The unhappiness of Woodrow Wilson

Did the president lament the day he "unwittingly ruined" his country by creating the Federal Reserve?

Topics: Globalization, How the World Works, Federal Reserve, Ron Paul,

Did Woodrow Wilson bitterly regret his role in creating the Federal Reserve? Some readers of my post yesterday on Ron Paul and the Federal Reserve believe so. Two of them proffered an identical quote as evidence.

I am a most unhappy man. I have unwittingly ruined my country. A great industrial nation is controlled by its system of credit. Our system of credit is concentrated. The growth of the nation, therefore, and all our activities are in the hands of a few men. We have come to be one of the worst ruled, one of the most completely controlled and dominated Governments in the civilized world — no longer a Government by free opinion, no longer a Government by conviction and the vote of the majority, but a Government by the opinion and duress of a small group of dominant men.

On the hundreds of Web sites on which this quote appears, it is typically taken as proof of Wilson’s remorse at handing over control of the nation’s money supply to a cabal of Wall Street money men. A common framing: “Woodrow Wilson signed into effect the Federal Reserve Act on December 23, 1913. And said the following just six years later.” Even the Wikipedia page for Woodrow Wilson includes the quote, as proof that “Historians generally agree that Wilson hated the Federal reserve, and it made him, by his own word, “a most unhappy man…”

Frequency of repetition doesn’t make for reliable sourcing, however, and convincing documentary evidence that Wilson uttered such words, in reference to his role creating the Federal Reserve, is hard to come by. In fact, the available evidence suggests that the quote is an after-the-fact fabrication made by splicing together passages of different Wilson statements that have nothing at all to do with the Federal Reserve.

Two separate portions of the quote appear in The New Freedom: A Call for the Emancipation of the Generous Energies of a People,” published in 1913. “The New Freedom” is a distillation of campaign speeches Wilson made while running for President in 1911.



On page 185 there is the following section:

A great industrial nation is controlled by its system of credit. Our system of credit is privately concentrated. The growth of the nation, therefore, and all our activities are in the hands of a few men who, even if their action be honest and intended for the public interest, are necessarily concentrated upon the great undertakings in which their own money is involved and who necessarily, by very reason of their own limitations, chill and check and destroy genuine economic freedom.

And on page 201:

We are at the parting of the ways. We have, not one or two or three, but many, established and formidable monopolies in the United States. We have, not one or two, but many, fields of endeavor into which it is difficult, if not impossible, for the independent man to enter. We have restricted credit, we have restricted opportunity, we have controlled development, and we have come to be one of the worst ruled, one of the most completely controlled and dominated, governments in the civilized world — no longer a government by the opinion and the duress of small groups of dominant men.

Now, this is all good rabble-rousing stuff, but its relevance to the creation of the Federal Reserve is nonexistent. The speeches these quotes were adapted from were delivered before the Federal Reserve was created. And as for the melodramatic utterance: “I am a most unhappy man. I have unwittingly ruined my country,” well, so far, the sourcing well is coming up dry.

Some may question whether such historical nitpicking is relevant to the current presidential campaign. They may do so as they please. But if you want to engage in conspiracy theory, it’s a good idea to get your facts straight.

UPDATE: Via e-mail, John M. Cooper, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, and the author of several books on Woodrow Wilson, writes:

“I can tell you categorically that this is not a statement of regret for having created the Federal Reserve. Wilson never had any regrets for having done that. It was an accomplishment in which he took great pride.”

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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