American intellectuals encountered Germany in the 1870s and 1880s, when thousands of them flocked there to study the new “social sciences” at its universities. Many were dazzled by what they saw as the world’s most advanced and efficient nation, and by the top-down social welfare system Bismarck was building.
They were captivated, too, by the philosophy of Georg W.F. Hegel — a German thinker whose “historical idealism” undergirded the Prussian state. Hegel’s vision of man and the state ran directly counter to the American founders’ classical liberalism. He did not view human rights as inherent in nature, universal, and existing prior to the state. Instead, he maintained that rights “evolve” historically and take different forms at different times and places. The state, in his view, is both the source of rights and the engine of historical progress.
Wilson, like many intellectuals of his generation, was besotted by the progressive vision. He scoffed at Americans’ “blind worship” of their Constitution and the limits it placed on government power. And he was impatient with checks and balances, which he viewed as an irrational obstacle to the policy changes that progress demanded.