Few American Presidents have been more profoundly distrusted and more entirely misinterpreted by their opponents than Mr. Wilson, except perhaps Mr. Roosevelt, and the two men have been distrusted by much the same classes in American society and misinterpreted, if not for the same, at least for similar reasons. They both of them sought to accomplish a group of salutary reforms in the operation of the American political and economic system and in the prevailing use and distribution of political power. They both sought to mould the Presidency into a representative agency which would serve to initiate the changes which they proposed to bring about; and as a consequence of their behavior in office they have both contributed essentially to the aggrandizement of the Presidency in the popular mind and to the assumption by its occupants of new and onerous political functions. They have both been accused by their opponents, on the one hand of domineering and arbitrary personal government, and on the other of an inability to resist currents of popular feeling and of a morbid desire to curry popular favor. But none the less they both used the powers exercised as President for the purpose on the whole of giving a more moving and binding purpose and a better working organization to American national life. Hazardous as it is to anticipate the verdicts of history, we will venture one guess as to the comments which historians will make on the political leadership of the first twenty years of the twentieth century. They will interpret the work of President Wilson as a continuation of the work begun by ex-President Roosevelt.
The actual connection between the work of the two progressive Presidents is not sufficiently understood, partly because Mr. Wilson has always underestimated his debt to the work accomplished by Mr. Roosevelt, partly because Mr. Roosevelt has allowed himself to become the fiercest and most conspicuous of Mr. Wilson's partisan enemies, but chiefly because the two men were obliged to apply their progressive principles to such radically different problems. Those of Mr. Roosevelt's two administrations were almost exclusively concerned with domestic affairs. His indefatigable initiative and his exceptional gifts as an agitator were devoted to concentrating public opinion on the all-important task of democratizing the political system of the country and socializing its economic system. He expected his work to be carried on by his Republican successor Mr. Taft, but the reactionary influences in his own party were too powerful. The work was not resumed until Mr. Wilson was elected President, when, backed by a more united party, a Democratic President took advantage of the long period of agitation and did more in four years to incorporate progressive principles into the national economic system than his predecessors had accomplished in twelve. Notwithstanding the difference in emphasis which resulted from Mr. Wilson's affiliation with the Democratic party, his work in this respect is clearly a continuation, if not a consummation, of that begun by Mr. Roosevelt. By a skilful use of presidential initiative and sustained by an aroused public opinion, Mr. Wilson wrote into law the connection between a progressive economic policy and national unity.
But in addition to these problems of domestic reorganization, Mr. Wilson was also confronted in Mexico and in Europe by equally momentous questions of foreign policy. In relation to these questions his situation was entirely different. As the chief executive of the nation and the head of its diplomatic service, he possessed more initiative and a larger measure of discretion in dealing with them than he did in dealing with domestic problems; but in the exercise of this discretion he was severely handicapped by his own limitations, by those of his party and by the unprepared condition of public opinion. Just as in the domestic life of the country, the conquering march of industrialism had destroyed the balance of the traditional social and legal system and demanded a rebuilding of American national unity on a foundation of conscious social democracy, so in its relation to foreign nations a similar alteration had taken place in the facts and a similar need existed for the development of a more responsible and democratic foreign policy. The relation to Mexico involved in an acute form all the most difficult and contentious problems which the foreign relations of the American democracy have raised—including the scope of the Monroe Doctrine, Pan-Americanism, the extent of the support which we should give to American concessionaires in foreign countries, and the responsibility of a powerful nation for the internal condition of a weaker neighbor. The relation to the European war called into question the traditional dogma of American neutrality, based on rigid isolation and resulting either in an irresponsible indifference to European international issues or a merely conversational interest in them. But in respect to all these problems Mr. Wilson was inexperienced, his party was ignorant or reactionary, and public opinion in general had never been aroused either to their intrinsic importance or the necessity of working out a new equipment of ideas and methods with which to deal with them. Mr. Wilson was frequently forced as President to make decisions which committed the nation to a particular and a possible costly line of action in foreign affairs, in spite of the fact that he had behind him an ignorant, miscellaneous and unprepared tissue of public opinion.
Of course Mr. Wilson made mistakes, for which he and his party have been deservedly criticized, particularly by Mr. Roosevelt; but in spite of these mistakes, Mr. Wilson's conduct of foreign affairs in its net result can be summed up as an attempt to work out a national foreign policy according to the progressive democratic principles which had already been applied by Mr. Roosevelt to our domestic conditions. Mr. Wilson has broken away from the doctrinaire legalism preferred by Mr. Hughes, which is the counterpart in foreign policy of Mr. Taft's worship of constitutional rights. By the advocacy of the League toEnforce Peace he has repudiated the irresponsible isolation and the self-seeking neutralism characteristic of the American tradition in foreign affairs, and supplied American pacific aspirations with a positive, specific and a realistic program. By his refusal to back up at all costs the interest of American concessionaires in Mexico, he has only been applying to business in foreign countries the standards which Mr. Roosevelt wished to apply to American domestic business. He refused to let the national government make itself responsible for the promotion and protection of any business which was under suspicion. In his treatment of the Mexicans themselves he was profoundly influenced by a consideration which must appeal to every honest progressive—the consideration that the Mexican revolution, in spite of its bloody excesses and its helpless anarchy, was fundamentally a protest against intolerable economic and political oppression. Finally, in his handling of all of these problems he has remained faithful to one essential progressive principle which Mr. Roosevelt has entirely thrown overboard. He has sought to make the foreign policy of the country expressive not only of his own preferences, but as far as possible, of the consensus of popular opinion.
Before following Mr. Roosevelt in condemning Mr. Wilson's consultation of popular opinion as the mere negation of leadership, his critics should remember one fact of overwhelming importance. An American President's initiative and margin of discretion in moulding foreign policy is enormous, but its very size and scope only enhances the necessity of being sure of sufficient popular support. Decisions about foreign policy involve questions of peace and war, of life and death. A President cannot ask his fellow citizens to kill other human beings, and to submit to being killed, except in a cause which commands their warm and overwhelming allegiance. Neither can he effectively resist when public opinion is roused to the fighting point. In regard to questions involving peace and war, he must consult prevailing opinion, no matter how much its dictates may run counter to the dictates of his own judgment. In 1898 a Republican President was forced to fight, contrary to his own convictions, because the nation insisted on it. In 1915 a Democratic President made sacrifices in favor of peace, partly because his countrymen did not want to fight. Such consultation of public opinion is required by the very nature of the Presidency as an institution. An American President cannot resign, as can a British Premier, whenever he loses popular confidence. He cannot impose his own perhaps more enlightened will on an inert or hostile country as under certain circumstances royalty might be able to do—as King William and Bismarck did on Prussia from 1862 to 1866. He must serve out his term, and yet he cannot allow the chief executive, which must represent the whole nation, to become divided from it in a matter of vital importance.
In his willingness to make certain sacrifices in favor of peace, rather than to force the nation into a conflict on an issue which would not command sufficient popular support, Mr. Wilson has been a better purveyor of progressive principles than Mr. Roosevelt. His behavior has brought with it some loss of national prestige, which is naturally discomfiting to patriotic Americans; but, as we have frequently pointed out, the loss is not irreparable. In fact, Mr. Wilson has himself begun to repair it. His recent speeches on foreign affairs have been preparing popular opinion for an abandonment of the tradition which had much to do with the reluctance of the western and central states to get involved in the war. He is preparing the way for a progressive foreign policy, just as Mr. Roosevelt prepared the way for a progressive domestic policy. If he is reelected and has to act, he can do so with a clear guaranty of popular support and understanding. In winning this support he has pursued a Fabian rather than the quick, strenuous and violent method of Mr. Roosevelt, but a wholesome democratic method should almost always be Fabian. Fabianism is an indispensable attribute of progressive democratic policy, because the slower and more patient Fabian tactics are necessary to educate a nation to an understanding of novel public purposes. In this region also Mr. Wilson's method is associated with Mr. Roosevelt's earlier educational conception of American national fulfillment rather than his present conception of fulfillment by means of morally cathartic explosions. It is manifestly a continuation of the great work begun and abandoned by the former progressive leader.
This article originally ran in the June 24, 2002, issue of the magazine.