Woodrow Wilson

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Woodrow Wilson

December 28, 1856
Staunton, Virginia
February 3, 1924
Washington, D.C.

President, scholar, frustrated peacemaker

Woodrow Wilson, a scholar and university president who entered public life after a successful academic career, is regarded as one of the most influential presidents in U.S. history, largely because of his leadership during World War I and his earnest, though unsuccessful campaign to persuade the U.S. Senate to join the League of Nations, an international assembly that would encourage nations to resolve their disputes through peaceful means. A Democrat, Wilson served as the twenty-eighth president of the United States, from 1913 to 1921. In his first term, he was able to concentrate on his domestic "New Freedom" programs, which increased the power of the federal government to regulate business and the economy.

Wilson's second term was overshadowed by America's involvement in the Great War, later known as World War I. With Wilson as commander in chief, troops from the American Expeditionary Forces entered the war in 1917 on the side of the Allies (Great Britain, France, and Italy) and helped defeat the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire). After an armistice (peace treaty) was declared on November 11, 1918, Wilson traveled to the peace conference in Versailles, France, and presented his Fourteen Points plan for a new world order. This plan proposed the establishment of a League of Nations. But the American people had become strongly isolationist toward the end of the war; that is, many of them thought that America should keep out of European and other world problems. Because of this prevailing mood, Wilson was unable to convince the Senate to ratify U.S. participation in the League. In 1919, he embarked on a grueling nationwide tour to bring his case directly to the American people, but he suffered a paralyzing stroke and remained a virtual invalid for the remainder of his term. Despite this failure, Wilson is regarded as an early and serious internationalist (a person who believes in a policy of cooperation among nations for mutual benefit) who helped lay the groundwork for American participation in world affairs a generation later.

The Making of a Scholar

Thomas Woodrow Wilson—he dropped the first name in his adult years—was born on December 28, 1856, in Staunton, Virginia, the son of Joseph Ruggles Wilson, an Ohioborn Presbyterian minister, and Jessie Janet Woodrow Wilson, who had been born in England. The young Wilson was the third of four children. Soon after his birth, the Wilsons moved to Augusta, Georgia, where they were living when the Civil War broke out in 1861. Although he had been born in a northern state, Joseph Wilson sympathized with the Southern cause and served as a chaplain in the Confederate army. His son, the future president, witnessed horrible scenes of conflict, and it is likely that these memories stayed with him as he tried to negotiate a lasting peace after World War I.

In 1873, Thomas Woodrow Wilson entered Davidson College in North Carolina, but he had to withdraw the following year because of ill health. A year later, he entered the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), where he participated in debate and public speaking and wrote for college publications before graduating in 1879. Later that year, he entered the University of Virginia Law School, and after graduation he began practicing law in Atlanta, Georgia. But Wilson loved the classroom more than the courtroom, and in 1885 he started teaching history and political science at Bryn Mawr College, a school for women near Philadelphia. The following year, he received his PhD in history from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1885, he wrote his first book, Congressional Government, which was widely praised for its analysis of the American political system. That same year, he married his first wife, Ellen Louise Axson; the couple eventually had three daughters. Ellen died in 1914, just after becoming First Lady. In 1915, Wilson married Edith Bolling Galt, who became a close advisor to her husband during the last two years of his second term, when he was a semi-invalid.

From the Classroom to the Political Arena

After teaching at Wesleyan University in Connecticut for two years, where he also coached the football team, Wilson joined the faculty of his alma mater, Princeton University, in 1890. There he taught jurisprudence (the study of law) and political economy. He remained a professor at Princeton for twelve years, during which time he wrote several more books, including his most important one, A History of the American People, published in 1902. That same year, he was elected president of Princeton University. Dressed in his familiar cap and gown, Wilson became a commanding presence on campus, taking bold steps to reorganize the college, improve its curriculum (courses of study), and make student life more democratic. His proactive approach was compared to the style used by Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), who was then president of the United States.

While at Princeton, Wilson also began to consider a political career. He accepted the Democratic Party's nomination to be governor of New Jersey and was elected to that office in 1910. As governor, he supported many progressive reforms, such as regulation of public utilities, workers' compensation, and antitrust legislation (laws designed to limit the power of "trusts," large corporations that work together to increase their power in the marketplace). Wilson's success as governor of this important state put him in the national spotlight. In 1912, the Democrats nominated Wilson as their presidential candidate. The national election was a three-way race: Running against Wilson were Republican William Howard Taft (1857–1930), the incumbent president (person already holding political office), and former president Theodore Roosevelt, the candidate of the Progressive, or Bull Moose, Party. Wilson easily won the election.

First Term as President (1913–17)

On March 4, 1913, Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated as the twenty-eighth president of the United States, with Thomas R. Marshall serving as his vice president. Wilson was often called "the schoolmaster in the White House" because of his career in education. During his first term, Wilson tried to implement what he called a "New Freedom" platform, which included antitrust legislation, a reduction of tariffs (duties, which are a kind of tax) on imported goods, and financial reforms. Among his successful projects during his first term were the Federal Reserve System, which is still in charge of U.S. banks, and the Federal Trade Commission.

When war broke out in Europe in the summer of 1914, Wilson tried to keep the United States "impartial in thought as well as in action." This was in keeping with a long American tradition of avoiding what George Washington once called "foreign entanglements." However, in accordance with the Monroe Doctrine, Wilson directed a foreign policy that took an active role in affairs in the Western Hemisphere, and he sent troops to Haiti and the Dominican Republic to protect U.S. interests there. The United States and Mexico nearly went to war in 1914 after Wilson sent U.S. forces to occupy Veracruz as a protest against Victoriano Huerta's military coup (sudden overthrow of the government) in Mexico City. After one Mexican faction, led by Francisco "Pancho" Villa (1878–1923), attacked the settlement of Columbus, New Mexico, in March 1916, Wilson sent General John Joseph Pershing (1860–1948) to lead a punitive expedition onto Mexican soil.

By this time, all of Europe was embroiled in the deadliest war to ravage that continent since the Hundred Years' War five centuries earlier. But Wilson continued to advocate U.S. neutrality despite growing German naval threats. When the Lusitania, a British ocean liner, was torpedoed by German submarines on May 7, 1915, more than a hundred Americans were killed, and there was much pressure on Wilson to enter the war against Germany. Wilson resisted the demands for outright war, but he strongly protested the German attacks on civilian vessels. He began a behind-the-scenes diplomatic campaign to assist the British and to prepare the United States for possible armed conflict. In the presidential election of 1916, Wilson's supporters used the slogan "He Kept Us Out of War" to persuade voters to reelect Wilson for a second term. During the campaign season, Wilson secured the passage of more progressive legislation, like aid to farmers, an eight-hour workday for railroad workers, a bill to end child labor, and higher income taxes on the rich. Wilson and Marshall won reelection over the Republican candidates, Charles Evans Hughes and his running mate, Charles W. Fairbanks. This time, however, the vote was much closer. The Wilson-Marshall ticket won 277 electoral votes, and the Hughes-Fairbanks ticket won 254—the closest electoral college margin until the election of 2000.

Second Term as President (1917–21)

Early in 1917, the Germans stepped up their U-boat (submarine) attacks on American vessels, and in April Wilson asked Congress to declare war "to make the world safe for democracy." On April 6, 1917, Congress voted overwhelmingly to enter the war, marking the first time in U.S. history that troops were sent to fight in Europe. Led by Pershing, who had earlier led the expedition in Mexico, the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) soon arrived in France, helping relieve the weary Allied troops who had been fighting for three years. Under Wilson's leadership, the American people united to support the war. In May 1917, Congress passed a Selective Service act that required young men to be drafted into the armed services.

On January 8, 1918, Wilson gave his famous Fourteen Points address, in which he described his ideas for the postwar reconstruction of Europe on the principles of openness, democracy, and self-determination (the idea that countries should be able to determine their own political destinies without interference from other countries). Key to Wilson's plan was the establishment of a League of Nations, an international assembly that would encourage nations to resolve their disputes through peaceful means. In the Fourteen Points address, Wilson's humanitarian, idealistic side came through strongly: He wanted to persuade the Allies not to punish the Central Powers after the war; he hoped both sides would work together to achieve democracy and economic development in every country.

Wilson's diplomacy helped persuade the Germans to accept the armistice of November 11, 1918. The armistice officially terminated what has been called "the war to end all wars."

At the end of November, Wilson sailed for the peace conference at Versailles, near Paris, France, becoming the first American president to visit Europe while in office. At the conference, he represented the United States as one of the "Big Four," the leaders of the victorious Allied powers, a group that included Prime Minister David Lloyd George (1863–1945) of Great Britain, Premier Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929) of France, and Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando (1860–1952) of Italy. Wilson was idolized by many Europeans for his principled stand and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 1919. How ever, he was forced to compromise some of his positions in negotiations with his colleagues, who wanted to impose harsher penalties on Germany than what Wilson thought was desirable. Still, Wilson stubbornly refused to abandon his dream of international cooperation through the League of Nations. But when he returned to the United States in January 1919, he confronted strong opposition from the American public and Congress: They were glad to be out of the war and "foreign entanglements," and they wanted to concentrate on domestic matters. Because it was one of the terms of the peace treaty, membership in the League had to be approved by a twothirds majority in the U.S. Senate. Wilson's chief Republican opponent in Congress, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (1850–1924) of Massachusetts, became a bitter opponent of the League, but Wilson vowed to bring the question directly to the American people. He embarked on an eight-thousand-mile cross-country tour, speaking in city after city. Wilson emphasized the importance of international cooperation, and in reference to the treaty, he asked Americans, "Dare we break it and break the heart of the world?"

A Broken Champion of Peace

Wilson's own heart was broken as he came to realize that the mood of the American people was very much at odds with his vision. In September 1919, while speaking in Pueblo, Colorado, he nearly collapsed and had to return to Washington, D.C., where he suffered a stroke a week later. For the rest of his term, he remained in virtual seclusion in the White House. During this time, his wife, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, is believed to have made important state decisions on his behalf. Without Wilson to fight for it, the Versailles treaty failed to make it through the Senate. Instead, the United States made a separate peace with Germany (outside the plan of the Paris Peace Conference) and never joined the League of Nations. In retrospect, some historians believe that U.S. membership in the League could have helped prevent the emergence of Nazism (a political movement led by Adolf Hitler that promoted racism and the expansion of state power) in Germany as well as the Second World War some twenty years later. Postwar America underwent its own difficulties: Racial and class conflict erupted into violence, and Wilson was unable to restrain his attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, from severely restricting civil liberties during the crisis. An example of such restrictions is the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which was ratified by the states in 1919. This amendment prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcoholic beverages. However, in 1920, they also ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, which expanded individual liberties by giving women the right to vote.

Because of his health, Wilson was unable to run in the presidential elections of 1920, the first in which women were able to vote in all forty-eight states. The national ticket of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge easily defeated Democrats James M. Cox and Franklin D. Roosevelt (the latter had served as an assistant secretary of the navy in Wilson's war cabinet and would, like Coolidge, later serve as president of the United States). Wilson died in Washington, D.C., on February 3, 1924, and is buried in the National Cathedral there.

For More Information


Heckscher, August. Woodrow Wilson: A Biography. New York: Scribner, 1991.

Knock, Thomas J. To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Link, Arthur S., ed. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson. Vol. 68. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Osinski, Alice. Woodrow Wilson: Twenty-Eighth President of the United States. Chicago: Children's Press, 1989.

Randolph, Sallie G. Woodrow Wilson, President. New York: Walker, 1992.

Rogers, James T. Woodrow Wilson: Visionary for Peace. New York: Facts on File, 1997.

Walworth, Arthur. Woodrow Wilson. 3rd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978.


The American President (series). PBS, 2000.

Web sites

"Woodrow Wilson: A Brief Overview." Woodrow Wilson House. [Online] http://www.woodrowwilsonhouse.org (accessed April 2001).

Woodrow Wilson Birthplace. [Online] http://www.woodrowwilson.org (accessed April 2001).

The United States Emerges as a World Power

Although the United States had gone to war with Great Britain in 1812, Mexico in 1846, and Spain in 1898, it maintained a steadfast policy of not committing troops outside the Western Hemisphere until 1917, when Woodrow Wilson dispatched the American Expeditionary Forces to Europe during World War I. The American people supported the troops "over there" in a burst of patriotic frenzy, but Wilson misread the mood of the country: Americans still favored George Washington's advice to steer clear of foreign entanglements.

During the nineteenth century, the United States was too busy expanding a new nation and fighting its own civil war to worry much about European affairs. By the early 1900s, though, things were changing, and the United States began to emerge as a world power in its own right, especially after World War I (1914–18) devastated Europe. During his term as president (1901–09), Theodore Roosevelt sent the U.S. Navy around the world to demonstrate American sea power, and he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his mediation in the Russo-Japanese War. Woodrow Wilson, too, won a Nobel Peace Prize, in 1919. Historians now believe that Wilson made some serious miscalculations in making his case for the League of Nations, especially by stubbornly refusing to include his political opponents in the peace negotiations.

Today, Wilson is widely considered to have been a thinker ahead of his time. His plan for a League of Nations was largely realized in 1945 with the creation of the United Nations, an international body that helps resolve disputes between nations. Ever since World War II (1939–45), America has been very involved in world affairs. It has fought wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, and it has participated in United Nations actions in Africa and the Balkans. Though critics complain that the United States has become the world's bully, imposing its will on smaller, less powerful countries, it seems likely that Wilson would have been pleased with America's role as a dominant player in promoting peace around the world.

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