Management & Labor

The Unconstitutional Governor

Woodrow Wilson's term as governor of New Jersey had a major impact on the future of state government in America.
by | May 2006

Ninety-five years ago, in a caucus room at the state capitol in Trenton, New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson reached in his pocket for a piece of paper, read out loud from it and--arguably--inaugurated the American governorship as a modern institution.

I know this only because I was asked recently to write an essay about Wilson's gubernatorial career for a conference to coincide with the 150th anniversary of his birth. I'm no Wilson scholar, to put it mildly: The one thing I knew about his governorship was that it consisted of a single two-year term. But that encouraged me to think that I could master the subject reasonably well in time for the conference. So I agreed to do it.

Most educated Americans know that Wilson was president during World War I; that he pushed to create a League of Nations; that he was a moralist when it came to the U.S. role in the world. A smaller number will recall that before that, he was a political scientist and president of Princeton University. Wilson's term in the New Jersey statehouse seems like a sort of inter-regnum: the brief time he spent in between the two major adventures of his life.

But as I am now coming to understand, Wilson's gubernatorial term, although short, was enormously significant in its own right, not only for him and for New Jersey but also for the future of state government around the country. And that brings us back to the piece of paper.

Wilson, newly sworn in as governor, was in the Assembly caucus room on March 13, 1911, to lobby for his main legislative priority: an election-reform bill creating direct popular primaries for all major state offices. He really didn't belong there. In the recorded history of New Jersey politics, no governor had tried to attend a legislative caucus. It was thought to violate the separation of powers under which all state governments were supposed to operate. Several of the assemblymen tried to get Wilson to leave. One of them, Thomas F. Martin, indignantly asked, "What constitutional right has the governor to interfere in legislation?"

That's when Wilson pulled out a copy of the state constitution and read: "The governor shall communicate by message to the legislature at the opening of each session, and at such other times as he may deem necessary, and recommend such measures as he may deem expedient." He put the paper back in his pocket and said, "I stand on the Constitution."

In Wilson's view, that last clause was a license to do virtually anything he thought proper--lobby, cajole, negotiate, use public opinion as a weapon in changing legislative minds. In short, do all the things that we now expect effective governors to do, but that few of them had tried to do in the previous 122 years of U.S. history. Wilson won his point and stayed in the room; he also prevailed on the election bill, and on every major piece of legislation he recommended that year.

It's such a good story that you have to be careful not to press it too far. Wilson wasn't the only one thinking about these things. In the first decade of the 20th century, Robert La Follette in Wisconsin and progressive governors in several other states had crafted legislative agendas and looked for new ways of putting them across. But they were more interested in policy than procedure. They didn't have a plan to change the structure of American government. Wilson did. He had been working on it for 25 years.

In 1885, as a 28-year-old graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, Wilson had written "Congressional Government," the one significant piece of original scholarship he was to produce in his life. Although it dealt with politics in Washington, D.C., not in the states, it left no doubt about what Wilson thought was wrong with government in America at every level: Power was fragmented. Executives had a slice of it, legislatures had a slice of it, but there was no central authority strong enough to devise policy, get it enacted and then see it carried out. What was needed was something more like a parliamentary system, in which the executive and legislative branches were fused together by common electoral accountability, and the voters knew whom to blame when government failed.

Wilson was smart enough to realize that British-style parliamentary government wasn't about to come to America, but he never lost his belief that fragmentation was the central political problem and that the way to attack it was to take aim at the separation of powers.

No one in the caucus room that day in 1911 should have been surprised by the new governor's assertiveness. He had laid it all on the line in his campaign the previous fall. If being a constitutional governor meant sticking to separation of powers and leaving the legislature alone, he declared, then he wanted to be an unconstitutional governor. "I give notice now," he said, "that I am going to take every important subject of debate in the legislature out on the stump and discuss it with the people." After his election, he told a national governors conference that he and his colleagues had an opportunity to create, "outside the sphere of the federal congress, a new instrument of political life."

What made Wilson's first few weeks as governor remarkable, however, wasn't just his determination to change the rules: It was the effort he expended in putting his theories into practice. He met personally with virtually every Democrat in the Assembly. He went with the senators to a fried chicken and waffle dinner and danced the cakewalk with them. It seems today like little more than good politics, but in 1911, it was something new.

The first real test of Wilson's gubernatorial revolution was his battle to deny a U.S. Senate seat to James Smith Jr., New Jersey's longtime political boss and a man of impeccable manners but sleazy reputation. Years before, while serving a previous Senate term, Smith had fought to raise the tariff on sugar while secretly buying up stock in sugar companies. But taking him on was a shockingly aggressive move, not only because the decision was up to the legislature and the governor didn't have to be involved in it, but also because Smith had orchestrated Wilson's nomination.

And yet Wilson decided that he had to intervene. If he acquiesced in the election of a tainted machine politician to the U.S. Senate, he would risk losing his own credentials as a reformer and jeopardizing his entire legislative program. So he unleashed a barrage of oratory against Smith in speeches all over the state. Sometimes he was flowery and moralistic. At one point, he called his campaign against Smith "part of the age-long struggle for human liberty." But at other times he was tough and menacing. "These are our terms," he proclaimed to an audience in Jersey City. "War if you are allied with the enemy. Peace if you are on the side of justice... Any man who turns away from the right way will be marked and labelled."

Words such as those have a chilling quality even now, in an age when negative campaigning is standard politics. One can only guess how they sounded at a time when governors weren't supposed to mess with Senate elections--let alone threaten legislators with vindictive punishment.

But, it worked. Wilson disposed of Smith, secured passage of the election bill, and then won overwhelming approval of his three other legislative priorities: a Corrupt Practices Act, a workers' compensation law, and establishment of a utility commission with rate- setting authority over water and power companies.

When the session ended, the veteran reform politician George Record, initially an opponent of Wilson, praised "the most remarkable record of legislation ever known in the history of this or any other state." The governor wasn't shy about claiming full credit. "I wrote the platform," he said, "I had the measures formulated to my mind, I kept the pressure of opinion constantly on the legislature, and the programme was carried out to its last detail."

In substantive terms, some of Wilson's gubernatorial achievements were ephemeral. The bosses he thought he had vanquished returned to power in the state Democratic Party as soon as Wilson himself left for Washington in 1913; neither the direct primary nor the Corrupt Practices Act prevented New Jersey from establishing a reputation as one of the nation's most corruption-prone states for the rest of the 20th century.

But there was one undeniably lasting effect of Wilson's dramatic gubernatorial term: on the governorship itself, not only in New Jersey but in states all over the country. Before 1911, most American governors thought it was unnecessary--if not improper--to draw up an agenda of bills and try to impose it on the legislature or to appeal to the voters as a way of pressuring the legislators. Now, very few believe that. There will always be governors who steer clear of legislative activism, who fall back on the separation of powers, but they are not the ones whose achievements we tend to remember.

Had Woodrow Wilson never served as governor of New Jersey, the system would still have changed. The doctrine of separated powers, as understood in the states in the 19th century, wasn't really appropriate for the 20th century, let alone the 21st. But it all happened faster and more dramatically because Wilson knew exactly what he wanted to do and how to go about doing it. His time in Trenton was short, but it was a lot more important than I had ever imagined--both for him and for the future of state government in America.Before 1911, Most governors thought it was unnecessary--if not improper--to draw up an agenda of bills for the legislature.

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