In recent years, the American left has increasingly styled itself “progressive.” This trend reflects the public repudiation of the moniker “liberal” — a term U.S. social democrats had previously expropriated and shorn of its original commitment to economic liberty — but also harkens back to the early-20th century Progressive Movement that sought to expand the federal government’s role vis-a-vis the states, businesses and individuals.
This movement is personified by the 26th and 28th presidents of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Born into extraordinary privilege in Manhattan, Roosevelt was elected governor of New York in 1898 before his own party bosses sought to limit his influence by nominating him for vice president on the ticket headed by incumbent William McKinley in the election of 1900. Within a year, McKinley was assassinated, and the Progressive Era was born.
Wilson was born in Virginia to a slave-owning Presbyterian minister, earned a doctorate in history and political science at Johns Hopkins University, and became the president of Princeton in 1902. He was elected president just two years after winning election as New Jersey’s governor in 1910. Wilson was enabled by Roosevelt, who had opposed the Republican incumbent president, his former Secretary of War William Howard Taft. Roosevelt ran separately atop the Progressive Party ticket. Though Wilson campaigned as more centrist than Roosevelt, he ultimately led the enactment of most of his rival’s agenda.
Academic historians have generally been kind to Roosevelt and Wilson, typically ranking each among the 10 best American presidents in various surveys. Enter the fray Andrew Napolitano, who offers a searing indictment of these two U.S. heads of state in an engrossing book that combines the former New Jersey judge’s erudite mastery of law and history with the common touch he regularly displays in his current role as a Fox News analyst. By its own terms, Mr. Napolitano’s book is a polemic broadside rather than a history, and in that role it succeeds quite well.
Mr. Napolitano is indisputably correct that Roosevelt and Wilson profoundly altered our constitutional republic. Of course, it was in forever changing the American constitutional structure that Roosevelt and Wilson earned the admiration of university scholars. Today’s progressives will doubtless be unpersuaded by Mr. Napolitano’s brief against the Progressive Era embrace of labor unions, the seizure of private lands for federal conservancy and the passage of constitutional amendments that established the federal income tax and that ripped from state legislatures the power to pick U.S. senators.
Still, most of today’s progressives could not read the entirety of Mr. Napolitano’s account without taking pause. Though Roosevelt and Wilson were the only sitting U.S. presidents before Barack Obama to win the Nobel Peace Prize, the judge correctly notes that today’s aggressive and interventionist U.S. military policy traces itself directly to these two leaders, the former by flaunting the country’s naval might and calling for the exercise of American “international policy power,” and the latter by injecting us into the senseless and bloody Great War in Europe (with the utopian and dramatically unsuccessful goal of creating a “lasting peace”).
Also, as Mr. Napolitano notes, the historical progressives in general, and Roosevelt and Wilson in particular, embraced theories of white superiority then in vogue in the wake of Darwin. Roosevelt does deserve credit for racially integrating New York schools as governor, inviting Booker T. Washington to the White House and appointing multiple blacks to federal offices, but Mr. Napolitano is right that he also displayed grotesque contempt for American Indians, immigrants and foreigners and overtly flirted with eugenics. Wilson, the most racist post-Civil War president, resegregated the U.S. Navy and fired most high-ranking black federal employees.
Today’s progressives could also learn from Mr. Napolitano’s account of how big business worked hand in glove with progressives to shape their agenda, prominently backing the creation of the Food and Drug Administration and Federal Reserve. The heavy hand of regulation often entrenches big business and creates impediments to smaller competitors and new market entrants. It’s hardly surprising that big pharmaceutical companies and insurers alike backed the passage of Obamacare.
Today’s progressives may generally embrace the delegation of life-and-death choices to bureaucrats at Roosevelt’s FDA or Mr. Obama’s Independent Payment Advisory Board, but they shouldn’t do so without pausing for a moment to consider whose ox is likely to be gored.
I would take some issue with Mr. Napolitano’s picture of U.S. economic history, which, in the fashion of Rep. Ron Paul (to whom the book is dedicated), aggressively paints the Federal Reserve as the epitome of the ills of fiat money and fractional reserve banking. Such quibbles are minor in the broad thrust of what stands out as a powerful chronicle of a constitutional republic rent asunder. Mr. Napolitano never claims, like his network does, to be “fair and balanced” — and those on the Tea Party right and progressive left would both be served by reading his account.
James R. Copland is the director of the Center for Legal Policy at the Manhattan Institute.
By Rand Paul
Obama acts as though we no longer have a Constitution