Book Review: Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism, by Ronald J. Pestritto

In this book, Woodrow Wilson emerges as a relentless disparager of constitutional governance and an advocate for the modern administrative state. Viewing the Constitution through the prism of German historicism, Wilson asserted that it was merely a product of its time: The supposedly axiomatic conception of human nature that informed the founders’ drafting of it had become obsolete. Specifically, Wilson argued that the danger of faction, which the founders had taken to be ever-present and never-ending, had in fact passed and could no longer justify the checking and balancing of the state’s power. It was appropriate, therefore, for constitutional government to be superseded and replaced by an administrative apparatus capable of carrying out the people’s will more efficiently.

Wilson’s belief in the unified public will is evident in his understanding of the Civil War, which, to him, had “disclosed the real foundations of the Union; had shown them to be laid, not in the Constitution, its mere formal structure, but upon deep beds of conviction and sentiment.” (p. 103) However, he also noted that “there has been from the first a steady and unmistakable growth of nationality of sentiment” (p. 117), suggesting a development that antedated the Civil War.

Of course, Wilson’s vison of American history was shaped by wishful thinking. When he wrote that “The nation [after the Civil War] could not return to the thoughts or to the life that had gone before [it]….The motives of politics, the whole theory of political action, the character of the government, the sentiment of duty, the very ethics of private conduct were altered[,]” he was saying more about his own hopes than he was about the results of the Civil War. We will leave aside the fact that President Lincoln was a scrupulous constitutionalist who had urged a return to the “transhistorical” principles of the founding (p. 109), and we will also refrain from discussion of how the idea that the world was turned upside down by Union victory in 1865 is a reactionary as well as a progressive starting point. The issue here is that Wilson’s interpretation of American history was heavily colored by German historicism, according to which, “history brings about a unity or objectivity of will, and that it is this implicit will that must govern the direction of society.” (p. 71) Since the popular will had been unified, Wilson reasoned, there was no longer any risk that a majority would seize the government and oppress a minority; hence, the limitation of government power had become unnecessary. (p. 127) Indeed, the doctrine of the separation of powers was injurious, in his appraisal, because it prevented government from carrying out the national will effectively. (pp. 123-124)

The argument that “limiting the power of a democratic government can only have undemocratic results,” is not unappealing. Your humble reviewer often indulged in it as a lad and used it to launch such epic oratory as “Why should one branch of the government, elected by the people, act as a check upon another branch of the government, also elected by the people?” Maturity and topical reading, however, have shown me that the argument is both weak and dangerous. Its faulty basis is the notion of the unified popular will so celebrated by Wilson. While government of the people, by the people, and for the people is indeed a sacred thing, in comparison to governments of, by, and for various elites, it is nonetheless unwise to exalt the people in the abstract or to ascribe to them any supernatural capacity for unanimity or communal thinking. It was John Stuart Mill who took direct aim at this idea of popular absolutism, in the first pages of his essay On Liberty. After laying out the argument rhetorically – “The nation [does] not need to be protected against its own will. There [is] no fear of its tyrannizing over itself” – Mill proceeded to take it apart:

Such phrases as ‘self-government’ and ‘the power of the people over themselves,’ do not express the true state of the case. The ‘people’ who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised; and the ‘self-government’ spoken of is not the government of each by himself but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those that succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority: the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power. The limitation, therefore, of the power of government over individuals loses none of its importance when the holders of power are regularly accountable to the community, that is, to the strongest party therein. (The Basic Writings of John Stuart Mill, eds. Schneewind and Miller, 2002, pp. 5-6)

Mill’s words are quoted here at length because they seem to have anticipated Wilson with remarkable prescience. No doubt, Wilson was keenly aware of the similar admonitions of the founders, especially James Madison in his Federalist No. 10, where he argued “The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man.” (The Federalist Papers, ed. Rossiter, 1961, p. 79) In fact, it was just this claim to timeless truth on the part of the founders that roused Wilson to palpable irritation and sarcasm. “This democracy – this modern democracy,” Wilson insisted, “is not the rule of the many but the rule of the whole….Childish fears [to the contrary] have been outgrown.” (p. 69) As he further protested, “The makers of our Federal Constitution read Montesquieu with true scientific enthusiasm. They were scientists in their way – the best way of their age – those fathers of the nation. Jefferson wrote of ‘the laws of Nature’ – and then by way of afterthought – ‘and of Nature’s God.’ And they constructed a government as they would have constructed an orrery.” Alas, the founders’ science was static and Newtonian, but the age now belonged to Darwin and to evolution. (p. 119) Wilson looked forward to the day when the blueprint of the founders’ orrery, the Constitution, would be cast aside. (pp. 75, 122)

Wilson mocked the “blind worship” of America’s founding documents (p. 122), using similar language as some people do today, when they chide advocates of limited government for treating the Constitution as a “sacred document.” Perhaps the reader is familiar with this tactic. It amounts to caricature – I don’t know anybody who crosses himself whenever mentioning the Constitution – and should be counted as a rhetorical covering attack. Anyone who criticizes others for “blind worship” of the Constitution is betraying his own conviction that it is a mere scrap of paper – “mere formal structure,” as Wilson called it above.

At any rate, here we have Wilson’s argument: that the unification of the national will has made limited, constitutional government outmoded. Now it is time to subject his argument to the test of evidence: Has faction disappeared? Have Americans forgotten their differences and come to sit together at the national table? Do divergent economic interests no longer exist? Are Americans agreed on religious, social, or other public issues? Do the two main political parties regularly coalesce in national unity governments? Are elections contested with respect and good faith, and are their results greeted with universal satisfaction?

Is the president of the United States, as Wilson claimed, “at once the choice of the party and the nation”…“the only party nominee for whom the whole nation votes”…“the spokesman for the real sentiment and purpose of the country”? (p. 168)

As Alexander Hamilton would have said, such assertions, and their author, were “far gone in Utopian speculations.” (p. 127) As one of our millennials would say: “WTF!” Wilson spent most of his career arguing against the founders and their prudent attitude concerning man’s immutable nature, and now all that needs to be done is to decide if the founders were right or if Wilson was right.

The reader having, I trust, pronounced the correct verdict upon Wilson’s utopian speculation, it still behooves us to delve beneath its surface. Wilson’s assertion of a unified national polity did in fact contain one caveat. He did mention one minority class by name, according to Pestritto, and that minority class was the wealthy. (pp. 118-119) Since the wealthy form a minority that garners no sympathy from anyone, it makes sense that Wilson could get away with advocating the removal of constitutional limits on powers that could be used against it. The wisdom of mulcting the wealthy will not be debated here; but it is interesting to consider that whenever a utopian dreams of a unified people, he usually disqualifies the wealthy from peoplehood. Today’s world contains a few people’s republics, or dictatorships of the proletariat, and they all claim to have put the people in charge, with the understanding that the “national bourgeoisie” are not included among them. Apparently, Wilson’s people’s republic conforms to this rule.

Other qualities of Wilson’s utopianism that warrant deeper probing is its Continental provenance and the classist prejudice associated with it. German historicism is described in this book as “idealistic” and “romantic” in that it imagined that history was leading humanity toward a perfect end-state (which ironically would be marked by reason and objectivity rather than by idealism and romance). Significantly, this historical evolution needed to be orchestrated by “world-historical individuals,” men with vision and understanding, presumably the historicist philosophers and academics themselves. (pp. 8, 15-16, 37) To reprise and continue Pestritto’s elucidation:

Wilson adopted an important theme of German idealism – that history brings about a unity or objectivity of will, and it is this implicit will that must govern the direction of society. The implicit will of a modern society is not equivalent to majority opinion, which exists merely at a surface level and is often beset by contending passions. A true, modern democracy is governed not necessarily by popular majority but by a leadership that can best discern the implicit, historically conditioned will that lies beneath ordinary political competition….Wilson’s model of political leadership requires, above all, that the leader hold visionary qualities that enable him to read the historical spirit and discern what the true, objective will of the people really is. Wilson’s essay ‘Democracy’ explicates the distinction between rule by majority opinion and rule by the implicit, objective will of society. Wilson called it merely an ‘assumption, still more curious when subjected to analysis.’ that the will of majorities – or rather, the concurrence of a majority in a vote – is the same as the general will. He further explained that ‘the will of majorities is not the same as the general will: that a nation is an organic thing, and that its will dwells with those who do the practical thinking and organize the best concert of action: those who hit upon opinions fit to be made prevalent, and have the capacity to make them so.’

Wilson conceded that his conception of modern democracy – where leaders must discern the implicit will of society – did not comport with the traditional understanding of democratic government. (pp. 71-72, shameless emphases in the original)

A truer concession was never made. The reader will note that Wilson’s low opinion of constitutional protections for minorities did not, evidently, indicate a preference for majority rule but was designed instead to facilitate the rule of the visionary few. The ideological unanimity of today’s intelligentsia is easy to understand too, because it indicates only an agreement that the intelligentsia should be in charge.

We’ve finally arrived at the administrative state, which is justified by Wilson’s contention that “governance by educated experts is democratic in a much higher sense.” (p. 72, ironic emphasis mine) Wilson’s belief that individual bureaucrats would be above politics (p. 72 again) echoed his belief in the unity of national opinion. (The two assumptions are equally naïve. On p. 240, Pestritto cites another scholar, Charles Kesler, who reminds us that the administrative class itself forms a political interest.) In fact, Wilson argued for a separation of politics and administration (p. 232, amid copious discussion by Pestritto) that would supposedly make the latter more embodying of the “objective” national will. The “State,” in the view of the “French and German professors” whom Wilson followed in place of the founders, organically possessed a fourth power, administration, anterior to the Constitution and independent of it. (pp. 231, 234-235) “Administration…” Wilson said, “serves the State, not the lawmaking body in the State, and possesses a life not resident in the statues.” (p. 241, verb tense altered)

It’s interesting to consider that in imposing such a foreign and glibly unconstitutional doctrine upon American life, Wilson was engaged in a game of wordplay that continues to this day. The distinction he sought to draw between politics – or government – and administration in his own time has echoes in our current hairsplitting concerning laws and rules. What does administration mean if not government, and what is a rule but a law? Is it reassuring to be subject to an unconstitutional government, provided we call it administration? Should we feel better being bound by laws enacted from outside the legislature, provided we call them rules? Of course, the answer to both questions is no; but Wilson was one of the first to employ this sort of doublespeak in order to dull our senses and make us accept the unacceptable.

The worst part of Wilson’s administrative scheme is its monarchial manifestation, the “modern president” who sat, and yet sits, at its apex. Wilson described him in terms that were more antique than modern:

Once and again one of those great influences which we call a cause arises in the midst of a nation. Men of strenuous minds and high ideals come forward, with a sort of gentle majesty, as champions of a political or moral principle. (p. 213)


The leader of men must have such sympathetic and penetrative insight as shall enable him to discern quite unerringly the motives which move other men in the mass….Men are as clay in the hands of the consummate leader[!] (p. 208, italics in the original, exclamation mine)

Switching from flowery to guilty language, Wilson defended his proposed administrative apparatus as follows:

If I see a murderous fellow sharpening a knife cleverly, I can borrow his way of sharpening the knife without borrowing his probable intention to commit murder with it; and so, if I see a monarchist dyed in the wool managing a public bureau well, I can learn his business methods without changing one of my republican spots. (p. 232)


The purpose of [administration] has been the execution of the will of a tyrant, again the execution of the will of the governed. But the organization for the one purpose may, if effective, serve – at least as a model – for the other. (p. 233)

Alexander Hamilton had expressly denied that any administrative system would be acceptable as long as it was effective and had, rather, insisted upon a constitutional grounding of it. (p. 237) But what did Wilson care about Hamilton? Wilson’s hero, according to Pestritto, was

Frederick the Great of Prussia, who understood the monarchy as the embodiment of the unified public will. Monarchy thus understood serves as the starting point for the ideal executive leader, to which Wilson added the mechanism of election by the people. Wilson’s vision of the reformed presidency is grounded in a democratized monarch, whose indivisible will is ideal for representing the unified will of the people. (p. 215)

The crowning irony, as we know only too well, is that Wilson’s “democratized monarch,” so far from representing any “unified will of the people,” has fractured it appallingly. When Wilson “enthroned public opinion” (p. 231), he set the stage for today’s constant struggle, by the opinionated public, for control of the throne, a perpetual civil war punctuated every four years by vicious battles, waged among friends and within families, truly a tragedy of brother against brother. “There’s too much at stake,” we tell ourselves as we charge into the fray, and indeed we are right. The modern president of the United States, refashioned by Wilson into an elected king and in command of a Prussian bureaucracy, wields way too much power. With so much power up for grabs every four years, we the people have become obsessed and desperate. Everything is politicized. We howl with delight when our king is elected, and we howl with despair when the other party’s king wins. It is a mockery of self-rule.

If there is one man who can be blamed for the wretched state to which we have sunk, it is Woodrow Wilson.

Pestritto’s book is essential reading, along with James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution and Philip Hamburger’s Is Administrative Law Unlawful? for anyone wishing to understand contemporary politics.