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President Woodrow Wilson

Updated on January 6, 2017

Woodrow Wilson was the son of Joseph Ruggles Wilson, who was the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Staunton, Va. The elder Wilson accepted a call to Augusta, Georgia, in 1857. "My earliest recollection", Woodrow Wilson said long afterward, "is of standing at my father's gateway in Augusta, Georgia, when I was four years old, and hearing someone pass and say that Mr. Lincoln was elected and there was to be war". Joseph Ruggles Wilson, a strong southern sympathizer even though he had grown up in Ohio, was a chaplain in the Confederate Army. His son saw only the backwash of war, but he never forgot its terror or the lessons that it taught.

Early Life and Manhood, 1870-1902

The Wilsons moved to Columbia, S.C., in 1870, when Dr. Wilson accepted a professorship at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He learned much from his brilliant father, continued his schooling, and joined the church in 1873. The following autumn he entered Davidson College in North Carolina. Because of illness Wilson stayed with his family in Wilmington, N.C., to which they had just moved, during 1874 and part of 1875. In September 1875 he entered the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University. He was a conscientious if not brilliant student (he stood midway in his class), and he read widely in the classics and fell in love with history. An ardent debater, he also wrote for college magazines and published an article in the national monthly, International Review, just after his graduation in 1879.

Having resolved to become a "statesman", Wilson entered the Law School of the University of Virginia in the autumn of 1879, but had to withdraw after a physical breakdown in December 1880. After study at home, he opened a law office in Atlanta in June 1882. Admitted to the bar a few months later, he did not prosper. In despair he entered the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in September 1883 to prepare himself for a career in teaching. Among a remarkable group of scholars Wilson did distinguished work, and wrote his first book, Congressional Government (1885), analyzing the weaknesses of leadership in the American constitutional system. This was his dissertation for the doctor's degree which Johns Hopkins awarded him in 1886. On June 24, 1885, he married Ellen Louise Axson in Rome, Ga. It was a happy marriage blessed by three daughters.

Wilson accepted an associate professorship of history at Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia in 1885. He was not happy at this woman's college, and he accepted a professorship at Wesleyan University in Connecticut in 1888 with an alacrity that betrayed his yearning for a "class of men". At Wesleyan he was an immediate success. He published a major work in comparative government, The State, in 1889 and coached one of the most successful football teams in Wesleyan's history. But he could not refuse the call to a professorship from Princeton when it came in 1890.

Everything seemed to work together to make the 12 years of Wilson's professorship at Princeton a time of rich fulfillment. He grew notably in scholarly maturity, publishing Division and Reunion (1893), a pioneer study of the American Civil War; his largest work, History of the American People (1902); and other books and essays as well. He was a regular lecturer at Johns Hopkins during most of this period, and at least seven times he was offered the presidency of universities. As a teacher and faculty colleague he was an unrivaled success. When the trustees of Princeton virtually deposed the president, the Reverend Dr. Francis L. Patton, in 1902, they turned unanimously to Wilson. He was the first layman ever chosen to the presidency of the university.

President of Princeton University, 1902-1910

Wilson was inaugurated with becoming pomp at Princeton on Oct. 25, 1902. He was a striking figure in his gown. His height and build were average, but his rectangular face, with its jutting jaw and flashing eyes, radiated power and reflected quick intelligence. In his mature personality Wilson was at once simple and complex. He had a quick and orderly mind and a rare ability to cut through the maze of details to the essence of a subject. Among his family he was affectionate, and went far beyond the call of duty in supporting and helping to educate indigent kinfolk. He was utterly dependent upon love and friendship, but he perhaps demanded too much of friends and did not take lightly what he regarded as betrayal of trust. But throughout his life he drew his greatest strength from the resources of Christian faith. A Presbyterian elder, he had a superb command of Reformed theology, read the Bible daily, and attended divine services regularly. It was no accident that he never thought about public matters, as well as private ones, without first trying to decide what faith and Christian love commanded in the circumstances.

All his adult life Wilson had been fascinated by the problems of leadership in the American and British political systems. Now he resolved to lead trustees and faculty in a drive to make "in fact a great university" out of a run-down college. First came a radical change in the method of instruction with the addition of some 50 young scholars to launch what Wilson called the preceptorial system. It supplemented course lectures with discussion conferences conducted by preceptors. At the same time, Wilson took the lead in thoroughgoing reorganization of the university's curriculum. Completed in 1904, it assured considerable integration of fields of study without, however, denying some choice to undergraduates. Along with these changes went a noticeable improvement in academic standards.

From 1906 to 1907 Wilson moved to his next objective: the reorganization of undergraduate social life, by proposing to abolish upperclass eating clubs, which had become centers of college activity; and to group students in residential quadrangles, each with its dining hall, common room, and faculty fellows. Although Wilson did not attack the clubs in their most vulnerable spot —their reputation for exclusiveness—he evoked such violent opposition from alumni and students that the trustees quickly withdrew the approval they had tentatively given. Wilson did not take defeat meekly. He nearly resigned when a committee of the trustees buried the quadrangle plan in a final report early in 1908.

The next two years were marked by increasing turmoil at Princeton. The ostensible issue was the location of a new graduate college. The dean of the Graduate School, Andrew F. West, wanted to build the college at some distance from the campus; Wilson insisted that it should be located in the center of the university. The real cause of conflict was personal antagonism, and Wilson was right in thinking that West meant to build his own empire. In 1909 Wilson persuaded the trustees to decline one gift of a graduate college to be built on West's terms. But he was helpless when an alumnus died in 1910, leaving between $2 to $4 million to carry out West's plans.

Governor of New Jersey, 1911-1913

In the spring of 1910, Col. George Harvey, editor of Harper's Weekly, persuaded James Smith, "boss" of the New Jersey Democratic Party, to support Wilson for the gubernatorial nomination. In despair over West's recent triumph, Wilson agreed to accept the nomination if it were offered without conditions. Smith's well-oiled machine worked perfectly, but his plan to elect a dignified puppet soon went awry. Wilson accepted the Democratic state convention's nomination, aligned himself with the progressive forces that had been fighting Smith, and won in a landslide on Nov. 8, 1910. It was only the beginning of the revolution. Before his inauguration Wilson prevented Smith's election to the United States Senate by the state legislature. Inaugurated on Jan. 17, 1911, the new governor maintained such heavy pressure on the legislature at Trenton that he won enactment of most of his program in one session: direct primaries; effective state regulations of public utilities; workmen's compensation; municipal reform; and reorganization of the school system. In early 1913 he won the last of his important demands—antitrust legislation to drive industrial monopolies from New Jersey.

These triumphs made Wilson a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1912. He worked hard, but his cause seemed hopeless when the Democratic national convention opened in Baltimore, Md., on June 25, 1912. Champ Clark of Missouri, speaker of the House of Representatives, commanded nearly a majority of the delegates, while Representative Oscar W. Underwood of Alabama had drawn off some 100 delegates who would otherwise have gone to Wilson. Clark achieved a majority on the 10th ballot, but not the necessary two thirds, when Tammany swung New York into his column. On the 14th ballot, William Jennings Bryan, Democratic leader from Nebraska, switched his vote from Clark to Wilson. This dramatic move did not turn the tide, but Wilson gained slowly. He won the nomination on the 46th ballot with the help of the Underwood men.

The ensuing presidential campaign was filled with excitement and drama. President William Howard Taft, the Republican nominee, had no chance and knew it. But Theodore Roosevelt, who had entered the race at the head of the third-party Progressive ticket, campaigned with great vigor. He called for a New Nationalism looking toward sweeping extension of federal regulation and welfare activity. Wilson countered with what he called the New Freedom—a program to liberate American economic energies by drastic tariff reduction, strengthening of antitrust laws and reorganization of the banking and credit system. Wilson won 435 electoral votes out of 531, and carried a Democratic Congress into office on Nov. 5, 1912, but he polled only 42 percent of the popular vote.

The New Freedom, 1913-1914

It was not easy for the leader of a party that had been out of power for 20 years to build an administration from the ground up. The chief cabinet post, the secretaryship of State, went to Bryan. The appointment of other party regulars signified that Wilson would work through established machinery instead of a bipartisan progressive coalition. However, Wilson lost no time after his inauguration on March 4, 1913, in demonstrating that he meant to use all his power as president and party leader. He called Congress into special session to redeem his first promise of tariff reform. Appearing in person before a joint session on April 8, he broke a century-old precedent and emphasized his determination to lead in legislation. The battle that followed was the crucial test of Wilson's domestic leadership. A tariff reform bill, sponsored by Representative Underwood, passed the lower house easily enough, but dangers in the Senate threatened emasculation if not defeat of the Underwood bill. Just when it seemed that it would go the way of earlier tariff reform measures, Wilson launched a bold attack—by charging that an industrious and insidious lobby was trying to defeat honest tariff legislation. Democratic opposition in the Senate melted. The Underwood Act, approved Oct. 3, 1913, was the first tariff legislation uninfluenced by special interests since the Civil War. It greatly enlarged the free list, reduced general rates from a level of about 40 percent to 26 percent, and imposed the first income tax under the 16th Amendment.

Meanwhile, Wilson had already begun his campaign for badly needed currency and banking reform. Working with Representative Carter Glass of Virginia, the president hammered out the Federal Reserve bill. It established 12 Federal Reserve banks to perform central banking functions. Coordinating and controlling the entire system was a Federal Reserve Board of presidential appointees. The measure also created a new currency, Federal Reserve notes, issued by Federal Reserve banks against gold and commercial credits. The House approved the bill on Sept. 18, 1913, but Wilson won Senate approval on December 19 only after a hard fight against private banking interests.

Only antitrust reform remained to complete the New Freedom program. At the outset of the debate over proposals in early 1914, Wilson still thought that clarification of the Sherman Act would suffice. But he was soon persuaded to adopt another solution. He lost interest in his first measure, the so-called Clayton Antitrust bill. However, Congress approved it, with a meaningless amendment saying that labor unions were not illegal combinations in restraint of trade; and Wilson signed the measure on Oct. 15, 1914. Meanwhile, he had concentrated on his new solution, the Federal Trade Commission bill. It outlawed "unfair" trade practices in sweeping terms, and created a Federal Trade Commission to issue "cease and desist" orders to prevent unfair competition. This measure, which heralded a new era of governmental regulation, received Wilson's signature on Sept. 26, 1914.

Foreign relations were a constant source of perplexity during Wilson's first two years in office. Both he and Secretary Bryan hoped to inaugurate a new foreign policy of helpfulness. They signed treaties with 30 nations providing for investigation of disputes that might lead to conflict. But goodwill alone did not suffice to settle other problems. They negotiated a treaty with Colombia to repair the damage done by Theodore Roosevelt's complicity in the Panamanian revolution of 1903, only to have the treaty rejected by the Senate. They were unable to persuade the California legislature to avoid insult to Japan in legislation to prevent Oriental ownership of land. In Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic they pursued policies of helpfulness that led, in the case of the last two countries, to forcible military occupation in 1915 and 1916.

The New Freedom abroad met its severest challenge in Mexico. In February 1913 Victor-iano Huerta, head of the Mexican Army, deposed and arranged the murder of President Francisco Madero, and took power as acting president. Recoiling at the treachery, Wilson refused to accord formal recognition to Huerta. Then, during the summer of 1913, he sent a special agent to Mexico City with a plan for Huerta's retirement and the election of a new government. When Huerta refused and established a military dictatorship, Wilson supported Huerta's rivals, the Constitutionalists. Finally, using the momentary arrest of American sailors at Tampico as an excuse, Wilson, on April 21, 1914, ordered the Navy to occupy Veracruz. The operation went off on schedule, but not without bloodshed and the threat of full-scale war. Wilson accepted the mediation offered by Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, but he did all he could to hasten Huerta's downfall. The Constitutionalists occupied Mexico City in August 1914, but Wilson's troubles were not over. His recognition of one Constitutionalist faction caused the leader of another, Francisco Villa, to sack Columbus, N.Mex. on March 9, 1916. Wilson sent a punitive expedition under Gen. John J. Pershing into Mexico in pursuit. Villa cleverly drew Pershing so deeply into the country that the Mexican government threatened war. A clash occurred at Carrizal, and Wilson drafted a war message. But reason prevailed, and war was miraculously averted. Wilson withdrew the punitive expedition in January 1917.

Neutrality and the Road to War, 1914-1917

Wilson's world was shattered 'by two tragedies in the summer of 1914—Mrs. Wilson's death on August 6, and the outbreak of general war in Europe a few days before. Americans disagreed about the causes and issues of the war, but virtually all of them wanted to remain outside its vortex. So also did Wilson and most of his advisers. The president not only proclaimed his government's official neutrality, but also appealed to Americans on August 18 to be "impartial in thought as well as in action". Difficulties arose first with the British, who used their sea power to control neutral trade in ways that sometimes stretched international law if they did not break it. The severest challenge came in February 1915, when the Germans announced that they would use submarines to destroy Allied merchantmen, and that neutrals might suffer as well. The British and French retaliated by declaring a total blockade against all commerce to and from Germany. The United States was caught in the crossfire, and Wilson was prepared to make substantial adjustments. Then a. submarine torpedoed the British liner Lusitania without warning on May 7, 1915, killing more than 100 Americans among others. Wilson warned that repetition of the sinkings would lead to war. After the torpedoing of the British liner Arabic on August 19, the German government gave the definite promise of safety for passenger ships that Wilson had demanded.

The Arabic pledge gave Wilson an opportunity to pursue a campaign for peace that he had begun the winter before. He sent Col. Edward M. House, his most intimate adviser, to London in January 1916 to explore the possibilities of peace through Anglo-American cooperation. Soon afterward Wilson pressed the German government hard on the issue of the safety of armed merchantmen, and fought off a congressional rebellion aimed at legislation to prevent Americans from traveling on armed ships. The issue came to a head when a submarine sank the English Channel packet Sussex on March 24. The president threatened to break relations with Germany, and the German government, on May 4, 1916, gave a sweeping pledge to follow conventional rules in attacking merchantmen.

These events were prelude to the presidential campaign in the offing. Earlier it had seemed that preparedness would be the major issue. But Wilson had taken leadership in a moderate campaign, and during the spring of 1916 Congress was busy passing legislation to strengthen the armed forces. The Republicans nominated Charles Evans Hughes, associate justice of the Supreme Court, on an evasive platform. There was no doubt whom the Democrats would name. Wilson received the nomination on June 15, but the Democrats cheered so wildly for peace that the Democratic campaign slogan was changed from "Preparedness" to "He Kept Us Out of War". Wilson took up the peace theme at the same time that he set out to win a large number of former Progressives. He had begun this campaign earlier by obtaining passage of a bill to establish Federal Farm Loan banks to provide long-term credit to farmers. During the summer and autumn Wilson obtained adoption of other legislation that brought the progressive movement to its first culmination: a federal child labor bill; a Federal Tariff Commission; the eight-hour day for railroad workers; heavy new income taxes on the rich; and the first estate tax in American history. By making progressivism and peace the twin issues of the campaign, Wilson won enough Progressives to transform a Democratic minority into a majority on Nov. 7, 1916, although the change of some 1,500 votes in California would have given Hughes a majority in the Electoral College.

Wilson could now turn to the project nearest his heart; mediation of the European war. After many discouragements he asked the belligerents on Dec. 18, 1916, to state the terms upon which they would be willing to stop fighting. Through Colonel House he also began secret negotiations with the British and German governments. The British were apparently ready for serious discussions, but the Germans did not trust Wilson and decided to make one last gamble in a bid for victory with their greatly augmented submarine fleet. Their answer came on Jan. 31, 1917, in the form of a proclamation of unlimited submarine warfare against all maritime commerce, neutral as well as belligerent. Wilson broke diplomatic relations with Germany on February 3, even while he continued to hope for peace. But a series of incidents drove him to armed neutrality and then, reluctantly, to a decision for war. On April 2 he asked for a declaration of war so that America could help to preserve civilization and make the world safe for democracy. Congress adopted the war resolution on April 6, 1917.

War Leader, 1917-1918

Never before had so many urgencies beset a harried president as during the period of American participation in World War I. There were vast new problems of military and industrial mobilization. It took strong pressure from the White House to obtain the Selective Service Act in May 1917. When industrial mobilization lagged, Wilson took control of the railroads in December and established an economic dictatorship under Bernard M. Baruch of the War Industries Board. Wilson was also commander in chief of the largest armed forces in American history; this fact necessitated frequent consultations with military leaders, particularly General Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force in France. There were baffling new diplomatic problems, occasioned, for example, by the Bolshevik triumph in Russia and the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Wilson made his greatest contribution in formulating war aims that for the first time gave some meaning to the conflict. As early as Jan. 22, 1917, he had called for a peace of reconciliation and establishment of a postwar league of nations. He reiterated this plea in his Fourteen Points Address of Jan. 8, 1918. Abandoning the hope for a peace without victory after the Germans imposed a severe peace on Russia in March 1918, Wilson continued to voice the aspirations of liberals throughout the world for a peace settlement based on democracy and self-determination, without annexations and indemnities.

The Germans naturally turned to the American president for armistice discussions when the fortunes of war turned sharply against them in the autumn of 1918. In brilliant negotiations Wilson persuaded the Germans to accept terms that meant virtual surrender, but with the promise that the settlement would be based upon the Fourteen Points and other Wilsonian pronouncements. After some haggling the Allies also agreed, and the Armistice was signed on Nov. 11, 1918.

The Peace Conference, Treaty Fight, and Retirement, 1919-1924

On Dec. 4, 1918, Wilson and a large body of advisers sailed from New York aboard the George Washington to take part in the peace conference that would soon assemble in Paris. The president's standing had been weakened only a month before by the election of a Republican Congress after Wilson had asked for a vote of confidence. Wilson had ignored the Senate and leaders of the Republican Party in choosing peace commissioners. But in Europe he was hailed as the savior of mankind and the hope of the future.

The Peace Conference opened at Paris on Jan. 18, 1919, and continued until the Versailles Treaty with Germany was signed on June 28. There were numerous commissions, but all major decisions fell to the so-called Big Four: Wilson, Prime Minister David Lloyd George of Great Britain, Premier Georges Clemenceau of France, and Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando of Italy. Wilson was easily the most commanding figure— the best informed, the man most deeply committed to principles, and the one who, as we can now see, could judge immediate plans by long-range standards. Conflict was inevitable because Wilson meant to vindicate the Fourteen Points, while others were willing to honor them only when such virtue brought immediate reward.

The outcome of this encounter between Wilsonian idealism and European so-called realism was a compromise treaty that both vindicated and violated the Fourteen Points. It stripped Germany of her colonies and saddled her with a huge liability for reparations; it reduced the German Army to impotence; worst of all, it was a diktat imposed on the conquered enemy, not the negotiated settlement that the Armistice agreement had implied. And yet Wilson did not labor altogether in vain. He prevented dismemberment of Germany in the West; helped to establish a new Poland; won acceptance of the principle that colonies should be administered in trust and a pledge of future general disarmament; and, most important, forced the creation of the League of Nations, with respc5--sibility for executing the treaty and preventing future wars. He was certain that American leadership in the League and the passing of time would help to heal the world's wounds and rectify the injustices of the settlement.

There were signs that even harder labors lay ahead by the time that Wilson presented the treaty to the Senate on July 10, 1919. Opposition to American membership in the League, and particularly to the blanket commitment to collective security contained in Article 10 of the League constitution, had been manifest as early as March. By July 1919 isolationist Republicans, led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, were demanding explicit disavowal of this commitment. Unable to obtain speedy action by the Senate because of Lodge's delaying tactics, Wilson set out upon a tour of the West to generate public demand for ratification. He traveled 8,000 miles and delivered 40 addresses, the main burden of which was that future peace and American security depended upon American leadership in the new world community. The physical strain was too great for Wilson's frail body. He nearly collapsed following a speech at Pueblo, Colo., on September 25. Returning to Washington, he suffered a severe stroke and paralysis of the left side on October 2. He was thus either gravely ill or severely incapacitated at the very time that the country needed his leadership most.

The Senate voted on ratification of the Versailles Treaty on Nov. 19, 1919, and again on March 19, 1920. On both occasions Lodge, an implacable foe of both Wilson and the treaty, insisted upon reservations that would have gravely impaired American responsibility to the League. On both occasions Wilson insisted that Democrats vote for rejection rather than accept what he said was nullification of the treaty. If the Republicans would not yield, he said in a public letter on Jan. 8, 1920, then the people could decide the issue in "the great and solemn referendum", the election of 1920. On both votes in the Senate the treaty failed because neither side would budge, although considerably more than the necessary two thirds favored ratification in some form.

The denouement came quickly and, for Wilson, tragically. The Republicans won in a landslide on Nov. 2, 1920, and the new president, Warren G. Harding of Ohio, lost no time in concluding a separate peace with Germany and making it plain that the United States would never enter the League. Late in 1920 Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 1919. He retired with his second wife, Edith Boiling Gait, whom he had married in 1915, to a home on S Street in Washington, where he lived in virtual seclusion as life slowly ebbed. He was interred in the Bethlehem Chapel of the Washington Cathedral.


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