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Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) was a leading intellectual of the American Progressive movement. He served as president of Princeton University (1902–1910) and governor of New Jersey (1911–1913) before he was elected the twenty-eighth president of the United States. His book Constitutional Government in the United States, from which this document was taken, appeared in 1908 and reflected Wilson’s thoughts on the American political system just prior to his emergence as a national political figure.
In Constitutional Government Wilson criticized a rigid attachment to the separation of powers and favored an understanding of the Constitution as a living document that should evolve with the times. In particular, he wanted a new interpretation of the Constitution that would allow the president to be a stronger leader more actively engaged in the legislative process. While Congress had developed its own internal leadership in the Speaker and the Majority Leader, he said, those leaders were not equipped to speak for the entire nation in the same way that the president could.
Woodrow Wilson, Notes on Constitutional Government (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1908), https://hdl.handle.net/2027/osu.32435007298870.
Chapter III: The President of the United States
It is difficult to describe any single part of a great governmental system without describing the whole of it. Governments are living things and operate as organic wholes. Moreover, governments have their natural evolution and are one thing in one age, another in another. The makers of the Constitution constructed the federal government upon a theory of checks and balances which was meant to limit the operation of each part and allow to no single part or organ of it a dominating force; but no government can be successfully conducted upon so mechanical a theory. Leadership and control must be lodged somewhere. . . .
The government of the United States was constructed upon the Whig1 theory of political dynamics, which was a sort of unconscious copy of the Newtonian theory of the universe. In our own day, whenever we discuss the structure or development of anything, whether in nature or in society, we consciously or unconsciously follow Mr. Darwin; but before Mr. Darwin, they followed Newton.2…
The makers of our federal Constitution followed the scheme . . .with genuine scientific enthusiasm. The admirable expositions of The Federalist read like thoughtful applications of Montesquieu3 to the political needs and circumstances of America. They are full of the theory of checks and balances. . . .
The trouble with the theory is that government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton. It is modified by its environment, necessitated by its tasks, shaped to its functions by the sheer pressure of life. No living thing can have its organs offset against each other as checks, and live. . . .Their cooperation is indispensable, their warfare fatal. There can be no successful government without leadership or without the intimate, almost instinctive, coordination of the organs of life and action. This is not theory, but fact, and displays its force as fact, whatever theories may be thrown across its track. Living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice.
Fortunately, the definitions and prescriptions of our constitutional law, though conceived in the Newtonian spirit and upon the Newtonian principle, are sufficiently broad and elastic to allow for the play of life and circumstance. . . .
The makers of the Constitution seem to have thought of the president as what the stricter Whig theorists wished the king to be: only the legal executive, the presiding and guiding authority in the application of law and the execution of policy. . . .As a matter of fact he has become very much more. He has become the leader of his party and the guide of the nation in political purpose, and therefore in legal action. The constitutional structure of the government has hampered and limited his action in these significant roles, but it has not prevented it. . . .It is merely the proof that our government is a living, organic thing, and must, like every other government, work out the close synthesis of active parts which can exist only when leadership is lodged in some one man or group of men. . . .
Chapter IV: The House of Representatives
. . .The House once debated; now it does not debate. It has not the time. There would be too many debaters, and there are too many subjects of debate. It is a business body, and it must get its business done. When the late Mr. Reed4 once, upon a well-known occasion, thanked God that the House was not a deliberate assembly, there was no doubt a dash of half-cynical humor in the remark, such as so often gave spice and biting force to what he said, but there was the sober earnest of a serious man of affairs, too. . . .
A numerous body like the House of Representatives is naturally and of course unfit for organic, creative action through debate. . . .It organizes itself, therefore, into committees—not occasional committees, formed from time to time, but standing committees permanently charged with its business and given every prerogative of suggestion and explanation, in order that each piece of legislative business may be systematically attended to by a body small enough to digest and perfect it.5…
We are in love with efficiency and, as a practical nation, greatly admire the complete and thorough organization of the House, its preference for action and its impatience of talk: but if every part of our political machinery is to be organized for “business,” where are counsel and criticism to come in? We never stood more in need of them than we do now. . . .
Such complications and subdivisions of machinery in the active and originative organs of the government result in its being in a very real sense leaderless. In the last [chapter] I spoke of the president as leader of his party and of the nation; but, though he clearly exercises such leadership, and exercises it with great effectiveness when he has the personal force for any originative role at all, he cannot be said to be the guide and leader of the government as a whole. Our government consists in part, as I have explained, of the House and Senate. It is in that respect contrasted with all other governments. And in each part of our subdivided government there is a distinct arrangement with regard to leadership. The Senate submits to the guidance of a small group of senators, very jealous of the independence of the body they control. The House is under the command of its Speaker. The executive is in the hands of the president, whom the houses regard, when thinking of their own powers, as an outsider, and whose advice they are apt to look upon as the advice of a rival rather than of a colleague. . . .
Chapter V: The Senate
It is very difficult to form a just estimate of the Senate of the United States. . . .There was a time when we were lavish in spending our praises upon it. . . .In our own day we have been equally lavish of hostile criticism. We have suspected it of every malign purpose, fixed every unhandsome motive upon it, and at times almost cast it out of our confidence altogether. . . .
The House is an organic unit; it has been at great pains to make itself so, and to become a working body under a single unifying discipline; while the Senate is not so much an organization as a body of individuals. . . .
[The] character and purpose [of the Senate] govern its whole organization and action. It is as different from the House in organization as in character and constitutional position. Its power is not concentrated in its presiding officer as the power of the House is. On the contrary, its presiding officer is of all its constituent parts the least significant. . . .
The leader of the Senate is the chairman of the majority caucus.6 Each party in the Senate finds its real, its permanent, its effective organization in its caucus, and follows the leadership, in all important parliamentary battles, of the chairman of that caucus, its organization and its leadership alike resting upon arrangements quite outside the Constitution. . . .
But the Senate is a deliberative assembly and is under no such discipline of silence and obedience to its committees as the House is. . . .A bill introduced by an individual senator may be put upon the calendar, debated, and voted upon without reference to a committee at all. . . .
Moreover, the makeup of the committees of the Senate is determined much more strictly by seniority and by personal privilege and precedence than is the membership of the committees of the House, with much less regard to party lines and much more regard to personal and sectional considerations—by equitable arrangement rather than by the personal choice or individual purpose of the caucus chairmen. . . .
Indeed, the Senate is, par excellence, the chamber of debate and of individual privilege. Its discussions are often enough unprofitable, are too often marred by personal feeling and by exhibitions of private interest which taint its reputation and render the country uneasy and suspicious, but they are at least the only means the country has of clarifying public business for public comprehension.
When we turn to the question which is the central question of our whole study, the question of the coordination of the Senate with the other organs of the government and the synthesis of authority and power for common action, it at once becomes evident that such a body as I have described the Senate to be, must be very hard indeed to digest into any system. A coordination of wills, united movement under a common leadership, is of the very essence of every efficient form of government. The Senate has a very stiff will of its own, a pride of independent judgment. . . .
The president has not the same recourse when blocked by the Senate that he has when opposed by the House. When the House declines his counsel he may appeal to the nation, and if public opinion respond to his appeal the House may grow thoughtful of the next congressional elections and yield; but the Senate is not so immediately sensitive to opinion and is apt to grow, if anything, more stiff if pressure of that kind is brought to bear upon it.
But there is another course which the president may follow, and which one or two presidents of unusual political sagacity have followed, with the satisfactory results that were to have been expected. He may himself be less stiff and offish, may himself act in the true spirit of the Constitution and establish intimate relations of confidence with the Senate on his own initiative.7…
It is manifestly the duty of statesmen, with whatever branch of the government they may be associated, to study in a very serious spirit of public service the right accommodation of parts in this complex system of ours, the accommodation which will give the government its best force and synthesis in the face of the difficult counsels and perplexing tasks of regulation with which it is face to face, and no one can play the leading part in such a matter with more influence or propriety than the president. If he have character, modesty, devotion, and insight as well as force, he can bring the contending elements of the system together into a great and efficient body of common counsel. . . .
- 1. Whig political theory was first prominent in British politics in the late seventeenth century. In opposition to the Tories, Whigs opposed absolute monarchy, preferring a system in which the representative Parliament was the predominant political power. In addition, Whigs tended to prefer a more limited government, with checks and balances keeping any one person in the government from becoming too powerful.
- 2. Wilson was suggesting that the system of checks and balances preferred by the Whigs and the American Founders resembled Newtonian physics because the various branches of government counteracted each other. He advocated a system of government that would follow Darwinian theory, with its separate parts working together as a unified organism under the president’s leadership.
- 3. Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brede and de Montesquieu (1689–1755), was a French political philosopher who is best known today for his book The Spirit of the Laws, which among other things articulated the theory of separation of powers. Montesquieu profoundly affected the thought of the American Founders and the design of the U.S. Constitution. During the period when the U.S. Constitution was being written and ratified, Montesquieu’s work was cited more often in America than that of any other political philosopher.
- 4. Thomas Brackett Reed (1839–1902) was Speaker of the House 1889–1891 and 1895– 1899. He was one of the most powerful Speakers and is known for establishing the Reed Rules in 1890, which gave significant authority to party leaders to control proceedings in the House. For more on Reed, see Documents 25 and 26.
- 5. For more on the role of committees during the late nineteenth century, see the Brownlow Committee's Report.
- 6. A party caucus is an informal group of legislators who organize their efforts to accomplish shared goals. Important policy decisions are often made in caucuses, especially if there are mechanisms for enforcing these decisions during floor votes.
- 7. Wilson was likely thinking of constitutional provisions that link the president and the Senate, especially the requirements for Senate concurrence in treaties and presidential appointments. Some members of the Constitutional Convention believed that these provisions would establish the Senate as a sort of council to the president similar to those that existed at the state level during the 1780s.