Heather Cox Richardson
Woodrow Wilson was the first president since John Adams to speak directly to Congress.
This was news to me when I stumbled on it yesterday.
His appearance was no small thing. It was headline news across the nation, and it sent official Washington into a tizzy.
Wilson went to Congress—and took his entire Cabinet with him, for good measure—because he really, really wanted congressmen to pay attention to his signature measure: a bill that would lower the tariff. As soon as he had been inaugurated, Wilson had called a special session of Congress to convene on April 7, 1913, to consider tariff revision. Then he had spent a month strong-arming congressmen into supporting lower tariffs. This was a harder sell than he had thought it would be, for Democratic congressmen who had talked fervently about free trade on the political stump balked at lowering tariff rates for products that competed with the things made by their own constituents—notably sugar from the deep South.
When it came time to spur reluctant congressmen to action on the measure Wilson’s lieutenants had written, the President decided to interpret literally the clause of the Constitution that provided the president “shall from time to time give congress information on the state of the union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
Wilson designed his personal visit to combat Congress’s habit of ignoring presidential communications. In the nineteenth century, the president transmitted a message to Congress by having it printed, then handing it to a secretary, who then appeared on the floor of Congress. The chair of each house would recognize the secretary, who would deliver the printed missive. The chair would read the message at a convenient time, but few congressmen bothered to hang around to listen. They would read the printed message at their leisure. Or ignore it.
Wilson was determined to make Congress listen to him. While he put it nicely, insisting that he was simply hoping for close relations with congressmen, the bottom line was that he was forcing representatives and senators to endure a lecture from the executive branch. And while he was very careful to keep the message exceedingly short, congressmen—even Democrats—warned him he was playing with fire. They implored him to stick to “advising,” rather than dictating.
The tariff revision that emerged from this jockeying was hugely important. The Revenue Act of 1913 changed the nation’s tariff principles for the first time since the Republicans had taken power in 1861, lowering tariffs and abandoning the government’s high-protectionist stance. To make up revenue lost from the lower rates, the measure also enacted an income tax of 1% for incomes over $4,000, with higher rates for those making more than $20,000 a year.
Considering how many precedents it broke and how many it established, I’m shocked that this entire episode was news to me.