Bumped from the weekend. – by Rosi
After serving as President of Princeton University, and then campaigning for the governorship, Wilson quickly shed his professorial style for more emboldened speechmaking, and presented himself as a full-fledged progressive. As governor (1911-1913) he was at once the architect of a lot of modern liberalism, but with the stain of racism as a blot to his record. He exuded optimism, successfully fought political bosses, and rapidly achieved progressive victories. Murphy would do well to heed former Governor Wilson.
In an interview with the NYTimes in October 1910 as candidate for governor, the emerging reformer Wilson said he saw hope in an awakening public because it showed that people were unwilling to stand for corruption any longer. Asked if he was not discouraged by NJ graft, he said, “No. I am an optimist.” This optimism is something that Murphy would do well to continue during his tenure.
Democrats were saying at that time that if he wins in “Mosquito Land [ie. NJ] he will be good timber for nomination as President.” In a humorous NYT article a few weeks later a dodgy character proclaims, ‘This Wilson Prof may make some mischief for National Politics if he is not squelched at once. He is full of dangerous dynamite.”
Well Wilson was not squelched at once. His opportunity came in the summer of 1910 when Colonel George Harvey and James Smith, Jr.– two of the most powerful men in New Jersey – proposed that Wilson run for state governor. With their support and his own power of oration he won the gubernatorial office with the largest majority vote for a Democrat up to that time. Critics denounced him as a hypocrite because of his machine-backed campaign, rather similar to that of Murphy’s campaign, but once in office he stood up to the bosses and weakened the machine. Murphy would do well to follow former Governor Wilson.
In the gubernatorial race he defeated his Republican opponent although Republican William Howard Taft had carried New Jersey in the 1908 presidential election by more than 82,000 votes. Historian Edmund Morris called Wilson in the Governor’s race a “dark horse.” Wilson attributed his and others’ success against the Taft Republicans in part to the emergent national progressive message enunciated by Theodore Roosevelt after his presidency.
Aligned with the progressive forces, Wilson upon his inauguration maintained such heavy pressure on the legislature that he won enactment of most of his program in one session. He implemented direct primaries; effective state regulations of public utilities; workmen’s compensation; municipal reform; and reorganization of the school system. In early 1913 he won the last of his important demands – antitrust legislation to drive industrial monopolies from New Jersey. Murphy might do well striking forcefully in his first year when he can easily claim a mandate.
Born in Staunton, Virginia, Wilson spent his early years in Georgia and South Carolina. His father was a leading Presbyterian in the Confederacy during the Civil War, and Wilson was always a devout Presbyterian and a proud Southerner. As governor his administration included no blacks. Can we judge early 20th century behavior by 21st century standards? Yes, but we should also celebrate Wilson for his many progressive achievements.
As predicted back in 1910 Wilson ran for and won the Presidency, serving for two terms from 1913 to 1921. He developed a program of progressive reform and asserted international leadership in building a new world order. He maneuvered through Congress lower tariffs, a graduated Federal Income Tax, the Federal Reserve, prohibition of child labor, and limiting railroad workers to 8 hours a day. He supported a 19th constitutional amendment giving women suffrage. He was the first to propose the League of Nations (a forerunner of the United Nations) but left office never having convinced the United States to join it. He was our only president who ever earned a Ph.D.and one of the last to pen his own speeches.
Former DNC Chair Howard Dean tweeted recently that Murphy “could be our next president.” Regardless of whether such fate awaits Phil Murphy, Woodrow Wilson so far remains NJ’s only governor to assume that title. More importantly he was the first governor to bring progressive leadership to our state.
BIOGRAPHIES OF WOODROW WILSON
- A. Scott Berg: Wilson – a result of more than a decade of research and writing.
- John Milton Cooper: Woodrow Wilson: A Biography – a 2010 Pulitzer Finalist in the Biography category.
- August Heckscher: Woodrow Wilson: A Biography – maybe the best of his biographies.
Leading up to the inauguration of Governor Phil Murphy this series of articles provides a look back at past progressive NJ governors: Go here for Gov. Brendan Byrne, here for Gov. Jim Florio, and here for Gov. Jon Corzine.