Woodrow Wilson

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White House portrait of Woodrow Wilson

Thomas Woodrow Wilson (December 28, 1856 – February 3, 1924), was the 28th President of the United States of America, a leader of the Progressive movement and proponent of the idealistic principles of Wilsonianism in world affairs. A devout Presbyterian and leading intellectual of the Progressive Era, he served as president of Princeton University then became the reform governor of New Jersey in 1910, where he fought the very bosses who had secured his election. With Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft dividing the Republican vote, Wilson was elected President as a Democrat in 1912. He proved highly successful in leading a Democratic Congress to pass major legislation including the Federal Trade Commission and the Clayton Antitrust Act, which resolved the antitrust issue; the Underwood Tariff, which resolved the tariff issue; the Federal Farm Loan Act; and most notably the Federal Reserve System, which resolved the money issue in politics.

Re-elected narrowly in 1916, his second term centered on American entry into the war, fighting the war, and settling the postwar peace terms. He tried to negotiate a peace in Europe, but when Germany began unrestricted submarine warfare against American shipping, he called on Congress to declare war. On the home front he began the first effective draft in 1917, raised billions through Liberty loans, imposed an income tax on the wealthy, set up the War Industries Board, promoted labor union growth, supervised agriculture and food production through the Lever Act, took over control of the railroads, and suppressed left-wing anti-war movements. Wilson paid surprisingly little attention to military affairs, but dominated diplomacy and provided the funding and food supplies that helped to make Allied victory in 1918 possible. In the late stages of the war he took personal control of negotiations with Germany, especially with the Fourteen Points and the Armistice that amounted to a German surrender. The Fourteen Points was his program to permanently end conflicts that lead to wars, and he went to Paris in 1919 to implement them and especially to create the League of Nations. Wilson had to compromise with French leaders who wanted revenge against Germany, and deal with overlapping and conflicting claims of national self determination, He played the single most influential role in shaping the Treaty of Versailles, with special attention on creating new nations out of defunct empires. He succeeded in getting most of the treaty he wanted, but faced a severe battle regarding Senate ratification. Wilson collapsed with a debilitating stroke in 1919, as the home front saw massive strikes and race riots, and wartime prosperity turn into postwar depression. He refused to compromise with the Republicans who controlled Congress after 1918, effectively destroying any chance for ratification of the Treaty of Versailles. The League of Nations went into operation anyway, but the U.S. never joined.


For more information, see: Wilsonianism.

Wilson's liberal internationalism, called "Wilsonianism", argued the U.S. should enter the world arena to fight for democracy and liberalism. It has been a highly controversial position in American foreign policy, serving as a model for "idealists" to emulate or "realists" to reject for the following century.

Early life

Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia in 1856 as the third of four children to Reverend Dr. Joseph Wilson (1822–1903) and Janet Woodrow (1826–1888). His ancestry was Scots-Irish and Scottish. His paternal grandparents immigrated to the United States from Strabane, County Tyrone, in modern-day Northern Ireland. Wilson's father was originally from Steubenville, Ohio where his grandfather had been an abolitionist newspaper publisher and his uncles were Republicans. But his parents moved South in 1851 and identified with the Confederacy. His father defended slavery and set up a Sunday school for them. They cared for wounded soldiers at their church. The father also briefly served as a chaplain to the Confederate army. Wilson’s father was one of the founders of the Southern Presbyterian Church PCUS after it split from the northern Presbyterians in 1861. Joseph R. Wilson served as the first permanent clerk of the southern church’s General Assembly, was Stated Clerk from 1865-1898 and was Moderator of the PCUS General Assembly in 1879. Wilson spent the majority of his childhood, to age 14, in Augusta, Georgia, where his father was minister of the First Presbyterian Church. During Reconstruction he lived in Columbia, South Carolina, the state capital, from 1870-1874, where his father was professor at the Columbia Theological Seminary. [1]

Wilson did not learn to read until he was about 12 years old. His difficulty reading may have indicated dyslexia or A.D.D., but as a teenager he taught himself shorthand to compensate and was able to achieve academically through determination and self-discipline. He studied at home under his father's guidance and took classes in a small school in Augusta.[2] In 1873 he spent a year at Davidson College in North Carolina, then transferred to Princeton as a freshman, graduating in 1879. Beginning in his second year, he read widely in political philosophy and history. He was active in the undergraduate discussion club, and organized a separate Liberal Debating Society. [3] In 1879, Wilson attended law school at University of Virginia for one year but he never graduated. His frail health dictated withdrawal, and he went home to Wilmington, North Carolina (U.S. state) where he continued his studies. Wilson was also a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity.

Wilson’s mother was probably a hypochondriac and Wilson seemed to think that he was often in poorer health than he really was. However, he did suffer from hyper-tension at a relatively early age and may have suffered his first stroke at age 39. He cycled regularly, including several cycling vacations in the Lake District in Britain. [4]

In 1882 a classmate invited Wilson to become a partner in a new law practice in Atlanta. He was admitted to the Georgia bar, but with few cases to keep him occupied, Wilson quickly grew bored. In 1883, Wilson went to the new Johns Hopkins University to study for a Ph.D. in history and political science, which he completed in 1886.

Political Writings

Wilson focused on the American constitutional structure which he believed was weak. Under the influence of Walter Bagehot's The English Constitution, Wilson saw the U.S> Constitution as too cumbersome, and open to corruption. An admirer of the British Parliamentary system whereby the elected members control the Prime Minister, Wilson favored a parliamentary system. Wilson wrote in the early 1800s:

"Should we not draw the Executive and Legislature closer together? Should we not, on the one hand, give the individual leaders of opinion in Congress a better chance to have an intimate party in determining who should be president, and the president, on the other hand, a better chance to approve himself a statesman, and his advisers capable men of affairs, in the guidance of Congress?"[5]

Wilson began Congressional Government, his best known political work, as an argument for a parliamentary system. The writing was a critical description of America's system, with frequent negative comparisons to Westminster. Wilson believed that America's system of checks and balances made it impossible for voters to see who was accountable for ill-doing. Wilson asked if the government behaved badly,

"...how is the schoolmaster, the nation, to know which boy needs the whipping? ... Power and strict accountability for its use are the essential constituents of good government.... It is, therefore, manifestly a radical defect in our federal system that it parcels out power and confuses responsibility as it does. The main purpose of the Convention of 1787 seems to have been to accomplish this grievous mistake. The 'literary theory' of checks and balances is simply a consistent account of what our Constitution makers tried to do; and those checks and balances have proved mischievous just to the extent which they have succeeded in establishing themselves... [the Framers] would be the first to admit that the only fruit of dividing power had been to make it irresponsible."[6]

The longest section is on the House of Representatives, where Wilson pours out scorn for the committee system. Wilson wrote that power "is divided up, as it were, into forty-seven signatories, in each of which a Standing Committee is the court baron and its chairman lord proprietor. These petty barons, some of them not a little powerful, but none of them within reach [of] the full powers of rule, may at will exercise an almost despotic sway within their own shires, and may sometimes threaten to convulse even the realm itself."[7] Wilson believed that the committee system was fundamentally corrupt and undemocratic, because committee chairs, who ruled by seniority, were responsible to no one except their constituents, even though they determined national policy.

"the voter, moreover, feels that his want of confidence in Congress is justified by what he hears of the power of corrupt lobbyists to turn legislation to their own uses. He hears of enormous subsidies begged and obtained... of appropriations made in the interest of dishonest contractors; he is not altogether unwarranted in the conclusion that these are evils inherent in the very nature of Congress; there can be no doubt that the power of the lobbyist consists in great part, if not altogether, in the facility afforded him by the Committee system.[8]

By the time Wilson finished Congressional Government, Grover Cleveland was President, and Wilson, a Bourbon Democrat had his faith in the United States government restored. When William Jennings Bryan captured the Democratic nomination from Cleveland's supporters in 1896, however, Wilson refused to stand by the ticket. Wilson cast his ballot for John M. Palmer, the presidential candidate of the Gold Democrats, a short-lived party that supported a gold standard, low tariffs, and limited government.[9]

After experiencing the vigorous presidencies from William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson no longer entertained thoughts of parliamentary government at home. In his last scholarly work in 1908, Constitutional Government of the United States, Wilson said that the presidency "will be as big as and as influential as the man who occupies it." By the time of his presidency, Wilson hoped that Presidents could be party leaders in the same way prime ministers were. Wilson also hoped that the parties could be reorganized along ideological, not geographic, lines. "Eight words," Wilson wrote, "contain the sum of the present degradation of our political parties: No leaders, no principles; no principles, no parties."[10]

Academic Career

Wilson served on the faculties of Bryn Mawr College and Wesleyan University (where he also coached the football team) before joining the Princeton faculty as professor of jurisprudence and political economy in 1890. While there, he was one of the faculty members of the short-lived coordinate college, Evelyn College for Women.

Wilson delivered an oration at Princeton's sesquicentennial celebration (1896) entitled "Princeton in the Nation's Service." (This has become a frequently alluded-to motto of the University, sometimes expanded to "Princeton in the World's Service.") In this famous speech, he outlined his vision of the university in a democratic nation, calling on institutions of higher learning "to illuminate duty by every lesson that can be drawn out of the past."

Wilson as President of Princeton University, 1902.

The trustees promoted Professor Wilson to president of Princeton in 1902. He had bold plans. Although the school's endowment was barely four million dollars, he sought two million for a preceptorial system of teaching, one million for a school of science, and nearly three million for new buildings and salary raises. As a long-term objective, Wilson sought three million for a graduate school and two and a half million for schools of jurisprudence and electrical engineering, as well as a museum of natural history. He achieved little of that because he was not a strong fund raiser, but he did increase the faculty from 112 to 174 men, most of them personally selected as outstanding teachers. The curriculum guidelines he developed proved important progressive innovations in the field of higher education. To enhance the role of expertise, Wilson instituted academic departments and a system of core requirements where students met in groups of six with preceptors, followed by two years of concentration in a selected major. He tried to raise admission standards and to replace the "gentleman C" with serious study. Wilson aspired, as he told alumni, "to transform thoughtless boys performing tasks into thinking men."

In 1906-10, he attempted to curtail the influence of the elitist "social clubs" by moving the students into colleges. This was met with resistance from many alumni. Wilson felt that to compromise "would be to temporize with evil."[11] Even more damaging was his confrontation with Andrew Fleming West, Dean of the graduate school, and West's ally, former President Grover Cleveland, a trustee. Wilson wanted to integrate the proposed graduate building into the same area with the undergraduate colleges; West wanted them separated. The trustees rejected Wilson's plan for colleges in 1908, and then endorsed West's plans in 1909. The national press covered the confrontation as a battle of the elites (West) versus democracy (Wilson). Wilson, after considering resignation, decided to take up invitations to move into New Jersey state politics.[12]

Governor of New Jersey

In 1910, Wilson was elected governor of New Jersey, and served in this office until becoming President in 1913. Wilson experienced early success by implementing his "New Freedom" pledges of antitrust modification, tariff revision, and reform in banking and currency matters.

Campaign for Presidency in 1912

For more information, see: United States presidential election, 1912.

Gov. Wilson ran for President on the Democratic ticket. He was not the frontrunner at first but his network of southern supporters built up a southern base, and Bryan endorsed him. He won the nomination of the xx ballot, then chose the officers of the Democratic National Committee that would serve the campaign: Charles R. Crane (Taft's Ambassador to China), Vice-President of the Finance Committee; Rolla Wells, twice mayor of St. Louis as Treasurer; Henry Morgenthau, Sr., President of the Finance Committee. His running mate was Gov. Thomas R. Marshall of Indiana.[13] Wilson called his program of limited federal activity and hostility to big business "The New Freedom."


In the election Wilson ran against two major candidates, incumbent President William Howard Taft and former president Theodore Roosevelt, who broke with Taft and the Republican Party and created the Progressive Party. The election was bitterly contested. Wilson captured the presidency handily on November 5. Wilson won with just 41.8% of the votes, but he won 435 electoral votes. Historians speculate whether or not Wilson would have defeated Taft or Roosevelt in a two-man race.

Presidency 1912-1921

First Term

Federal Reserve 1913

Historians agree that, "The Federal Reserve Act was the most important legislation of the Wilson era and one of the most important pieces of legislation in the history of the United States."[14]

Wilson signs the 1913 Federal Reserve Act, establishing the Federal Reserve System. Painting by Wilbur G. Kurtz, Sr., 1923, Woodrow Wilson Birthplace Foundation.

Wilson had to outmaneuver bankers and enemies of banks, North and South, Democrats and Republicans to secure passage of the Federal Reserve system in late 1913.[15] He took a plan that had been designed by conservative Republicans—led by Nelson W. Aldrich and banker Paul M. Warburg—and passed it. However, Wilson had to find a middle ground between those who supported the Aldrich Plan and those who opposed it, including the powerful agrarian wing of the party, led by William Jennings Bryan, which strenuously denounced banks and Wall Street. They wanted a government-owned central bank which could print paper money whenever Congress wanted. Wilson’s plan still allowed the large banks to have important influence, but Wilson went beyond the Aldrich plan and created a central board made up of persons appointed by the President and approved by Congress who would outnumber the board members who were bankers. Moreover, Wilson convinced Bryan’s supporters that because Federal Reserve notes were obligations of the government, the plan fit their demands. Wilson’s plan also decentralized the Federal Reserve system into 12 districts. This was designed to weaken the influence of the powerful New York banks, a key demand of Bryan’s allies in the South and West. This decentralization was a key factor in winning the support of Congressman Carter Glass (D-VA) although he objected to making paper currency a federal obligation. Glass was one of the leaders of the currency reformers in the U.S. House and without his support, any plan was doomed to fail. The final plan passed, in December 1913, despite opposition by bankers, who felt it gave too much control to Washington, and by some reformers, who felt it allowed bankers to maintain too much power.

Wilson named Warburg and other prominent bankers to direct the new system. Despite the reformers' hopes, the New York branch dominated the Fed and thus power remained in Wall Street. The new system began operations in 1915 and played a major role in financing the Allied and American war efforts.

Economic Policies

In 1913, the Underwood tariff lowered the tariff. The revenue thereby lost was replaced by a new federal income tax (authorized by the 16th Amendment, which had been sponsored by the Republicans). The "Seaman's Act" of 1915 improved working conditions for merchant sailors. As response to the Titanic disaster, it also required all ships to be retrofitted with lifeboats. Ironically, although in the long term the lifeboat provision would save lives, it may have contributed to the "Eastland" disaster in which the top-heavy cruise ship capsized and sank in Chicago, Illinois—killing over 800 tourists.

A series of programs were targeted at farmers. The "Smith Lever" act of 1914 created the modern system of agricultural extension agents sponsored by the state agricultural colleges. The agents taught new techniques to farmers. The 1916 "Federal Farm Loan Board" issued low-cost long-term mortgages to farmers.

Child labor was curtailed by the Keating-Owen act of 1916, but the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in 1918. Additional child labor bills would not be enacted until the 1930s.

The railroad brotherhoods threatened in summer 1916 to shut down the national transportation system. Wilson tried to bring labor and management together, but when management refused he had Congress pass the "Adamson Act" in September 1916, which avoided the strike by imposing an 8-hour work day in the industry (at the same pay as before). It helped Wilson gain union support for his reelection; the act was approved by the Supreme Court.


Wilson broke with the "big-lawsuit" tradition of his trust-busting predecessors Taft and Roosevelt. Wilson tried a new approach to encouraging competition through the Federal Trade Commission, which stopped "unfair" trade practices. In addition, he pushed through Congress the Clayton Antitrust Act making certain business practices illegal (such as price discrimination, agreements forbidding retailers from handling other companies’ products, and directorates and agreements to control other companies).

The power of this legislation was greater than previous anti-trust laws, because individual officers of corporations could be held responsible if their companies violated the laws. More importantly, the new laws set out clear guidelines that corporations could follow, a dramatic improvement over the previous uncertainties. This law was considered the "Magna Carta" of labor by Samuel Gompers because it ended union liability antitrust laws. In 1916, under threat of a national railroad strike, he approved legislation that increased wages and cut working hours of railroad employees; there was no strike.

Campaign for Reelection


Renominated in 1916, Wilson's major campaign slogan was "He kept us out of the war" referring to his administration's avoiding open conflict with Germany or Mexico while maintaining a firm national policy. Wilson, however, never promised to keep out of war regardless of provocation. In his acceptance speech on September 2, 1916, Wilson pointedly warned Germany that submarine warfare that took American lives would not be tolerated:

The nation that violates these essential rights must expect to be checked and called to account by direct challenge and resistance. It at once makes the quarrel in part our own.

Wilson faced a leading progressive intellectual Republican Charles Evans Hughes. As governor of New York from 1907-1910, Hughes had a progressive record strikingly similar to Wilson's as governor of New Jersey. Hughes as a member of the Supreme Court had not been involved in the Taft-Roosevelt battles. However, Hughes had to try to hold together a coalition of conservative Taft supporters and progressive Roosevelt partisans and so his campaign never seemed to take a definite form. Wilson ran on his record and ignored Hughes, reserving his attacks for Roosevelt. When asked why he did not attack Hughes directly, Wilson told a friend to “Never murder a man who is committing suicide.”

The final result was exceptionally close and the result was in doubt for several days. The vote came down to several close states. Wilson won California by 3,773 votes out of almost a million votes cast and New Hampshire by 54 votes. Hughes won Minnesota by 393 votes out of over 358,000. In the final count, Wilson had 277 electoral votes vs. Hughes 254. Wilson was able to win by picking up many progressive voters who had gone to Roosevelt in 1912, and union members who voted for Socialist Eugene V. Debs in 1912.

Second Term

Wilson speaking at his inauguration on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol.

Wilson's second term focused almost exclusively on World War I, which the U.S. entered on April 6, 1917, only a little over a month after the term began.

World War I

see World War I, American entry

War policy—World War I

Wilson spent 1914 through the beginning of 1917 trying to keep America out of the war in Europe. He offered to be a mediator, but neither the Allies nor the Central Powers took his requests seriously. Republicans, led by Theodore Roosevelt, strongly criticized Wilson’s refusal to build up the U.S. Army in anticipation of the threat of war. Wilson won the support of the U.S. peace element by arguing that an army buildup would provoke war. He vigorously protested Germany’s use of submarines as illegal, causing his Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan to resign in protest in 1915.

While German submarines were sinking allied ships, Britain had declared a blockade of Germany, preventing neutral shipping carrying “contraband” goods to Germany. Wilson protested this violation of neutral rights by London. However, his protests to the British were not viewed as being as forceful as those he directed towards Germany. This reflects the fact that while Britain was violating international law towards neutral shipping by mining international harbors and killing sailors (including Americans), their violations were not direct attacks on the shipping of Americans or other neutrals, while German submarine warfare directly targeted shipping that benefited their enemies, neutral or not, violating international law and resulting in visible American deaths.

Wilson and his closest advisors, Colonel House and Secretary of State Robert Lansing increasingly realized that Germany threatened both the idealistic and materialistic interests of the nation. By 1917 they viewed Germany as the incarnation of militarism and believed Prussian autocracy needed to be eliminated to make democracy and peace possible. They also viewed Germany as a threat to American commerce on the high seas and to America's internal security through its propaganda and espionage activities in Mexico.

Decision for War, 1917

President Wilson asks Congress to declare war on Germany.

When Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917 and made a clumsy attempt to enlist Mexico as an ally (see Zimmermann Telegram), Wilson took America into World War I as a war to make "the world safe for democracy."[16] He did not sign a formal alliance with Britain or France but operated as an "Associated" power. He raised a massive army through conscription and gave command to General John J. Pershing, allowing Pershing a free hand as to tactics, strategy and even diplomacy.

Wilson had decided that the war had become a real threat to humanity. Unless the U.S. threw its weight into the war, as he stated in his call for war.[17], Western civilization itself could be destroyed. His statement announcing a "war to end all wars" meant that he wanted to build a basis for peace that would prevent future catastrophic wars and needless death and destruction. This provided the basis of Wilson's Fourteen Points (January 1918), which were intended to resolve territorial disputes, ensure free trade and commerce, and establish a peacemaking organization, which later emerged as the League of Nations. Appeals to buy war bonds were highly successful, however. Bonds had the result of shifting the cost of the war to the affluent 1920s.

The Fourteen Points

On January 8, 1918, Wilson made his famous Fourteen Points address, introducing the idea of a League of Nations, an organization with a stated goal of helping to preserve territorial integrity and political independence among large and small nations alike. The speech was highly idealistic, translating Wilson's progressive domestic policy of democracy, self-determination, open agreements, and free trade into the international realm. Much of the speech was drafted by aide Walter Lippmann. It made several suggestions for specific disputes in Europe on the recommendation of Wilson's foreign policy advisor, Colonel House, and his team of 150 advisors known as “The Inquiry.” The points are:

I. Abolition of secret treaties
II. Freedom of the seas
III. Free Trade
IV. Disarmament
V. Adjustment of colonial claims (decolonization and national self-determination)
VI. Russia to be assured independent development and international withdrawal from occupied Russian territory
VII. Restoration of Belgium to antebellum national status
VIII. Alsace-Lorraine returned to France from Germany
IX. Italian borders redrawn on lines of nationality
X. Autonomous development of Austria-Hungary as a nation, as the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved
XI. Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, and other Balkan states to be granted integrity, have their territories deoccupied, and Serbia to be given access to the Adriatic Sea
XII. Sovereignty for the Turkish people of the Ottoman Empire as the Empire dissolved, autonomous development for other nationalities within the former Empire
XIII. Establishment of an independent Poland with access to the sea
XIV. General association of the nations – a multilateral international association of nations to enforce the peace (League of Nations)

The speech was widely hailed by public opinion in the U.S. and Europe, and drove a wedge between the German leaders and the German people, who welcomed Wilson's formula. The French government, however, wanted high reparations from Germany to pay for the past and future costs of the war to France. Britain, as the great naval power, did not want freedom of the seas. Wilson compromised with Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and many other European leaders during the Paris Peace talks to ensure that most of the point, and especially the fourteenth point, the League of Nations, would be established.

Foreign Policies

Versailles 1919

In 1919 Wilson was the dominant world leader at the Paris Peace Conference, which settled Europe's new boundaries, made peace and imposed massive reparations on Germany, and created Wilson's idealized League of Nations. Wilson sought nationhood for eastern Europe (but not Ireland) and an equitable peace. Wilson intended the Fourteen Points as a means toward ending the war and achieving an equitable peace for all the warring nations. He spent six months at Paris with top aides such as Colonel House and a large delegation of academic experts. He worked tirelessly to promote his plan. The charter of the proposed League of Nations was incorporated into the conference's Treaty of Versailles.


Wilson failed to win Senate support for ratification and the United States never joined the League. Republicans under Henry Cabot Lodge controlled the Senate after the 1918 elections, but Wilson refused to give them a voice at Paris and refused to agree to Lodge's proposed changes. The key point of disagreement was whether the League would diminish the power of Congress to declare war. Historians generally have come to regard Wilson's failure to win U.S. entry into the League as perhaps the biggest mistake of his administration, and even as one of the largest failures of any American presidency.[18] However, Wilson was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize for his peacemaking efforts.

Intervention in Latin America

Between 1914 and 1918, the United States intervened in Latin America, particularly in Mexico, Haiti, Cuba, and Panama. The U.S. maintained troops in Nicaragua throughout his administration and used them to select the president of Nicaragua and then to force Nicaragua to pass the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty. American troops in Haiti forced the Haitian legislature to choose the candidate Wilson selected as Haitian president. American troops occupied Haiti between 1915 and 1934.

Bolshevik Russia

After Russia left the war in 1917 following the Bolshevik Revolution and started providing help to the Germans, the Allies sent troops to prevent a German or Bolshevik takeover of allied-provided weapons, munitions and other supplies which had been previously shipped as aid to the Czarist government. Wilson sent expeditionary forces to assist the withdrawal of Czech and Slovak exiles along the Trans-Siberian Railway, hold key port cities at Arkangel and Vladivostok, and safeguard supplies sent to the Tsarist forces. Though not sent to engage the Bolsheviks, the U.S. forces did have several clashes with them. Wilson withdrew the soldiers on April 1, 1920, though some remained as late as 1922. As Davis and Trani conclude, "Wilson, Lansing, and Colby helped lay the foundations for the later Cold War and policy of containment. There was no military confrontation, armed standoff, or arms race. Yet, certain basics were there: suspicion, mutual misunderstandings, dislike, fear, ideological hostility, and diplomatic isolation....Each side was driven by ideology, by capitalism versus communism. Each country sought to reconstruct the world. When the world resisted, pressure could be used." [19]

Domestic Issues

Dealing With Political Radicals

To stop defeatism during the war, Wilson pushed the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 through Congress to suppress anti-British, pro-German and anti-war opinions. He welcomed socialists who supported the war, such as Walter Lippmann, but would not tolerate those who tried to impede the war or, worse, assassinate government officials, and pushed for deportation of foreign-born radicals.[20] His wartime policies were strongly pro-labor, but he didn't tolerate radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World. The American Federation of Labor and other 'moderate' unions saw enormous growth in membership and wages during Wilson's administration.

Wilson set up the United States Committee on Public Information, headed by George Creel (the Creel Commission), which filled the country with patriotic anti-German appeals. The Post Office censored foreign language newspapers.

Wilson had ignored the problems of demobilization after the war, and the process was chaotic and violent. Four million soldiers were sent home with little planning, little money, and few benefits. A wartime bubble in prices of farmland burst, leaving many farmers bankrupt or deeply in debt after they purchased new land. In 1919, major strikes in steel and meatpacking broke out. Serious race riots hit Chicago and other cities.

Wilson talks with Congressman Palmer as Governor of New Jersey.

After a series of bombings by radical anarchist groups in New York and elsewhere, Wilson directed Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer to put a stop to the violence. Palmer then ordered the Palmer Raids, with the aim of collecting evidence on violent radical groups, to deport foreign-born agitators, and jail domestic ones.[21]

Wilson broke with many of his closest political friends and allies in 1918-20, including Colonel House. He desired a third term, but his Democratic party was in turmoil, with German voters outraged at their wartime harassment, and Irish voters angry at his failure to support Irish independence.

Women's suffrage

Until Wilson announced his support for suffrage, a group of women calling themselves "Silent Sentinels" protested in front of the White House, holding banners such as "Mr. President—What will you do for woman suffrage?" "Absolutely nothing." In January 1918, after years of lobbying and public demonstrations, Wilson finally announced his support of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote. The Amendment passed the House but failed in the Senate. Finally, on June 4, 1919, the Senate passed the amendment.


President Woodrow Wilson, seated at desk with his wife, Edith Bolling Galt, standing at his side.

The cause of his incapacitation was a stroke caused perhaps by the physical strain of the demanding public speaking tour he undertook to obtain support of the American people for ratification of the Versailles Treaty. After one of his final speeches to attempt to promote the League of Nations in Pueblo, Colorado, on September 25, 1919[3], he collapsed, and on October 2, suffered a serious stroke that almost totally incapacitated him; he was paralyzed on his left side and blind in his left eye. Historians speculate that a series of minor strokes may have affected his personality. For a few months at least, he was confined to a wheelchair. Afterwards he could walk only with the assistance of a cane. The full extent of his disability was kept from the public until after his death on February 3, 1924.

Wilson was purposely, with few exceptions, kept out of the presence of Vice President Thomas R. Marshall, his cabinet or Congressional visitors to the White House for the remainder of his presidential term. Meanwhile, his wife, Edith Wilson, served as steward, selecting issues for his attention and delegating other issues to his cabinet heads. This was, as of 2007, the most serious case of presidential disability in American history and was later cited as a key example why the 25th Amendment. dealing with presidential disability was needed.


Wilsonian Idealism

Wilson in presidential coach

Wilson was a remarkably effective writer and thinker and his diplomatic policies had a profound influence on shaping the world. Diplomatic historian Walter Russell Mead has explained:

"Wilson's principles survived the eclipse of the Versailles system and that they still guide European politics today: self-determination, democratic government, collective security, international law, and a league of nations. Wilson may not have gotten everything he wanted at Versailles, and his treaty was never ratified by the Senate, but his vision and his diplomacy, for better or worse, set the tone for the twentieth century. France, Germany, Italy, and Britain may have sneered at Wilson, but every one of these powers today conducts its European policy along Wilsonian lines. What was once dismissed as visionary is now accepted as fundamental. This was no mean achievement, and no European statesman of the twentieth century has had as lasting, as benign, or as widespread an influence."[22]

American foreign relations since 1914 have rested on Wilsonian idealism, argues historian David Kennedy, even if adjusted somewhat by the "realism" represented by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Henry Kissinger. Kennedy argues that every president since Wilson has, "embraced the core precepts of Wilsonianism. Nixon himself hung Wilson's portrait in the White House Cabinet Room. Wilson's ideas continue to dominate American foreign policy in the twenty-first century. In the aftermath of 9/11 they have, if anything, taken on even greater vitality."[23]

Wilson and Race

Wilson was considered more liberal on race issues than southern intellectuals, but less so than northerners. He won large numbers of black votes in 1912 by meeting with black leaders and civil rights spokesmen, promising to deal with African Americans "fairly and justly," and supporting pro-Wilson black organizations.[24] When in 1913 southern cabinet members started segregating the races Wilson supported the practice because they set quotas that guaranteed slots for blacks; he told the cabinet he wanted blacks to continue to have as many jobs in the federal government. He did not support the segregation laws that were proposed (but not passed) in Congress.[25]

The country's most prominent black intellectual, NAACP leader W.E.B. DuBois vigorously supported Wilson in 1912 and 1916, and in 1918 was offered an Army commission in charge of dealing with race relations. DuBois accepted but failed his Army physical and did not serve.[26] Wilson was criticized by southerners for not completely abolishing black federal employment. The segregation in the federal government introduced by Wilson was not finally rescinded until the Truman Administration.

In Woodrow Wilson's History of the American People, he explained that the Ku Klux Klan of the late 1860s was the lawless reaction to a lawless period during Reconstruction. Wilson noted that the Klan “began to attempt by intimidation what they were not allowed to attempt by the ballot or by any ordered course of public action.” [27].

Wilson's History was quoted in the film The Birth of a Nation, a spectacular hit that was attacked been criticized by the NAACP for racism. Thomas Dixon, author of the novel The Clansman upon which the film is based, was one of Wilson's graduate school classmates at Johns Hopkins in 1883-1884. Dixon arranged a special White House preview (this was the first time a film was shown in the White House) without telling Wilson what the film was about. Wilson most likely did not make the statement, "It is like writing history with lightning, my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." That was invented by a Hollywood press agent. In fact, Wilson felt he had been tricked by Dixon and publicly said he did not like the film; Wilson blocked its showing during the war.[28] In a 1923 letter to Senator Morris Sheppard of Texas Wilson noted of the reborn Klan, “...no more obnoxious or harmful organization has ever shown itself in our affairs.” [29]


Wilson worked to integrate new immigrants into the Democratic party, into the army, and into American life. For example, the war bond campaigns were set up so that ethnic groups could boast how much money they gave. He demanded in return during the war that they repudiate any loyalty to the enemy.

Irish Americans were powerful in the Democratic party and opposed going to war alongside their enemy Britain, especially after the violent suppression of the Easter Rebellion of 1916. Wilson won them over in 1917 by promising to ask Britain to give Ireland its independence. At Versailles, however, he reneged and the Irish-American community vehemently denounced him. Wilson, in turn, blamed the Irish Americans and German Americans for the lack of popular support for the League of Nations, saying,

"There is an organized propaganda against the League of Nations and against the treaty proceeding from exactly the same sources that the organized propaganda proceeded from which threatened this country here and there with disloyalty, and I want to say--I cannot say too often--any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready."[30]

Wilson, a staunch opponent of anti-Semitism was sympathetic to the plight of Jews, especially in Poland. As President, Wilson repeatedly stated in 1919 that U.S. policy was to "acquiesce" in the Balfour Declaration but not officially support Zionism [31]

Later life

In 1921, Wilson and his wife moved to a house in the Embassy Row section of Washington, where he died. Wilson continued going for daily drives and attended Keith's vaudeville theater on Saturday nights, but had little political activity. He was buried in Washington National Cathedra]. Mrs. Wilson stayed in the home until her death on December 28, 1961. She left the home to the National Trust for Historic Preservation to be made into a museum honoring her husband; the Woodrow Wilson House opened as a museum in 1964.

Further reading

see the more detailed guide at Woodrow Wilson/Bibliography

  • Brands, H. W. Woodrow Wilson 1913-1921 (2003), short biography excerpt and text search
  • Clements, Kendrick, A. Woodrow Wilson: World Statesman (1999) excerpt and text search
  • Clements, Kendrick A. The Presidency of Woodrow Wilson (1992), standard coverage of domestic and foreign affairs excerpt and text search
  • Clements, Kendrick A. "Woodrow Wilson and World War I," Presidential Studies Quarterly 34:1 (2004). pp 62+. online edition; excerpt online
  • Cooper, John Milton. Breaking the Heart of the World: Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the League of Nations (2001) 454pp excerpt and text search
  • Cooper, John Milton. The Warrior and the Priest: Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson (1983; 2nd ed 2007), well-written dual biography by leading scholar excerpt and text search
  • Greene, Theodore P. Ed. Wilson at Versailles (1957), excerpts from scholars online edition
  • Knock, Thomas J. To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order (1995) excerpt and text search
  • Link, Arthur S. "Woodrow Wilson" in Henry F. Graff ed., The Presidents: A Reference History (2002) pp 365-388
  • Link, Arthur S. Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910-1917 (1972) standard political history of the era
  • Link, Arthur S. Wilson the Diplomatist: A Look at His Major Foreign Policies (1957) online edition
  • Macmillan, Margaret, and Richard Holbrooke. Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World (2003) influential study excerpt and text search
  • Saunders, Robert M. In Search of Woodrow Wilson: Beliefs and Behavior (1998) excerpt and text search
  • Walworth, Arthur. Wilson and His Peacemakers: American Diplomacy at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919 (1986)online edition
  • Walworth, Arthur. Woodrow Wilson 2 Vol. (1958), vol 1 online Pulitzer prize winning biography


  1. Walworth ch 1
  2. Link Road to the White House pp. 3-4.
  3. Link, Wilson I:5-6; Wilson Papers I: 130, 245, 314
  4. for details on Wilson's health see Edwin A. Weinstein, Woodrow Wilson: A Medical and Psychological Biography (Princeton 1981)
  5. The Politics of Woodrow Wilson, 41–48
  6. Congressional Government, 186–7
  7. Congressional Government, 76
  8. Congressional Government, 132
  9. David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, "Gold Democrats and the Decline of Classical Liberalism, 1896-1900,"Independent Review 4 (Spring 2000), 555-75.
  10. Frozen Republic, 145
  11. Walworth 1:109
  12. Walworth v 1 ch 6, 7, 8
  13. New York Times, Aug 7, 1912
  14. Arthur S. Link, "Woodrow Wilson" in Henry F. Graff ed., The Presidents: A Reference History (2002) p 370
  15. [Link 1954 pp 43-53; Link 1956 pp 199-240]
  16. See NY Times main headline, April 2, 1917, President Calls for War Declaration, Stronger Navy, New Army of 500,000 Men, Full Cooperation With Germany's Foes
  17. See text at declaration of war speech
  18. see [1]
  19. Donald E. Davis and Eugene P. Trani, The First Cold War: The Legacy of Woodrow Wilson in U.S.-Soviet Relations. (2002) p. 202.
  20. Avrich, Paul, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background, Princeton University Press, 1991
  21. Paul Avrich, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background, 1991
  22. Walter Russell Mead, Special Providence, (2001) at [2]
  23. David M. Kennedy, "What 'W' Owes to 'WW': President Bush May Not Even Know It, but He Can Trace His View of the World to Woodrow Wilson, Who Defined a Diplomatic Destiny for America That We Can't Escape." The Atlantic Monthly Vol: 295. Issue: 2. (March 2005) pp 36+.
  24. Arthur S. Link, "The Negro as a Factor in the Campaign of 1912," The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 32, No. 1. (Jan., 1947), pp. 81-99. online at JSTOR
  25. Nancy J. Weiss, "The Negro and the New Freedom: Fighting Wilsonian Segregation," Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 84, No. 1. (Mar., 1969), pp. 61-79. online at JSTOR; Kathleen L. Wolgemuth, "Woodrow Wilson and Federal Segregation." Journal of Negro History 1959 44(2): 158-173. Issn: 0022-2992 Fulltext: in Jstor
  26. Ellis, Mark. "'Closing Ranks' and 'Seeking Honors': W. E. B. du Bois in World War I" Journal of American History 1992 79(1): 96-124. ISSN 0021-8723 Fulltext in Jstor
  27. Woodrow Wilson, A History of the American People (1931) V:59.
  28. Link vol 2 pp 252-54.
  29. Link, Papers of Woodrow Wilson 68:298
  30. American Rhetoric, "Final Address in Support of the League of Nations", Woodrow Wilson, delivered 25 Sept 1919 in Pueblo, CO. John B. Duff, "German-Americans and the Peace, 1918-1920" American Jewish Historical Quarterly 1970 59(4): 424-459. and Duff, "The Versailles Treaty and the Irish-Americans" Journal of American History 1968 55(3): 582-598. ISSN 0021-8723
  31. Walworth (1986) 473-83, esp. p. 481; Melvin I. Urofsky, American Zionism from Herzl to the Holocaust, (1995) ch. 6; Frank W. Brecher, Reluctant Ally: United States Foreign Policy toward the Jews from Wilson to Roosevelt. (1991) ch 1-4. In 1923, after he left office, Wilson wrote a letter of strong support to the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine and objected to territorial concessions regarding its borders.

See also