How was “the butterfly of liberty” transformed into “the worm of statism” that would “gnaw at the core of American’s political culture”? More than one hundred years ago, Woodrow Wilson emerged as a major culprit in this transformation, writes Juliana Pilon, Senior Fellow, The Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI). Wilson pulled a “sleight-of-hand,” she explains, consciously misusing the concepts of liberty and liberalism, both originally freedom-oriented, to promote a new philosophy that has been their near-opposite.

In “Liberalism Hijacked” for Fusion, a new online journal of the American Institute for Economic Research, Dr. Pilon describes a verbal legerdemain that was “arguably … the most tectonic political act in American history to date. In plain daylight, within the space of a few months, the president switched [his self-description] from … progressive … to new-style liberal.”

Long before his presidency, Wilson had been known in intellectual circles as a major left-of-center political scientist and critic of the U.S. Constitution. “I am a progressive,” he said while running for re-election in 1916. “I do not spell it with a capital P, but I think my pace is just as fast as those who do.”

Only months later in January 1917, he claimed to be “speaking for liberals and friends of humanity in every nation and of every program of liberty.” Yet he was proposing a politics in which, as Wilson said, all people “unite to act in the same sense … all act in the common interest.”

Dr. Pilon explains that although others, too, contributed to this verbal sleight-of-hand, “Wilson did more than anyone to propel into the mainstream … the idea that some fuzzy notion of collective good collectively pursued, rather than individual freedom, was the paramount ideal of government action. He accomplished this … by switching labels midstream.”

Wilson, she writes, “had actually revealed his underlying viewpoint decades earlier.” In a paper, not published in his lifetime, titled “Socialism and Democracy,” he said: “[S]ocialism is a proposition that every community, by … whatever forms of organization may be most effective,” ensures “that each one of its members finds the employment for which he is best suited and is rewarded according to his diligence and merit, all proper surroundings of moral influence being secured to him by the public authority. ‘State socialism’ … proposes that all idea of a limitation of public authority by individual rights be put out of view, and that the State consider itself bound to stop only at what is unwise or futile in its universal superintendence alike of individual and of public interests.”

During World War I, Dr. Pilon notes, Wilson faced a dilemma: how could he “explain the emerging geopolitical realities to his progressive constituents, stubbornly pacifist and still staunchly opposed to taking sides in a war that did not seem to affect the United States? What occurred most readily to his academically trained mind was also the most obvious, if slightly cynical: find the most popular label, then redefine it, completely, if need be, and then blithely appropriate it.”

Dr. Pilon quotes The Language of Politics in America: Shaping Political Consciousness from McKinley to Reagan, by political theorist David Green: “The rhetoric of liberalism gave him a maneuverability … that progressive rhetoric could not. It would have been extremely dangerous to have argued foreign policy in the language of progressivism, especially as he moved closer to war … The liberal label was … relatively untainted … by domestic political controversy.”

“By casting the United States as the defender of freedom as against German imperialism,” Dr. Pilon writes, Wilson (in Green’s words) “helped prepare Americans … for an unprecedented assertion of governmental authority in the name of liberty.” The term “liberty” would not have worked for him, Green observes, unless it had “some … connotations, however superficial,” in common with his actual beliefs.

Dr. Pilon also points to previous misappropriation of the concept. The confusing of “liberty” and “liberal” with statism occurred, too, in later 19th century Britain. As the historian Lord Acton warned in an 1877 address, there were now dangerously “false ideas” about liberty.

In addition, leftists and modern self-styled liberals have continued to misuse political terminology. In 1969, Dr. Pilon writes, the prominent New Leftist Saul Alinsky “asked a rhetorical question of the young Hillary Rodham … writing her college thesis under his tutelage: ‘Must definitions perhaps be as fluid as the actions they purport to describe?’”