Saturday, December 7, 2013

Woodrow Wilson and the "Spirit of the Age"

In his 1908 book "Constitutional Government in the United States", Woodrow Wilson uses a line that could be easy to overlook, but it is a crucial point. On page 69, Wilson writes the following:
The Presidents who have not made themselves leaders have lived no more truly on that account in the spirit of the Constitution than those whose force has told in the determination of law and policy. No doubt Andrew Jackson overstepped the bounds meant to be set to the authority of his office. It was certainly in direct contravention of the spirit of the Constitution that he should have refused to respect and execute decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States, and no serious student of our history can righteously condone what he did in such matters on the ground that his intentions were upright and his principle pure. But the Constitution of the United States is not a mere lawyers’ document: it is a vehicle of life, and its spirit is always the spirit of the age. Its prescriptions are clear and we know what they are; a written document makes lawyers of us all, and our duty as citizens should make us conscientious lawyers, reading the text of the Constitution without subtlety or sophistication; but life is always your last and most authoritative critic.

Some of our Presidents have deliberately held themselves off from using the full power they might legitimately have used, because of conscientious scruples, because they were more theorists than statesmen.

This concept of the "Spirit of the Age" was very important to Wilson. On numerous occasions he made that clear, many times he does not use that phrase, but it's impossible to miss. In a speech to the Jefferson Club, Wilson said the following:

If you want to understand the real Declaration, do not repeat the preface

And again as I noted in that posting, he made a similar point in one of his essays, "The Author and Signers of the Declaration"

We are not bound to adhere to the doctrines held by the signers of the Declaration of Independence; we are as free as they were to make and unmake governments.

Notice how abstractly political Wilson is in all of these. He would go around acting like he was this big Jeffersonian, and many historians try to couch him as such, but the reality is that he had no use for true history and how it discounts tyrannical government of all stripes. Wilson generally says nothing about the individual's Natural rights to self-govern. As to the Declaration's "preface", if you throw that out all you have left is a list of grievances. The Spirit of the Age.

In another one of Wilson's books, "The State; Elements of Historical and Practical Politics", he writes the following on page 651:

As regards the State's Ministrant Functions. - Of the Ministrant, no less than of these Constituent functions which I have taken merely as examples of their kind, the same statement may be made, that practically the state has been relieved of very little duty by alterations of political theory. In this field of the Ministrant functions one would expect the state to be less active now than formerly: it is natural enough that in the field of the Constituent functions the state should serve society now as always. But there is in fact no such difference: government does now whatever experience permits or the times demand; and though it does not do exactly the same things it still does substantially the same kind of things that the ancient state did.

Note that in his writing, he italicized this himself. Once again, "Government does now whatever experience permits or the times demand" - Spirit of the Age.

In Charles Reade Bacon's book "A people awakened: the story of Woodrow Wilson's first campaign which carried New Jersey to the lead of the states in the great movement for the emancipation of the government", you will find this on page 203:

When you speak of a progressive Democrat, I understand that you mean not a man who will always be standing upon a literal interpretation of quotations out of Thomas Jefferson, but who will try to carry forward in the service of a new age, the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, the spirit of this man who tried to comprehend the things of the people, and to serve them by political combinations and concerted action.

How about that for "The Jeffersonian"? That's an outright rejection of it. But again, what do we see? The Spirit of the Age. This was a fundamental and core belief of Wilson's progressive ideology.

Woodrow Wilson is not the first person to have become enamored with the idea of "the spirit of the age". Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel also held this ideal in high regard. I learned that from Wilson himself, as you can see here in one of Wilson's most important essays, "The Study of Administration":

The philosophy of any time is, as Hegel says, “nothing but the spirit of that time expressed in abstract thought”; and political philosophy, like philosophy of every other kind, has only held up the mirror to contemporary affairs.

According to Hillsdale Professor Ronald J. Pestritto, there are many similarities between Wilson and Hegel, but also many differences. Though a full comparison is not the goal here. My current goal is to highlight many of the times in which Wilson indicated or plainly stated his belief in the "spirit of the age".