Woodrow Wilson - Parliamentary leader





Long study of Anglo-American politics had convinced Wilson that party responsibility was the key to effective government in a democracy. Parties had to enunciate and stand for principles, and a party platform was a covenant with the people. But parties could not play their essential role without leaders. As governor of New Jersey (1911–1913), Wilson had confounded many cynics by fulfilling every pledge in the New Jersey Democratic platform of 1910. He had also invigorated and substantially transformed the Democratic party in his state.

Wilson was determined to unite the fragmented and hitherto leaderless Democrats in Congress into a disciplined phalanx. As he wrote on the eve of his inauguration in 1913, the president


is expected by the nation to be the leader of his party as well as the chief executive officer of the government, and the country will take no excuses from him.. . . He must be the prime minister, as much concerned with the guidance of legislation as with the just and orderly execution of law.

The White House announced a few days after Wilson's inauguration that the new "prime minister" would help to frame legislation and would confer frequently with Democratic leaders in Congress in the President's Room in the Capitol. This Wilson did throughout his administration. He planned the first legislative program with his spokesmen in Congress even before he was inaugurated. He then broke a precedent, established by Jefferson, by going in person before a joint session of Congress on 8 April 1913 to deliver his message on tariff reform. Wilson kept in close touch with congressional leaders, and no detail of legislation escaped his eye; virtually no legislation was adopted without his prior approval.

Wilson established his leadership of the Democrats in Congress usually through sheer force of personality and moral leadership, by simply reminding them of their obligations to the country. He was courteous, even deferential, in discourse and disarmed potential dissidents by affirming that they, as much as he, wanted to do their duty. As Samuel G. Blythe wrote at the time, he was agreeable, mild-mannered, even solicitous about it all, "but . . . he is firmly and entirely the leader, and insists upon complete recognition as such.. . . The Democratic party revolves around him. He is the center of it; the biggest Democrat in the country—the leader and the chief."

Wilson succeeded as a parliamentary leader mainly because Democratic members admired him intensely, recognized his elevated motives and purposes, and wanted to make their party an effective instrument of government. It was silly to talk about his bending Congress to his indomitable will, Wilson said, for "Congress is made up of thinking men who want the party to succeed as much as I do, and who wish to serve the country effectively and intelligently.. . . They are using me; I am not driving them."

In summation, Wilson was the parliamentary leader par excellence in the history of the American presidency. During the period when he enjoyed a majority in Congress (1913–1919), he broke down the wall between the executive and legislative branches, focused executive and legislative leadership in his own person, and established himself as the spokesman of the American people in domestic and international affairs.





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