Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Jefferson: Eggheads in the Oval Office

Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Jefferson:
Pairing Presidents XIII

Do smarts and ideals matter? Let’s compare brainiacs Thomas Jefferson (1801-09) and Woodrow Wilson (1913-21).

How they were similar:

Jefferson’s intellectual interests were so broad that he was akin to a younger, more Southern version of Benjamin Franklin. TJ was a leading political theorist of his day, one who could defend the ideals of democracy at a time in which many European intellectuals equated it with anarchy. Jefferson, of course, was the key author of the Declaration of Independence and a major figure during the American Revolution. Jefferson’s mind gravitated to many other subjects: architecture, philosophy, agrarianism, language, and religion. Jefferson believed fervently in separation of church and state and was deeply suspicious of all organized religion. Opponents called him an atheist, but it’s probably more accurate to call him an agnostic freethinker.

Wilson was no slouch in grey matter matters. He earned an undergraduate degree from Princeton and studied law at the University of Virginia, which was founded by none other than Jefferson. He also attended seminary and obtained a Ph.D. in history from Johns Hopkins. Among other interests were: rhetoric, political science, law, public administration, and German. Before he entered politics, Wilson taught at Cornell, Bryn Mawr, Wesleyan, and the New York School of Law. He also served as president of Princeton.

As sometimes befits eggheads, neither man had warm personalities. They did, however, get along with political and ideological rivals when necessary. Jefferson famously had an on/off/on friendship with John Adams, with whom he had very few political agreements. Jefferson probably should have been the second president, not Adams, but the Electoral College controversially pulled one electoral vote from Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Virginia to secure Adams’ 71-68 victory in 1796. Under the pre-12th Amendment Constitution, Jefferson became Adams’ vice president and served him well, though Jefferson vehemently disagreed with the Alien and Sedition Acts and Adams’ anti-French policies. He did, however, assure that future presidents got their own VP choices; the 12th Amendment was ratified in 1803!

Wilson was a dour man, but he maintained cordial relations with Theodore Roosevelt during the 1912 campaign. Although he was a Democrat, Wilson’s domestic policies were a continuation of Republican TR's Progressive Era reforms, as was his bellicose foreign policy.

One of the outstanding features of both men was their ability to act upon ideals they felt benefitted the nation rather than hewing to strict party platforms. Jefferson had been an Anti-Federalist after the American Revolution and a states’ rights advocate during the Election of 1800. As president, though, he did more to advance the power of federal government than any president of his era. There was nothing in the U.S. Constitution authorizing a president to buy land, but TJ’s 1803 Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States. It also took place over the howling protests of Federalist opponents. Less controversial, but also an expansion of presidential power, was Jefferson’s authorization of the 1806 Lewis and Clark expedition to survey the new lands—and used public funds to finance it. Much more controversially, when war erupted between Napoleon and Britain, Jefferson put aside his pro-French sentiments and enacted the Embargo Act of 1807, which forbade U.S. trade with either nation. Jefferson did so though he had opposed President Washington’s Jay Treaty, and with the full knowledge that an embargo would be horrible for U.S. trade. Jefferson did not feel the United States—just 24-years-old—was in any position to fight another war against Britain. He pushed embargo even though it was probable it would encourage the development of American manufacturing, which contradicted his agrarian belief that the U.S. should never develop a factory system. (He was correct in his fear.) He even inadvertently undermined states’ rights ideals by challenging Adams’ midnight appointments. The 1803 Marbury v. Madison decision established the Supreme Court’s right of judicial review, in essence declaring the SCOTUS as more powerful than any state governmental body.

Wilson transformed the Democratic Party by moving it further from its Jeffersonian agrarian roots. He was the first Southern-born president (VA) since Zachary Taylor in 1848 and the only Democrat other than Grover Cleveland to occupy the White House since James Buchanan (1857-61), but he did not cater to the Democrats’ rural Southern and Midwestern base. He did enact several bills favorable to farmers—the 1913 Underwood tariff lowered rates and helped farm exports, federal farm mortgages made property easier to secure, and the 1914 Smith-Lever Act set up farm extension services—but one does not associate the Wilson administration with farm policy. As a Progressive Era reformer, he continued the aggressive antitrust activity of his GOP predecessors, though his 1914 Federal Trade Commission Act moved those battles out of the courtroom and into the hands of executive branch’s FCC. Of all Progressive Era reforms, a good case could be made that the greatest was the 1913 Federal Reserve Act, which stabilized U.S. currency, regulated interest rates, and revolutionized the banking industry.

Jefferson and Wilson were horrible on race relations. Jefferson was a product of his time, but he invites today’s students to brand him a hypocrite because his stated opposition to slavery was so out of accord with his actions. He held several hundred slaves and emancipated only a few—almost all of whom were members of the Hemings family. Ignore all arguments to the contrary—Jefferson fathered at least one child to Sally Hemings, his slave. If it helps, Jefferson was a widower and the relationship appears to have been consensual/affectionate. But TJ practically invented the "I-hate-slavery-but-what-can-you-do?" dodge. He was a little better on Indian policy, though it too raises suspicion that Jefferson was a white supremacist at heart. As governor of Virginia, he supported relocation of tribes such as the Cherokee, Creeks, and Shawnee; as POTUS, he opposed it and hoped instead that those tribes would be “civilized” and assimilated. (That happened, but it wouldn’t prevent Andrew Jackson from expelling them.)

Wilson was an open racist—so much so that those writing counterfactual history theorize he would have been a future Confederate States president had the South won the Civil War. Wilson touted his beliefs in segregation and made sure his administration rigidly adhered to that ideal. Although it is true that segregation was legal during the time, Wilson was untroubled by racist groups such as the reborn Ku Klux Klan. He also allowed to stand—over anguished diplomatic protests from abroad—a California law banning Japanese immigration. He did, however, sign the Jones Act, which made Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens.

Jefferson and Wilson each led the nation into questionable wars. Jefferson actually oversaw the first US adventure abroad, with his war declaration in the First Barbary War (1801-05). It was a sordid affair over piracy involving three northern African semi-states nominally controlled by the Ottoman Empire. U.S. merchant trade suffered and America endured its first hostage crisis. It ended in a quasi American victory in which American sailors were released, but only after a $60,000 ransom was paid. Jefferson hated the settlement and blamed diplomat Tobias Lear for sabotaging negotiations that left a usurper in charge in Tripoli (instead of his deposed brother). Piracy continued, which made the war look very bad in retrospect.

Wilson famously campaigned for reelection in 1916 under the slogan: “He kept us out of war.” That war is now labeled World War One and his pledge lasted only until April of 1917—a month after Wilson’s second inauguration—when a combination of German meddling in Mexico (see Zimmerman Telegram), and Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare led a declaration of war. Europeans had battled since 1914 (since 1910 in parts of the Balkans) and although Russia underwent the Bolshevik Revolution and sued for a separate peace, US involvement tipped the balance. American intervention was relatively brief, but over 116,000 GIs lost their lives, and the domestic toll was greater. Dissent was smothered by the 1917 Espionage Act and the 1918 Sedition Act, whose titles betray their effect of suspending the Bill of Rights. Other ill effects included a postwar Red Scare that justified attacks on labor unions and reformers of all sorts, and an influenza epidemic that killed over 650,000 Americans. Wilson was also a war casualty. He traveled to Versailles carrying his famed 14 Points that promised the recent conflict would be “the war to end all wars” and “make the world safe for democracy.” His plans were so eviscerated that Congress refused to ratify the peace treaty. Wilson sought to salvage the only point adopted—the creation of a League of Nations to resolve future conflict—but suffered a stroke in September of 1919 (possibly a follow-up to a suspected 1906 mishap) that left him an invalid for the remainder of his term and his global dreams in tatters.

How they differed:

Your first female president!
The times were very different, but Wilson had a higher view of women. He supported women’s suffrage, which was enacted by the 19th Amendment in 1920. Wilson also put the first woman into the presidency—no matter what happens with Hillary Clinton in November. The widowed Wilson remarried in 1915, and his second wife, Edith Galt Wilson, ran the White House from September 1919 to March 1921.

Wilson was also in office when Prohibition was enacted by the 18th Amendment. Both the 18th and 19th amendments would have been unthinkable In Jefferson’s day. Wilson had nothing to do with Prohibition, but he was very religious—a serious Presbyterian, many of whom were active in the crusade against alcohol. Jefferson, as noted, was a religious skeptic.

Wilson was the first president to deliver his own inaugural address since the practice was ended--by Thomas Jefferson!

Wilson was prone to imperialist ideals. He committed troops to Europe, and also sent them to Haiti (1913), the Dominican Republic (1916), Cuba (1917), and Panama (1919). In what is now seen as a trial run for WW I, he intervened in the Mexican Revolution and sent General John Pershing deep into Mexican territory in pursuit of bandito Pancho Villa. He also placed troops on the US/Mexico border—the first president to arm that border. Jefferson, despite the Barbary War, largely sought to avoid armed conflict.   

Historical Rankings:

Jefferson's slaveholding hypocrisy and Wilson's overt racism so trouble today's Political Correctness crowd that many want their names removed from public life and institutions. Although I share their abhorrence for racism, a get-over-yourself message is in order. Jefferson and Wilson had tremendous blind spots, but overall were simply too important to dismiss. If ever there is justification for hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner, it’s here. Being brilliant and being perfect don’t go together, but both men deserve credit for their idealism—even when it proved naïve. More importantly, each deserves admiration for subordinating some of their personal ideals for the greater national interest.

Scholars rank Jefferson as our 4th greatest president and Wilson as 7th. One could quibble a little bit, but radical reevaluation betrays contemporary judgment, not historical significance or the rationalism that both Jefferson and Wilson valued. Being smart doesn’t necessarily make a great POTUS, but it seems to correlate better than being dim.

Rob Weir   

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