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Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern American Liberalism

Woodrow Wilson And The Roots Of Modern American Liberalism

Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern American Liberalism. Ronald J. Pestritto. New York City: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.


Last year I held an exchange in American Mind with Ronald J. Pestritto, who published a book Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of American Liberalism (2005). This work deeply excited the easily excitable Glenn Beck, who had Pestritto on his TV program to discuss Woodrow Wilson’s critical contributions to the American administrative state. Beck happily embraced Pestritto’s examination of the genesis of American public administration and like other movement conservatives, Beck blamed Wilson for an historical development the results of which he happily accepts. As far as I know, Beck has no complaints about federal enforcement of antidiscrimination laws or existing entitlement programs. Moreover, one might ask why Wilson has been turned into the major villain in creating the American administrative state. Theodor Roosevelt, an earlier president, shared Wilson’s Progressive ideology and helped lay the foundations for the same political order. Wilson also admired Abraham Lincoln for having saved the American union and for having consolidated the federal government during the Civil War. Pestritto absolves TR for the bad stuff he ascribes to Wilson and praises Lincoln, the centralizer, as a hero of individual rights.

What Pestritto characterizes as “liberalism” has roots in John Locke and more distantly, Thomas Hobbes and the Scottish Covenanters of the sixteenth century. Wilson emphatically rejected this tradition in the opening pages of his work The State because he properly regarded it as a timebound invention. He also insisted that we could only understand rights if we grasped them in an historical context. By the late nineteenth century this meant looking at rights as historically defined limits on the state’s power. According to Pestritto, Wilson made war on an older belief in universal individual rights, as stated in the Declaration, and then putatively promoted by Lincoln in his war to end slavery. I am still looking for Pestritto’s enemies of the modern administrative state who allegedly went around quoting Lincoln and the Declaration while resisting an American welfare state. More typically, critical observers, like H.L. Mencken and Henry Adams, were the declared enemies of mass democracy and social leveling. Other critics, like William Graham Sumner, were fearful that Americans would digest European socialism.

Pestritto’s arguments build on the theoretical foundations established by his mentor at Claremont University, Harry Jaffa. This quarrelsome but original disciple of Leo Strauss condemned both the Germans and the American South for derailing the liberal democratic tradition that he located in America’s founding creed. This American creed, for Jaffa, is predicated on the belief that “all men are created equal” and endowed with certain “inalienable rights.” According to Jaffa, the course of American history, and particularly the wars Americans have engaged in to achieve a more perfect democracy, has pushed us in the direction intended by America’s founders, whom Jafa identifies with the Declaration and its key passage more than with the American Constitution. But there are certain problems that have accompanied the efforts of Pestritto and other Jaffaites to examine the sources of those Germans whom they dislike so intensely. And this came home to me in a penetrating way as I checked the use or non-use of German sources by Pestritto.

Unlike this author, I have read most of those German authors he views as morally and politically reprehensible, in the original texts. Indeed, I even own already worn copies of Hegel’s complete works, Heinrich von Marquardsen’s Handbuch des öffentlichen Rechts in der Gegenwart and, Johann Kaspar Bluntschli’s Lehre vom modernen Staat. All these tomes, according to Pestritto infected American political consciousness by introducing alien historicist influences into late nineteenth-century American society. It might have helped if Pestritto had at least studied these German texts before making peremptory judgments about their dire effects. His only acquaintance with the German authors from whom he recoils is a reference in the endnotes to an English translation of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Given the fury with which Pestritto goes after German thinkers, including a relatively obscure professor of law at Königsberg and later Munich, Carl Gareis, it would be reasonable to have expected him to look at what he excoriates.

My earlier critical remarks about his work concerned the paucity of evidence that Wilson was a fan of Hegel’s. I had trouble locating proof for this predilection in Arthur Link’s five-volume biography of our former president. Pestritto finds those references in Wilson’s notes, which he quotes in his book. These notes reveal among other things that Wilson labored mightily with a tattered German-English dictionary to wade through the monographs on public law edited by the Prussian jurist Marquardsen. I have no idea why Wilson read these monographs with such fascination, since they are mostly studies of such topics as church-state relations in Europe since the Middle Ages and detailed descriptions of different governments, ancient and modern.

The fact that the editor announced in his introduction that he was taking a strictly historical, evolutionary approach to his subject and was omitting certain “abstract” considerations does not prove that he was advocating a modern welfare state. Marquardsen explicitly denies that he is promoting a view of the best regime. Rather he is explaining how public law operated in different states at different times. Monographs in this series for example, treat confederations (Bundesstaaten) with the same descriptive objectivity as they do unitary nation states (Einheitsstaaten).

Although the authors may have been impressed by the recent unification of their country, they desist from tendentious judgments. One of Pestritto’s villains, Carl Gareis, discusses the legislative and executive structure of the unified German Empire. During this investigation, Gareis carefully enumerates the rights to property, free exercise of religion and other individual rights that a constitutional state, such as the recently formed German one, was pledged to protect (Schutzrecht). Although Marquardsen and his contributors view the German regime as representing a unified “popular will,” they oppose allowing this state to act outside of constitutionally demarcated areas of activity. Since the German prose in this anthology is uniformly and breathtakingly complex, one wonders how someone whom Pestritto assures us had only a beginner’s knowledge of German, namely Woodrow Wilson, could have read through it, with or without a worn dictionary.

In a predictable attack on the Straussian bugaboo “historicism,” Pestritto criticizes an observation that Wilson makes in his work Constitutional Government about the Declaration being “intensely practical” “except for its assertion that all men are created equal.” According to Wilson, the document” leaves to each generation of men the determination of what they will do with their lives, what they will prefer as the form and object of their liberty.” Pestritto warns that Wilson is telling us “that the liberty spoken of in the Declaration is nothing more than the liberty of successive generations of men to define liberty as they please, according to the spirit of their own times.” In fact, Wilson was stating a truism. Does Pestritto honestly believe that his master’s understanding of the “all men are created” passage in the Declaration is the same as the one held by its author or by those who appended their signatures to that document? Was Harry Jaffa’s interpretation a pure distillation of what Jefferson thought when he penned the Declaration? Or was it filtered through the experiences of Jaffa’s life, which included the struggle against Nazi Germany in World War Two, the civil rights movement, Cold War anti-Communism, etc.?

One can also plausibly argue that the success of Jaffa’s ideas is correlated to the success of equality as the highest value in our present political culture. What is purported to be a conservative movement accepts this formulation of the egalitarian ideal, which it claims is written in stone, as an alternative to the more radical applications of the concept of equality advanced by the Left. When Thomas Hobbes produced his Leviathan during the age of religious wars in the seventeenth century, a sovereign state that could control theological strife and maintain public order against “violent death” was the highest political goal. Now the goal has shifted to advancing equality, an ideal though which our understanding of liberty is inescapably filtered. Pestritto’s insight that “what Wilson loved about Burke was what Wilson considered to be his attack on reason and his assertion of the superiority of custom and tradition,” deserves our applause. If we amend the “attack on reason” to refer to abstract, speculative reason as a dubious basis for political community, Wilson had good reason to admire Burke.

It is also hard to see how Burke’s insistence that “political principles ought to be grounded in the concrete historical reality of one’s time and place” is bad advice; or why we should mock Burke’s skepticism about the “Rights of Man” or his belief that “it is more proper to speak of one’s rights as an Englishman.” This seems to be a highly defensible way to understand rights in an historical and experiential context. Rights are claims that belong to us as members of formed communities or as the subjects of institutions to which we have sworn fealty. If Wilson believed that, with or without German inspiration, then good for Pestritto’s whipping boy. This may be the first time I have complimented a crusader for democracy, whom my father held responsible for the destruction of the Habsburg Empire.

Pestritto is also correct that the nineteenth-century Swiss jurist and liberal Protestant Johann Kaspar Bluntschli demonstrably influenced Wilson. Indeed Wilson’s seminal essay “The Study of Administration” (1887) cites Bluntschli at length in making the case for a systematically organized discipline centered on public administration. Like Bluntschli, Wilson treats administration as a permanent aspect of modern government that functions independently of ordinary politics. Still, it is questionable whether Bluntschli is writing as an advocate of the government that Wilson set out to build. More likely, he is describing an essential feature of governments that were developing in European countries in the 1870s, when his Lehre vom modernen Staat was published.

Only an obtuse observer of Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century would not have noticed certain structural changes in governance that were then taking place. They were grafted on to an administration that had been growing in Western European countries since the centralization of nation states in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. What Bluntschli observed was apparent to others as well, like Walter Bagehot, Francois Guizot, Max Weber, etc. Although loosely identified with the “Historical School,” which did combine monarchist and German nationalist sentiments with the advocacy of a welfare state, Bluntschli was a Swiss republican, who devoted his energies to trying to restrict warfare through international law. It would not be impertinent to ask Pestritto and other Claremonters whether they would tolerate historically based studies of government that did not embody their shared group creed. Must one treat the growth of the modern state from a Jaffaite perspective to command their respect and that of the conservative movement they now seem to be dominating?

None of this is intended to deny that Pestritto has shed light on an aspect of Wilson’s studies that others have ignored. Wilson, as Pestritto shows, was deeply impressed by his reading of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, and particularly by its third part, which moves from the interaction of the family, through civil society, to the unifying and mediating function of the state. Like Wilson, Hegel viewed administrators as standing above political partisanship and therefore functioning as agents of the public good.  Moved by such notions, Wilson wrote to his fiancée about his excitement upon encountering Hegel’s political thought. This does not exclude the possibility that Wilson might have evinced equal or even greater enthusiasm for Walter Bagehot, the English Liberal writer whom he quoted far more often than Hegel. But Pestritto, to his credit, has uncovered influences on Wilson’s formative thought that Link and other historians have not adequately examined.

More relevant for our purposes, is whether the American administrative state depended on Wilson’s infatuation with Hegel, as an uncritical review of Pestritto’s book in Weekly Standard asserts. There is certainly no straight line extending from one to the other; and the most Pestritto may be demonstrating is that Hegel was one among others who influenced the progression of state power in early twentieth-century America. Another, far more critical cultural factor that Murray Rothbard points to in his posthumously published study The Progressive Era is the prevalence of liberal Protestant, postmillennialist backgrounds among many of the Progressive reformers, including Woodrow Wilson. Having been raised in homes in which the Kingdom of God was viewed as a realizable achievement in this life (presumably Christ would return at the end of this process), Progressives moved from a theological position to political practice. Whether or not explicit postmillennialists, Jane Addams, Richard Ely, Newton Baker, John Dewey, and scores of other Progressive activists came from families in which Christianity and social reform had become fused. From there they moved toward the view that a “scientifically” trained administration might transform the human condition.      

Allow me to repeat an argument from my book After Liberalism (Princeton University Press,1999) about a presupposition for the modern administrative state. An urban industrial society combined with universal suffrage will almost inevitably give rise to such a regime, with or without the presence of supposedly antidemocratic Teutons or Southern slaveowners.  The fully developed social democratic state that came to Sweden in the 1920s owed nothing of significance to the German Historical School; nor did the English Labourites who led a coalition in the same period; nor did this thought influence much their French counterparts who by then were in governing cabinets. What we see are parallel social and political developments in Western countries in response to the same modernizing forces. It is important for the future of constitutional freedom and traditional authority structures that we rein in the ramifications of this process, which I agree with Pestritto is thoroughly destructive. But a first step for West Coast Straussians may be to put aside Harry Jaffa’s obsessive dislike of certain groups, like Germans and Southern whites, which may have reflected his life situation. Although these phobias tell us much about their leader, they are of limited use in illuminating the origins of our present crisis.

Paul GottfriedPaul Gottfried

Paul Gottfried

Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College. He is the author of thirteen books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents (Northern Illinois, 2016).

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