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Woodrow Wilson's Changing Views of the Senate

April 12, 1907

Portrait of President Woodrow Wilson

In 1906, the president of Columbia University invited the president of Princeton University to deliver a series of lectures on American government. On April 12, 1907, Columbia students turned out to hear Princeton President Woodrow Wilson discuss the United States Senate.

In the 20 years since he had prepared his doctoral dissertation on Congress without ever visiting Congress, Wilson had gained considerable first-hand experience with the Senate. In 1907, he viewed the body with a spirit of cordiality and toleration. "There is no better cure for thinking disparagingly of the Senate than a conference with men who belong to it, to find out how various, how precise, how comprehensive their information about the affairs of the nation is; and to find, what is even more important, how fair, how discreet, how regardful of public interest they are."

Wilson noted sympathetically the "unmistakable condescension with which the older members of the Senate regard the President of the United States." Senior senators treat him "at most as an ephemeral phenomenon," because they have served longer than presidents and their "experience of affairs is much mellower than the President's can be; [they look] at policies with steadier vision than the President's; the continuity of the government lies in the keeping of the Senate more than in the keeping of the executive, even in respect to matters which are of the especial prerogative of the presidential office. A member of longstanding in the Senate feels that he is the professional, the President an amateur."

Over the following decade, conditioned by experience as governor of New Jersey and president of the United States, Wilson acquired a decidedly darker view of executive-legislative relations. In 1913, he denounced senators delaying a vote on a conference report as "a lot of old women." In 1917, those who filibustered armaments legislation were "a little group of willful men." In 1919, asked to accept reservations to the Treaty of Versailles offered by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Henry Cabot Lodge, he said, "Never! I'll never consent to adopt any policy with which that impossible name is so prominently identified."

Never in American history was there a president better equipped to work constructively with the Senate; never were there more tragic consequences of his failure to do so.