A. Scott Berg is a biographer and the author of the forthcoming book “Wilson.”
“THERE has been a change of government,” declared Woodrow Wilson in his first sentence as president of the United States, one hundred years ago this Monday. Until 1937, when the 20th Amendment moved Inauguration Day to late January, chief executives took their oaths of office on March Fourth, a date that sounds like a command.
Nobody heeded this implied imperative more than Wilson: the 28th president enjoyed the most meteoric rise in American history, before or since. In 1910, Wilson was the president of a small men’s college in New Jersey — his alma mater, Princeton. In 1912, he won the presidency. (He made a brief stop in between as governor of New Jersey.) Over the next eight years, Wilson advanced the most ambitious agenda of progressive legislation the country had ever seen, what became known as “The New Freedom.” To this day, any president who wants to enact transformative proposals can learn a few lessons from the nation’s scholar-president.
With his first important piece of legislation, Wilson showed that he was offering a sharp change in governance. He began his crusade with a thorough revision of the tariff system, an issue that, for decades, had only been discussed. Powerful legislators had long rigged tariffs to buttress monopolies and to favor their own interests, if not their own fortunes....