The Shaping of a Future President's Economic Thought: Richard T. Ely and Woodrow Wilson at "The Hopkins"

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Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) was the first and is still the only president of the United States to hold an earned doctoral degree. His Ph.D. was awarded by the Johns Hopkins University ("The Hopkins") in 1886. He was also the president of an institution of higher education and, unique among U.S. presidents, rose to such a position from the ranks of the faculty. These characteristics might dispose scholars favorably toward an assessment of his presidency, and, indeed, in Arthur Schlesinger's 1948 survey (Schlesinger 1997), Wilson was ranked fourth among U.S. presidents, following only George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Biographers appeared until recently to see Wilson uncritically as a "philosopher king," describing him and his policies as precursors of Roosevelt and the New Deal or of John F. Kennedy and the New Frontier, dismissing his failures and his party's rejection by the U.S. electorate in 1920, and apologizing for his unseemly positions on race and gender. (1)

The possibility of a critical review of Wilson was formerly constrained by the limited availability of his letters and other personal writings and of his previously unpublished speeches. William Diamond, who wrote specifically about Wilson's economic thought, indicates that he was granted access to these papers in 1941 only under certain restrictions (1943, 8). However, the publication of The Papers of Woodrow Wilson (1966-74, hereafter Wilson Papers) over the course of several years, under the editorship of Arthur Link, facilitates a reconsideration of the evolution of his economic thought, as Neils Aage Thorsen (1988) and Robert M. Saunders (1998) have done with regard to his political thought, and as John M. Mulder (1978) has done with regard to his religious thought. Thorsen indicates that the Wilson Papers "revealed new source material relating to Wilson's early years" (1988, 237). (2) This source material potentially calls into question the thesis advanced by Diamond that Wilson was not much influenced by his experience at The Hopkins.

In 1908, Wilson made a dramatic public conversion from conservative to progressive (Bragdon 1967). (3) With limited access to Wilson's personal letters and such, Diamond (1943) advanced a continuity argument that Wilson was always a conservative in his economic thinking. (4) Thorsen (1988) also advances a continuity argument that Wilson was always a reformer in his political thinking. Our disagreement is with Diamond. We relate Wilson's dramatic public conversion in 1908 to a change in his economic thought that occurred during or shortly after his time at The Hopkins.

According to Diamond, Wilson's economic thinking was "tempered" by his experience at The Hopkins, and "his thought [remained] essentially unchanged" (1943, 37). Again according to Diamond, it was only later that Wilson's thinking changed and that he associated himself with the progressive agenda, when he aspired to national office, not during the time he spent at The Hopkins (87). We reconsider here the evolution of Wilson's economic thought and develop an argument that, in fact, he was greatly influenced by his experience at The Hopkins. We necessarily consider Wilson's most prominent instructor there, Richard T. Ely (1854-1943), who, following his own doctoral training in Germany, had joined the faculty just prior to Wilson's arrival there. During his eleven-year career at Hopkins, Ely trained more future leaders in the social sciences than any other contemporary American economist (Tilman 1987, 142).

The Diamond thesis might appear to be supported by Ely's extended comment on Wilson in his autobiography (1938, 108-19). The section is clearly affected by Ely's disappointment in Wilson at Versailles (116-19). It is replete with faint praise (5) and subtle. "It cannot be said that we at The Johns Hopkins molded Wilson," says Ely (109), seemingly confirming Diamond. The key word in this sentence is molded. …