Skip to main content

Wilson and the South Today

ISSUE:  Summer 1930

If the theory of evolution is true, someone has said, the first monkey who slid down the limb of a tree and stood erect on his hind-legs was an Individualist. The “regular fellows” hung by their tails from the topmost branches and reviled him. They called him an anarchist, a bolshevist, a breaker up of homes. They said that he had no respect for law and order, for simian teamwork or simian standards of the fitness of things. And they vowed that the tail-hold, which was good enough for their fathers, was good enough for them. But the individualist monkey lifted up his face in faith and hope to heaven, and stood erect, and walked—and in the long process of time the Individualist became a man and the Regular Fellow remained a monkey.

It wasn’t Woodrow Wilson who said this. But he could have said it, and in perfect consistency with the philosophy for which he stood in a world of “regular fellows” whose regularity was being fixed more firmly every day through the mass experiences afforded by the motion picture, the magazine, the syndicated news and editorial releases, the phonograph and the telephone, and was destined soon to become well-nigh static with the radio.

George Bernard Shaw has said that Henrik Ibsen never understood until late in life the philosophy behind his own plays. There is nothing in the recorded words of Wood-row Wilson to indicate that the war president ever had precisely in his mind the “philosophy of competitive individualism” which retrospect shows so clearly and consistently today in his public works. If he had been permitted to be a candidate for the essay prize offered some months ago by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation on the subject “What Woodrow Wilson Means to Me,” he might have failed as badly as all the other candidates did. Acting, in his public life, under impulsions that were a part of his very nature, he seems never to have examined them for the singleness of principle and reconcilement of faith they spelled.

Individualists date back considerably farther in this country than Regular Fellows, even though we hear more of the latter than the former in the luncheon clubs of the country today. Maybe it is because being an Individualist is so hard now that the Regular Fellow has been invented. The mosli ancient faith of Americans was a faith in individualism. The dignity of his own separate existence and of the separate existences of the various social, political, and economic units to which he belonged was a thing the early American cherished. The cherishing came about pragmatically, so to speak, from the pioneering days when every circumstance of American life emphasized individual effort and expression.

Those days are gone. And with them, in the opinion of many, the need and possibility of individualism. Attempts at it today, they believe, are vain—and born in vanity. Perhaps they are right but there are still some who believe, as Wilson apparently did, that mortal experience has yet to prove individualism less than the most satisfactory rule of justice and progress. If we were able to agree correctly upon the type of personality and the kind of institution that could serve everybody best today and promise everybody most for the future, there would be no need of individualism at all. We could contemplate without any, particular alarm, though probably not without boredom, the prospect of a standardized man in a standardized world. The trouble is that we are not wise enough, nor clairvoyant enough, nor even honest enough for such agreement. Our wise men differ in so many premises and conclusions. Our men of vision cannot lift the curtains high enough to disclose demands the future will make or standards it will impose. Our honest men can never be sure that their arrangements for the world are not colored unconsciously with some special interest or experience of their own. In sheer defeatism, therefore, we are obliged to fall back upon the proposition of individualism and to believe (if we believe in justice and progress at all) that the most practical approach to that indefinite thing we call perfection is a resultant of many individual paths.

In other words, for want of a more positive plan, we are compelled to assume that the best human adjustments and the surest human advance come out of the play of many personalities, the clash of opposing interests and desires, the competition of various social, political, and economic units.

This, fundamentally, is a philosophy of force. Since we cannot think things out, or agree them out, we must fight them out. But there is no rejection of the functions of thought and agreement in the proper practice of such a philosophy. They are functions, in the exercise of which, three rules appear for the civilized conduct of the competitive fight and for the social victories to be expected of it. First, the separate units in the struggle must be preserved in their individuality; second, the constant contact and competition of the units must be assured; and, third, there must be an umpire to enforce fair play.

Enter, then, Woodrow Wilson to lend this philosophy of competitive force and the three rules of its play the prestige of the presidency, of the United States and the one-time moral leadership of the world. The whole impetus of his major public efforts was directed towards this preservation of entities, organization of their contacts, and umpiring of their competition. The most important objectives or achievements of the Wilson administration were the federal reserve system, the Clayton law, the federal trade commission, and the League of Nations. Each of these was designed to umpire and preserve competition in its particular sphere. The federal reserve system was set up to decentralize the credit reserves of the United States and, by restoring the financial entity of each section of the country, to encourage geographical and personal individuality through fiscal freedom. In a letter to Secretary of the Treasury McAdoo at the time of this law’s passage, President Wilson wrote: “Credit, the very life of trade, the very air men must breathe if they would meet their opportunities, was too largely in the control of the same small groups who had planted and cultivated monopoly.”

The Clayton and federal trade commission laws followed the federal reserve law in this same principle of competitive individualism. Under the Clayton law individual businesses were protected against the tendency of great combinations to absorb or eliminate them. Under the federal trade commission law the competition of these individual businesses was organized, and umpired against “unfair practices.”

The last and largest work of Woodrow Wilson, of course, was the League of Nations. American nationalists opposed the League because they thought it went too far in the relinquishment of American sovereignty to an international body. There were many others who opposed it because they did not think it went far enough. They wanted, not an organization of governments, but one of peoples, not a legislature of nations but a “parliament of man.” But Wilson had no desire to obliterate nations or nationalism. He was too steeped in the philosophy of competitive individualism to forget the fine potential fruits of international competition or of the individual customs, legends, histories, objectives, and ideals of nations. His League was designed merely to do for nations what his federal reserve system was to do for communities and his Clayton and federal trade commission laws for businesses. His plan was not to destroy national units but to preserve them by civilizing their contacts and umpiring their competition against suicidal resorts to arms. His Covenant was consistent with his other works.

The world today is so complex that it is hard to lay hands on anything at all. And even if you do, it may change into something else before ever you’ve got a grip on it. In such a world it is pleasant to find occasionally some central principle like this which offers to guide us through the maze. And pleasanter yet to have this principle reconcile an ancient faith to changing days. Wilson’s philosophy of competitive individualism is worth talking about and writing about if only for its neatness, its adaptability to nearly every problem, its gratification of a once strongly American taste. Of course he wasn’t the first man to have ideas about individualism. Neither was Thomas Jefferson, for whom individualism was a philosophy and a practice, nor Andrew Jackson, who practiced it furiously without bothering much about its philosophy. The thing goes all the way back to the earliest Greek thinkers with their “problem of the one and the many.” But Woodrow Wilson’s contribution was the overhauling and equipping of individualism for modern use. He made it automotive by installing an engine called competition. With his theory of organized and umpired competition he brought a saving supplement to the individualism of Jefferson and Jackson.

Maybe the supplement won’t save, after all. At the present writing the odds are about even. The federal reserve system, in the past two years, has had considerably the worst of it in the effort to prevent all the money in the country from leaving its home town and going to New York when the call rate on the stock exchange was siren sweet. The Clayton law’s provisions against buying up stocks of competing companies is being honored most in the breach of its essential spirit, and President Hoover (who is as naturally and honestly a collectivist as Woodrow Wilson was an individualist) shows no more love of it or of other anti-trust legislation than his barest duty as chief executive requires. The federal trade commission, whose statutory first task is to prevent “unfair practices of competition,” is in the hands of commissioners whose doubtless justifiable but hardly judicial enthusiasm for big business had made them coaches and trainers rather than the umpires they were meant to be. And the League of Nations, maimed from birth by the refusal of Wilson’s own country to assume the obligations of paternity, is thus far less an umpire than a sort of mascot of the competition between nations. What is more, and worse, the physical sciences are operating against the Wilsonian supplement. Individual men and women from Calais to San Diego, all reading the same national magazines and syndicated features, all watching and hearing the same little group of sound-movie actors, all singing the same popular songs and dancing the same popular dances, are losing those divergencies of taste, experience, thought, dress, speech, love-making, literature, sport, and manners upon which their individualism and its useful fruits depend.

The most “different” and individualistic part of the country today is the South. Even those who accuse it of bigotry, bombast, intolerance, ignorance, prejudice, persecution, passion, and whatnot admit that it is a land of individualists. There may be much in the accusation but there is more in the admission. The southerner’s individualism, his resistance to external standards, his passion in competition, his jealous love of his own home and folks and ways and days, are undoubtedly responsible for whatever is true in the charges made against him. But these same qualities have other outlets, too, which are the South’s greatest spiritual assets. And they are essentially the qualities required for that approach to justice and progress through competitive individualism for which Woodrow Wilson, consciously or unconsciously, labored. With the economic attention of the country turning southward today and promising that section such physical wealth and worldly weight as it has probably never known before in its history., it is conceivable tjiat the land of Woodrow Wilson’s birth and early life may become the land that eventually vindicates his life’s philosophy. Prosperity is wooing the South away from the ugly concomitants of its individualism. If it can do so without destroying the individualism itself, Messrs. Mason and Dixon may have lined better than they knew.

Whatever the outcome—for Wilson or for the South— the philosophy is fine that the law of nature is the law of variety, of competition, of individualism. Modernists may take it from Darwin. Fundamentalists can take it from the first chapter of the Old Testament wherein a famous human attempt to build upon the plains of Shinar a monstrous, standardized, collective tower that would touch high heaven itself was confounded and destroyed—

“And they said, Go to, let us build a city and a tower, whose top may, reach unto heaven; and let us make a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

“And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the children of men builded.

“And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them which they have imagined to do.

“Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language so that they may not understand one another’s speech.

“So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of the earth; and they left off to build the city.

“Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth; and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.”


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading