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Woodrow Wilson - America's Worst President

Updated on August 4, 2018
Ken Burgess profile image

Grew up on Cape Cod, Mass. Army Vet., Fmr. Director of Energy Conservation programs, RE Agent. Current residence: the Space Coast, FL.

For those of us who are a half century old, or older, when we think of evil men we think of the likes of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot. Despots who declared war on their own people, murdering millions.

Woodrow Wilson is not considered their equal by many, schools and think tanks are named for him and various polls continue to rate him as a great or near-great president. The “progressive” politics of today’s Democrats are part of his legacy, as is the instability of the world in which we live.

Wilson was the first president to openly attack the U.S. Constitution and eagerly support laws to prosecute and imprison those who disagreed with his policies. Wilson attacked the Constitution in his writings as an academic long before he became president. Once in power, his administration so restricted freedom of speech that this led to landmark Supreme Court decisions restoring that fundamental right.

Wilson’s hostility to black Americans was well documented, in fact many historians have dubbed Wilson the most racist president in history. As New Jersey's 38th governor, Wilson refused to confirm the hiring of blacks in his Administration. Wilson's record as president was his overseeing of the re-segregation of multiple agencies of the federal government, which had been integrated as a result of Reconstruction decades earlier.

The Department of Treasury and Post Office Department both introduced screened-off workspaces, separate lunchrooms, and separate bathrooms. His policies of segregation even led to cages being built around blacks to separate them from white co-workers of many years. Let me restate that for clarity, Black people who couldn't, logistically, be segregated were put in literal cages. This was not a policy in America or our government until Woodrow Wilson made it so.

Outright dismissals were also common. Upon taking office, Wilson himself fired 15 out of 17 black supervisors in the federal service and replaced them with white people. In 1914, a group of black professionals led by Harvard alumnus Monroe Trotter met with Wilson to protest the segregation. Wilson informed Trotter, "Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit," When Trotter insisted that "it is untenable, in view of the established facts, to maintain that the segregation is simply to avoid race friction, for the simple reason that for fifty years white and colored clerks have been working together in peace and harmony and friendliness," Wilson admonished him for his tone: "If this organization is ever to have another hearing before me it must have another spokesman. Your manner offends me …”

Wilson at the Versailles Convention in 1919, helped kill a proposal from Japan calling for the treaty to recognize the principle of racial equality. While 11 out of 17 members at the meeting considering the amendment favored it, Wilson, who was presiding, arbitrarily decided that the amendment had been defeated because the vote wasn't unanimous. This wasn't an actual rule, a simple majority vote had been enough to decide that the League of Nations would be headquartered in Geneva, but Wilson did not want the treaty to recognize racial equality.

Wilson lent ‘The Birth of a Nation’ which glorified the Ku Klux Klan his approval by screening it at the White House and reportedly telling a reporter that it could "teach history with lightning."

Wilson was strongly against black suffrage: "It was a menace to society itself that the negroes should thus of a sudden be set free and left without tutelage or restraint."

Woodrow Wilson’s Progressivism was very much of the mindset that government intervention in the economy was justified on grounds that “society is the senior partner in all business.”

The rhetorical transformation of government into ‘society’ is a verbal sleight-of-hand trick that endures to this day. The notion that money earned in the form of profits requires politicians’ benediction to be legitimate, Wilson declared: “If private profits are to be legitimized, private fortunes made honorable, these great forces which play upon the modern field must, both individually and collectively, be accommodated to a common purpose.” In other words coopted for whatever the government (he) felt was best.

In other words, politicians, bureaucrats and judges are to intervene, second-guess and pick winners and losers, in a complex economic process of which they are often uninformed, if not misinformed, and a process in which they pay no price for being wrong, regardless of how high a price will be paid by the economy. Business, like people, had no individual rights, and how they were to be used was best determined by the government.

If this headstrong, government-knows-best approach seems familiar it’s because it’s similar to what the past 25 years of D.C. politics has resembled, never more so than under Obama, it is fundamentally the same vision, the same presumptions of superior wisdom, and the same kind of lofty rhetoric we heard when Obama stated: “if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that”.

Woodrow Wilson also won a Nobel Prize for peace, like the former president and it was just as undeserved. Wilson’s “war to end wars” in fact set the stage for an even bigger, bloodier and more devastating Second World War.

The same presumptions of superior wisdom and virtue behind the interventionism of Progressive Presidents Obama and Woodrow Wilson in the domestic economy also led them to be interventionists in other countries. How one could argue that Libya and Syria are better off for America’s intervention, is hard to imagine.

Woodrow Wilson was also a precursor of later Progressives in assuming that the overthrow of an autocratic and despotic government means an advance toward democracy. In 1917, President Wilson spoke of “heartening things that have been happening within the last few weeks in Russia.”

What was “heartening” to Wilson was the overthrow of the czars. What it led to in fact was the rise of a totalitarian tyranny that killed more poeple in one year than all the czars had killed in more than 90 years.

But Progressives, especially intellectuals, are the least likely to suspect that they are in fact ignorant of the things they are intervening in, whether back in the Progressive era or today. Wilson’s Progressive era in practice was a never-ending expansion of the arbitrary powers of the federal government. The problems he created so discredited Progressives that they shed that name and began calling themselves ‘liberals’ to this day.

Many of the trends, problems and disasters of our time are a legacy of that era. Wilson’s legacy is very much alive today, both in the ‘Progressive’ mindset, including government picking winners and losers in the economy and interventionism in foreign countries, as well as specific institutions created during the Progressive era, such as the Income Tax and the Federal Reserve System which is neither Federal or a Reserve, but a private bank controlled by unknown elites… that’s right in addition to all his other gifts, Woodrow Wilson gave away control of the American economy to rich businessmen and bankers.

At the end, even he knew to some degree just how horrible and damaging to the country, and all humanity, he truly was.


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    • hard sun profile image

      Don Shepard 

      14 months ago

      Hi Mr. Burgess. While you likely know I don't always agree with your political assessments, I appreciate the effort put into this and the history of Wilson's Presidency. Between this, and Creedence2's response, I feel I learned something. That's what it's all about for me.

      From a broad prospective, I think all US national politicians are involved in too much mingling of government and private enterprise no matter the party.

    • Credence2 profile image


      14 months ago from Florida (Space Coast)

      Thanks, Ken, praise from the maestro is most gratifying...

    • Ken Burgess profile imageAUTHOR

      Ken Burgess 

      14 months ago from Florida

      That is perhaps the best counter argument I can remember being thrown my way in a while.

      Well done.

      "No one is talking about picking winners and losers; it is the process of balancing the Capitalist dynamo with its industriousness and innovation and the drive for greater and greater profit against the need to protect the public safety, the rights of labor, the environment."


    • Credence2 profile image


      14 months ago from Florida (Space Coast)

      Great article, Ken

      Now, it is time for the rest of the story. The first sentence is incorrect. Lincoln suspended “Writ of Habeas Corpus” in 1863, which was seen by historians as an affront on Constitutional Protections. F.D. Roosevelt interned American citizens of Japanese descent without a justifiable cause. So, none of this is new. While, I do not ordain these actions, it is not unusual for Presidents to push the limits during times of war. My point is that Wilson is not particularly exceptional in this regard.

      Let’s look at the Progressive politics of the period that you denigrate and is a major theme of your article.

      “Leading politicians from both parties—most notably Theodore Roosevelt, Charles Evans Hughes, and Robert La Follette on the Republican side and William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson on the Democratic side—took up the cause of Progressive reform.”

      The point being that this period covered the years from 1890-1920 and there were prominent representatives from both sides of the isle that supported these policies.

      “Women became especially involved in demands for woman suffrage, prohibition, and better schools; their most prominent leader was Jane Addams of Chicago. “Muckraking” journalists such as Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, and Jacob Riis exposed corruption in business and government along with rampant inner-city poverty. Progressives implemented antitrust laws and regulated industries such as meatpacking, drugs, and railroads. Four new constitutional amendments—the Sixteenth through Nineteenth—were prompted by Progressive activism, and resulted in a federal income tax, the direct election of senators, prohibition, and women’s suffrage. The Progressive movement lasted through the 1920s; the most active period was 1900–1918.”

      With the exception of Prohibition, I had no problems with the goals of the movement, did you?

      As for the negatives, yes, there were no changes in race relations. But we have to remember that racism is a foundation stone and a fundamental part of the American republic and of American life. The status of Blacks did not change with the abolition of slavery and did not change with existence of the “Progressive Era”. Our grievances were not to be really addressed for another half century.

      So, I cannot discredit the goals and aims of the Progressives and the Progressive Era at that time solely because Black people did not benefit.

      I am aware of Wilson’s racism. But he was just a reflection of the views of many people during the period. But, I expect the President to live toward a higher standard and set the example. I remain critical of Wilson for taking things backwards from what positive gains were made in race relations up to that time.

      As far as I am concerned, the advance of labor unions and government oversight on certain industries in regards to safety of the people in contradiction to the capitalists who were solely concerned about the profit motive was a good thing. Government regulation of much of industry is a necessary fact of life to control abuse. If the Progressives were the ones that introduced such concepts, then I take my hat off to them.

      No one is talking about picking winners and losers; it is the process of balancing the Capitalist dynamo with its industriousness and innovation and the drive for greater and greater profit against the need to protect the public safety, the rights of labor, the environment. In other words, nobody just gets to do want they want, anyone’s ownership of a business entity is relative and not absolute. The proprietor pays taxes and submits to inspections as required by the municipality or state, for example. My objective is to keep Government interference in (business) the economy to as little as necessary, but it still needs to be there.

      Obama is following the tradition of the Progressives as their mark on how we are governed has been codified far and wide since the early 20th century. While conservatives are quick to act as if Obama invented the involvement of Government in private business, the fact is that the trend goes back to Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican. Teddy Roosevelt was the last of the “bunch” (Republicans) who I would consider exemplary.

      I don’t know if I would say that Wilson’s tireless efforts to promote the League of Nations and a fairer Versailles Treaty was not noteworthy regarding his being awarded the prize. We all know that hindsight is always 20/20, Ken. Wilson cannot be blamed for future coming events for which he could have had no understanding nor clue.

      So, after this I would think it ludicrous as the worse and meaningless, at best to attempt to compare Wilson with Obama.

      Again, Obama did not invent intervention. This has been a policy since America got involved in acquisition of empires that characterized much of the 19th century. What was Wilson to do with the Kaiser? Loss of American lives on the high seas due to Germany’s unrestricted warfare, along with the Zimmerman note in an attempt to provoke Mexico to attack the US. Wilson was an irritating idealist, talking about making the world safe for Democracy but ignoring that concept at home. But many would say that circumstances justified a declaration of war on Germany in 1917, but it can be debatable.

      Again, more “hindsight”, Ken. The autocratic and despotic Czar Nicolas II ruled by the divine right of Kings. In America, we overthrew a King to establish a Republic, what would you expect Wilson to have said in regards to the Communist Revolution? It is not as if he knew in advance the true nature and aims of the future Bolsheviks in the former Russia.

      Rather than being ignorant, Ken. I see things with crystal clarity. I simply don’t see the Progressive Era and the subsequent New Deal Era as the imposing Government that Conservatives do.

    • Ken Burgess profile imageAUTHOR

      Ken Burgess 

      14 months ago from Florida

      Thank you for your kind words AB.

      I hope it helps illuminate the true nature of who Wilson was, and what his politics were about.

    • abwilliams profile image

      A B Williams 

      14 months ago from Central Florida

      Great job on this Ken.

      I had never given Woodrow Wilson much of a thought, until I saw an informative, in-depth report done by Glen Beck, a few years ago.

      Dinesh D'Souza covers Wilson's time in the White House in 'Hillary's America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party'.

      Very Disturbing!


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