Decoding American Democracy with Woodrow Wilson

By Lucas Mathis

The year 2016 felt like a political earthquake for democracy in the Western world. According to many, the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States announced a chilling future: The free world as we knew it was on the verge of collapsing. In the wake of this event, a surge of publications by concerned journalists, political scientists and historians broke out. In the summer of 2018, a reader of The Atlantic was invited to worry about nothing less than whether democracy was dying. The timing itself seemed highly symbolic. Donald Trump was elected during the centenary of World War I, which some historians regard as the starting point of a ‘Wilsonian century’, named after Woodrow Wilson whose presidency during the War is generally considered a steppingstone in America’s journey to assuming the role of democratic world champion.  

As of today, while the Armageddon forecasted in some publications has yet to occur, it is clear however that in America, people live in a different political reality than they did before circa 2016. New uncertainties have arisen, new problems, a new normal. But amidst controversial strategic re-shuffles, civil society upheavals, and harrowing pandemic death tolls, are people still living under democratic rule in the United-States? Using Woodrow Wilson as a point of historical perspective to look at our own time, it appears that whereas Wilson’s political legacy may be compromised indeed, things may not be so simple with democracy.


Official presidential portrait of Woodrow Wilson. Painting by Graham Cootes (1913). The White House.

Crashing out of the League of Nations

About one hundred years ago, during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, the United States “broke the heart of the world” (Cooper 2001) when it failed to join the new-born League of Nations after having advocated laboriously hard for its creation. Having just witnessed the horrors of WWI, Wilson had hoped that it would help create a safer world for democracy. Wilson personally went to Paris – the first time a sitting American president set foot on the European continent – in order to make sure the peace treaty would include the creation of the League of Nations. Then and there, Wilson’s leadership reached an apotheosis; he was cheered by the millions in the streets of the French capital: “An American President had never spoken as Wilson did during the war, on such a grand stage, to such a broad audience, and with such widespread effect. Arguably, none had done since.” (Manela 2010: 176). The prestige of the American president was in fact so great that it struck European leaders by surprise when they later discovered that even thoughhe was the president, Wilson’s personal word on the treaty did not wield actual constitutional power. In the American system, it is Congress which possesses the power to put a seal on this kind of commitment. On November 19, 1919, just four months after Wilson’s return from Paris, the Senate rejected the peace treaty altogether, formally killing the prospect of an American membership to the League of Nations, and seriously compromising the future viability of the League.

Looking at it from the outside world, the spectacle seemed absurdly erratic. After striving so hard to earn the credibility which allowed it to play a leading role in the hottest world affairs, the United States suddenly retired back to isolationism. How could anyone ever trust such a country? The question was especially puzzling for their British and French allies who counted on the American solidarity for their own future security. The fatefulness of this entire series of events is well known to historians and scholars of political and international relations. Yet, less explored perhaps is the significance of these events in terms of political philosophy. Understanding what fundamental vision Wilson fought for and which one he failed against is immensely useful to understanding the paradoxical meaning of democracy in America.

The Wilsonian democracy

Woodrow Wilson was a university professor, the only American president with this professional background. To understand Wilson as a politician, one has to understand Wilson as a political scientist and as a historian. It is the key to making sense of his intellect and his vision, including his hopes for the League of Nations and the future of America in it. To appreciate the intellectual struggle at play here even more, it is worth noting that Wilson’s fiercest opponent, the senator who eventually led the fight against the League of Nations in Congress, Henry Cabot Lodge, was also a historian by profession.

Henry Cabot Lodge. Painting by John Singer Sargent (1890). National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.


Wilson’s career in academia lasted from 1875 to 1910 when he resigned the presidency of Princeton University, his alma mater, in order to run for the office of governor of New Jersey. As an academic, democracy was at the centre of his intellectual preoccupations. He became an expert at articulating what modern democracy was fundamentally about. He loved politics since as early as his freshman year at Princeton. There, he nurtured critical, passionate views about what was going on in the political sphere of his country, what was wrong with it, and how it should be fixed. One might be surprised to learn about his early opinions, especially when considering how closely the name of Wilson has later become associated with the word ‘democracy’ and America’s global leadership. Scrolling the pages of his diary, we can read for June 1876: “Universal suffrage is at the foundation of every evil in this country!” (Wilson 1876: 143) And just a few pages further, in a more elaborate entry at the highly symbolic day, 4th of July 1876 – the centenary of the American independence – Wilson expressing an utterly pessimistic sentiment:

One hundred years ago America conquered England in an unequal struggle and this year she glories over it. How much happier [?] she would be if she had England’s form of government instead of the miserable delusion of a republic. A republic too founded upon the notion of abstract liberty! I venture to say that this country will never celebrate another centennial as a republic.

Wilson 1876: 148-9

Last but not least, Wilson was also decidedly racist and misogynist, sentiments which he retained during his entire life. They became infamously consequential during his presidency when he supported the extension of Jim Crow laws into the federal administration. In the light of the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement, this facet of the 28th president has finally caught up with his public memory, causing Princeton University to remove Wilson’s name from its buildings, thus ending a dispute that had been dividing the institution for several years (Pietsch 2020).  

Struggling with this apparent contradiction between racism and the progressive reputation which Wilson has acquired during WWI as an advocate of democracy, historians have mostly treated Wilson’s racism as the dark side of his thinking that should not be allowed to obscure the remaining spectrum of his vision (Manela 2010: 184; Smith 2017: 284). This was a mistake. What needs to be understood is that racism was in fact perfectly consistent with the logic of his entire political thinking and the breed of democracy he believed in. As Arthur Link (1947:15) noted, while speaking of the “modern democratic state”, what Wilson really meant was “an aristocracy of intelligence and merit”. This was precisely what he believed that Black people, women, as well as poor or uneducated people, all somehow lacked: merit. And more than merit in the sense of natural entitlement, it was in his mind rather synonymous of acquired competence. The state, he thought, was too technical a business to be left to chance, regardless of old ideas about natural rights and sovereignty of the people (Wilson 1901: 175). He regarded these latter philosophies as merely fanciful: “we ought long ago to have remarked that they are touched with the visionary genius of the French rather than with the masculine and practical genius of the English mind” (Wilson 1901: 175-6). Simply said, he did not believe most people were fit to govern themselves, let alone others. As an educator, it was largely around the lines of this mindset that Wilson took a pioneering role in the development of political science as a branch of higher education in America. An evolution which he hoped would serve the country by providing it with a wise and competent elite to guide and operate the American body politic (Kemeny 1998: 127).

Learning from Wilson’s mistakes

Looking at the example of the League of Nations, it is easy to identify the same logic at work in Wilson’s thought. Amidst all the structural complexities of this institution, there is one simple and fundamental idea: to avoid future wars, countries must give up some of the freedom which they call sovereignty. After WWI, it was a necessary trade off in Wilson’s mind: “every man who makes the choice to respect the rights of his neighbors deprives himself of absolute sovereignty” (Throntveit 2018). In his mind, nations were just too unpredictable and too immature. Without supervision, they would always threaten world peace by acting selfishly, hence the need for a wiser, more competent international institution.

Our contemporary Western societies think more like Wilson than they realise. Today’s discriminations are in many ways more elusive than they were in Wilson’s time. Racism and the underrepresentation of women in politics are no longer official policies, instead, they have become ingrained systemic issues. As for the kind of meritocratic elitism which Wilson advocated, it has become so normalised that we barely think about it. Which country in the Western world can claim that the overwhelming majority of its politicians does not come from a handful of top schools? And how do we judge these ‘populists’ who break the etiquettes of our current political systems? Speaking of Andrew Jackson, Wilson once expressed ideas surprisingly relatable to our own times:  

It has been said by a French writer that the autocratic ascendency of Andrew Jackson illustrates anew the long-credited tendency of democracies to give themselves over to one man. The country is older now than it was when Andrew Jackson delighted in his power, and few can believe that it would again approve and applaud childish arrogance and ignorant arbitrariness like his.

Wilson 1885: 81

Today, we all know that it could and did, but only if we agree with Wilson – at least to some extent – about what are suitable politics in a democracy. What is not said in this quote is that the reason why Wilson hated Jackson so much was because Jackson significantly extended the franchise, until “the men of the masses had become the stuff of politics” (Wilson 1901:5).

This patronizing attitude led Wilson to consistently disappoint Americans who simply wished to be treated as equals and who, de jure, were not. In 1917, as Wilson presented the United States’ intervention into WWI as a crusade to make the world safe for democracy, he turned a blind eye to its deplorable situation for Black people within the United States (Anderson 2016: 39). For women too, as the suffragists could legitimately claim, America itself was in fact not a democracy. (Cassidy 2019: 156) Quite ironically, Henry Cabot Lodge eventually buried Wilson’s plans by simply leveraging the existing democratic institutions of the United States.

Many of today’s problems are vastly different of course, yet they share a similar paradigm. Wilson partly failed because his prejudiced idea of democracy clashed with others’ to the point of estrangement. The political fiascos we have been witnessing during the past few years are the reflection of the same old struggle in which Wilson led himself astray – the struggle of Western democracies to generate consensus and manage what is deep down the driving force of democracy: the empowerment of the people; the idea that, as Jefferson once wrote, “the world belongs to the livings” (Jefferson, 1789). This challenge has only become greater now that the United States cannot settle for a definition of the people which does not account for its diversity anymore.


Anderson, Carol. 2016. White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of our Racial Divide. New York and London: Bloomsbury

Cassidy, Tina. 2019. Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait? Alice Paul, Woodrow Wilson, and the Fight tor the Right to Vote. New-York: Simon & Schuster.

Cooper, John Milton, Jr. 2001. Breaking the Heart of the World: Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the League of Nations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

“Is Democracy Dying?”. 2018. The Atlantic, accessed 20 December 2020.

Jefferson, Thomas, “To James Madison, Paris 6 September 1789”, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson., accessed 20 December 2020.

Kemeny, P. C. 1998. Princeton in the Nation’s Service: Religious Ideals and Educational Practice 1868-1929. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Link, Arthur S. ed. 1966-1994. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, volumes 1-69. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Link, Arthur S. 1947. Wilson: The Road to the White House.Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Manela, Erez, “’People of Many Races’ The world Beyond Europe in Wilson’s Imagination”. In Cooper John Milton, Jr.; Thomas J. Knock, eds. 2010. Jefferson, Lincoln and Wilson: The American Dilemma of Race and Democracy. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Pietsch, Bryan. 2020. “Princeton Will Remove Woodrow Wilson’s Name from School”, The New York Times, accessed 20 December 2020.

Smith, Tony. 2017. Why Wilson Matters. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Throntveit, Trygve. 2018. “We need a New and True Wilsonianism”, The Wilson Quarterly, 42, no.4.

Wilson, Woodrow. 1901. A History of The American People. Volume IV. New York and London: Harpers & Brothers Publishers.

About the author

Lucas Mathis is a graduate from the University of Leicester where he was awarded a Master of Research in History for his dissertation on “True Wilsonianism: Significance of the Democratic Ideal in Woodrow Wilson’s Thought and Imagination, 1875-1919”. He previously studied history at the University of Strasbourg where he earned a Bachelor of Arts. He is primarily interested in the history of ideas and the role of historical narratives in the shaping of political imaginations.

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