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

Cole Levine

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

Wilson, a progressive, argued that modern society needs a Darwinian Constitution that can evolve as a “living, breathing document,” subject to new interpretations. He criticized the Constitution’s original framework, 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 Newtonian 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 proposition 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.” Wilson ultimately 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 argued 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 noted how most families during “Jefferson’s time” enjoyed their own homes and did not live 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. The state should aim 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 eugenics 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, Jefferson merely attempted to “display the laws of nature,” and reflect “a variety of mechanics.” Thus, Jefferson’s naive document could not last long for a nation that would eventually face more complex problems. Wilson thought modern politicians, justices, and other public officials should actively solve these problems.

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 with their “mature convictions…knew their rights, and possessed the courage to dare to maintain them.” Eternal truths put forth in the document, such as unalienable 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 federalist 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.” Coolidge thought Americans do best when they take responsibility for their own lives instead of depending on the state. These principles of limited government, which largely pave the way for self-government, are the essence of 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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