A Hegelian at Gettysburg: Woodrow Wilson and the Perfect Union


On July 4, 1913 President Woodrow Wilson, who had been inaugurated exactly four months previously, went to Gettysburg to address Civil War veterans gathered to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of that decisive battle of July 1863. He was following in the footsteps of one whom he admired intensely: he had once described Lincoln as "the supreme American… a common man with genius, a genius for things American, for insight into the common thought, for mastering the fundamental things of affairs. The whole country is summed up in him" (Arthur S. Link et al. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Vol. 8, p. 378).

The first stone for the Lincoln memorial in Washington, DC, originally suggested in 1867 and finally approved by Congress in 1911, was to be laid not long after this reunion, on February 12, 1914 — Lincoln’s birthday. On it would be carved in perpetuity his famous address and the words, "In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever." This encomium accurately pointed to the principle for which the North had fought — to keep the Union whole.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg address of November 1863 served military, ideological and political purposes which seem to have been carefully thought out to counter perceived threats that the Union might not be saved, on account of the discontent and apprehension produced by large casualties on both sides (exceeding 250,000 by August 1863), and growing anti-war sentiment in the North. His advisers feared these would cost him the 1864 presidential election.

In requesting "that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain," and evoking "the great task remaining before us," Lincoln, on the back of a surge of enthusiasm brought about by the Unionist victory, sought to ensure that the war would be continued without compromise, to bring any wavering consciences back into line, and to promote his own prospects of being re-elected. He did so by injecting into his address ideological elements which were stirring rhetorically, but in political terms characteristically vague: "a new birth of freedom" and the high resolution "that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

The actual historical effect of this rhetoric was to sanctify the principle of uncompromising struggle for a perceived righteous cause, with no sacrifice of blood being regarded as excessive. Belief in it ultimately made the conflict the bloodiest internecine war then known to humanity, with a final reckoning of some 620,000 killed. But its conversion into national mythology also ensured that, however high the cost, future office-holders and court historians would still interpret the price as having been worth it.

Theodore Roosevelt (born 1858, in office as a Republican from 1901—1909) and Woodrow Wilson (born 1856, Democrat, in office 1913—1921) were two such office-holders. Both of them, as children, were symbolically and psychologically marked by the Civil War. "u2018My earliest recollection,’ Wilson related in 1909, u2018is of standing at my father’s gateway in Augusta, Georgia, when I was four years old, and hearing someone pass and say that Mr. Lincoln was elected and there was to be war’ (Anthony Gaughan, "Woodrow Wilson and the Legacy of the Civil War," in Civil War History 43 (1997)).

Marks such as these would lead them to argue in later life for the war’s constructive effects in building the modern American nation and state. Speaking in September 1915 to the Grand Army of the Republic at Camp Emory in Washington DC, Wilson would say:

"The nation in which you now live is not the nation for which you fought. […] You have the satisfaction […] of looking back upon a war absolutely unique in this, that instead of destroying, it healed; that instead of making a permanent division, it made a permanent union" (The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Vol. 34, p. 534).

Because Roosevelt and Wilson were brought up in families which suffered internal conflict from having both Northern and Southern connections, they fought divisiveness wherever they might find it, promoting reconciliation and national unity as sacred causes and scolding any who would pursue factious "special interests." In this they were encouraged by an ecclesiastical context which offered a biblical interpretation of the war as "an apocalyptic struggle of the faithful against the forces of evil," in which sins would be remitted from the spilling of blood (Kathleen Dalton, Theodore Roosevelt: The Strenuous Life, quoted in Powell, 2006). The effect of such dogma was to make the concept of a national unity of reconciliation an object of fearful and uncritical reverence, investing it with the organic sanctity of ritual sacrifice.

Although Woodrow Wilson’s first words on his inauguration, on March 4, 1913, were bland in the extreme ("There has been a change of government"), he too would resort most often to powerful, reverential rhetoric, using images of blood sacrifice, to appeal to the American people for support, or to exhort them to the higher task of building a more perfect union — as he did in his own Gettysburg address in 1913.

Like Lincoln, Wilson wished to commemorate the sacrifice of the men who had died on the field of battle. He echoed Lincoln’s appeal that they should not have died in vain, but he did it with much more characteristic organicist rhetoric (and even Crolyean zeal), beginning with a hymn of praise to the union:

"How complete the union has become and how dear to all of us, how unquestioned, how benign and majestic, […] How handsome the vigor, the maturity, the might of the great Nation we love with undivided hearts; how full of large and confident promise that a life will be wrought out that will crown its strength with gracious justice and with a happy welfare that will touch all alike with deep contentment!"

Again echoing Lincoln, Wilson went on to argue that, precisely because of the depth and intensity of the sacrifice of those who fought in the Civil War, the work of building and transforming the unified nation was not yet done, and had to be carried on by future generations, especially those he was addressing:

"These venerable men crowding here to this famous field have set us a great example of devotion and utter sacrifice. They were willing to die that the people might live. […] They look to us to perfect what they established. Their work is handed on to us…"

"Have affairs paused? Does the Nation stand still? Is what the fifty years have wrought since those days of battle finished, rounded out, and completed?," Wilson went on rhetorically to ask. "Here is a great people, great with every force that has ever beaten in the lifeblood of mankind. And it is secure. There is no one within its borders, there is no power among the nations of the earth, to make it afraid."

But things were not right, the president argued. The great people "is secure in everything except the satisfaction that its life is right, adjusted to the uttermost to the standards of righteousness and humanity." Therefore, Wilson continued,

"The days of sacrifice and cleansing are not closed. We have harder things to do than were done in the heroic days of war, because harder to see clearly, requiring more vision, more calm balance of judgment, a more candid searching of the very springs of right."

The vision that the president was promoting here was one of greater social and moral justice, a cause which had been espoused in the election campaign of 1912 by Wilson, running as a Democrat under his "New Freedom" platform, and by Roosevelt, running as a Progressive under his "New Nationalism" platform.

Both were programs of progressive reform, and the dividing line between them had been thin. It lay partly in the degree to which each envisaged federal government intervention in economic and social life. Wilson’s New Freedom contained a small residue of the classical liberalism which had, in part, informed his early political philosophy: he sought to establish a level playing field for the little man in the economy by smashing monopoly and so ensuring that he could compete. Roosevelt, by contrast, was prepared to embrace monopoly and bring it under the wing of federal regulation.

Both Roosevelt’s and Wilson’s platforms were imbued with evolutionary and Hegelian philosophy. This rejected the American founding ideas of the separation of powers and checks and balances — for being inconvenient to the consolidated power and efficiency required to respond to the industrial, financial and social challenges of the modern era. Instead, with Hegel, they saw the modern state as the embodiment of the will of the people, to be interpreted flexibly and administered efficiently by disinterested experts who would always know best what was in the public interest — and certainly know better than any divisive minority or majority faction.

Wilson’s transcendent philosophy of inclusive national unity necessarily ran counter to the principles of the U.S. Constitution. In order for his vision of the efficient administrative state to be fulfilled, any checks and balances on the exercise of that state’s power had to be destroyed, both ideologically and in terms of enacted legislation. He himself described this as a need to replace a Newtonian, machine vision of national government with a Darwinian, evolutionary vision, in which there would be a "living Constitution," something organic which would change in response to the needs of each epoch and "the sheer pressure of life." Pursuing the Darwinian analogy to argue specifically against the separation of powers, he wrote that "no living thing can have its organs offset against each other, as checks, and live" (Woodrow Wilson. 1913. The New Freedom. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., p. 47).

He added a crusading tone to these ideas, expanding them with his own vision of the nation as an organic unified whole, led by himself as a "helpless" leader constantly saying that he had no choice but to do what he had to do. Following in TR’s footsteps in the matter of enhancing executive power, Wilson also enforced a presidentially-controlled consensus on members of Congress, particularly those of his own party, the Democrats, in order to introduce and implement progressive legislation. By the end of 1914 he had thus blurred the differences between the 1912 platforms even more, as enduring items of progressive legislation were successively enacted into law.

At Gettysburg on that Fourth of July in 1913, however, the vision was still elusive. Wilson needed to shift the target away from "armies" (not defined), and on to the "evil men" found among "principalities and powers and wickedness in high places." Assuming a Hegelian and pre-Orwellian identification of all with an undivided collective, he went on to ask, "Are we content to lie still?" — before answering in the negative, by implication only, with the words: "War fitted us for action, and action never ceases."

But then Wilson needed to locate his own role as the divinely-appointed supreme leader of the nation in the coming wars for righteousness. He had been chosen the leader of the nation, he said, not by any qualities of his own, but simply because that was his destiny, and the way things had turned out. This echoed the self-righteous remarks he is alleged to have made to a supporter (possibly the Democratic party’s national chairman, William F. McCombs) after his election in November 1912: "Before we proceed, I wish it clearly understood that I owe you nothing. Remember that God ordained that I should be the next President of the United States. So it has come about, and here I stand."

The army which he was to command was not made up of the ghostly hosts who had fought on the battlefields of the Civil War, but rather of "the people themselves, the great and the small, without class or difference of kind or race or origin; and undivided in interest, if we (again, the collective, all-embracing "we") have but the vision to guide and direct them and order their lives aright in what we do." For this great army then, the orders of the day were to be "the laws upon our statute books," and "what we strive for is their freedom" (emphasis added). Every day something had to be done to push the campaign forward; and it had to be done "by plan and with an eye to some great destiny."

Here Wilson was already linking his personal crusade to America’s manifest destiny and greatness, which at that particular moment he found in the great national reunion he was celebrating. Yet there was also a hint that the ultimate destiny of his America, as he saw it, would lie in service to humanity and in the waging of the war to end all wars:

"Who stands ready to act again and always in the spirit of this day of reunion and hope and patriotic fervor? The day of our country’s life has but broadened into morning. Do not put uniforms by. Put the harness of the present on. Lift your eyes to the great tracts of life yet to be conquered in the interest of righteous peace, of that prosperity which lies in a people’s hearts and outlasts all wars and errors of men. Come, let us be comrades and soldiers yet to serve our fellow-men…"

As Wilson’s presidency developed, and he became more exposed to international issues, he talked increasingly of the transcendent strength of a unified and undivided nation using its power to spread righteousness in the world. He would never abandon that tone. He would always, and even in the face of division and dissent, which he would not tolerate, seek to enforce and promote his organic vision of the people united with their leader in the righteous — and comradely — service of humanity.

There was a heavy irony to this organicist belief in a unified nation. Because he regarded all societal division, and perhaps even tensions arising out of mere difference, as originating in deliberately divisive "special interests," he found himself obliged to carry out a top-down, coercive integration of a diverse people often having very real and unresolved differences — such as race, class, ideology, and understandable attachments to different countries of origin, some of which were at war with others. These differences could and did generate significant domestic conflict. But his synthetic, Hegelian vision blinded him to their significance, leaving him often bewildered and ultimately unable to deal with the violence and strength of opposition to his plans which, in the real and irrational world, could and did erupt because of them.

From April 1917 onwards, the consequences of coupling this nation-unified-from-above to "irresistible" force, and then pursuing without compromise a perceived righteous cause on the world stage — for the alleged benefit of all humanity — were momentous for the world, harsh for Americans, and fatal for Woodrow Wilson.

Preceded by a half-dozen lesser, more local, armed interventions in foreign countries during Wilson’s presidency, United States participation in the Great War in 1917—1918 was the original act of Wilsonian global interventionism: it left an undying legacy. At home, it was accompanied by war collectivism and vicious suppression of domestic dissent, setting ominous precedents for future witch-hunts, domestic surveillance, jingoistic propaganda, and curtailments of civil liberties. In the ghastly trenches of northern France, 126,000 Americans died.

In personal terms, Wilson in 1919 decided to tour the country, appealing directly to the people over the heads of political opponents who dissented from his vision of the U.S. role in the flawed peace emerging from the 1919 treaty of Versailles. This exhausting public speaking tour finally broke his already precarious health, crippling the last year and a half of his presidency, and hastening his own death. Meanwhile, as ongoing conflicts in the Balkans and the Middle East show, the aftermath of Versailles is also still with us.

References and Further Reading

Barber, James D. 1992 (1972). The Presidential Character. Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Cooper Jr., John Milton. 1983. The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap Press.

Dalton, Kathleen. 2002. Theodore Roosevelt: The Strenuous Life. New York: Knopf.

Dawley, Alan. 2003. Changing The World: American Progressives in War and Revolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Harris, M. Keith. "Slavery, Emancipation, and Veterans of the Union Cause: Commemorating Freedom in the Era of Reconciliation," Civil War History 53.3 (2007): 264—290

McClay, Wilfred M. "Croly’s Progressive America: Herbert Croly, Political Philosopher," Public Interest 137 (Fall 1999): 56—72.

Pestritto, Ronald J. 2005. Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Powell, Jim. 2006. Bully Boy: The Truth About Theodore Roosevelt’s Legacy. New York: Random House.

Steigerwald, David. "The Synthetic Politics of Woodrow Wilson," Journal of the History of Ideas 50.3 (July—September 1989): 465—484.

Stuckey, Mary E. ""The Domain of Public Conscience": Woodrow Wilson and the Establishment of a Transcendent Political Order," Rhetoric and Public Affairs 6.1 (2003): 1—23.

Tuggle, Michael C. 1913.

Yarbrough, Jean M. "The Forgotten T.R.," Public Interest 148 (Summer 2002): 49—70

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