Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge on America’s Founding Documents

During their presidencies, Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) and Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) largely differed on the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

Wilson, a progressive, argued that the Constitution should evolve as a Darwinian “living, breathing document.” He disagreed with the Constitution’s original framework, which was crafted “under the dominion of Newtonian Theory.” (The theory posits an ordered, mechanical system of the universe—that all objects attract each other due to universal forces of gravitation). To illustrate such dominion, he pointed to the Constitution’s model of checks and balances between three branches of government. (The way it is setup resembles the solar system, and how its “various parts are held in orbit” by gravitation.) As for the Declaration of Independence, he rejected Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that the “laws of nature and nature’s God” are eternal and universal. Such fixed principles in both founding documents undermine America’s ability to “leave the past and press onward to something new.” Ultimately, Wilson desired social progress to serve the “public interest.” In order for this to happen, America must “knit the new into the old,” by incorporating statism.

Wilson noted that “our life has broken away from the past…The old political formulas do not fit the present problems.” These formulas of limited government worked well in “Jefferson’s time,” but not more complex modern times. He gave the example of how most families during “Jefferson’s time” enjoyed their own homes rather than living in crowded “tenements” found throughout modern cities. Since such urban residences are more dangerous, residents should allow law enforcement to “step in and create new conditions.” This type of progress comes from a society which “thinks of the future, not the past,” in order to stimulate “development.” Essentially, the Constitution must not interfere with the state’s power to pragmatically confront societal problems, or even to “break every kind of monopoly, and set men free, upon a footing of equality.” (Wilson did not want Social Darwinism to naturally prevail in a capitalist system. In addition to policies designed to enforce equality, he signed a 1911 New Jersey bill that authorized sterilizations of “the feeble-minded [including idiots, imbeciles and morons], epileptics, rapists, certain criminals and other defectives.”)

As for the Declaration of Independence, Wilson argued that Jefferson merely attempted to “display the laws of nature,” and reflect “a variety of mechanics.” Thus, Jefferson’s naive declarations could not last long for a nation that would eventually face more complex problems. Modern politicians, justices, and other public officials should actively solve these problems, according to Wilson.

Coolidge, a conservative, revered both founding documents. He argued that these “great charters of freedom and justice remain firm and unshaken” in their preservation of “local self-government,” and the individual. The Declaration of Independence, adopted by the Second Continental Congress, “represented the movement of a people…not a movement from the top,” as aristocrats “held toward it an attitude either of neutrality or open hostility.” Yet even in the face of hostility, the colonists “knew their rights, and possessed the courage to dare to maintain them.” Eternal truths put forth in the document, such as inalienable rights, reinforce the idea that governments should rule with “the consent of the governed,” as the main responsibility of a constitutional government is to protect individuals from those who threaten their rights, rather than provide social goods. However, Coolidge argued that many citizens of the Progressive Era were “not in harmony with this spirit,” as their over-reliance on government diminished their “economic and moral independence.” Yet such hallmarks of “self-mastery” and “individual responsibility” are necessary to “maintain the western standard of civilization.” As for the Constitution, Coolidge argued that under its principles America is “an indestructible union.” Accordingly, “the states can only be maintained under its reign of national, local, and moral law.”

To preserve independence, “the individual and locality must govern themselves.” Or else, “rights and privileges will be confiscated under the all-compelling pressure of public necessity for better maintenance of order and morality.” According to Coolidge, Americans are best off when they take responsibility for their own lives, instead of depending on the state for things producible by a market economy. These principles of limited government, which pave the way for self-government, are presented quite clearly in America’s founding documents.

Sources:

Wilson, Woodrow. Constitutional Government in the United States. ROUTLEDGE, 2017.

“What Is Progress?,” by Woodrow Wilson. Teaching American History. https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/what-is-progress/.

“Speeches as President (1923-1929).” Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, Inc. https://www.coolidgefoundation.org/resources/speeches-as-president-1923-1929-7/.

“Quotations” Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, Inc. https://www.coolidgefoundation.org/quote/quotations-s/.

Laughlin, Harry. Bulletin Volume 1; Volumes 3-11. P. 20. https://books.google.com/books?id=fQfVAAAAMAAJ&pg=RA6-PA17&lpg=RA6-PA17&dq=%22heredity+plays+a+most+important+part+in+the+transmission+of+feeble-mindedness%22&source=bl&ots=qTSrMk3x_C&sig=4pGDHwwM04FH0wy-0I2fr1kR6h4&hl=en&sa=X&ei=NL5XT5bAPMeKsQKf0rXDDQ&ved=0CDgQ6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=%22heredity%20plays%20a%20most%20important%20part%20in%20the%20transmission%20of%20feeble-mindedness%22&f=false

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7 thoughts on “Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge on America’s Founding Documents

  1. Wilson did much harm. While he was in office, we got the phony Federal Reserve, and the Income Tax, and America’s entry into World War One. Like I said, he did and oversaw much harm.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for presenting these two positions quite clearly. When one has no standard, or a standard that changes according to man’s will, chaos evolves. I love our standard – the Constitution. It allows for legal change if desired by the people.

    Liked by 2 people

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