Thursday, June 15, 2017

Wilson, Progressives, and a Book Review

I have completed Wilson, the biography of our 28th President, by A. Scott Berg. Mr. Berg wanted to write a biography that captured, “the essence of Wilson’s character,” and in many ways he succeeded.

Wilson, a Presbyterian, was a controversial man who tried to seek the higher moral ground in political issues. However, he behaved inconsistently much of the time, both in Washington and during the Treaty of Versailles at the conclusion of World War I. The biography recorded, documented, and commented on these events. Also, rumors that have followed Wilson throughout history, such as those concerning Mrs. Peck and the courtship of the second Mrs. Wilson, were also addressed in a forthright fashion. The author provided documentation along with a well-reasoned argument concerning these issues.

However Wilson, as a man or politician, cannot be separated from the Progressive movement, and any biography must wade into these troubled waters. Though the book provided assessments concerning some issues, it lacked a critical evaluation of many of Wilson’s progressive ideas and enacted legislation, such as the Federal Reserve as one example.

As Berg lauded some of Wilson’s sweeping reforms, including World War I mobilization, some of his sentences were a bit problematic. Note one from Chapter 12, Armageddon.

“Wilson introduced Daylight Saving Time to America, which created an extra hour of farm work every day and which saved an hour of artificial light, reducing the use of electric and coal power.”

Note that since electricity was essentially nonexistent to American farms in 1917, Daylight Savings Time would have little impact on farm life that organized its activities by solar time. It certainly would not have added an extra hour of farm work.

As we evaluate Wilson and the Progressive movement, we must understand that the movement of the early 20th century, though the forerunner of today, was not the monstrosity that we see today. Progressive ideas were a reaction to something, often a troubling social condition, whether poor labor conditions, child labor, women suffrage etc. Moreover, many of the perpetrators of these poor conditions hid behind the Constitution, thus hindering reform. Many Progressives were openly Christian, and many Progressive ideas had Christian backing.

But there were problems, even with the early movement. First of all, Progressives had a willingness to ignore the Constitution or to view it as an obstacle in the way of their reform (hence their circumvention by the courts as one tactic). They ignored constitutional theory, such as limited government. Ironically, this view of limited government (along with the separation of powers) was grounded theologically in the fallen nature of man, best itemized by Calvin’s idea of total depravity, ironically also a view held by many Progressives. This inconsistency between their theology and social actions would create vast problems later in history, problems we wrestle with today. Progressives attempted to synthesize two opposing worldviews, an impossible and dangerous task. Expanding government to throw at real or perceived social problems almost always leads to greater problems, a lesson still ignored today.

On a personal note, when I began Wilson, I had mixed opinions concerning our 28th President. After finishing the biography, I must confess to still having mixed opinions concerning the man and some of his policies. Such is Thomas Woodrow Wilson.

Again, though obviously pro-Wilson and at times a bit apologetic, overall the biography is good and I would recommend it.

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