Woodrow Wilson's Retreat

The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 1998 | Go to article overview

Woodrow Wilson's Retreat


"Woodrow Wilson and Administrative Reform" by Kendrick A. Clements, in Presidential Studies Quarterly (Spring 1998), 208 E. 75th St., New York, N.Y. 10021.

During his career as a political scientist at Bryn Mawr, Wesleyan, and Princeton, Woodrow Wilson emerged as one of the more important progressive figures urging a dramatic expansion of the federal government's administrative powers. Presiding over such an expansion from the White House after 1912, however, he had second thoughts.

Like other progressives, Wilson (1856-1924) hoped to overcome what he saw as the paralysis of American government caused by the constitutional separation of powers, notes Clements, a historian at the University of South Carolina. Usually credited with having pioneered the academic study of public administration in the United States, Wilson argued in all 1887 article for adoption of the administrative methods of European monarchies. In The State (1889), he warned that industrialization was allowing "the rich and the strong to combine against the poor and the weak." A stronger state, he believed, would be a less dangerous remedy for America's problems than more direct popular rule. He believed in the people, "in their honesty and sincerity and sagacity," Wilson stated in 1891, "but I do not believe in them as my governors." He feared "tyranny of the majority [more] than dictatorship," Clements says.

Yet while professing to believe that the government regulators of labor and industry would be apolitical, Wilson knew better, Clements says. Administrators, Wilson admitted in 1891, did not merely execute public law, they, in effect, made it - and sometimes acted in their own selfish interests. "He was not entirely comfortable with his own proposals," Clements writes.

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