If Wilson’s new policy encountered little opposition, it was because a change of sentiment had taken place. Jim Crow had not been the norm before 1890, even in the deep South. As C. Vann Woodward noted nearly 60 years ago, in The Strange Career of Jim Crow, it became the norm there only when it received sanction from the racist Progressives in the North. Their influence was profound and pervasive. In 1900, E. L. Godkin, founder and longtime editor of The Nation, saw the handwriting on the wall. In the pages of that journal, he lamented that “the Declaration of Independence no longer arouses enthusiasm; it is an embarrassing instrument which requires to be explained away. The Constitution is said to be ‘outgrown.’” Those who once “boasted that it had secured for the negro the rights of humanity and citizenship” now listen “in silence to the proclamation of white supremacy” and make “no protest against the nullifications of the Fifteenth Amendment.”
Wilson championed the trend identified by Godkin. In his presidential campaign in 1912, he told his compatriots, “We are in the presence of a new organization of society.” Our time marks “a new social stage, a new era of human relationships, a new stage-setting for the drama of life,” and “the old political formulas do not fit the present problems: they read now like documents taken out of a forgotten age.” What Thomas Jefferson had once taught is now, he contended, utterly out of date. It is “what we used to think in the old-fashioned days when life was very simple.”
Above all, Wilson wanted to persuade his compatriots to get “beyond the Declaration of Independence.” That document “did not mention the questions of our day,” he told his countrymen. “It is of no consequence to us.” He regarded it as “an eminently practical document, meant for the use of practical men; not a thesis for philosophers, but a whip for tyrants; not a theory of government, but a program of action.” For the rights of individuals celebrated in that document and for the limits on the scope of government implicit in its celebration of those particular rights, he had no use. They were, he recognized, an obstacle to rational administration of the very sort exemplified by his subsequent segregation of the civil service.
For similar reasons, Wilson was hostile to the constitutional provisions intended as a guarantee of limited government. The separation of powers, the balances and checks, and the distribution of authority between nation and state distinguishing the American constitution he regarded as an obstacle to the formation and pursuit of rational public policy. “Government” he considered “not a machine, but a living thing . . . accountable to Darwin, not to Newton.” Nothing of that sort could, he believed, “have its organs offset against each other, as checks, and live.” Its health was “dependent upon” the “quick co-operation” of these organs, “their ready response to the commands of instinct or intelligence, their amicable community of purpose.” Wilson was the first to call for there to be a “living” political constitution “Darwinian in structure and in practice.” To this end, in running for the presidency he openly sought “permission — in an era in which ‘development,’ ‘evolution,’ is the scientific word — to interpret the Constitution according to Darwinian principle.”
Today’s progressives eschew Social Darwinism and the pseudo-scientific racism espoused by their intellectual forebears, and they oppose racial segregation and the sterilization of criminals and the mentally retarded. But they are no less confident of their own righteousness than were the Progressives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and they have no more respect for the rights espoused in the Declaration of Independence, for limited government, and for constitutional forms than did their predecessors. On this day, the hundredth anniversary of Wilson’s segregation of the civil service, they ought to reflect on the terrible damage apt to be done by an unlimited government disdainful of the natural rights of man and dedicated to rational administration as envisaged by fallible men.
— Paul A. Rahe, a professor of history at Hillsdale College, is the author of Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift.