Woodrow Wilson: The Founder of Big Government | 5-Minute Video

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As America’s 28th president, Woodrow Wilson greatly expanded the size and scope of the federal government. How did he do it, and why? RJ Pestritto, professor of politics at Hillsdale College, answers this important question.

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Script:

Few American leaders have stirred more controversy than Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States. Many admire him, many don’t. But one point on which everyone agrees is his profound impact on American history.

The reasons for the controversy and the impact are one and the same.

Wilson and his generation of leaders were the first to challenge the founding principles of the country. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Wilson turned them upside down.

As expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the Founders believed that individuals are born with certain unalienable rights. And they framed the Constitution to protect those rights.

For Wilson, the time of individual rights had passed. In his view, 18th-century America had little relevance to early 20th-century America. The country, now much bigger and more complex, required the guidance of a benevolent government.

America had literally outgrown the Founders.

Wilson’s philosophy — of which he was a leading proponent — was known as Progressivism. And Wilson proudly called himself a Progressive.

Where did Wilson get these ideas? From the place where he spent most of his life: the halls of academia. He was the only US president to come into office with a Ph.D.

Born in Staunton, Virginia on December 28, 1856, Woodrow Wilson had two ambitions: to teach and to write. He received his undergraduate degree from Princeton with the vague notion that he would become a lawyer. But like another, earlier president, John Quincy Adams, Wilson found the law much too arid for his active mind. To the chagrin of his father, he returned to academia to get an advanced degree at Johns Hopkins.

There his thinking took form. He was deeply influenced by Charles Darwin’s new theory of evolution. At Hopkins this theory was applied to government: just as a species must adapt — or progress — to survive, so must a government. Not to recognize this would be to hold America back, to stunt its growth, or, to close the metaphor, risk extinction.

This was one of the major themes in Wilson’s Ph.D. thesis, which he turned into an influential book titled “Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics.” This book launched his academic career, which culminated in his appointment as president of Princeton in 1902.

As happy as he was at Princeton, Wilson longed to put his progressive ideas to the test, hence his move into politics. There his rise was truly meteoric. In 1910, he ran successfully for governor of New Jersey as a Democrat. Once in office, he surprised everyone with his impressive political skills, scoring one policy victory after another, while also fighting New Jersey’s notoriously corrupt political machine.

Reforming workers’ compensation, limiting how much money corporations could spend on elections, and putting utilities under state supervision were only three of the progressive ideas he pushed through the legislature. His success attracted the attention of Progressives nationwide. In 1912, the Democratic Party, desperate to end a sixteen-year losing streak, turned to Wilson as its nominee.

The chances of Wilson winning that election against a united Republican Party were slim, but the electoral calculus changed dramatically when former Republican president Teddy Roosevelt decided to run against his own hand-picked successor, the current Republican President, William Taft.

TR’s campaign was the most successful third-party run in American history, but all it accomplished was to split the Republicans and give Wilson an easy victory. He won with 42% of the popular vote, the lowest percentage since Lincoln.

In just three years, Wilson had risen from president of Princeton to President of the United States.

As he did as governor, he immediately went to work.

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