resonated for years, but it also marked a huge leap forward toward racial equality. 

By contrast, the Virginia-born Wilson was a hard-bitten racist, more virulent in his contempt for blacks than many other Southern whites of his time. While helming Princeton, he kept its student body white, even as other Ivy League colleges were beginning to admit blacks. As president of the United States, he hosted a screening of “Birth of a Nation, a film that celebrated the Ku Klux Klan, and he undid the integration of government offices.

Yet, as I say, as a schoolboy I was presented with a glowing picture of Wilson, the Democrat, and a not-so-glowing picture of TR, the Republican. The reason is clear: even back then, the people who wrote the history textbooks were overwhelmingly New Deal and Great Society Democrats for whom Wilson was the real Founding Father.

This tradition of Wilson worship, not only in school textbooks but in the culture generally, started early on. One prominent example is the Technicolor biopic “Wilson” (1944), which was a “personal crusade” for 20th Century Fox honcho—and ardent Wilson fan—Darryl F. Zanuck; the most expensive Hollywood movie of its time, its blatant hagiography led it to become a box office flop. 

As recently as 2013, another worshiper at Wilson’s altar, A. Scott Berg, published a biography of Wilson so ludicrously uncritical that each chapter began with a Biblical quotation. “Berg apparently wants us to view Wilson as Jesus, reviled and beaten by the Roman soldiers,” wrote one reviewer. “Does he want us to think that Wilson was the divine Christ?” On the subject of Wilson’s profound racism, Berg was totally in denial, arguing (inanely) that Wilson, by supporting segregation, sought to “promote racial progress . . . by shocking the social system as little as possible.” 

Princeton’s Choice

Five years ago, the New York Times felt obliged to cover a fresh rash of Wilson criticism. 

“Wilson’s record on race has long been debated among historians,” wrote Jennifer Schuessler. “But in the past two weeks, the topic has burst into broader view, thanks to student protesters at Princeton who have demanded, among other things, that the former president’s name be removed from its prestigious Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.” 

In fact, it’s long been obvious that Wilson’s record on race was deplorable; if historians have ignored, denied, or relativized that record, it’s because their political views incline them to view Wilson with admiration. 

“Going to the mat for Wilson should not be hard,” Rutgers historian David Greenberg told Schuessler. “If your standards are liberal progressive values in general, Wilson deserves to be celebrated.”

Many historians, Schuessler went on to note, were asking “whether Wilson’s racism constitutes a blot on his record or an integral feature of the progressive tradition he helped to found.” The answer is that racism was indeed a key element of the progressivism of a century ago. Progressives were famously big on eugenics. And as historian Nathan Connolly told Schuessler, “Jim Crow segregation was itself a Progressive Era reform.” 

Of course, thanks to the current leftist campaign to cancel pretty much all of American history, the movement to remove Wilson’s name from the school at Princeton has now succeeded—along with the campaign to take down the famous statue of Teddy Roosevelt from outside the American Museum of Natural History in New York. 

Was it a good idea for Princeton to cave in this fashion? On June 30, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argued that even though “many of Wilson’s legacies were disastrous, including an imperial understanding of the presidency that’s deformed our constitutional structure ever since, the messianic style in American foreign policy that gave us Vietnam and Iraq, and a solidification of Jim Crow under a scientific-racist guise,” it’s wrong to rip his name off the Wilson School, given that he introduced “the idealistic, interventionist worldview” that informs the school’s policy ideas. 

Fair enough. Still, there’s a certain poetic justice in Princeton’s canceling of Wilson, who, after all, not only gave us Wilsonian foreign policy but also, by outdoing his White House predecessors in his attempts to crush dissent, was—irony of ironies—the granddaddy of today’s left-wing cancel culture. In any case, Wilson would hardly be the first politician ever to be hoisted by his own petard. At least he’s been dead for nearly a century and therefore, unlike Robespierre, isn’t a candidate to be beheaded by his own guillotine. 

About Bruce Bawer

Bruce Bawer is the author of While Europe Slept, Surrender, and The Victims' Revolution. His novel The Alhambra was published in 2017.

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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