Judge Andrew Napolitano has written a book, Theodore and Woodrow. It is on the first decades of the 20th century, when the Progressive movement captured American politics. Except for the 1920’s — Harding and Coolidge — Progressivism has never surrendered political control in the United States.
I spoke with him on July 22, at Mises University, the annual week-long training program for undergraduates, which is sponsored by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He was presenting a week-long series of lectures on the Constitution and the free market. The students get very good training on how the United States Constitution has been reinterpreted over the years, especially during the Progressive era.
I gave him some background that almost nobody knows. The essence of the battle for constitutional interpretation in the 20th century is found in the names “Woodrow” and “Wilson.”
THOMAS WOODROW WILSON
Woodrow Wilson’s full name was Thomas Woodrow Wilson, but he never went by Thomas. He always went by Woodrow. Woodrow is a strange name for a little boy to have. It is certainly a strange first name. As a middle name, it was okay, because it was his mother’s maiden name. So is my middle name. But I do not call myself by this middle name.
Woodrow Wilson’s father was Joseph Ruggles Wilson. He was the senior permanent bureaucrat in the southern Presbyterian Church in the late 19th century. He maintained the position of Stated Clerk for a third of a century. He was part of what was known as Old School Presbyterianism. This was the most conservative theological faction in 19th-century America — the true hard-liners. They were committed to a long document, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1648), plus two other documents, the Shorter Catechism in the Larger Catechism. These are the most detailed creedal documents in American history.
The position of the Old School was this: in order to become an elder in the Presbyterian Church, you had to swear your allegiance to these three long, highly detailed documents. A candidate for eldership was allowed certain reservations or exceptions, but these had to be approved by the presbytery, the regional bureaucratic structure. This applied to teaching elders (ministers/preachers) and ruling elders (laymen who had votes in the local congregation and the presbytery). In terms of Constitutional language, these were “original intent” interpreters of the foundational documents, i.e., the strict constructionists.
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