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Since Wilson

ISSUE:  Summer 1932

Thirteen years ago, the thirtieth day of last May, I attended Memorial Day exercises in a military cemetery and saw a man there. In that gathering there were, according to my hasty estimate at the time, a thousand civilians, three thousand Red Cross nurses, nine thousand Y. M. C. A. secretaries, and fourteen soldiers. But as I look back on it now I remember seeing only one man; the rest were doubtless well enough, but they are not worth remembering after thirteen years.

With a comrade I arrived a bit late, and in order to see over the heads of the people who were standing on the level ground we climbed up a steep bank. The soft earth slipped under our hobnailed boots, and we secured ourselves by gripping saplings. When we were finally able to turn and look down on the scene, the exercises were already under way. A coagulation of people in the midst of the field of white crosses showed the center of interest. There were hordes of French generals, the sunlight gleaming on the golden oakleaves embroidered around their caps. One of them—some one said he was Petain—took a great sheaf of flowers and, stooping, laid them on a near-by grave. Then they all turned, by common consent, toward the center of the group. Presently an old man’s head projected itself above the crowd, evidently because he had stepped upon a box or something. We were much too far away to hear a sound, and the old man’s back was toward us, but he seemed to be speaking, for the group around him was attentive. Idly, we speculated upon his identity. His hair was snow-white, and at the base of his skull it curled up as Bryan’s used to do, like a drake’s tail-feather. He was obviously feeble. His neck projected forward a little, and his shoulders hunched wearily. Whoever he was, it was clear that the old boy was about all in. We put him down as some ancient exhumed in the Faubourg St. Germain because he had seen the Commune, and brought out here to perform an introduction and add a touch of the dignity of the past to the present proceedings.

He spoke for three or four minutes before he remembered the people behind him, and turned in our direction. But at last he did turn, and as his face swung into view, what a jolt we had! All suggestion of 1871, of feebleness and age, dissolved and vanished as we caught sight of that grim and arrogant countenance with its narrow, steadfast eyes, its dominant nose, its powerful, belligerent jaw. We faced the Conqueror, who had the world at his feet. We were looking at Woodrow Wilson.

Well, I have looked at various dignitaries since that day. To paraphrase Browning’s remark to the peasant, I once saw Harding plain, and Coolidge also. On March 4, 1928, I saw Herbert Hoover, although not plainly. Long lines of drenched soldiery, many thousands of people, and a veil of dismal, cold rain were between us, and his face was but a white blob in the distance. At the Jackson Day dinner in Washington last January I saw sitting all in a row, James Middleton Cox, John William Davis, and Alfred Emanuel Smith, who contested three elections with the three Presidents. In the last thirteen years I have seen thousands of people. But I know that when I sit doddering in the chimney corner many years hence and wish to make my grandchildren sit up with a jerk, and regard the old man curiously, instead of mentioning these, I shall say that in 1919 I saw Woodrow Wilson at Suresnes.


Probably those same grandchildren will still be squabbling over the place of Wilson in history. Certainly there is as yet no sign of an end to the disputes over whether he triumphed or was defeated, whether he was the herald of a new dawn, or a fatuous chaser of the will-o’-the-wisp, whether he is a new and shining addition to the hagiology, or the Abou ben Adhem of the Book of the Damned. I shall not presume to express a judgment on such high matters. I shall confine myself to an observation which will not be denied by friend or foe: that Woodrow Wilson was the last man in our public life who was capable of inspiring maudlin hatred.

Within the last dozen years various other persons have inspired more or less powerful hates. Tom Mooney, Sacco and Vanzetti, Clarence Darrow, Gaston B. Means, Dion O’Bannion, Bishop Cannon, IT. L. Mencken, J. Thomas Heflin, John J. Raskob, Nan Britton, William E. Borah, and Rupert Hughes, among others, have been denounced by various people for various reasons; but all the hatred aroused by all of them put together is, by comparison with the hatred aroused by Woodrow Wilson, as an electric fan is to a Kansas cyclone. Those that hated Wilson most, hated him with an intensity that energized their lives, moulded their characters, and sometimes—for example, in the cases of Senators Lodge, Johnson, and Reed — almost made great men of them; or else broke them down completely, and set them to jittering. Nay, more—certain philosophers, notably H. L. Mencken, are of the opinion that hatred of Wilson was occasionally fatal, hastening, if not solely causing, the end of the elder Theodore Roosevelt, and perhaps others.

In any case, it was a big thing. As a measure of the man, I prefer it to the admiration Wilson aroused, because admiration can be blown up to gigantic dimensions by skillful press-agentry, but genuine, thoroughgoing, virulent, and lasting hatred is invariably an achievement of the hero himself, not of clever fellows in his entourage. And, measured by the detestation he aroused, a detestation which has not subsided and perhaps has increased in the eight years since his death, Wilson looms gigantically over the field of history.

No President since has accomplished anything remotely resembling it. Not until after death had removed Harding from Washington did we discover that he had marched into town at the head of a Falstaff’s army, recruited by robbing every gibbet in the kingdom; and even then the general feeling was that the poor old fellow had swindled himself worse than all his thieves had swindled the country. Nobody ever hated Harding. What was the use? As for Mr. Coolidge, one still invites a coat of tar and feathers by speaking of him in any but hushed and reverential tones. He is as sacred as Saint Andrew, whom he seems in a fair way to oust as the patron of all Scotchmen. Some people do not greatly admire the present President; but the most rabid anti-Hoover-ite is as gentle as any sucking dove by comparison with a really rabid anti-Wilsonian.

Hatred is an emotion not well spoken of by respectable persons. It is violent, blind, and destructive, therefore certainly is not to be commended as a national ideal. Yet it is an undeniable fact that a small man cannot be hated in a big way, and some of us would be content to risk seeing the nation corrode in a bath of hatred if only it had a man big enough to arouse such an emotion. . . .

Well, the storms and violences of the Wilsonian age are over, and since he quit the White House we have had eleven years of uninterrupted peace. Wilson was a war President, which is to say, he was an autocrat, as war Presidents always are. When he appealed to “force to the uttermost, force without stint or limit” he went the whole hog; and not only the Germans, but those Americans who were not nimble enough to catch step with the big parade, felt the impact of that force without stint or limit. The jails swiftly filled with people charged with offenses which in time of peace would have been no crimes at all, and the myrmidons of the Department of Justice frequently filed away luckless individuals whose acts were hardly crimes even by the peculiar standards of war time.

It was a hard, ruthless era, for no country is ever careful of the rights of man when an armed enemy is in the field against it. We may well rejoice that we have had no similar disturbance for a third of a generation. Released from the pressure of war the country should have made, since Wilson, great progress toward restoration of the respect of the Government for the rights of the citizen. Since Wilson, no armed enemy has risen against us, and we have bad eleven years to develop the friendship of other nations. Since Wilson, there has been no occasion to regard homicide as a noble and patriotic occupation, and brute force ought to be much less in favor as a method of settling difficulties. Since Wilson, there has been no weight of fear to drive us into accepting lies as history, hatred as patriotic piety, belligerence as the mark of a manful man; so there should have been a notable elevation of the tone of our public life.

Even after three years of extreme industrial depression, we remain by long odds the wealthiest and most powerful nation on the globe. No enemy threatens our frontiers, and the garrison in our remotest outpost can sleep soundly at night. No rebellion or insurrection threatens our internal peace. No monarchist, or fascist, or communist party exists in this country in strength enough to give the faintest quiver of alarm to any heart stouter than those of the perpetually quaking Daughters of the American Revolution. Our harvests have been only too abundant, we have all too much goods, laid up for all too many days. Pestilence has not smitten us, nor have earthquakes, floods, and fires carried off vast numbers of our people. Tranquillity, wealth, and health have been ours, as a nation, these eleven years; judged by every standard mankind has been accustomed to apply we should have been, since Wilson, the happiest people in all the earth.

Consider how vastly different it was in Wilson’s time. For the first year and a half, indeed, we were busily at work building anew our system of social control; but for the next two years we were engaged in scrambling frantically to keep out of the vortex of the whirlpool, losing ground all the time; then for a year and a half our money and our blood streamed away in a horrible flood; and the rest of the time we grappled with the hopeless task of rebuilding a wrecked world. Storm and stress were our portion through it all. We suffered dreadful fears; we knew pain, and hope deferred that maketh the heart sick; we performed Herculean labors and accepted gigantic losses. Without rest, without surcease, we endured and we strove. Well, indeed, may we thank God and take courage that such a time of trial is eleven years behind us.


And yet I doubt that the most resolute optimist will assert that all that might have been expected of these years of peace has actually come to pass. Let us consider, seriatim, what has been accomplished since Wilson toward the restoration and strengthening of, first, liberty; second, international comity; third, domestic civilization; and fourth, intelligent statecraft. Wilson, his critics aver, attacked all these things; he did it under the plea of military necessity, to be sure, but, they insist, he attacked them, nevertheless. Now Wilson’s opponents have been in power ever since, and they have not been driven by any military necessity. Their success in restoring what he attacked should be a fair measure of their ability as statesmen.

First on the list and most important is the matter of individual liberty, for, as Lincoln pointed out, this country was “conceived in liberty” and it has no other excuse for being. Wilson’s most conspicuous and least excusable assault on liberty was what he did to Eugene Debs. This was an honest man—silly, no doubt, but conscientious and incapable of deliberate treason, yet Wilson sent him to jail for opposing the war. It was pretty bad, and I have no intention of defending it. Yet I venture to point out that jailing Debs did require a certain amount of nerve, for he was the most prominent Socialist in the country and the idol of hundreds of thousands of people, many of them highly vocal and some of them highly intelligent.

It took less nerve for California to jail Tom Mooney, for Mooney had few friends of any consequence. Furthermore, Debs got twenty years for something he unquestionably did do, but served only five. Mooney got life for something he probably didn’t do, and has served sixteen years. At that Mooney would unquestionably have been hanged had it not been for the intervention of one man, and he the same man who sent Debs to jail, to wit, Woodrow Wilson. It is true that he intervened in the Mooney case solely on account of international pressure, but was it not also on account of international pressure that he sent Debs to jail?

However, the justification of Wilson is no part of this discussion, which is simply an effort to measure the revival of respect for individual liberty since Wilson. During the course of the war with Germany there is one thing this government, with all its brutality, did not do—it sent no man actually to death for cherishing radical opinions. Even Debs was never in real danger of hanging, and Mooney, as noted above, was saved from the noose by Federal intervention. But Sacco and Vanzetti were not disposed of by the hard-pressed, grim, and ruthless government of Wilson’s time— and they went to the electric chair.

The interpretation put upon the law by such jurisconsults as Albert S. Burleson and A. Mitchell Palmer in Wilson’s administration was certainly not such as to reassure libertarians. They carried to lengths hitherto unheard-of in America the doctrine of the supremacy of the State. They were accused then, and have been accused constantly since, of attempting to embed in American law one of the most objectionable concepts of Prussianism, namely, the doctrine that the State has a life of its own not merely more extensive, but superior to that of the individual, and may exercise a sort of right of eminent domain in the field of men’s loyalties and devotions, as well as in the field of their acts.

This is a serious accusation, for if it is true, it indicates that in Wilson’s time there were men in high office to whom that phrase in the Declaration of Independence about “unalienable rights” made small appeal. Naturally, one hopes that in the succeeding years of peace the Government has been purged of such blatantly un-American doctrine. One hopes? Well, hardly that. For it was since Wilson that Douglas Clyde Macintosh, a professor in the Yale Divinity School, applied for naturalization as an American citizen. The applicant’s character was unimpeachable, his brain an able one, his record distinguished. But he was a clergyman, and when he was questioned he took the position that most people would expect a man in holy orders to take—he stated that he placed his allegiance to God above his allegiance to any earthly Government whatever. And on that specific point the Supreme Court of the United States held Dr. Macintosh unfit to be a citizen of the United States. When the State asserts its right to precedence over the Almighty, even in the matter of the allegiance of its citizens, the doctrine of the supremacy of the State has been carried to lengths to which Palmer and Burleson never dared go.

If Wilson sent men to jail for holding radical opinions, since Wilson we have sent men to burn in the electric chair under circumstances that have led thousands to believe that we have burned them for being political heretics. This equals the record of the Spanish Inquisition. But we have given yet another turn to the screw. Since Wilson we have called upon clergymen to renounce the First Commandment as the price of citizenship. For a Baptist—Dr. Macintosh’s denomination—this is equivalent to a sentence to burn, not in the electric chair, but in hell’s fire. And this tops the Inquisition.


It is fairly plain, then, that in the matter of individual liberty our progress since Wilson has not been in the direction of its re-establishment as the mudsill of the government. Let us therefore proceed to consider the next item, international comity.

In Wilson’s time we assisted in battering to their knees two great empires, one lesser empire, and a kingdom. So it stands to reason that in at least four nations we were regarded with anything but brotherly affection. One could not expect nations which our armies had just been beating into a bloody pulp to love us. But one could hope that in the succeeding eleven years of peace we might accomplish something toward re-establishing amicable relations with all the world.

The best measure of our success in this line is to be found in the foreign press. Diplomats’ customarily converse in honeyed words up to the very moment when the first shell comes screeching over the lines. The official correspondence of no nation gives any hint of its real opinion of the United States; but its newspapers do.

It is by reading foreign newspapers that some careful observers have been led to the pessimistic belief that the United States today is the most cordially hated nation on earth. The horror of all Europe is the danger of Americanization, and “Uncle Shylock” is its name for the most dreaded international bully now extant.

This hatred may be based upon dread of our military and economic power, but it rises far beyond that. There is hardly an intellectual leader in Europe who has not some time within the last decade solemnly warned his countrymen against becoming infected with the American spirit. It may be that they do not know what the American spirit is; but they think they know, and what they conceive to be the American spirit seems to them dreadful.

If they are deceived, is it not evident that we have somehow failed to impress upon them the excellence of our intentions and the amiability of our disposition? In 1917 if we incurred the hatred of the Central Powers, we had the Allies solidly at our backs. In this respect, peace has been more disastrous than war; for the circle of nations that dislike and distrust us has steadily widened.

I do not believe that this hatred is entirely deserved; but as for the suspicion that accompanies it, I am not so sure. The vacillation and uncertainty of our foreign policy have been enough to breed distrust. When the average American has not the remotest idea of what his country’s foreign policy is from one week to another, how shall he expect the foreigner to be other than puzzled and, being puzzled, distrustful? We search our own hearts for the peaceableness of our intentions, but the foreigner has nothing to go by but Haiti, Nicaragua, and the size of our naval budget. However, regardless of the reason, the fact is that international comity has fared little better than individual liberty in the last eleven years. Since Wilson, international comity, also, has gone from bad to worse.


But few of us, after all, are directly affected in our daily lives by the international relations of the United States. Our first concern must be with the development of civilization within our borders. And here, again, it is surely not unreasonable to hope to discover a notable improvement in the direction of peace and security over the conditions that prevailed in war time.

For war is by its very nature an enthronement of the brute. When an armed enemy is in the field, it is the first duty of the country to put him down by violence; and this necessity inevitably gives violence a respected place in the routine of our daily lives. Not its men-at-arms only, but the whole nation is driven to what Norman Thomas calls “the acceptance of violence”; and this acceptance, however necessary it may be, is a retrogression in civilization.

It is not surprising, therefore, to find that in the second administration of Wilson riots were not infrequent. Conscientious objectors were set upon and beaten; radical meetings were raided by mobs and broken up, not without bloodshed; there were a few race riots, and some battles between police and strikers. These were part of the evil products of war psychology, and their appearance was another strong reason for desiring the return of peace; for only in time of peace is there much hope of rooting out the acceptance of violence from our mental make-up.

But to assert that the eleven years since Wilson have seen a great recession in the popular acceptance of violence is to fly in the face of the common knowledge of all men. It was more than a year after Wilson had retired from office that Herrin, Illinois, suddenly achieved horrible fame; more than two years after he had retired that the fiasco of the murder trials there formally accepted massacre as a means of conducting labor disputes. Since Wilson we have learned that there is a place called Mer Rouge, in Louisiana; and one called Cicero, near Chicago; and one culled Gastonia, in North Carolina; and one called Salisbury, in Maryland; and one called Pineville, in Kentucky. Each of these items has come to us because in each it has been demonstrated anew that violence is accepted by the people of that community as an excusable incident of existence in time of peace as well as in time of war.

It was since Wilson that the House of Representatives of the Congress of the United States broke into cheers when it was announced that a boy of twenty-one had been shot to death in the streets because he was suspected of having violated the liquor law which Wilson vetoed; and an American bishop of a Protestant church praised the House for cheering the news of death by violence. It is since Wilson that Al Capone, Dion O’Bannion, Gerald Chapman, Legs Diamond, and other gentry of that ilk have achieved their meteoric and lurid careers. It was eleven years after Wilson that civilization in the United States reached such a pass that it was regarded as good sense for a famous American whose child had been kidnapped to turn in despair from the police and appeal to the underworld to avenge his wrong.

When one thinks of the speakeasy, the racketeer, the hijacker, the bank bandit, the kidnapper, and the gangster, it is hard to believe that civilization is not nearer to collapse in America today than it ever was in Wilson’s time.


Woodrow Wilson was human, and man that is born of woman is prone to utter folly. He did not escape the common fate, and those who served with him also sometimes said and did foolish things. It has always been so, and doubtless so it will be as long as the race survives and governments are instituted among men.

Nevertheless, while all rulers sometimes speak unwisely, intelligence in its statecraft is one of the marks of a civilized nation, and an increase in that intelligence unquestionably is a good augury for its civilization.

To attempt to make comparisons between the brains of individuals is certainly an ungracious, usually an unfair, and almost always an unsuccessful undertaking. Brain for brain, it may be that the members of the administrations of the last eleven years have been equal, or superior, to those of the Wilson administrations. At any rate, let us eschew such invidious comparisons here.

There are, however, certain standards of measurement of the composite intelligence of the government as an entity, and these, perhaps, we may seek to apply without violating decorum. The government, as distinguished from the individuals who composed it, had at the end of Wilson’s time very definite policies, all of which tended to thrust the country in a particular direction. The domestic policy of that government was overwhelmed and reduced to utter confusion by the exigencies of warfare, but it had been pretty clearly outlined between March 4,1913, and August 1,1914, the date on which it had to be subverted to the necessities of the foreign situation. These sixteen months showed beyond doubt that the government intended to pursue a clearly liberal policy. The Underwood Tariff, the Federal Reserve System, the original income-tax legislation, the woman suffrage amendment, and a great mass of less conspicuous legislation all testify to the definiteness of the liberal tendency of the government as regards internal affairs. I do not assert that it was a good policy, or a bad policy, but merely that it was a definite policy.

As touching foreign affairs, the attitude of the government in Wilson’s time was even more distinct. Its policy was one of vigorous promotion of international organization, culminating in the League of Nations. There was no doubt about it, there was no hesitation or confusion in it. It was proceeding along a well-plotted line toward a definite goal. Again, I do not assert that this was a good policy or a bad one, but only that it was definite.

At the same time, the mere process of outlining and vigorously prosecuting a definite and consistent policy of statecraft involves a certain amount of cerebration. Definiteness and consistency are attainable only by the exercise of intelligence, even though the policy they qualify may be a bad one. The mere fact that the government, in the time of Wilson, chose a mark and pressed steadily toward that mark is proof positive that there was intelligence in the statecraft of that government, regardless of the end toward which that intelligence moved.

In fields other than that of statecraft it is quite commonly believed that the choice of any definite, clear-cut policy and the consistent prosecution of that policy argues a higher degree of intelligence than the choice of no policy whatever. But this reasoning quite obviously does not apply to the field of statecraft because action there is frequently conditioned by the exigencies of politics, and in politics opportunism is frequently the most intelligent of all policies. To argue otherwise would be to argue that the Honorable Calvin Cool-idge is something of a fool, whereas the truth is that few more astute politicians have ever occupied the White House. Out of the whole list, only Jefferson, Monroe, Van Buren, Lincoln, and Roosevelt stand out clearly as his superiors in this department, with Madison, Tyler, and Polk contesting with him for sixth place.

Everything depends upon what the administration hopes to accomplish. If its endeavor is limited to the retention of office, then lack of a policy may be proof of intelligence, not evidence of its absence. But if its aspiration includes any of the objectives commonly ascribed to statecraft, that is, the establishment of a better social order, the increase of the national prestige and power, the extension of the national boundaries, or the strengthening of the national defenses, then certainly lack of a policy suggests lack of intelligence.

Since Wilson, however, the man who could define the policy of the United States, either foreign or domestic, must be a master of definition indeed. The Underwood Tariff has been abolished, but most of the other Wilsonian legislation stands unaltered. Nevertheless, no sane man will argue that the domestic policy of the last eleven years has been distinctly liberal. The League of Nations has been repudiated, yet no administration since Wilson has come out flatly against international organization. On the contrary, Mr. Harding, Mr. Coolidge, and Mr. Hoover all have spoken in favor of it. The truth is, we have no definite, consistent policy, internal or external; and this, while it may be no conclusive proof of a decrease of intelligence, can by no sort of sophistry be twisted into evidence of an increase of intelligence in statecraft since Wilson.


Woodrow Wilson’s exact place in history must be decided by some future, perhaps far distant, generation. But he was a great man. That this is true is evident from the admissions of his enemies. Reject altogether the testimony of his friends, and consider only that of those who hate his memory. With what do they charge him? With nothing less than wrecking the world.

Assume, for the purpose of argument, that it is true— what then? Do barbers and street-car conductors wreck the world? Do soda-jerkers shake down empires, and plumbers’ assistants reduce civilization to the verge of chaos? Do weaklings upset the hegemony of giant kingdoms, or puny hands pull down the temple of the established order? A weakling thrust into a throne may wreck his own country, but Wilson left his own country the most powerful on the globe; if we grant that he strode through all the rest of the world “spreading ruin and scattering ban,” we have simply listed him in the category of Attila, Tamerlane, and Genghis Khan, who certainly were not feeble.

The truth is, since Wilson we have had no political leader strong enough to wreck a pig-pen, not to mention the world. Such leadership as we have had has been vested in committees and commissions, and it has been impossible to fix upon any personality as responsible for anything.

For the first eight years this seemed to be an excellent thing for business, at any rate; but recent events have given us reason to believe that it was not good even for business. Certainly it was not good for anything else. Perhaps it was Woodrow Wilson’s ambition to vault into the empery of the world. I doubt it, but suppose it was — at least it was a lordly ambition. It compares very favorably with Harding’s ambition to be a good fellow, with Coolidge’s ambition to get by without a fuss, even with the proclaimed ambition of the present administration to put a chicken in every pot.

As long as Woodrow Wilson dominated the political scene the American people thought constantly of things that have hardly crossed their minds since Wilson—of national honor and national dignity, of the historical past and the far future, of danger and of duty. Whether they were friends of Wilson, or his enemies, they thought of these things. Whether they thought he embodied all noble ideals, or was the opponent of them, they thought of ideals. And in the furious struggle to put him up or pull him down, they were all engaged in a fight that swirled around another focal point than a trading post in the stock exchange. There were then, as there are always, a few astute gentlemen who knew what they wanted; but the great masses of men, in Wilson’s time, whether they supported or opposed him, fought for their beliefs, not primarily for their pocketbooks.

It was a great era, and this is a small one. And that is why I know that when I am eighty-five, and palsied and half blind, I shall still be able to fire the imaginations of the rising generation. The youngsters of that day will pay no attention whatever when I gabble about having lived through the great panic of 1929; and when I say that I once saw Henry Ford, they will rack their brains in vain and finally decide that I must be trying to say Millard Fillmore. But one of my grandsons, when he wishes to explain to a college friend why the family continues to treat the doddering old wreck with a certain consideration, will draw him aside and whisper, confidentially, “You would never think it to look at the old man now, but it’s the God’s truth—he once served under Woodrow Wilson.”


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