Friday, November 2, 2012

The Election of 1912

One hundred years ago was the last time Virginia offered one of its own as a candidate for the Presidency of the United States. Woodrow Wilson was born on December 28, 1856 in the Manse of the First Presbyterian Church in Staunton Virginia. In 1912 he was the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party. Though Wilson left Staunton in his first year, the town stayed true to him. Fifty-four years later in 1911 some Staunton citizens launched the first “Wilson for President” club.

The Wilson family moved to Augusta Georgia from Staunton and Woodrow spent his youth in the south. During his life Wilson reflected the attitudinal adjustment educated people in the “new” South wrestled with after the Civil War. He obtained an Ivy League education at Princeton University (the most southern-oriented of these colleges) and a law degree from the University of Virginia. Wilson’s personality and intellect suited him to the philosophical aspects of law rather than to a law office legal practice. He hoped the law degree would lead to a life in politics. Wilson’s particular interest focused on constitutional issues. His primary inquiry centered around the strong hold on American government exercised by the legislative branch of government. Wilson believed that this hold explained what he perceived as the decline in American leadership. At Johns Hopkins University in the early 1880s, he pursued a doctorate that resulted in the publication of Congressional Government, in it he examined this decline of American leadership. He concluded that one reason for this situation was that the House of Representatives tended to attract inferior politicians.

After completing his doctorate, Wilson spent a decade writing and teaching, first at Bryn Mawr (he did not enjoy teaching women) and then at Connecticut Wesleyan. In 1890, Princeton University offered Wilson a professorship to teach jurisprudence and political economy. During the first decade of the 20th century, he gained administrative experience as President of Princeton University and as Governor of New Jersey before becoming the standard bearer of the Democratic Party in the 1912 Presidential election. The opposition standard bearers were President William H Taft for the Republicans, Theodore Roosevelt for the Bull Moose, and Eugene V. Debs for the Socialists party.

Historians have described this election as “one of the most significant in all of American history” because it involved a philosophical debate about the nature of government and the economic problems confronting the United States.[1] One may be surprised that in 1912 a lively discussion took place on whether America should be a capitalist or socialist country.

Wilson ran on the slogan: “New Freedom.” Among the thirty-one planks in the Democratic platform, some of the most contentious were the call for limits on campaign contributions by corporations, tariff reduction, new and stronger antitrust laws, banking and currency reform, a federal income tax, and in foreign policy, the independence of the Philippines.

Tariffs and Income Taxes
The roots of our independence are entwined with this issue. Since the establishment of the American republic, tariffs (taxes on the imported goods and sometimes exports) were the primary sources of revenue for the federal government. Sometimes tariffs were also used to protect native industries. At the time of the campaign, the 16th amendment to the Constitution permitting taxation of individuals by the Federal government was on the verge of ratification. This happened in February 1913. In 1912, the Democratic Party platform stated that the collection of revenues should be limited to the “necessities” of government and should “not to be a system by which the rich became richer and the poor became poorer.” As we know from recent history and our own experience, tariffs and taxes have economic and social consequences which make these issues a contentious theme in America political discourse.

In the Progressive Era, the trusts were the “bad guys” of business. Arguments on this issue centered on the size, future, and nature of business and financial institutions. A corollary argument was who should have, if any, regulatory control over these entities. The Wilsonian position called for vigorous enforcement of criminal and civil laws against companies and their officers in cases of collusion. The Standard Oil Company and the tobacco trusts were favorite targets in this crusade.

Banking Legislation
Another particular target of “trust-busting” legislation implicated the large Wall Street banking institutions that seemed incapable of preventing or controlling the several economic panics in the previous twenty years. Wilson wanted a revision of the banking system by establishing neutral entities not in the control of the Wall Street banks. He did not favor a central bank. One of Wilson’s major presidential accomplishments was the establishment of the Federal Reserve System in 1916.

Foreign Affairs
Foreign affairs were not the most major issues in the campaign, but the views espoused by Wilson foreshadowed his perspective in the later years of his presidency. At the time of the 1912 campaign, the independence of the Philippines was front and center. Wilson supported the doctrine of self-determination by the people of a country. In addition, he did not support United States-led imperialistic ventures, and he espoused a non-aggressive role that would keep the United States out of as many foreign engagements as possible.[2]

Women’s Issues – The Right to Vote
Wilson and the Democratic Party wanted to sidestep the issue of voting rights for women. No plank in the platform addressed the issue. Wilson deeply believed a woman’s place was in the home. When pushed on the right of women’s suffrage on the campaign trail, he took the position that the citizens of each State should decide the issue for themselves. On this issue male politicians were in a delicate position. Though they might wish to, politicians could not grant suffrage to only those “they deemed worthy.” This raised the possibility that ALL women would receive the right to vote without racial, educational, or class distinction. This frightened those in power, especially in the white south.[3] The males also feared the “maternal instincts” of women in the political arena would lead to “prohibition of alcohol, interfere with business conditions, and regulation of working conditions and hours.”[4]

In this brief examination of the central issues of the 1912 election campaign one’s first reaction can be one of depression or astonishment over the sameness of the issues and the solutions offered over the course of the history of the United States. Yet, in reading our Constitution and the laws and regulations there, we see how our form of government encourages us to have these public debates in order to adapt to changing conditions and to righting excesses. It was not promised by our founders that democracy would be neat or easy.

Next month we will return to the subject of Woodrow Wilson and his pre-inaugural birthday visit to Staunton.
[1] August Heckscher. Woodrow Wilson. Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY. 1991.
Arthur S. Link. Wilson: The Road to the White House. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

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