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THE PRESIDENTS of the United States
Biographical Sketches

Twenty-Eighth President • 1913-21
Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson

An idealistic former educator and Governor, president Wilson considered himself the steward of the people. Toward that end, he proposed a reform-oriented "New Freedom" domestic program, but he soon faced serious international problems. During his second term, he reluctantly abandoned neutrality in World War I, but then led the United States into the conflict on a crusade to "make the world safe for democracy," and figured prominently in the peacemaking. Yet the Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, which included provisions for a League of Nations. And Wilson, afflicted with a stroke, was incapacitated for his last 17 months in office.

The eldest son and third child in a family of four, (Thomas) Woodrow Wilson was born in 1856 at the manse of the First Presbyterian Church, Staunton, Va., where his father was pastor. During Woodrow's boyhood, Reverend Wilson held several posts in the South. Shortly after the youth's first birthday, the family moved to Augusta, Ga. In 1870 his father began teaching at a seminary in Columbia, S.C., and for the next few years also held a nearby pastorate. Parents, tutors, and local schools provided Woodrow with his early education.

In 1873 Wilson matriculated at Davidson (N.C.) College, a small Presbyterian institution. The following year, illness forced him to rejoin his family at their new home in Wilmington, N.C. He next won a B.A. at the College of New Jersey (present Princeton University), which he attended during the period 1875-79. He was not only a serious student, but also an able orator and debater.

Wilson and the Alligator Club
Wilson (standing foreground, third from right) and members of the Alligator Club while he was a student at Princeton. (Library of Congress.)

Upon graduation, Wilson entered the University of Virginia Law School. Late in 1880, however, ill health once again forced him to go back to Wilmington, where he carried on his study. In 1882 he received his degree, was admitted to the Georgia bar, and set up a law practice with a friend in Atlanta. Before long, however, he lost interest in the profession.

Ellen Wilson
Ellen Wilson
Edith Wilson
Edith Wilson

In the fall of 1883, Wilson enrolled at the graduate school of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Two years later, his first book, Congressional Government, was published. That same year, he married Ellen L. Axson, daughter of a Presbyterian minister. She was to bear three daughters.

From 1885 until 1888, Wilson held a professorship of history at Bryn Mawr (Pa.) College. During this time, in 1886, he won his Ph. D. in political science from Johns Hopkins. He next taught history and political economy (1888-90) at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Conn. He then became professor of jurisprudence and political economy at the College of New Jersey (Princeton University after 1896). By 1902, he had authored nine books and 32 articles. During the interim, he had refused three offers of the University of Virginia presidency.

In 1902 Princeton's board of trustees unanimously chose Wilson as president. His fight to "democratize" the institution met with opposition from many faculty and alumni, but brought him some national recognition and encouraged an interest in politics. In 1907 State Democratic leaders considered him as a U.S. Senate nominee, but he withdrew after reformers attacked him as a machine spokesman.

Identifying himself with moderate progressivism, in the fall of 1909 Wilson was elected as head of the Short Ballot Association, a national organization dedicated to improving local government. Further broadening his reputation, he also began to speak out against trusts and high Republican-inspired tariffs.

In 1910 Wilson resigned from Princeton to become the Democratic gubernatorial candidate. Asserting his independence of party leaders and refusing to make patronage pledges, he campaigned as a reformer and won election by a wide margin. The Democrats also won enough votes to control the legislature. Wilson blocked the legislative selection of a party-backed candidate to the U.S. Senate, and pushed through significant measures. Included were those dealing with direct primary and other election reforms, regulation of utilities, pure food protection, woman and child labor restrictions, and employers' liability. When Republicans took over the legislature in 1912, Wilson refused to compromise and vetoed 57 bills.

In pursuit of the Presidential nomination, late in 1911 Wilson began a nationwide series of speeches. The national convention deadlocked the next year and nominated him on the 46th ballot. He then stumped the country and expounded his "New Freedom." This program emphasized restoration of the Government to the people through control of special-privilege groups by the initiation of various reforms, especially in the fields of tariff revision and the regulation of trusts and banks. Benefiting from the split between Republican William Howard Taft and Progressive Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson won only 42 percent of the popular vote but carried 40 of the 48 States.

Wilson and family
Governor Wilson and family, probably during the Presidential campaign of 1912. Left to right: Margaret, Mrs. Ellen L. Wilson, Eleanor, Jessie, and Wilson. (Library of Congress, Pach Bros., 1912.)

As President, Wilson felt he needed to exert strong leadership to fulfill his self-conceived role as a direct representative of the people. He became the first Chief Executive since John Adams to address joint congressional sessions; inaugurated regularly scheduled press conferences; championed substantially lowered rates in the Underwood Tariff (1913), which included the first constitutional Federal income tax; fought for the Federal Reserve Act (1913) to stabilize and regulate currency through regional governmental banks controlled by a board of Presidential appointees; established the Federal Trade Commission (1914) to prevent unfair business practices; strengthened antitrust legislation; and recognized the legality of labor unions and their right to strike.

Meanwhile, in 1914, Wilson's wife had died. The next year, he married widow Edith Bolling Galt. The couple had no children.

Before the 1916 election, Wilson signed bills for farm loans, the welfare of seamen, an 8-hour day for railroad workers, and child labor restrictions, though the Supreme Court later declared some of this legislation to be unconstitutional.

Wilson had not been in office too long before Latin American and European affairs captured his attention. In 1914, after incidents at Tampico and Veracruz, Mexico, he sent in troops that captured the latter city, but mediators prevented the outbreak of a full-scale war. Two years later, he dispatched a military expedition into Mexico in retaliation against raids that revolutionary Pancho Villa had made into Texas and New Mexico.

In the Caribbean, Wilson continued the traditional American role of intervention. Mainly to quell revolutionary strife and protect U.S. interests, in 1915 and 1916 he deployed military forces to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, respectively, and established virtual protectorates. In 1917 he acquired the Virgin Islands from Denmark.

The situation in Europe was far more serious. After the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Wilson proclaimed U.S. neutrality. It proved to be difficult to maintain. The President protested to Great Britain over her blockade against nonbelligerent maritime trade. But Germany's actions were even more alarming. To halt the flow of materiel to France and Britain, beginning early in 1915 her submarines (U-boats) sank neutral ships without warning. Wilson's complaints went unheeded. After the sinking of the Lusitania, a British liner carrying many Americans, Wilson further protested and Germany relented. Following another similar episode, in the spring of 1916 he threatened to break off diplomatic relations and Germany again backed down.

During the 1916 election campaign, defending his domestic program and employing the slogan "He kept us out of war," Wilson eked out a narrow victory in the electoral college over Republican Charles Evans Hughes.

Wilson and French Presidenet
President Wilson, leader of the U.S. delegation, receives a tumultuous welcome as he arrives in Paris on December 14, 1918, to attend the Peace Conference that ended World War I. Next to him is French President Raymond Poincaré. (Library of Congress.)

In an attempt at mediation, early in 1917 Wilson proposed to the European powers a "peace without victory" plan that he felt would insure a just and equitable end to the conflict, but both sides were reluctant to negotiate. Meantime, most Americans had become convinced that Germany and her allies were the aggressors. Events soon underscored this position. The Germans launched an unrestricted submarine offensive in late January 1917 on the gamble that it would crush the Allies before the expected United States entry could affect the outcome.

After Wilson severed diplomatic relations the next month anti-German feeling in the country increased because of the publication of the Zimmermann Note, a secret proposal for an alliance of Mexico, Japan, and Germany against the United States. Following the sinking of more American vessels, in April 1917 Congress declared war. Wilson, who viewed it as a moral crusade to preserve freedom and democracy against German autocracy, directed the mobilization of the Armed Forces and the production of military materiel that helped bring Allied victory in November 1918.

Earlier that same year, distressed by Bolshevik, or Red (Communist), advances in the Russian civil war among other reasons, Wilson had supported Allied military intervention to aid pro-democratic Russians. It lasted until 1920.

The World War I armistice was partly based on Wilson's "Fourteen Points," which he had proposed early in 1918 as the basis for a lasting peace. Applauded by many Europeans, late that same year Wilson and his mostly Democratic delegation arrived at the Paris Peace Conference. Although he was forced to compromise on parts of his plan, he obtained European commitments to a League of Nations, which he trusted would resolve future international differences. Provisions for the league were incorporated into the Treaty of Versailles. These efforts were to win Wilson the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919.


Wilson House

That summer, Wilson presented the treaty to the Senate for ratification. Even though he faced a Republican majority there following the 1918 elections, he adamantly advocated unconditional adoption of the treaty and the league. In September he launched a "whistle-stop" tour to build up public support for ratification. Yet the Senate never ratified the treaty, and it was not until President Harding took over from Wilson that a joint congressional resolution formally ended the war. The latter's uncompromising stance was not the only reason for the Senate's lack of cooperation. Also involved were partisanship and the return of isolationist sentiment.

In October 1919 a stroke incapacitated Wilson, and he remained under the protective care of his wife until Harding took over the reins of Government in March 1921.

Before Wilson was stricken, he and the Nation had become fearful of the rise of domestic Communism as well as the outbreak of labor unrest and political agitation. As a result, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer arrested many "radicals" and deported some of them.

In 1920 Republican Warren G. Harding swamped James M. Cox, who supported the League of Nations. During retirement, Wilson never recovered his health. His wife ministered to him at their recently purchased home in Washington, D.C. Although he joined a law firm, he never practiced. He died in 1924.

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Last Updated: 04-Feb-2004