Woodrow Wilson: Prophet of Peace (Teaching with Historic Places)

Large red brick house.

(Woodrow Wilson House)

For two painful weeks he had prepared for this moment. Now, on November 10, 1923, the eve of the fifth anniversary of the Armistice that concluded World War I, Woodrow Wilson was ready to deliver a commemorative address by radio from the library of his brick home on S Street in Washington, D.C. Frail and weak, Wilson rose that morning from a replica of the Lincoln bed in the White House. Above him hung a large picture of the American flag; an old mahogany desk from his days as president of Princeton University stood in the corner. On the mantel above the fireplace a tarnished brass shell fired by the American artillery against the Germans in 1917 was a constant reminder of the thousands of lives sacrificed to that European war.

Wilson then began the long process of dressing for the occasion, his butler helping him fit his paralyzed left side into his clothes. The president relied on the strong arm of his servant and his cane to walk to the elevator, which carried the two men down to the second floor. Wilson passed the drawing room that displayed the mosaic of Saint Peter, a gift of Pope Benedict XV, and a Gobelin tapestry, a gift of the people of France, and entered the library. Though it was filled with books, it still could not hold his entire collection of more than 8,000 volumes. On one shelf was a special case containing his own published works.

Today the library was even more full. Across the floor ran the cables necessary for the radio broadcast, and Wilson's wife, Edith, stood by with a script, ready to prompt him should his voice fail. As an announcer introduced the nation's former president, Wilson stood before the microphone holding pages he could barely read. His short speech focused on one of the defining events of his life: he urged the nation to finish the peace process by joining the League of Nations as a way to prevent the return of the rivalries that had ignited World War I.

About This Lesson

This lesson describes President Wilson's struggle and his ultimate failure to reach the ideal of achieving lasting world peace through the League of Nations. It was written by Thomas B. Goehner, a museum guide at the Woodrow Wilson House. He is also an education specialist at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Art. TwHP is sponsored, in part, by the Cultural Resources Training Initiative and Parks as Classrooms programs of the National Park Service. This lesson is one in a series that brings the important stories of historic places into the classrooms across the country.

Where it fits into the curriculum

Topics: This lesson could be used in teaching units on foreign policy, presidential history, or the history of World War I.

Time period: Early 20th Century

Objectives for students

1) To articulate the ideals of the world peace and world order that Wilson espoused.
2) To describe the conflict between Wilson's ideals and the Senate's policy of isolationism.
3) To explain why the ideals of a visionary like Wilson are significant in forming the policies of our government.

Materials for students

The materials listed below either can be used directly on the computer or can be printed out, photocopied, and distributed to students. The maps and images appear twice: in a low-resolution version with associated questions and alone in a larger, high-resolution version. Materials for students include:
1) two maps of Washington, D.C. and Wilson's Transcontinental Tour Plan;
2) copies of speeches made by key players in the debate over whether the U.S. should join the League of Nations;
3) illustrations about the League of Nations;
4) photos from the Wilson House;
5) an editorial cartoon.

Visiting the site

The Woodrow Wilson House, a National Historic Landmark, is a museum property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The house is located at 2340 S Street, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20008. The Woodrow Wilson House is open to the public January through December, Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is closed on New Year's Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. For more information, contact the education coordinator at the above address or visit the museum's web pages.

Getting Started

Inquiry Question

Cartoons of three elephants.

What does the acronym GOP stand for?

What might the elephants be representative of?

Setting the Stage

Review the outcome of World War I, the Fourteen Points, and the League of Nations. Following the end of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson waged a long and ultimately unsuccessful campaign for the United States to join League of Nations in the belief that it would help create a lasting peace. As part of this effort, Wilson embarked on a grueling speaking tour to arouse popular support for his program. He hoped to create pressure on the reluctant Republican-controlled Senate, which had to ratify both the Treaty of Versailles and league membership.

When Wilson suffered from an acute headache and nervous exhaustion after delivering a passionate speech in Pueblo, Colorado, his doctor canceled the rest of the trip. On October 2, 1919, Wilson suffered a stroke that paralyzed his left side. The aborted speaking trip, though well-received by the American people, did not change one vote in the Senate. It refused to ratify either the treaty or membership in the league.

Failing health and an increasingly hostile political environment kept Wilson from seeking a third presidential term in 1920. When the victorious Republican candidate, Warren G. Harding, took the oath of office in March 1921, Woodrow Wilson left the White House. He moved to 2340 S Street in Northwest Washington; today the house stands as a memorial to Wilson and his causes.

Locating the Site

Map 1: Washington, D.C.

Map of Washington, DC.

Questions for Map 1

1. Examine Map 1 and locate the White House and the Wilson House.

2. Note the proximity of the two locations. Why might Wilson have wanted to remain in Washington, D.C. following his retirement from the presidency?

Locating the Site

Map 2: President Wilson's tour plan to the Pacific Coast, fall of 1919.

In the fall of 1919, President Wilson set off on a cross-country speaking tour designed to convince the country that the United States should become part of the League of Nations. He hoped in particular to create public pressure that would convince senators to ratify the treaty that would make the country part of the League. Starting in Columbus, Ohio, he reached the West Coast and was making his way back to Washington when his doctor ordered him to stop the tour after his speech in Pueblo, Colorado on September 25, 1919.

Questions for Map 2

1. How do you think Wilson chose his routes? Would he be more likely to speak in states whose Senators supported or opposed the League of Nations? Why?

2. Do presidents today make such efforts to reach the American public over important issues? Compare and contrast how modern-day presidents win public opinion versus Wilson's method. Which method would you find more persuasive?

Determining the Facts

Reading 1: Wilson's Passion for the League of Nations

In his efforts to persuade Americans to support the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, Woodrow Wilson addressed an audience in the City Auditorium of Pueblo, Colorado, on September 25, 1919. Following are excerpts from that speech taken from The Papers of Woodrow Wilson (Arthur S. Link, ed., vol. 63, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990, pp. 500-513).

 Mr. Chairman and fellow citizens: It is with great pleasure that I find myself in Pueblo, and I feel it a compliment that I should be permitted to be the first speaker in this beautiful hall. One of the advantages of this hall, as I look about, is that you are not too far away from me, because there is nothing so reassuring to men who are trying to express the public sentiment as getting into real personal contact with their fellow citizens....

 The chief pleasure of my trip has been that it has nothing to do with my personal fortunes, that it has nothing to do with my personal reputation, that it has nothing to do with anything except the great principles uttered by Americans of all sorts and of all parties which we are now trying to realize at this crisis in the affairs of the world.

 But there have been unpleasant impressions as well as pleasant impressions, my fellow citizens, as I have crossed the continent. I have perceived more and more that men have been busy creating an absolutely false impression of what the treaty of peace and the Covenant of the League of Nations contain and mean....

 Don't think of this treaty so much as merely a settlement with Germany. It is that. It is a very severe settlement with Germany, but there is not anything in it that she did not earn [applause]....

 But the treaty is so much more than that. It is not merely a settlement with Germany; it is a readjustment of those great injustices which underlay the whole structure of European and Asiatic societies. Of course this is only the first of several treaties. They are constructed under the same plan....

 But at the front of this great treaty is put the Covenant of the League of Nations. It will be at the front of the Austrian treaty and the Hungarian treaty and the Bulgarian treaty and the treaty with Turkey. Every one of them will contain the Covenant of the League of Nations, because you cannot work any of them without the Covenant of the League of Nations. Unless you get united, concerted purpose and power of the great governments of the world behind this settlement, it will fall down like a house of cards.

 There is only one power behind the liberation of mankind, and that is the power of mankind. It is the power of the united moral forces of the world. And in the covenant of the League of Nations the moral forces of the world are mobilized....But all the nations that have power that can be mobilized are going to be members of the League, including the United States. And what do they unite for? They enter into solemn promise to one another that they will never use their power against one another for aggression; that they will never impair the territorial integrity of a neighbor; that they will never interfere with the political independence of a neighbor; that they will abide by the principle that great populations are entitled to determine their own destiny; and that they will not interfere with that destiny; and that no matter what differences arise amongst them, they will never resort to war without first having done one or other of two things–either submitting the matter of controversy to arbitration, in which case they agree to abide by the result without question, or having submitted it to the consideration of the Council of the League of Nations, laying before the Council all the facts, agreeing that the Council can publish the documents and facts to the whole world.

 In other words, they consent, no matter what happens, to submit every matter of difference between them to the judgment of mankind. And, just so certainly as they do that, my fellow citizens, war will be in the far background, war will be pushed out of the foreground of terror in which it has kept the world generation after generation, and men will know that there will be a calm time of deliberate counsel....

 I believe that we will see the truth, eye to eye and face to face. There is one thing that the American people always rise to and extend their hand to, and that is the truth of justice and of liberty and peace. We have accepted the truth and we are going to be led by it, and it is going to lead us, and through us the world, out into pastures of quietness and peace such as the world has never dreamed of before.

Following is an excerpt from the memoir of Wilson's private physician taken from The Papers of Woodrow Wilson (Arthur S. Link, ed., vol. 67, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993, pp. 466-670).

 I succeeded in persuading him [Wilson] to cancel his plans formed for the journey in early August, but later on, the conviction grew upon him that he must go. Opposition to the Treaty was increasing in the Senate, and he must rally the moral opinion of the country and do it immediately, so he felt. I played my last card and lost. Going to the study one morning I found the President seated at his desk writing. He looked up and said: 'I know what you have come for. I do not want to do anything foolhardy but the League of Nations is now in crisis, and if it fails I hate to think what will happen to the world. You must remember that I, as Commander in Chief, was responsible for sending our soldiers to Europe. In the crucial test in the trenches they did not turn back–and I cannot turn back now. I cannot put my personal safety, my health in the balance against my duty–I must go.'

Questions for Reading 1

1. What does Wilson say has been the "chief pleasure" of his trip? Why? What did he not like? Why?
2. There was one note of applause early in the speech. What do you think the listeners liked about that point made?
3. According to Wilson, why should the U.S. join the League of Nations? Do you find this reason persuasive? Why or why not?
4. Why did Wilson feel he had to ignore his doctor's advice to cancel plans for his speaking tour?

Determining the Facts

Reading 2: The Collision of Ideals and Policies

The following are excerpts from a speech before the U.S. Senate, presented by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, August 12, 1919.

 You may call me selfish if you will, conservative or reactionary, or use any other harsh adjective you see fit to apply, but an American I was born and an American I have remained all my life. I can never be anything else but an American, and I must think of the United States first, and when I think of the United States first in an arrangement like this, I am thinking what is best for the world. For if the United States fails, the best hopes of mankind fail with it. I have never had but one allegiance–I cannot divide it now. I have never loved but one flag and I cannot share that devotion and give affection to the mongrel banner invented for the League....

 Are the ideals that are confined to this deformed experiment upon a noble purpose, tainted, as it is with bargains and tied to a peace treaty which might have been disposed of long ago to the great benefit of the world if it had not been compelled to carry this rider on its back?

 We all share these aspirations and desires, but some of us see no hope, but rather defeat, for them in this murky covenant. For we, too have our ideals, even if we differ from those who have tried to establish a monopoly on idealism. Our ideal is our country...

 We would have this country strong to resist a peril from the West, as she has flung back the German menace from the East. We would not have our politics distracted and embittered by dissensions from other lands. We would not have our country's vigor exhausted, or her moral force abated, by everlasting meddling and muddling in every quarrel great and small, which afflicts the world. Our ideal is to make her even stronger and better and finer, because in this way alone, as we believe, can she be of the greatest service to the world's peace and the welfare of mankind.

Following are excerpts from a speech before the U.S. Senate, presented by Senator William E. Borah on November 10, 1919.

 Mr. President, after Mr. Lincoln had been elected President, before he assumed the duties of the office and at the time when all indications were to the effect that we would soon be in the midst of civil strife, a friend from the city of Washington wrote him for instructions. Mr. Lincoln wrote back in a single line, 'Entertain no compromise; have none of it.' That states the position I occupy at this time and which I have in my humble way occupied from the first contention in regard to this proposal of entering the League of Nations....

 Have we not been told day by day for the last nine months that the Senate of the United States, a coordinate part of the treaty-making power, should accept this league as it was written because the wise men sitting in Versailles had so written it, and has not every possible influence and every source of power in public opinion been organized and directed against the Senate to compel it to do that thing?

 What is the result of all this? We are in the midst of all the affairs of Europe. We have joined in alliance with all European concerns. We have joined in alliance with all the European nations which have thus far joined the league, and all nations which may be admitted to the league. We are sitting there dabbling in their affairs and intermeddling in their concerns. In other words, Mr. President–and this comes to the question which is fundamental with me–we have forfeited and surrendered, once and for all, the great policy of 'no entangling alliances' upon which the strength of this Republic has been founded for 150 years....

There is another and even more commanding reason why I shall record my vote against this treaty. It imperils what I conceive to be the underlying, the very first principles of this Republic. It is in conflict with the right of our people to govern themselves free from all restraint, legal or moral, of foreign powers...I will not I can not, give up my belief that America must, not alone for the happiness of her own people, but for the moral guidance and greater contentment of the world, be permitted to live her own life. Next to the tie which binds a man to his God is the tie which binds a man to his country, and all schemes, all plans, however ambitious and fascinating they seem in their proposal, but which embarrass or entangle and impede or shackle her sovereign will, which would compromise her freedom of action I unhesitatingly put behind me....

 Sir, we are told that this treaty means peace. Even so, I would not pay the price. Would you purchase peace at the cost of our independence?...

 Mr. President, to recapitulate, Europe is still Europe, with all her racial antipathies and imperialistic appetites, with the same standards of government, whatever name Government may bear, and the same strange conceptions of right and justice in whatever terms she may clothe her schemes of ambition. She is unchanged, and if we assume the task of effectuating a change, save as in the past by whatever power precept and example may exert, we will end by becoming Europeanized in our standards and in our conceptions of civilization or we will fall into disintegration and as a Republic die. If we give up our independence and enter her councils with one vote, if we surrender our seat of authority here upon the Western Continent, this place of command to which the living God directed our fathers that they, free from all foreign entanglements, might work out a new scheme of government, if we quit our own stand upon foreign soil, we shall return as our President returned from Versailles, stripped of our principles and shorn of our ideals. Look upon his experience. The thoughtful will gather from it a lesson of deep and lasting significance.

Questions for Reading 2
1. According to Senator Lodge, why should the U.S. not join the League of Nations?
2. What reasons did Senator Borah provide as to why the U.S. should refuse to join the League of Nations?
3. How do Lodge's arguments differ from Borah's?
4. Wilson, Lodge, and Borah all refer to "American principles" in their speeches. Which man do you think most closely follows the principles discussed? Why do you think so?

Determining the Facts

Reading 3: Wilson's Final Campaign

Woodrow Wilson gave the following radio address from the library of his S Street home on the eve of Armistice Day, November 10, 1923. The speech appeared in the New York Times on November 11. Several other versions of the speech have been printed, but this is what Wilson actually said. It is also found in The Papers of Woodrow Wilson (Arthur S. Link, ed., vol. 68, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993, pp. 466-67).

 The anniversary of Armistice Day should stir us to great exaltation of spirit because of the proud recollection that it was our day, a day above those early days of that never-to-be forgotten November which lifted the world to the high levels of vision and achievement upon which the great war for democracy and right was fought and won; although the stimulating memories of that happy time of triumph are forever marred and embittered for us by the shameful fact that when the victory was won, be it remembered–chiefly by the indomitable spirit and ungrudging sacrifices of our incomparable soldiers–we turned our backs on upon our associates and refused to bear any responsible part in the administration of peace, or the firm and permanent establishment of the results of the war–won at so terrible a cost of life and treasure–and withdrew into a sullen and selfish isolation which is deeply ignoble because manifestly cowardly and dishonorable.

This must always be a source of deep mortification to us and we shall inevitably be forced by the moral obligations of freedom and honor to retrieve that fatal error and assume once more the role of courage, self-respect and helpfulness which every true American must wish to regard as our natural part in the affairs of the world.

 That we should have thus done a great wrong to civilization at one of the most critical turning points in the history of the world is the more to be deplored because every anxious year that has followed has made the exceeding need for such services as we might have rendered more and more evident and more and more pressing, as demoralizing circumstances which we might have controlled have gone from bad to worse.

 And now, as if to furnish as sort of sinister climax, France and Italy between them have made waste paper of the Treaty of Versailles and the whole field of international relationship is in perilous confusion.

 The affairs of the world can be set straight only by the firmest and most determined exhibition of the will to lead and make the right prevail.

 Happily, the present situation in the world of affairs affords us the opportunity to retrieve the past and to render mankind the inestimable service of proving that there is at least one great and powerful nation which can turn away from programs of self­interest and devote itself to practicing and establishing the highest ideals of disinterested service and the consistent maintenance of exalted standards of conscience and of right.

 The only way in which we can worthily give proof of our appreciation of the high significance of Armistice Day is by resolving to put self-interest away and once more formulate and act on the highest ideals and purposes of international policy.
 Thus, and only thus, can we return to the true traditions of America.


 The next day, November 11, a throng of over 20,000 well-wishers spontaneously crowded outside the house on S Street to pay homage to Wilson, the war president, architect of the Treaty of Versailles, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and now embittered idealist.

 Wilson came down from the house to its front steps to address the group. He gave a few words of thanks and gratitude and finally left his admirers with these words: "I am not one of those that have the least anxiety about the triumph of the principles I have stood for. I have seen fools resist Providence before, and I have seen their destruction, as will come upon these again, utter destruction and contempt. That we shall prevail is as sure as God reigns." Three months later he died at his quiet brick house just three miles from his former office as executive-in-chief. Wilson's ideals and leadership in crafting the League of Nations have left a rich legacy for the future of peace in our world.

Questions for Reading 3
1. What is significant about the date on which this speech was given?
2. What was Wilson asking America to do?
3. Compare this speech of Wilson's to the one he gave in Colorado four years earlier. How has Wilson's argument changed? How has it stayed consistent?

Visual Evidence 1

Illustration 1: Origin of the League of Nations.

Document on the origin of the League of Nations.
The League of Nations: A Pictorial Summary, Geneva: League of Nations, c. 1920. (Courtesy of the Woodrow Wilson House) Text-only version of Illustration 1.

Questions for Illustration 1
1. Why would Wilson's portrait be included in the League of Nations publication?
2. What is the significance of the text that appears next to this portrait of Wilson?
3. What is significant about the fourteenth point? Who would benefit from this point?

Visual Evidence 2

Illustration 2: The Covenant.

Document about the covenant of the league of nations.
Map of the world.
list of the 54 members of the league.

The League of Nations: A Pictorial Summary, Geneva: League of Nations, c. 1920. (Courtesy of the Woodrow Wilson House)

Illustration 2 is a map and a list of League of Nations Members.

Questions for Illustration 2
1. Under what category is the United States listed in this document?
2. Read the covenant that appears at the top of the page. Which of the principles would most likely have bothered an opponent of the League like Senator Borah? Why?

Visual Evidence

Photo 1: The Wilson house.

Large red brick house.

Questions for Photo 1

1. What impressions do you have of this house? Does its size and style seem appropriate for a former President of the United States? Why or why not?

2. Why do you think it was important to Wilson to stay in his Washington home, even after his presidency ended?

Visual Evidence

Photo 2: Wilson's library.

Image of Wilson's library with fireplace and chairs.
(Woodrow Wilson House)

Photo 3: The drawing room.

Wilson's drawing room with piano and chairs.

(Woodrow Wilson House)

Photo 2 shows where Wilson spent a great deal of his time: in the library among his books and memorabilia. The portrait over the mantel was commissioned after his death. Photo 3 is the drawing room of the Wilson retirement home. A copy of Mrs. Wilson's portrait shares the room with a mosaic of St. Peter, presented to the Wilsons at the Vatican during their tour of Europe in 1918.

Questions for Photos 2 & 3
1. What objects in the library and drawing room convey Wilson's social and economic position?
2. How did the Wilsons spend their leisure time? Compare with modern-day leisure activities. What has changed?

Visual Evidence

Cartoon 1: "Three Little Elephants."
Cartoons of three elephants.
By Brooklyn Eagle; Cartoonist Harding (Woodrow Wilson and the Great Betrayal, Thomas A. Bailey, MacMillan Co., 1945).

Questions for Cartoon 1
1. Do you think the cartoonist favored or opposed the United States joining the League? Why?
2. What clues in the cartoon that indicate that the debate over the Treaty of Versailles and membership in the League of Nations was subject to partisan politics?

Putting It All Together

Wilson's supporters believed he was defeated, both physically and politically, by an ideal that the United States was not yet ready to accept. Yet many believe that his principles and leadership in crafting the League of Nations left a rich legacy for future peacemakers. His dream of an international tribunal that would help to maintain peace came to fruition when the United Nations was founded in 1945.

Activity 1: Public Speaking
Break the class into groups of three or four. Using copies of Wilson's speeches included in this lesson, have the students read the speeches to each other, citing the phrases you believe are especially important. Then hold a full class discussion reporting the ideas present in the speeches and whether they believe they were worth personal sacrifice. Using Wilson's radio address as a model, ask each group to work together to write and present a brief radio address that will persuade the nation to return to the ideal of world peace. Have one member of each group present the talk to the class. Then have a full class discussion of the points made in the speeches.

Activity 2: Current Events and Wilson's Peace
Ask students to look through current newspaper and magazine articles to identify and summarize articles that show either the success or failure of international peace in the modern world. Have students read their summaries to each other in class and discuss the consequences of upholding or ignoring Wilson's ideal of world peace. Ask whether they believe the United Nations has acted to ensure the peaceful settlement of problems in a manner appropriate to Wilson's model.

Activity 3: Partisan Political Cartoons
Using the "Three Little Elephants" cartoon as a model, have students draw their own political cartoons relating to the debate over the League of Nations or over a current issue relating to peace. Have students present their works to the class and explain how they represented the personalities and points of view involved. Post the cartoons on a bulletin board or collect them to be published in a class newspaper.

Activity 4: The Power of Mankind: Helping our own Communities
In his September, 1919 speech to Pueblo, Colorado, Woodrow Wilson, in support of the League of Nations, said, “There is only one power behind the liberation of mankind, and that is the power of mankind.” A predecessor of the United Nations, the League of Nations was focused on improving both international relations and quality of life around the world. Organizations in local communities and states also focus on resolving conflicts and providing for basic human needs. Have students break into small groups and research the history of a local relief agency of their choice. Following their research, have the students present what problems face the community or state and how local relief agencies work to remedy the problems. After completing your research, discuss with the students how they can make a difference in their community. Discuss how local problems are linked to those around the world. Have the students look into activities they can do within their own community to further the work of one of the organizations they researched.

Woodrow Wilson--Supplementary Resources

Woodrow Wilson: Prophet of Peace examines the struggle of a president who brought the United States through World War I and tried in vain to make America a member of the League of Nations. Below are materials for further exploration of the subjects this lesson considers.

Woodrow Wilson House
The Woodrow Wilson House is a part of the National Trust.

The Woodrow Wilson Birthplace
The Woodrow Wilson Birthplace & Museum in Staunton, Virginia presents a look into Wilson's entire career, from his days at Princeton University to his role as President of the United States.

Biographies of Woodrow Wilson
The following include:

  • a copy of Wilson's First and Second Inaugural Addresses

  • a timeline of Wilson's accomplishments while in office.

American Presidents, Life Portraits
In this series, C-SPAN explores the life stories of the 41 men who have been president by traveling to presidential homes, museums, libraries, and grave sites and speaking with presidential scholars. American Presidents, Life Portraits will focus on one president each week, including Woodrow Wilson on September 13, 1999.

Last updated: June 26, 2023