Thursday, June 23, 2016

Wilson and the Fed, VIII: Wilson’s Philosophy


Even commentators favorable to Woodrow Wilson are not able to put a positive spin on his style of leadership, although they speak of it (and of Wilson) in glowing terms, e.g., “genius,” “brilliant,” “incomparable.”[1]  This was probably the result of sycophants currying favor, and not out of conviction.  As Arthur Link noted in his book on the Wilson administration,
Wilson’s temperament put a heavy strain on his administrative talents. Because he valued loyalty and flattery over hardheaded frankness and cold and sometimes unpleasant logic, his advisers either told him what they thought he wanted to hear or else remained silent.[2]
Albert Sidney Burleson
Soon after the inauguration, Albert Sidney Burleson (1863-1937), the new Postmaster General, subverted Wilson’s minimal reforming zeal. Burleson, “a superb professional politician,”[3] easily persuaded Wilson that the support of the old Democratic reactionaries in Congress was much more valuable than what could be mustered by the progressives and populists who, led by Bryan, had gotten Wilson elected over Theodore Roosevelt.
In short, Wilson was guided by personal faith rather than reason; his own subjective will rather than the objective intellect. This took the form of a supreme confidence in his own infallibility, a mark of modernists and positivists in every age. As Robert Lansing (1864-1928), who replaced Bryan as Secretary of State, related in his diary,
Robert Lansing
When one comes to consider Mr. Wilson’s mental processes, there is the feeling that intuition rather than reason played the chief part in the way he reached conclusions and judgments. In fact arguments, however soundly reasoned, did not appeal to him if they were opposed to his feeling of what was the right thing to do. Even established facts were ignored if they did not fit in with this intuitive sense, this semi-divine power to select the right. . . . In the case of Mr. Wilson, it explains many things in his public career, which are otherwise very perplexing.
In the first place it gave a superior place to his own judgment. With him it was a matter of conviction formed without weighing evidence and without going through the process of rational deduction. His judgments were always right in his own mind, because he knew that they were right. How did he know that they were right? Why he knew it and that was the best reason in the world. No other was necessary.[4]
Louis Freeland Post
Nothing could better illustrate Wilson’s concept of government and the role of the State — and of the direction in which the country was heading. As ordinary people lost not only capital ownership, but any hope of access to the means of acquiring and possessing property in capital, the wealthy elite were able to control more and more of everyday life, whether directly through their virtual monopoly on wage system jobs, or indirectly through their control of the State. Significantly, Louis Freeland Post (1849-1928), Wilson’s Assistant Secretary of Labor, was a georgist.[5]
The tree that took root in America with the Dred Scott case was now bearing its inevitable fruit. All rights were assumed to be inherent in the State, which doled them out to people as those in power saw fit or as they found expedient.
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[1] Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, op. cit., 33.
[2] Ibid., 32.
[3] Ibid., 29.
[4] Robert Lansing, “The Mentality of Woodrow Wilson,” Dairy entry of November 20, 1921, unpublished ms. In the Library of Congress, quoted in Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, op. cit., 32-33n.
[5] Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, op. cit., 31.

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