Thomas Woodrow Wilson (December 28, 1856 – February 3, 1924) was an American politician and academic who served as the 28th President of the United States from 1913 to 1921. Born in Staunton, Virginia, he spent his early years in Augusta, Georgia and Columbia, South Carolina.
Wilson earned a PhD in political science at Johns Hopkins University, and served as a professor and scholar at various institutions before being selected as President of Princeton University, a position he held from 1902 to 1910. In 1910, he was the New Jersey Democratic Party’s gubernatorial candidate and was elected the 34th Governor of New Jersey, serving from 1911 to 1913. In the 1912 presidential election, Wilson benefited from a split in the Republican Party to win the presidency, gaining a large majority in the Electoral College and a 42% plurality of the popular vote in a four–candidate field.
He was the first Southerner elected as president since Zachary Taylor in 1848, and Wilson was a leading force in the Progressive Movement, bolstered by his Democratic Party’s winning control of both the White House and Congress in 1912.
While in office, Wilson reintroduced the spoken State of the Union, which had been out of use since 1801. Leading the Congress that was now in Democratic hands, he oversaw the passage of progressive legislative policies unparalleled until the New Deal in 1933.
The Federal Reserve Act, Federal Trade Commission Act, the Clayton Antitrust Act, and the Federal Farm Loan Act were some of these new policies.
Having taken office one month after ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment, Wilson called a special session of Congress, whose work culminated in the Revenue Act of 1913, introducing an income tax and lowering tariffs. Through passage of the Adamson Act that imposed an 8-hour workday for railroads, he averted a railroad strike and an ensuing economic crisis.
Upon the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Wilson maintained a policy of neutrality, while pursuing a more aggressive policy in dealing with Mexico’s civil war.
Wilson faced former New York Governor Charles Evans Hughes in the presidential election of 1916. By a narrow margin, he became the first Democrat since Andrew Jackson elected to two consecutive terms. Wilson’s second term was dominated by American entry into World War I. In April 1917, when Germany had resumed unrestricted submarine warfare and sent the Zimmermann Telegram, Wilson asked Congress to declare war in order to make “the world safe for democracy.”
The United States conducted military operations alongside the Allies, although without a formal alliance. During the war, Wilson focused on diplomacy and financial considerations, leaving military strategy to the generals, especially General John J. Pershing. Loaning billions of dollars to Britain, France, and other Allies, the United States aided their finance of the war effort.
Through the Selective Service Act, conscription sent 10,000 freshly trained soldiers to France per day by the summer of 1918. On the home front, he raised income taxes, borrowing billions of dollars through the public’s purchase of Liberty Bonds. He set up the War Industries Board, promoted labor union cooperation, regulating agriculture and food production through the Lever Act, and granting to the Secretary of the Treasury, William McAdoo, direct control of the nation’s railroad system.
In his 1915 State of the Union Address, Wilson asked Congress for what became the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, suppressing anti-draft activists. The crackdown was intensified by his Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer to include expulsion of non-citizen radicals during the First Red Scare of 1919–1920.
Following years of advocacy for suffrage on the state level, in 1918 he endorsed the Nineteenth Amendment, whose ratification in 1920 provided an equal right to vote for women across the United States, over Southern opposition. Wilson staffed his government with Southern Democrats who implemented racial segregation at the Treasury, Navy and other Federal offices.
He gave department heads greater autonomy in their management. Early in 1918, he issued his principles for peace, the Fourteen Points, and in 1919, following armistice, he traveled to Paris, promoting the formation of a League of Nations, and concluding the Treaty of Versailles.
Following his return from Europe, Wilson embarked on a nationwide tour in 1919 to campaign for the treaty, suffering a severe stroke. The treaty was met with serious concern by Senate Republicans, and Wilson rejected a compromise effort led by Henry Cabot Lodge, leading to the Senate’s rejection of the treaty.
Due to his stroke, Wilson secluded himself in the White House, disability having diminished his power and influence. Forming a strategy for re-election, Wilson deadlocked the 1920 Democratic National Convention, but his bid for a third-term nomination was overlooked.
Wilson was a devoted Presbyterian and Geologist, and he infused his views of morality into his domestic and international policies. He appointed several well known radically progressive ‘single taxers’ (Georgists) to prominent positions in his administration.
His ideology of internationalism is now referred to as “Wilsonian”, an activist foreign policy calling on the nation to promote global democracy. For his sponsorship of the League of Nations, Wilson was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize, the second of three sitting presidents so honored.
Words of Wisdom
If I am to speak 10 minutes, I need a week for preparation; if 15 minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.