President #28, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #9
Take Princeton and give Fourteen Points
Woodrow Wilson was a President so full of promise to many in America, that it seemed shocking how dismally his eight years in office ended. The United States went from being a Great Power to being the Greatest Power while he was in office. But, despite all the lofty ambitions Wilson brought with him, his time as President was also marked by violent upheavals in all parts of society. The United States was a drastically different place from the time Wilson was inaugurated in 1913 than it was when he left in 1921.
II. Growing Up
The 28th President was born Thomas Woodrow Wilson on December 28, 1858 in Staunton, Virginia. His father was a Presbyterian minister who moved his family throughout various cities in the South. Young Thomas struggled with dyslexia through much of his childhood. Wilson originally attended college at Davidson, but didn’t like it there and dropped out. His father then pulled some strings and got his son admitted to the College of New Jersey (which would eventually become Princeton University). Wilson concentrated on the study of politics and wrote a senior thesis arguing that the President’s Cabinet should be responsible to Congress, as is the case in Britain.
Upon graduation from Princeton, Wilson enrolled in the University of Virginia to study law. Wilson didn’t like the study of law much and dropped out before finishing his studies; although, he would open a law practice for a brief period. Ultimately, Wilson opted to go back to school, enrolling in Johns Hopkins University’s relatively new doctorate program. He earned a Ph.D. in 1886. While in the process of earning that degree (the only President to hold such a degree), Wilson taught at Bryn Mawr College. He also authored Congressional Government, which would become an influential book in political science in its time. Wilson managed to write his book on Congress without ever once visiting Washington and observing Congress in action. But, he became an expert nonetheless.
III. From Ph.D. to the Presidency
Wilson, who dropped the name Thomas and just went by Woodrow sometime in the 1880s, moved on to Princeton to teach. He was one of the most popular lecturers on campus. His class on American government was THE class to take for upperclassmen. Wilson’s popularity among both students and faculty eventually got him promoted all the way to university president in 1902. Wilson, although a poor fundraiser, still managed to raise the profile of Princeton nationally. He became one of the most respected men in America. And, the Democratic party saw him as a Presidential material. He was sympathetic to the Progressive movement; but, he also would appeal to the Democrat’s base in the South because of his upbringing.
There was one problem, though. Wilson had never held elective office. To remedy that situation, Wilson stepped down from his Princeton job to run for governor of New Jersey in 1910. He won that election easily, and almost immediately began campaigning for President in 1912. The Republican party split in 1912 between the conservatives, led by President William Howard Taft, and the Progressives, led by former President Theodore Roosevelt. Taft won the Republican nomination. So, Roosevelt ran as a third party candidate. The beneficiary of all this was Wilson, who won the election fairly easily. Although Wilson won just 41.8% of the popular vote, he ended up with 435 electoral votes, the highest total recorded up to that time.
IV. Shaking Things Up
Calling his domestic policies “The New Freedom,” Wilson shook up the establishment in Washington. He ended the tradition of Presidents not addressing Congress in person. Since Thomas Jefferson took office in 1801, Presidents had communicated with Congress by sending a written message. But, Wilson presented himself to a joint session of Congress in April of 1913 to tell that body that he was ready to work with them to get things done. And, he felt it would be easier if they could talk to him face to face.
Wilson wanted to lower tariffs, feeling that high ones served only to protect corporate interests. To make up for the lost revenue from the tariffs, Wilson instituted an income tax (made possible by the 16th Amendment, which the Republicans had pushed through prior to Wilson taking office).
Additionally, Wilson started two government agencies that would have long lasting effect on the country. To help administer antitrust law, Wilson signed a bill establishing the Federal Trade Commission. And, to help bring more regulation and order to the banking industry, Wilson created the Federal Reserve System.
Wilson knew little about banking, but received a crash course from adviser Louis Brandeis. The Federal Reserve System established a series of regional banks, guided by a Board of Governors in Washington, that controlled the money supply, and oversaw banking regulations.
V. Jim Crow, Suffragettes, and Demon Rum
As a child of the Confederacy, Wilson didn’t forget his roots. Unfortunately, this meant that Wilson allowed Federal departments, most notably the Post Office, to segregate its workers. Wilson would oppose any type of civil rights legislation while President.
Wilson also faced an increasingly hostile women’s suffrage movement. Although Wilson never backed women’s suffrage, the 19th Amendment would eventually be ratified in 1920 toward the end of Wilson’s time in office, granting women the vote in all of the states.
Also, the Prohibition movement succeeded in getting the 18th Amendment ratified in 1920. Wilson was not a supporter of Prohibition. He vetoed the Volstead Act, which set up enforcement of Prohibition. This veto was subsequently overriden by Congress.
VI. Love Lost, Love Found
Wilson’s first wife, Ellen, passed away from kidney disease on August 6, 1914. The President’s grief was almost inconsolable. Wilson’s staff kept close tabs on him to make sure he didn’t try to hurt himself.
However, Wilson would meet someone new just six months after Ellen’s death. This woman, Edith Bolling Galt, was a widow who was prominent in Washington society. Wilson was quickly smitten with her. They would marry on December 18, 1915. Edith would become one of Woodrow Wilson’s most trusted advisers. Her role would be even more important in the final years of the Wilson administration. But, that would be getting ahead of the story.
VII. Trouble Brewing South Of The Border
One glaring gap in Wilson’s resume was foreign policy experience. Wilson knew little about the ways of diplomacy. His choice for Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, was a political appointment to keep Bryan’s wing of the Democratic Party happy.
Wilson soon faced a foreign policy crisis in his own neighborhood. Mexico was in a state of upheaval after longtime president Porfiro Diaz was overthrown in 1911. By 1913, Victoranio Huerta had managed to get himself installed as president.
However, Huerta refused to call for democratic elections. Wilson sent a series of emissaries to convince Huerta otherwise, but eventually gave up. Wilson sent in Army troops instead. General John Pershing led a force that landed at Veracruz that ended up leading to Huerta’s resignation. Wilson even tried forming alliances with Mexican Revolutionary figures such as Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. The former ended up splitting with the Carranza government (that was backed by the U.S.). Villa and his men would cause more headaches for Wilson.
VIII. Danger from Beneath
Although World War I began in August of 1914, Wilson didn’t think the United States would have much of a role in it at first, and that it would end quickly. This was either naive, or extremely wishful thinking on Wilson’s part.
As the two sides settled in to a long and bloody conflict, it was clear that the winner would be the side that either ran out of soldiers or money first. The United States had plenty of both at the time. Both sides needed U.S. goods to help them through the war. Since it was easier for the U.S. to ship goods to Britain rather than to Germany, the Allied Forces ended up getting the lion’s share of U.S. exports. Germany tried to get more money by asking the Wall Street firm of J.P. Morgan to help sell its war bonds; but, Wilson blocked that action.
Germany now felt that it had to stop the flow of U.S. goods into Great Britain by declaring the area around the island as a war zone. Any merchant ship suspected of carrying war materiel to Britain was subject to being sunk by German submarines.
This action by Germany represented a change in the way war had been conducted. People on ships that were sunk by submarines had little or no hope of rescue. The threat of a sudden attack made Atlantic crossings terrifying.
Hundreds of American lives were lost this way. Wilson’s first response was to issue a series of diplomatic notes to Germany, threatening all sorts of economic sanctions if it continued. Wilson did not wish to commit the U.S. to war as his reelection campaign was coming up in 1916.
IX. “He Kept Us Out of War”
Wilson’s opponent in 1916 was former Supreme Court justice Charles Evans Hughes. Although Theodore Roosevelt wished to run again, the Republicans felt that Hughes would present a slightly more moderate image than the bellicose Roosevelt, who was pushing for American entry into the war. One of Wilson’s campaign slogans was “He Kept Us Out of War.”
Hughes and the Republicans ran an especially poor campaign, rife with internal struggles over ideology. Wilson refused to attack Hughes during the campaign, remarking “One should not murder a man bent on committing suicide.” Nevertheless, Wilson won by a narrow margin in the popular vote (52-47) and by 23 in the Electoral vote (277-254). If Hughes had been able to carry California, which he lost by about 3,000 votes, he would have won.
X. About that war …
The British mounted an effective propaganda campaign against Germany in an attempt to rally American public opinion in favor of joining the war. British agents intercepted a message from German ambassador to the U.S., Arthur Zimmermann, that indicated that Germany hoped to get Mexico to join the war on the German side with the hope of reclaiming much of the American Southwest for Mexico.
Also, the Germans stepped up their submarine warfare, sinking several more American ships. By April of 1917, Wilson had come to the conclusion that the U.S. had to enter the war on the Allied side. Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war on April 2, 1917. It was approved four days later.
It took several months for the Americans to be able to send any troops to Europe. The Army was relatively small, with most of the fulltime soldiers occupied with matters in Mexico. Wilson asked Congress to allow conscription to swell the ranks. This was the first time conscription had been used since the Civil War.
There were many protests against conscription. Wilson and the Justice Department did not hesitate to prosecute anyone opposing the war effort. The nascent Communist Party was a favorite target of the Federal government.
Wilson also sent some troops to Russia in 1917 in an attempt to reverse the course of the Russian Revolution. That was … not successful.
XI. Why I’m Using These Numbers
Wilson was confident that the Allies (officially, Wilson said that the U.S. was not part of the Allies. He preferred the term “associate”) would win the war. And, before the bulk of the American forces arrived, Wilson issued his famous “Fourteen Points.” The two most important points were that secret treaties should be prohibited and that a permanent multinational peacekeeping organization (call it a “League of Nations”) should be established to maintain the peace.
French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau famously remarked (repeated in various forms) “Mr. Wilson bores me with his Fourteen Points; why, God Almighty has only Ten!”
Wilson was correct in thinking that the war would be over. American troops proved to be fresh enough to be allow the Allies to break the German lines. The war ended on November 11, 1918. Now all that was left to do was negotiate a peace treaty. What could possibly go wrong with that?
XII. It All Went Wrong
The Palace of Versailles would be the site of the peace negotiations. Wilson decided to travel there himself, an unprecedented move for an American president. Normally, such matters were reserved for Secretaries of State or specially appointed ministers. But, Wilson wasn’t going to allow such important business to be handled by his underlings. Wilson was received by huge throngs in Europe. He was, at the time, the most popular man on the planet.
But, Wilson could not translate his popularity into negotiating skill. He was not open to compromise. But, Clemenceau and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George weren’t open to compromise either. Wilson wanted relatively generous conditions for peace with Germany. The French and British wanted Germany to pay. And pay. And pay some more. And to give up territory. And then pay some more.
Eventually, Wilson would get his League of Nations, with a promise of collective security for all members, but he gave in on reparations. Wilson sailed back home to the U.S. expecting the treaty to be warmly received.
XIII. Irreconcilable Differences
Wilson presented his treaty to the Senate, expecting quick ratification. That was not to be. Senate Republicans, led by Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge, knew they had enough votes to block the treaty. The League of Nations horrified many Americans, who had no desire to see the country get involved in world disputes to which it was not a party.
Lodge delayed the vote on the treaty through the spring of 1919. (He started off by reading the entire treaty aloud into the record. That took two weeks.) Public opinion began to grow against the treaty. So, Wilson decided to take his plea to the people and embarked on a whistlestop campaign throughout the country. Republican senators, known as the “Irreconcilables,” dogged Wilson giving speeches counter to his position.
During the strenouous tour, Wilson took ill. Plagued much of his life by high blood pressure, Wilson suffered a massive stroke. He had to cancel the rest of the tour. Wilson had had several small strokes during his lifetime which had resulted in temporary paralysis of one of his hands. When he was in France for the treaty negotiations, on one day, Wilson suddenly asked an aid to help him rearrange the furniture in a particular room because he thought the green and red furniture were fighting with each other. It’s quite possible that Wilson may have been in a compromised state of health during the negotiations.
XIV. An Unhappy Ending
Wilson was left almost totally incapicitated by his stroke. Edith Wilson, along with personal aid Joseph Tumulty and physician Cary Grayson, kept Wilson’s condition hidden from almost everyone. Vice President Thomas Marshall was kept away from Wilson. Secretary of State Robert Lansing (who had succeeded Bryan in 1915) publicly asked if the President was competent.
Although no one knows for certain what was going on, there is enough evidence to think that Edith Wilson made many of the day-to-day decisions of the President. Tumulty also assisted in the decision making. Wilson was well enough to get messages to the Senate demanding that the Treaty of Versailles be approved as is, without any reservations or amendments. Wilson did not wish to see his beloved League of Nations be tossed aside.
However, the treaty would never gather enough votes for ratification, not even earning a majority, let alone the necessary 2/3 vote. Wilson entertained the idea of submitting the treaty to the people as part of a national referendum, but that proved Constitutionally impossible.
Wilson served out his term in isolation. He was not well enough to attend the inauguration of his successor, Warren Harding. Surprisingly, Wilson outlived Harding. Harding passed away on August 2, 1923. Wilson died in Washington, DC on February 3, 1924.
Other stuff: The author of this book is a professor at Texas A&M University; but, he lives in Austin.
Woodrow Wilson has a plethora of places named after him. The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library is located in Staunton, Virginia. The Woodrow Wilson House is a museum in Washington, DC run by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. There is also the Woodrow Wilson Boyhood Home in Augusta, Georgia. The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is a think tank in Washington, DC. Lots of people run into traffic on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge connecting Maryland and Virginia just south of the District of Columbia. The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy is part of Princeton University.
Wilson is buried at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. He is the only President to be buried in Washington.
Wilson was also the subject of a 1944 biopic called “Wilson.” It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and won 5. It was also a box office flop.
What a fascinating period of history. I had no idea we had Republicans to thank for the 16th amendment.
One of my biggest mistakes in school was continually referring to the Lusitania as the Lufthansa in an essay for the AP US History exam. I just really had to get that off of my chest.
Also, Wilson is the second most overrated President of all time.
So, who’s first?
If it’s Penarol1916, I would bet on Andrew Jackson.
Would you be shocked if I told you I was a descendent of Henry Clay (It’s not true, but would you shocked)?
Woodrow Wilson’s biography at least seems more interesting than Andrew Johnson’s.
I thought that the Andrew Johnson biography was pretty interesting. It’s actually kind of a crazy story how a guy like that got to be President. It’s actually kind of interesting that the last two biographies are of the two Presidents who did the most to impede civil rights in post- Civil War America.
It’s an interesting view of Wilson. (I used to live on Wilson St., oddly enough.) Mencken blamed Wilson for agitating to get into World War I, which pretty clearly conflicts with the view presented here.
Fascinating bit about Germany trying to get Mexico on their side by promising them the Southwest.
It’s doubtful that the Germans had a realistic chance of doing this. And Mexico would have had a lot of trouble fighting against the U.S. in the middle of a civil war.
Inflammatory statements were quite the thing during World War I.
What a terrible president Wilson was. The worst of the 20th century. Arrogant, almost a monomaniac, a racist, a menace to civil liberties, naive in his pursuit of gossamer ideals and ignorant of the likely blowback. Trading off the League of Nations in order to allow France and England to impose crushing reparations on Germany was a worse trade than Pedro for Delino.
The history of the US and the world would have been so much better had WWII been avoided, but Wilson left us with an inevitable future conflict on an epic scale.
Plus, he single-handedly revived the Ku Klux Klan! And launched J. Edgar Hoover.
You can talk about your Hardings, your Nixons, your Carters. None of them changed the country’s historical trajectory in the wrong direction the way Wilson did.
Carter and Wilson both have Nobel Peace Prizes.