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Chapter 11

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Life of Woodrow Wilson

Josephus Daniels

in the
Greenwood Press edition,
New York, 1971

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 13
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p127  Chapter XII
President and the Presidency

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© Harris & Ewing

First Inaugural

On April 4, 1913, the "Scholar in Politics" began his career as President of the United States which was to last for eight years and embrace the stormiest period which the world had ever known. He is here seen delivering his inaugural address on the steps of the Capitol at Washington

"Let the people in" — A kindly thought for the people who wanted to hear the inaugural address — Looking forward to a "work of restoration" — "Not a day of triumph, but a day of dedication" — His conception of the office of chief magistrate — Added executive initiative to insistence that there be no infringement upon the rights of the executive

"The President is at liberty, both in law and conscience, to be as big a man as he can." — Wilson

"Let the people in."

As Woodrow Wilson turned his eyes to the upturned sea of faces on that perfect fourth of March, 1913, before he began his inaugural, he issued his first presidential order to the soldiers in charge of the arrangements. They had roped off a vacant space just in front of him from which the people were excluded.

"Remove the ropes and let the people in," was his low spoken direction. It was obeyed. He paused to acknowledge the acclaim as the people passed into the space, crowding near him. Interpreting the occasion, the new President said, "It means much more than the success of a party," which he declared the nation was using "to square every process of our national life again with the standard we so proudly set up at the beginning and have always carried in our hearts." He pointed  p128 out how our "great system of government" is, "in many respects, a model for those who seek to set liberty upon foundations that will endure against fortuitous change, against storm and accident." But he saw that "evil has come with the good, and much fine gold has been corroded." His next words seem an indictment of the recent spoliation of the naval oil resources and like disregard of true conservation which aroused the white heat of the American people in 1923‑24. He said, "With riches has come inexcusable waste. We have squandered a great part of what we might have used, and have not stopped to conserve the exceeding bounty of nature." That was the pledge that no Teapot Dome scandal would tarnish his administration. He called what had been done "shamefully prodigal." In our pride in our industrial achievements he said the country had not "stopped thoughtfully enough to count the human cost, the cost of lives snuffed out, of energies overtaxed and broken, the fearful physical and spiritual cost to the men and women and children upon whom the dead weight and burden of it all has fallen pitilessly the years through." Here was prophecy of his securing the eight hour law, protection of the child, and humane legislation. He went on, "The groans and agony of it all had not yet reached our ears, the solemn, moving undertone of our life, coming out of mines and factories and out of every home where the struggle had its intimate and familiar seat." The indictment of preceding administrations was in these words: "The great government we loved has too often been made use of for private and selfish purposes, and those who used it had forgotten the people." He proceeded with his specifications: "There has been something crude and  p129 heartless and unfeeling in our haste to succeed and be great. Our thought has been, 'Let every man look out for himself, let every generation look out for itself.' " The duty to be done? "Ours is a work of restoration," he declared amid the applause of the multitude that literally hung upon his words. He enumerated among the things to be altered:

1. "A tariff which cuts us off from our proper part in the commerce of the world, violates the principle of just taxation and makes the Government a facile instrument in the hands of private interests."

2. "A banking and currency system based upon the necessity of the Government to sell bonds fifty years ago and perfectly adapted to concentrating cash and restricting credits."

3. "An industrial system which, take it on all its sides, financial as well as administrative, holds capital in leading strings, restricts the liberties and limits the opportunities of labor, and exploits without renewing or conserving the natural resources of the country."

4. "A body of agricultural activities never yet given the efficiency of great business undertakings or served as it should be through the instrumentality of science taken directly to the farm or afforded the facilities of credit best suited to its practical needs."

5. "Water courses undeveloped, waste places unreclaimed, forests untended, fast disappearing without plan or prospect of renewal, unregarded waste heaps at every mine."

6. We have not "perfected the means by which our government may be put at the service of humanity, in safeguarding the health of the nation, the health of its women and children, as well as their rights in the  p130 struggle for existence," and he pointed out in his pledge of "alteration" the need for sanitary laws, pure food laws and laws determining conditions of labor which "individuals are powerless to determine for themselves," and this fundamental truth that guided all he proposed: "The first duty of the law is to keep sound the society it serves."

These comprehensive six specific pledges of change, he said in his inaugural, were "some of the things we ought to do, and not to leave others undone, the old-fashioned, never-to‑be-neglected fundamental safeguarding of property and of individual right." But these measures demanded by "justice, and only justice" were not to be secured by "cool process of mere science." The "nation had been deeply stirred," he told the multitude, "by a solemn passion, stirred by the knowledge of wrong, of ideals lost, of government too often debauched and made an instrument of evil." How should the task be approached? "It is inconceivable we should do this as partisans" or "in ignorance of the facts as they are or in blind haste." The call was to "restore, not to destroy." The attitude of approach he defined in these lofty words: "The feelings with which we face this new age of right and opportunity sweep across our heart-strings like some air out of God's presence, where justice and mercy are reconciled and the judge and the brother are one." Then came the climactic appeal which gripped his hearers and challenged American co‑operation in the great task:

"This is not a day of triumph; it is a day of dedication. Here muster, not the forces of party, but the forces of humanity. Men's hearts wait upon us; men's lives hang in the balance; men's hopes call upon us to  p131 say what we will do. Who shall live up to the great trust? Who dares fail to try? I summon all honest men, all patriotic, all forward-looking men, to my side. God helping me, I will not fail them, if they will but counsel and sustain me!"

Wilson had a conception of the Presidency very different from that of most of his predecessors. In 1879, when a student in Princeton, he had written for the International Review an article with the subject, "Cabinet Government in the United States," in which he had revealed, although he was only twenty-three years old at the time, the definite conviction that the Presidency had not ordinarily been what the framers of the Constitution had intended it to be. In that article, Mr. Wilson declared that the Committees of Congress exercised too much power and the President possessed too little or, rather, too little that he used. He held that the trouble was not with the organic law but with the men who filled the office of President. He expressed the same views in amplified form in his book, "Congressional Government," published six years later. He regarded government by Congressional Committee as vicious. He hammered on this subject all through the book, saying, "This is the defect to which, it will be observed, I am constantly recurring; to which I recur again and again because every examination of the system, at whatsoever point begun, leads inevitably to it as a central secret." He argued that such a system destroyed responsibility and made efficient government impossible. "Nobody stands sponsor for the policy of the government," he wrote. "A dozen men originate it; a dozen compromises twist and alter it."

 p132  Calling attention to the low estate into which the Presidency had fallen, in 1907, he said: "From 1865 to 1896 no President except Mr. Cleveland played a leading and decisive part in the quiet drama of our national life. Even Mr. Cleveland may be said to have owed his great rôle in affairs rather to his own native force and the confused politics of the time, than to any opportunity of leader­ship naturally afforded him by a system which had subordinated so many Presidents before him to Congress."

Mr. Wilson thus went into office, holding that the man makes the Presidency and not the Presidency the man. Coming into the Presidency is an experience given to but few men and all so honored must enter upon their exalted duties with feelings of intense satisfaction tempered, of course, by a sense of the weighty responsibilities of the office. But no President probably ever took up his work with quite the satisfaction and relish that marked Woodrow Wilson's assumption of the loftiest position in the gift of the people. Had he not been saying that the office afforded opportunities which those who filled it had mostly over­looked? It was incumbent upon him now, in the popular parlance of the day, to "make good," and he was glad of the chance. "It is certain," says A. Maurice Low, an able foreign observer, "that no man ever came to the Presidency who was less awed by it than he. Most Presidents, as we gather from their correspondence and biographies, in their humility, a humility perhaps sometimes assumed as becomes the humble servant of the people, were fearful because they were so insignificant and the office was so vast; to Mr. Wilson it never assumed the aspect of a tyrant. It did not terrify him because it was a giant only in imagination. The wand was in his hands. As  p133 he willed, the Presidency had the stature and strength of a giant, of whom he was always the master, or shrank into the insignificance of a dwarf." The same writer, dwelling upon Mr. Wilson's discussions of the presidency and the significance of those discussions in the light of subsequent events, says, "Read what Mr. Wilson has written and then see what he has done, and it is as if writing always with the calm air of philosophical detachment he is saying for all men to hear: 'This is the portrait of the perfect President; this is the President I shall be when I am given the opportunity.' "

In the very recent past, Congress almost unanimously passed a resolution that the naval oil reserves had been leased illegally and with evidence of corruption and directed the President "immediately to cause suit to be instituted and prosecuted for the annulment and cancellation" of the leases. It was followed by a Senate resolution requesting the President to call for the resignation of the Secretary of the Navy. President Coolidge asserted the right of the executive. He declined to admit that, after confirmation of the members of the Cabinet, the legislative branch had any right or power to control his actions, but the resignation followed. It has been the almost unbroken position of executives and authorities on constitutional law to deny the right of Congress to direct executive action. Mr. Wilson supported such position at the time when thirty-seven Senators, long before the Treaty of Peace had come before them, sent a round robin to Paris, undertaking to forestall his action in foreign affairs. The action of other executives, with reference to their prerogative, was rather negative. They were content to fight invasion of their powers. Wilson believed in executive  p134 initiative, regarding the President as the chosen leader of the nation. One conspicuous example was his appearance before the Senate, October 1, 1918, urging concurrence in the Constitutional Amendment for woman suffrage.

It is not strange that such a man should overshadow the law-making body. A congress is no greater than the greatest man in it and there was nobody in either of the Congresses of Wilson's administrations who approached him in knowledge of government or in clarity of thinking, and certainly none was more disinterested in asking only the best for the American people. It is inevitable that a strong man in the White House will make himself felt in Congress — if it is made up of reasonable men as it usually is — and if that strong man has what Wilson on one occasion, with somewhat more color than he usually injected into his writings, described as "the eight horses that draw the triumphal chariot of every leader and result of free men." As named by him these are:

Force of character,

Readiness of resources,

Clearness of vision,

Grasp of intellect,

Courage of conviction,

Earnestness of purpose,

Instinct, and

Capacity for leader­ship.

And he had all eight.

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Page updated: 16 Aug 08