The Jacana

 Great Lives Site


Back to Jacana

Great Lives index


Thomas Woodrow Wilson
Twenty-eighth president of the United States

1856 - 1924

Thomas Woodrow Wilson, twenty-eighth president of the United States, led the country into World War I and was a primary architect of the League of Nations.


Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton, Va., on Dec. 28, 1856. His father, a Presbyterian minister, communicated his moral austerity to his son, resulting in an inflexibility that sometimes revealed itself. Wilson attended Davison University in North Carolina for a brief time but graduated from Princeton in 1879. In his senior year he published an important essay in the International Review, revealing his early interest in American government. He studied law briefly and, though he did not complete the course, practiced for a time in Atlanta, Ga., without much success. He pursued graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University, receiving his doctorate in 1886.

In his doctoral thesis Wilson analyzed the American political system, pointing to the fracturing of power that flowed from the committee system in Congress. This thesis foreshadowed his intense belief in the role of the presidency as the only national office and in the duty of the president to lead the nation. He was to put these views into practice when he occupied the White House.

From 1886 to 1910 Wilson was in academic life - as a professor of political science at Bryn Mawr, Wesleyan, and Princeton and, after 1902, president of Princeton. A magnificent teacher, Wilson was a strong and imaginative college executive. His establishment of the preceptorial system at Princeton was an important contribution to university education that emphasized intimacy between teacher and student. He also fought for democracy in education.

Governor of New Jersey

By 1910 Wilson had established a wide reputation but had also aroused many enmities at Princeton. Thus he was ready to accept when, in 1910, the Democratic party in New Jersey offered him the nomination for governor. He was elected by a large plurality.

As governor, Wilson demonstrated masterly leadership, pushing through the legislature a direct primary law, a corrupt-practices act, an employers' liability act, and a law regulating the public utilities. His success made him a prominent candidate for the presidency in 1912. He was nominated, after a long convention battle, and easily elected in November. At the same time the Democratic party secured a substantial majority in both houses of Congress.

First Term as President

Once elected, Wilson proceeded to put into practice his theory of presidential leadership. In the first 2 years of his presidency he dominated Congress and secured legislation of long-term historical significance. The tariff was revised downward, initiating a policy which was to be of substantial importance later. The Federal Reserve Act created a banking system under governmental control. The Federal Trade Commission Act, directed against monopoly, created a body which has had an important role in preventing overwhelming concentration of power in industry.

Wilson from the beginning confronted difficult questions of foreign policy. In Mexico a revolution was taking place, but just before Wilson's inauguration a military dictator, Victoriano Huerta, seized the presidency. Wilson refused to recognize Huerta, setting a course sympathetic with the struggle of the Mexican masses for social reform. He prevented Huerta from consolidating power, and in 1914 he ordered the occupation of Veracruz to prevent the dictator from receiving arms from abroad. He was saved from the possibility of war by the proffered mediation of Argentina, Brazil, and Chile; and Huerta was overthrown. But the Mexican question continued causing trouble.

Beginning of World War I

In August 1914 World War I broke out in Europe. The basis of Wilson's policy was the preservation of neutrality. But there can be little doubt that in his heart he sympathized with France and Great Britain and feared the victory of imperial Germany. The warring powers soon began interfering with American trade. The British more and more restricted American commerce, but the Germans proclaimed a new kind of warfare, submarine warfare, with the prospect of American ships being sunk and their passengers and crew being lost. Wilson took German policies more seriously, not only because of his innate partiality for the British, but because German policies involved the destruction of human life, whereas the British interfered only with trade. As early as February 1915, in response to a German declaration instituting the U-boat war, the President declared that Germany would be held to "strict accountability" for the loss of American lives.

For a time thereafter Wilson took no action. But on May 7, 1915, the liner Lusitania was sunk, with over a hundred American lives lost. The President addressed a stiff note to Germany but clung to the hope that the war might be ended by the good offices of the United States. He engaged in a debate with Berlin and, after other painful submarine episodes, got Germany to abandon the U-boat war in 1916.

Wilson then addressed himself to Great Britain but made little headway. In the meantime the presidential campaign of 1916 was approaching. He was re-nominated virtually by acclamation; the Democratic platform praised him for keeping the country out of war. He won in a very close campaign. It is important to note that though the President profited from his stand in preserving peace, and though the Democratic politicians made the most of the slogan "He kept us out of war," Wilson promised nothing for the future.

Second Term as President

Wilson's efforts to bring the belligerents together were ineffectual. When the German government cast the die for unlimited warfare on the sea, Wilson severed diplomatic relations with Berlin but continued to hope that a direct challenge could be avoided. No president has ever taken more seriously the immense responsibility of leading the American people into war. But on April 2, 1917, Wilson demanded a declaration of war against Germany from Congress, and Congress responded by overwhelming majorities.

There is every reason to regard Wilson as a great war president. He put politics aside, appointing a professional soldier to head American forces in Europe. Fully as important, he appealed to American idealism in a striking way. Though he believed that the defeat of Germany was necessary, he held out hope that at the end of the war a League of Nations might be established which would make impossible the recurrence of another bloody struggle. As early as April 1916 he had begun to formulate his views on this. He advocated an association of nations which would act together against any nation which broke the peace. There was much support for his point of view.

Fourteen Points

Throughout the war Wilson insisted on two things: the defeat of German militarism and the establishment of peace resting on just principles. In January 1918 he gave his speech of the Fourteen Points. In the negotiations that autumn he made the acceptance of these points the primary condition on the part of his European associates and of the Germans as well. Wilson was at the apogee of his career in November 1918, when the armistice was signed. No American president had ever attained so high a position in world esteem, and millions looked to him as the prophet of a new order.

But difficulties loomed. The 1918 elections returned a Republican majority to Congress. The President himself stimulated partisanship by his appeal to elect a Democratic legislature. Though he selected able men for his delegation to the forthcoming peace conference at Paris, he did not think of conciliating the Republican opposition. By insisting on going to Paris in person and remaining there until the treaty was finished, he cut himself off from American opinion.

Versailles and the League Covenant

At the peace conference Wilson strove to realize his ideals. He was able to win the negotiating powers' consent for drafting the Covenant of the League of Nations. This provided for a League Council of the five Great Powers and four elective members and for an Assembly in which every member state would have a vote. The signatories bound themselves to submit disputes to either arbitration or conciliation through the Council. If they failed to do this, they would be subjected to economic and possibly to military sanctions. They were also to agree to respect and preserve the territorial integrity and political independence of the members of the League.

Wilson fought also for what he conceived to be a just peace. On territorial questions he strove to apply the principle of nationality; he fought successfully against French ambitions to detach the Rhineland from Germany and against the Italian desire for Dalmatia, a province peopled by Yugoslavs. Many of the new boundaries of Europe were to be determined by plebiscite. At times, however, the principle of nationality was violated. On the question of reparations Wilson was unsuccessful in limiting German payments in amount and time, and he accepted a formula which was subject to grave criticism. In the Orient, much against his will, he was compelled to recognize the claims of Japan (which had in 1914 entered the war on the side of the Allies) to economic control of the Chinese province of Shantung (formerly in the hands of Germany).

The Treaty of Versailles was not to stand the test of time. In detaching substantial territories from Germany and in fixing Germany with responsibility for the war, it furnished the basis for that German nationalism which was to come to full flower with Adolf Hitler.

Wilson returned to the United States with a political battle ahead. There was much partisanship in the opposition to him but also a genuine dislike of the Treaty of Versailles and honest opposition to "entanglement" in world politics. He erred in demanding ratification of the treaty without modification. He made his appeal in a countrywide tour. He was hailed by tremendous crowds and greeted with immense enthusiasm, but his health gave way, and he was compelled to go back to the White House. A stroke temporarily incapacitated him.

The Senate in November rejected unconditional ratification but adopted the treaty with reservations which the President refused to accept. In January a compromise was attempted. But Wilson spoiled these efforts by taking the issue into the 1920 presidential campaign. That campaign resulted in an overwhelming Republican victory and the election of Warren G. Harding as president. The new chief executive never sought to bring the Treaty of Versailles to the Senate or to bring the United States into the League, which was by now actually in existence. Wilson's presidency ended in a stunning defeat.

Evaluation of Wilson's Policies

Despite his failure to secure American adherence to the League, the long-run judgment on the President must be that he was one of the few great presidents of the United States. In his first term he exerted a presidential leadership that has rarely been equaled and won legislation of far-reaching importance. In his policy toward Germany he faithfully interpreted the majority opinion of the nation, neither rushing passionately into war at the possible cost of national unity nor hesitating to face the issue once it seemed clear. He was a war leader of the first magnitude. In his campaign for a world order, moreover, he has lasting significance. He bequeathed to his generation, and that which followed, a passionate faith in the possibility of such an order.

The Charter of the United Nations reflects in no small degree Woodrow Wilson's aspirations. Whether such an order as he dreamed will ever eventuate in fact is a question that must be left to the prophets. But if a day comes when men seek the means of settling their disputes in international organization, the failure of Woodrow Wilson will appear a transitory thing, and his idealism and his vision will receive their due praise from posterity.

Wilson was twice married. His first wife bore him three daughters. She died in the White House shortly after the outbreak of World War I. In 1916 he married Edith Bolling Galt, who survived him by many years. He died on Feb. 3, 1924.


Woodrow Wilson was the only Democratic President elected between 1896, when William Jennings Bryan was defeated, and 1932, when Franklin Roosevelt was elected. Wilson was a political scientist who once wrote, “The President is at liberty, both in law and in conscience, to be as big a man as he can.” Wilson's Presidency demonstrated the validity of his observation: His two terms were characterized by successes in instituting a progressive domestic program. His foreign policies were marked by victory in World War I and military interventions in several nations.

Wilson was born in Virginia and lived in Georgia and the Carolinas during the Civil War. His father's church was used as a temporary hospital for wounded Confederate soldiers. After attending Davidson College for a year to study for the ministry, he withdrew for health reasons and later went to the College of New Jersey (Princeton), where he distinguished himself as a debater. After graduating in 1879 he studied law at the University of Virginia and practiced briefly and without much success in Atlanta before deciding to study history and political science at Johns Hopkins University. His doctoral dissertation, which became a highly regarded book, Congressional Government, analyzed the weakness of the Presidency and the strength of the standing committees in Congress. (Wilson is the only President ever to earn a doctorate and the only one who was a political scientist.)

Wilson embarked on a career as a college professor, teaching briefly at Bryn Mawr College (newly established to teach women) and Wesleyan University (where he also served as football coach) before returning to Princeton in 1890 as a professor of jurisprudence and political economy. He published a five-volume History of the American People. In 1902 Wilson became president of Princeton.

Wilson soon gained a national reputation for his innovative educational reforms at Princeton, which were designed to emphasize academics and de-emphasize its elitism. In 1908 he published Constitutional Government in the United States, in which he described the growth of Presidential power in Theodore Roosevelt's administration.

Two years later Democratic political bosses in New Jersey, seeking a candidate with a reputation for honesty and incorruptibility, visited Wilson at Princeton and offered him the party's nomination for governor. Wilson accepted and won the election. He broke with the party bosses who had supported him so he could establish a reputation as his own man rather than a follower of the bosses. Instead, he backed reform laws to provide for direct primaries for nominations (taking the nominating power away from the bosses), an ethics law for elected government officials, workmen's compensation, a pure food law, and a commission to regulate such public utilities as electricity.

In 1912 Wilson was a contender, although not the favourite, for the Democratic Presidential nomination. He won the nomination on the 46th ballot, defeating the favourite, House Speaker Champ Clark.

With the Republicans split, Wilson was able to win the Presidency with 42 percent of the popular vote, defeating Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. The Democrats retained Democratic control of the House and won a six-seat margin in the Senate.

Wilson capped his meteoric rise to the White House by demonstrating energetic leadership and domination of Congress. He influenced the roster of committee members so that supporters of his New Freedom program served on key committees. He imposed party discipline on congressional Democrats, who bound themselves to vote for measures put forward by their President. He broke precedent by giving an address to a special session of Congress called in April 1913, instead of sending the legislature a written annual message, as every President since Thomas Jefferson had done. He held regular news conferences and made every effort to rally public opinion around his legislative proposals.

Wilson won passage of a large number of progressive measures. The Underwood Tariff of 1913 lowered the duties on imported manufactured goods, which benefited consumers. The tariff act also contained a provision for the first income tax limited to wealthy individuals. The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 reorganized the banking system in order to prevent the sort of financial instability that caused panics and depressions. The Federal Trade Commission was established in 1914 to end unfair trade practices. The Clayton Anti-Trust Act of 1914 provided new legal weapons against monopolies (companies that eliminated competition and thus raised prices) while recognizing the rights of workers to organize in labor unions and engage in strikes. In 1916 Wilson got Congress to approve federal land banks to provide low-interest loans to farmers, workmen's compensation for injuries received on the job, an eight-hour day for railroad workers, and laws prohibiting child labour. However, Wilson also promoted racial segregation in government departments in the capital.

In foreign affairs Wilson pursued an interventionist policy against small nations. In 1914 he ordered the military to seize the port of Veracruz, Mexico, to prevent a shipment of German weapons from reaching the revolutionary government of Victoriano Huerta. The crisis ended after European mediators succeeded in getting Huerta to resign. In 1915 the United States occupied the Caribbean islands of Haiti and Santo Domingo and took control of their financial affairs in order to pay back banks that had loaned money to these nations. In 1916 Wilson sent General John J. Pershing into Mexico with orders to pursue the guerrilla leader Pancho Villa, who had crossed into U.S. territory and killed 19 Americans. But Pershing's expedition was unsuccessful, and after several clashes with Mexican troops it was withdrawn early in 1917.

In 1914, at the beginning of World War I, Wilson issued a Neutrality Proclamation that stated that the United States would not take sides in the conflict. But Germany's policy of unrestricted submarine warfare caused Wilson to protest and eventually to tilt U.S. policy toward Great Britain and France. Although the British also interfered with U.S. shipping, only the German action resulted in the loss of American lives. On May 17, 1915, the Germans sank a British ocean liner, the Lusitania, resulting in the loss of 1,198 lives, among them 128 Americans. Early in 1916 Germany announced it was ending its submarine warfare, and Wilson then campaigned for re-election on the slogan “He kept us out of war.” Wilson won a close election against Republican Charles Evans Hughes, receiving 52 percent of the popular vote.

In December 1916 Germany announced its willingness to negotiate an end to the war. Wilson then called for a peace conference and on January 22, 1917, outlined his ideas for “peace without victory” in Europe. But nine days later, as if in answer, the Germans torpedoed Wilson's initiative by announcing a resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. On February 3, 1917, Wilson broke diplomatic relations with Germany. Wilson armed U.S. merchant ships on March 5. On March 18 the Germans sank three U.S. merchant vessels, and on April 6 Congress granted Wilson's request for a declaration of war against Germany. The U.S. expeditionary force under General Pershing broke the long stalemate at the Second Battle of the Marne. (Other troops entered Russia on the side of the anticommunist White Russians fighting the Bolsheviks, and they remained until 1920.)

As the Allied victory drew near, Wilson announced his Fourteen Points, a set of principles to guide the victors, in an address to Congress on January 8, 1918. He proposed a system of open diplomacy without state secrets, freedom of the seas, arms reductions, and a “general association of nations” to guarantee all nations their independence and secure borders.

Germany acknowledged its defeat and signed an armistice on November 11, 1918. Meanwhile, Wilson had campaigned for Democratic candidates in the 1918 midterm elections on the basis of his peace proposals, making them a partisan issue. He thus sacrificed the possibility that Republicans would support his plans. Republicans took control of both houses of Congress.

In December 1918 Wilson sailed for the peace negotiations in Paris. He excluded Republican legislators from his delegation, which was a departure from the traditional practice of bipartisan foreign policy. The European allies had already decided to reward themselves with territories and reparations (financial compensation from their defeated enemies), and Wilson was forced to give up most of his Fourteen Points. Nevertheless, he returned with a draft covenant, or constitution, for a League of Nations, which was included in the Treaty of Versailles that the Allies signed on June 28, 1919.

Wilson submitted the treaty to the Republican-controlled Senate for its advice and consent. Some Republican progressives turned isolationist and were prepared to vote against any treaty at all. Other Republicans, led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, would accept a treaty only if it placed strict limitations on the power of the President to commit the United States to peacekeeping duties under Article X of the League of Nations covenant.

Wilson refused to make any concessions. He crossed the nation on a speaking tour in support of the league. On September 25, 1919, in Pueblo, Colorado, he collapsed. He was brought back to Washington, where he suffered a stroke on October 2. For two months Wilson was totally incapacitated. For the remainder of his term, though he understood fully what was happening around him, he was unable to do more than listen, dictate letters, talk for a few minutes, and scrawl his signature. He did not sign acts of Congress, which became laws without his signature. For four months his cabinet did not meet; for another four it met without him. Cabinet secretaries were unable to discuss government business with him. His wife and the White House physician controlled all access to him. When Secretary of State Robert Lansing inquired if the President was so disabled he should resign, they vigorously denied it. No one in government wanted Vice President Thomas Marshall, whom they considered incompetent, to take over.

Paralyzed and totally dependent on his wife as his link to the outside world, Wilson was in no position to control the outcome of the struggle for the Treaty of Versailles. The Senate approved it with a series of “reservations” sponsored by Senator Lodge. Wilson called on his supporters to vote against that version of the treaty. In November, a coalition of Republicans who opposed any version of the treaty and Democrats defeated Lodge's version. (In 1921, by a simple resolution, Congress declared the war with Germany over.)

Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1920, but that prize was small consolation for his political defeat. After his retirement from office, he remained in Washington, D.C., but he was too ill to take part in public affairs. On Armistice Day, 1923, he made his last public speech, in which he foretold eventual U.S. participation in the League of Nations. “I have seen fools resist Providence before,” he warned. “That we shall prevail is as sure as God reigns.” He died in Washington on February 3, 1924. The United States never joined the League of Nations, though Wilson's goal was ultimately realized when the country took the lead in creating the United Nations at the end of World War II.










This web page was last updated on: 18 December, 2008