Youth and Early Career
Woodrow Wilson was the 28th president of the United States (1913-1921), the governor of New Jersey (1911-1913), and the president of Princeton University (1902-1910). He was born in Staunton, Virginia, to Janet Woodrow Wilson and Dr. Joseph Ruggles Wilson, a Presbyterian minister. The family Bible lists his birth date as 12:45 A.M., December 29, 1856, but he always gave it as December 28. He dropped his first name, Thomas, when he became an adult. In 1857, the family moved to Augusta, Georgia, where the Reverend Wilson became head of a female academy, and then served as a Confederate chaplain during the Civil War. In 1870, Dr. Wilson moved his family to Columbia, South Carolina, where he had accepted positions as professor at the Theological Seminary and minister of the First Presbyterian Church. Young Wilson absorbed his parents’ strong Calvinist faith and Southern sympathies, including his father’s aversion to black political participation during Reconstruction. Years later, however, he concluded that the quest for Confederate independence had been futile and economically unwise.
Wilson was educated at home and then at private schools before entering Davidson College (North Carolina) in 1873. Ill and homesick, he returned to live with his parents (then residing in Wilmington, North Carolina) before the academic year ended, and spent the next year studying under his father’s guidance. In 1875, he entered the College of New Jersey (later, Princeton University), where he studied history, politics, and the classics. He was a diligent though average student who participated in literary and debating clubs, served as editor of the Princetonianand secretary of the Football Association, and played intramural baseball. He graduated with the class of 1879. It was at Princeton that Wilson began to envision himself as a political theorist and future statesman. In August 1879, his first published article, “Cabinet Government in the United States,” appeared in the International Review, edited by Henry Cabot Lodge (his future Republican nemesis in the U.S. Senate).
During the fall 1879 semester, Wilson entered the University of Virginia School of Law, where he joined the prestigious Jefferson Literary and Debating Society. Once again ill and homesick, he returned home in December 1880, where he continued studying law. In June 1882, he established a law practice in Atlanta, Georgia, and passed the state bar a few months later. Discouraged because he attracted so few clients, Wilson set his sights on a professorial career and entered Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, Maryland) in September 1883 to study political and constitutional history. His first book, Congressional Government, was published in 1885 and was accepted as his doctoral dissertation. It attempted to portray Congress realistically and emphasized the importance of congressional committees. In 1886, he was awarded a Ph. D. degree from Johns Hopkins. The year before he had married Ellen Axson, daughter of a Presbyterian pastor from Rome, Georgia. The couple later had three daughters.
In 1885, he accepted a position to teach political science and history at Bryn Mawr, a Quaker college outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was unhappy at the all-female institution, so in 1888 joined the faculty of Wesleyan University (Middletown, Connecticut) as professor and football coach. In 1889, he published The State, a comparative analysis of governments throughout Western history, which he viewed as a Socialist Darwinist survival of the fittest. The next year, he accepted the position of professor of jurisprudence and political economy at Princeton University, where he became popular among students and faculty. His scholarly history of the Antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction periods, Division and Reunion, 1829-1889 (published in 1893), took a pro-Union perspective that incorporated common racist assumptions about black Americans. He also published more popular works, including George Washington (1897) and A History of the American People (5 vols., 1902). During his professorial career at Princeton, he lectured regularly at Johns Hopkins and turned down several offers of university presidencies.
Princeton President and New Jersey Governor
In 1902, the trustees of Princeton unanimously elected Wilson as the university’s first president who was not a minister. He introduced dramatic changes in an effort to transform the institution into a first-class university. He reorganized the curriculum, added discussion sections to supplement lectures, created new departments, and hired new faculty. His effort to change undergraduate social life by replacing eating clubs with residential quadrangles provoked intense opposition from students and alumni. When the trustees ignored his plan in 1908, Wilson nearly resigned. Tensions surfaced in 1909-1910 between Wilson and the dean of the Graduate School, Andrew West, who wanted a new graduate college built away from the main campus. Wilson insisted that it should be constructed at the center of the university, but an alumnus bequest in 1910 allowed West to fund his plan. Refusing to compromise, Wilson resigned in a fit of pique.
In 1906, Harper’s Weekly editor George Harvey began promoting Wilson for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1908, but the campaign did not attract sufficient interest. Harvey then decided that the New Jersey governorship would be a good steppingstone to the White House for Wilson, and in the spring of 1910 convinced the state’s Democratic Party “boss,” James Smith, to back his candidate. Wilson accepted the support of the state political machine while refusing to promise the organization political patronage or influence if he was elected. After winning by a landslide, he pushed the machine aside and secured passage of a reform agenda that included utility regulation, workers’ compensation, direct primaries, municipal reform, school reorganization, and, at the end of his term, antitrust legislation.
Wilson’s success as governor made him a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1912. He began developing closer relations with William Jennings Bryan, the three-time nominee (1896, 1900, 1908) whose agrarian populism Wilson had previously criticized. Despite significant differences, both men were devout Presbyterians who believed that religious morality was the foundation of social progress. When the Democratic National Convention opened in June 1912, no candidate controlled the two-thirds majority required for nomination. Wilson finally won on the 46th ballot after tactical help from Bryan (and the Nebraska delegation) and the party bosses of Indiana, Illinois, and New York. Governor Thomas R. Marshall of Indiana was nominated for vice president. With the Republican Party divided between President William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, who ran as the Progressive Party nominee, Wilson won the presidency with an Electoral College tally of 435 to Roosevelt’s 88 and Taft’s 8. The Democrat won only a plurality of the popular vote, 42% to 27% for Roosevelt, 23% for Taft, and 6% for Socialist Eugene Debs.
First Presidential Term: Domestic Policy
When inaugurated in March 1913, Wilson became the first Democratic president in 16 years (since the end of Grover Cleveland’s second term) and the first native Southerner to be chief executive since Andrew Johnson (1865-1869). At the beginning of his academic career, Wilson had focused on Congress as the dominant branch of the federal government. Two decades later, he had argued in his book, Constitutional Government in the United States (1908), for an almost unlimited sphere of presidential power—“His capacity will set the limit…” As president, Wilson put theory into action by exerting strong leadership in both domestic and foreign affairs, calling his agenda the “New Freedom.”
In an effort to shape public opinion, Wilson initiated the practice of regular press conferences and was the first president since John Adams to read his messages personally before Congress. The latter began a month after taking office when he urged a special joint session of Congress to enact tariff reform. That October he signed into law the Underwood Tariff Act, which reduced the average rate from 41% to 27% and expanded the free list to include steel, iron, and other major items. In compliance with the recently ratified 16th Amendment, the law also imposed a 1% tax on incomes over $3000 ($54,200 in 2002 dollars) and a 1 to 6% graduated surtax on incomes over $20,000 ($361,000 in 2002 dollars).
The Panic of 1907 had convinced many Americans of the need for a more flexible banking system, and in 1912 the National Monetary Commission recommended a centralized National Bank. Instead, the Wilson administration worked with the Democratic Congress to craft a system of twelve regional federal reserve banks, each privately owned by member banks, which were placed under the authority of a board of directors appointed by the president and given substantial discretion to set policy. Money would be loaned to member banks at a discount rate set by the Federal Reserve Board. A new type of currency, Federal Reserve Notes, was created to be issued in cases of sharp increases in currency demand and then retired when the demand returned to normal. Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act on December 23, 1913.
In 1914, the Wilson administration secured passage of two laws curbing the power of large business corporations. The Federal Trade Commission Act established a five-member board to investigate business practices and to halt illegal activities with cease-and-desist orders. The law was closer to Theodore Roosevelt’s idea of federally regulating trusts rather than to Wilson’s original goal of abolishing them as obstacles to economic competition. The Clayton Antitrust Act outlawed price fixing, stock ownership in competing companies, and interlocking directorates. Considered the “Magna Carta” for organized labor, the law limited the use of injunctions against labor unions, exempted organized labor and agricultural associations from antitrust laws, and legalized labor strikes, boycotts, and picketing.
Even though Wilson may have received more votes from blacks in 1912 than any previous Democratic presidential candidate, his administration’s record on racial issues was not good. He allowed cabinet officers to introduce racial segregation into the federal government by restricting black federal employees to certain divisions, installing screens between blacks and whites sharing offices, and establishing separate toilet facilities. Despite protests from W. E. B. Dubois and other black leaders, the president justified the policy as being beneficial to blacks as well as whites. He initially refused to support a federal amendment granting voting rights to women, but then endorsed it in 1918 as a measure for national solidarity during World War I.
On August 6, 1914, Wilson suffered a personal tragedy when his wife, Ellen, died of Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment. Over the years, she had experienced recurrent ill health, including strokes, hypertension, and stomach disorders. On December 28, 1915, Wilson married Edith Bolling Galt, a Virginia-born widow, in a private ceremony at her Washington, D.C., home.
First Presidential Term: Foreign Policy
Wilson’s foreign policy during his first term focused on two areas: relations with Latin America and protecting the neutrality rights of the United States when World War I (then called “The Great War”) began in Europe in 1914. These two problems would intersect in dealing with the unstable political situation in Mexico.
Wilson brought his good-government belief in “ordered progress” to foreign policy. To build friendlier ties with Latin America, he and Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan signed with 30 nations treaties promising conflict resolution and political cooperation. As Wilson once remarked, “I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men!” The president ordered the U.S. military to occupy Haiti in 1915 and the Dominican Republic in 1916 to force those nations to establish stable, pro-American governments that would pay their debts.
When a military dictatorship was established in Mexico in 1913 under General Victoriano Huerta, President Wilson backed Heurta’s opponents, the Constitutionalists. In April 1914, on the pretext of the temporary arrest of American sailors in Mexico, Wilson sent the U.S. Navy to Veracruz in time to prevent the landing of a munitions shipment from Germany. Diplomatic intervention by Argentina, Brazil, and Chile prevented a war between Mexico and the United States. In August 1914, the Constitutionalists took control of the capital, Mexico City. Wilson’s recognition of a factional leader, Venustiano Carranza, provoked another, Francisco “Pancho” Villa, to invade the American state of New Mexico in March 1916. Wilson directed General John Pershing to push Villa back into Mexico, where the Americans penetrated deeply and clashed with both Villa’s and Carranza’s men. In January 1917, Germany’s foreign secretary, Arthur Zimmermann, suggested to the Mexican government an alliance against the United States. His telegram was intercepted by British intelligence and passed to Wilson, who released it to the press. He then ordered American troops to withdraw from Mexico.
The Zimmerman telegram was one of a series of incidents that soured the U.S. attitude toward Germany during the Wilson administration. When the Great War (World War I) erupted in 1914, Wilson declared American neutrality and sent Edward House to negotiate a guarantee of the rights of nonbelligerent countries. The mission failed, and in May 1915, 124 Americans were among the 1,198 killed when a German submarine sank a British passenger liner, the Lusitania, off the coast of Ireland. Wilson issued a firm protest. When he failed to criticize Britain for blockading German ports, Secretary of State Bryan resigned after concluding that the president’s policy was not strictly neutral. Robert Lansing was appointed to succeed Bryan.
In August 1915, two Americans were injured when a German submarine sank the British ship, the Arabic. Lansing and House recommended that Wilson sever diplomatic relations with Germany, but the president issued another strongly worded protest instead. Germany agreed not to attack passenger ships. In late October, Wilson condemned the British blockade for interfering with neutral rights. In early 1916, Wilson sent Edward House on another diplomatic mission to Europe, which also failed. In March 1916, 25 Americans were injured when a German torpedo hit an English Channel ferry, the Sussex. Wilson charged that Germany had broken its pledge not to target passenger vessels, and he threatened to break diplomatic relations. His stance successfully pressured Germany to abide by international shipping law and halt its submarine campaign against Britain. In late May, Wilson publicly unveiled his idea for a League of Nations, which was intended to provide collective security, protect universal human rights, and promote world peace. In July, he protested against the British for restricting trade with American companies doing business with Germany and its allies.
In 1916, Wilson was renominated for a second presidential term by the Democratic Party and ran under the slogan of “He Kept Us Out of War.” Republicans nominated Charles Evans Hughes, an associate justice of the Supreme Court and former governor of New York (1907-1911). The resignation of Hughes and another justice allowed Wilson to make two appointments to the Supreme Court, including Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish justice. The president then worked to shore up the liberal wing of his party and win over Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party voters from the previous election. Wilson signed laws providing federal loans to farmers, granting an eight-hour day to railroad workers, establishing a Federal Tariff Commission, raising the tax rate on upper incomes, imposing the first federal estate tax in American history, and banning the interstate shipment of goods made with child labor (overturned by the Supreme Court in 1918). In November, Wilson narrowly defeated Hughes with an Electoral College margin of 277-254, and a popular plurality of 49%-46%.
America Enters the Great War
On December 18, 1916, Wilson requested that the belligerents declare their terms for ending the Great War. He sent Edward House on a secret mission to convince the British and Germans to negotiate a settlement. The British response was ambiguous and the Germans brushed aside the suggestion. On January 22, 1917, Wilson addressed the U.S. Senate, calling for “peace without victory” in Europe and urging that a cooperative League of Nations replace the failed attempt at balance of power. On January 31, Germany announced the resumption of unlimited submarine warfare against all seagoing vessels, including those of neutral countries. In February and March, German submarines attacked several passenger liners and American ships, killing U.S. citizens. On April 2, President Wilson asked a joint session of Congress for a declaration of war against Germany in order to protect American rights and make the world “safe for democracy.” Three days later, the Senate voted 82-6 in favor of the war declaration, and the House concurred on April 6, 397-24.
Wilson appointed General Pershing to head the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), and signed a military draft law on May 18, 1917. Because the United States had not prepared for an offensive war, it took a year of organizing and training before the AEF could contribute substantially to the military effort. On the homefront, Wilson created the Committee on Public Information to influence public opinion, and cracked down on dissidents through the Espionage Act (June 1917), the Trading with the Enemy Act (October 1917), and the Sedition Act (May 1918). Unprecedented levels of government control were imposed on the American economy. Bernard Baruch directed factory production as head of the War Industries Board. Management of the nation’s railroads was placed under Treasury Secretary William McAdoo. The National War Labor Board, which included ex-president Taft, mediated labor disputes to avoid disruption of the war economy. Herbert Hoover, the future Republican president, was placed in charge of the Food Administration, and Harry Garfield, son of the late Republican president, James Garfield, took the reins of the Fuel Administration.
In March 1917, Wilson welcomed the overthrow of the Russian tsar by forces pledging to establish a constitutional republic, but the president refused to recognize the Bolshevik communist government that grabbed power that November. In 1918, he approved the U.S.-Allied intervention in Russia in an attempt to defeat both the Russian Bolsheviks and the Germans. In France, American troops provided a crucial military boost to the Allied cause, helping compel Germany to sue for peace in October. On November 11, 1918, both sides agreed to an armistice, based broadly on Wilson’s terms, called the Fourteen Points.
The Peace Treaty and the League of Nations
In December, the president set sail for France to participate in the Paris Peace Conference scheduled to begin on January 18, 1919. When he left the United States, however, he was in a weakened position domestically. Although he had been given bipartisan support during the war, Wilson insisted during the political campaign in the fall of 1918 that Democratic control of Congress was necessary to ensure national security. Instead, voters on November 5 gave Republicans a 41-seat majority in the House and a two-seat edge in the Senate. When appoint the American peace commission, Wilson ignored the potential obstacles of the election result by selecting no one from the Republican Party leadership or from the Senate, which would have to approve any peace treaty.
Wilson was greeted in Europe by jubilant crowds, but Allied leaders were more skeptical of his idealism. The resulting treaty encapsulated some of the American president’s ideas, but applied others unevenly. His notion of “self-determination” established nations from the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, but was not applied to places such as the Philippines (under U.S. control), Indochina (under the French), or India and Ireland (parts of the British Empire). Germany was treated as a conquered foe and forced to accept a much-weakened military, lose of all its colonies and part of its territory, and reparation payments to the Allies. A cornerstone of the treaty was Wilson’s proposal for a League of Nations, which he thought would eventually rectify any faults in the treaty and put the world on the road toward universal peace and democracy. The treaty was widely condemned in Germany (resentment Adolph Hitler would later tap), but its leaders signed the document on June 28, 1919.
On July 10, 1919, Wilson delivered the peace treaty to the Senate. He argued that America’s mission in spreading democracy was led “by the hand of God” and identified the League of Nations as the “only hope for mankind.” The considerable opposition to the treaty centered on concern that the League’s guarantee of collective security would undermine American sovereignty and involve it needlessly in future foreign wars. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, led a group of senators who would agree to the treaty only with added “reservations,” particularly the disavowal of collective security by the United States. With another group of senators prepared to reject the treaty with or without reservations, there were not enough votes to reach the requisite two-thirds majority without some compromise by the president. However, Wilson refused to budge, and even his brother-in-law characterized him during this period as “uncompromising, unforgiving, and stubborn.”
In order to win public support for the treaty and League, Wilson embarked on an 8,000-mile national tour, delivering 40 speeches. On September 25, he collapsed in Pueblo, Colorado, and returned to the White House, where he suffered a paralytic stroke on October 2. Vice President Marshall and other officials were initially not informed of the severity of the president’s ill health. Wilson’s wife, Edith, and his private secretary, Joseph Tumulty, helped the president carry out the few duties that he could, while Secretary of State Robert Lansing conducted cabinet meetings on a regular basis. The stroke made Wilson even less willing to compromise, and he had Senator Gilbert Hitchcock, the Democratic minority leader, instruct other party members to stand firm for the treaty without reservations. On November 19, 1919, the treaty failed to receive the two-thirds vote needed for ratification. On February 12, 1920, the president, who had partially recovered, fired Lansing and named Bainbridge Colby as the new secretary of state. On March 19, 1920, the Senate again failed to approve the peace treaty and League membership.
During the end of Wilson’s second term, the postwar United States experienced numerous problems: economic recession, labor strikes, a “Red Scare” crackdown on communists and other radicals, and an increase in racially-motivated riots and lynchings. In the 1920 presidential election, voters—who included women for the first time—overwhelmingly chose Republican Warren G. Harding’s call for a return to “normalcy” over Democratic nominee James Cox’s defense of the Wilson administration. Harding defeated Cox 404-127 in the Electoral College and 61%-35% in the popular vote. In late 1920, Wilson received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in crafting a treaty at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. On March 4, 1921, the Wilsons left the White House to live quietly in their Washington, D.C., townhouse, where he died on February 3, 1924. Woodrow Wilson’s remains were interred in Washington’s National Cathedral.
Sources consulted: Lloyd E. Ambrosius, “Woodrow Wilson,” American National Biography (online); William A. Degregorio, The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents, 4th ed. (New York: Wings Books/Random House, 1993); and, Arthur S. Link, “Woodrow Wilson,” in “American Presidency,” Groliers Encyclopedia (online).