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  • Woodrow Wilson and a World Governed by Evolving Law
  • John A. Thompson (bio)

It is a regrettable feature of the scholarly literature on Woodrow Wilson that so little of it relates to, or attempts to integrate, all the different phases or various aspects of his career—as an academic political scientist, as a figure in American domestic politics, and as a shaper of American foreign policy (and begetter of what has become known as "Wilsonianism").1 Of course, there have been many biographies, including some fine ones, but they have generally paid more attention to Wilson's personal life and characteristics than to his thinking. There have also been some books on his work as an academic political scientist, but these have not explored in any depth its relation to his later political career.2 The disjunction has some justification in that Wilson's actions and utterances as a politician certainly reflected both immediate pressures and a variety of considerations apart from his own personal beliefs and ideals.3 Nevertheless, he remained the same man, and an appreciation of the long-established and deeply rooted views Wilson held about the nature of politics and of historical development can enhance our understanding of his approach to the problems he faced—not least with respect to foreign policy. In this essay I will attempt to make such a connection by focusing on Wilson's thought about law and constitutions—subjects central to his thinking about politics throughout his life.4

It is often forgotten that Wilson was himself a lawyer. He had qualified after studying at the University of Virginia law school, and briefly practiced as a lawyer in Atlanta. In later years, he sometimes identified himself as such, especially when addressing audiences of lawyers. On these occasions, he stressed the particular qualifications of [End Page 113] lawyers for lawmaking, and the responsibilities this entailed. Thus, within a few weeks of entering politics as candidate for the governorship of New Jersey in 1910, he exhorted the American Bar Association in Chattanooga, Tennessee: "We are lawyers. . . . We are servants of society, officers of the courts of justice. Our duty is a much larger thing than the mere advice of private clients. In every deliberate struggle for law, we ought to be the guides, . . . ready to give expert and disinterested advice to those who purpose progress and the readjustment of the frontiers of justice." 5

The extension of the realm of law and justice was seen by Wilson as central to social advance: "The life of society is a struggle for law," he observed in his Presidential Address to the American Political Science Association in December 1910.6 And this did not apply only to the domestic sphere. Wilson's conduct of American neutrality in World War I was based on a defense of international law, particularly his opposition to the German use of submarines against merchant ships, the issue that brought the United States into the war in 1917. "By painful stage after stage has that law been built up," he declared in his War Address, "with meagre enough results, . . . but always with a clear view, at least, of what the heart and conscience of mankind demanded. This minimum of right the German Government has swept aside under the plea of retaliation and necessity and because it had no weapons which it could use at sea except these which it is impossible to employ . . . without throwing to the winds all scruples of humanity or of respect for the understandings that were supposed to underlie the intercourse of the world." 7

Yet there was another side to Wilson's attitude to law and lawyers. Although he had practiced as a lawyer, he had given it up after less than a year. The experience had not given him a high view of the qualities required. "A man must become a mere lawyer to succeed at the bar," he explained to a close friend, "and must, moreover, acquire a most ignoble shrewdness at overcoming the unprofessional tricks and underhand competition of sneaking pettifoggers." 8 This prejudice remained with him. In the diplomacy of the neutrality period, Wilson displayed little patience with the niceties of international law...


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pp. 113-125
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