By James Ostrowski
[This is an excerpt from Progressivism: A Primer on the Idea Destroying America (2014). It appears in a section called “A Rogue’s Gallery of Progressives” along with articles on Lincoln, TR, FDR and LBJ]
Woodrow Wilson was our worst president. He did many of the things that Lincoln did to destroy life, liberty and property but did them on a grander scale, with less excuse and with more lasting consequences. It is true that Lincoln laid the groundwork for the modern monstrosity we suffer under now, however, it is also true that federal spending sharply declined after his war and remained modest until the Wilson administration. It was Wilson, not Lincoln, who birthed the permanent federal leviathan of today.
Lincoln’s war was brutal and savage and its damage is still felt today, however, at least his apologists have resort to the post hoc rationalization that he was “freeing the slaves.” In pushing the United States into the war that would ruin a human century, Wilson was instead freeing the British and French Empires. Enormous egos typify the leaders of progressivism: TR, FDR, LBJ. None of them, however, recklessly plunged our nation into a world war in the absence of a direct attack, believing that the resulting chaos would somehow reshape the world for the better. Don’t let his utter lack of charisma fool you. Wilson’s ego was as big as any of theirs.
Wilson’s various contributions to big government surpass those of any other president. They include:
- The twin funding sources of progressive government, the income taxand the Federal Reserve.
- The war on drugs—the Harrison Act of 1914.
- Participation in a world war that continues to cause international chaos to this very day (e.g., Iraq, Syria).
- The institution of “war socialism” wherein the government asserted the right to seize control of the economy to aid the war effort.
- The ultimate evil of conscriptionwherein state officials claim the right to seize your body, transport it to places you never heard of and pointlessly kill it at their own whim.
- “He ordered unconstitutional, unilateral military interventions into Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. (He also oversaw military interventions in Panama and Cuba, and instituted American-favored dictators throughout Latin America.)”
- Massive and grotesque civil liberties violations that have been largely forgotten because all those who suffered through them are now dead. This was typified by the jailing of Eugene V. Debsfor speaking out against the war and the draft. Wilson denied the ailing Debs’ request for clemency. “It took Warren Harding, one of the ‘worst’ American Presidents according to numerous polls of history professors, to pardon Debs, when Wilson, a ‘Near-Great,’ would have let him die a prisoner. Debs and 23 other jailed dissidents were freed on Christmas Day, 1921. To those who praised him for his clemency, Harding replied: ‘I couldn’t do anything else.… Those fellows didn’t mean any harm. It was a cruel punishment.’” Ralph Raico, Great Wars and Great Leaders, Ludwig von Mises, 2010, p. 42.
Like the other four major progressive presidents discussed in this chapter, Wilson was hostile to liberty across the board, favoring war as a positive good, central economic planning and massive violations of civil liberties such as free speech. While the other four all made great strides towards expanding state power and shrinking liberty, none was as successful as Wilson in destroying liberty.
 R. Raico, “World War I on the Home Front,” Mises Daily, Oct. 12, 2012.
 Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan, pp. 128–29.