Dr. Thomas Woodrow Wilson (December 28, 1856 – February 3, 1924) was the 45th state Governor of New Jersey (1911-1913) and later the 28th President of the United States (1913-1921). He was the second Democrat to serve two consecutive terms in the White House (Andrew Jackson was the first).
Early life and education
Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia in 1856 to Reverend Dr. Joseph Ruggles Wilson and Janet Woodrow, making him the last president born in the state. His ancestry was Scots-Irish going back to Strabane, in modern-day Northern Ireland. Wilson grew up in Augusta, Georgia and always claimed that his earliest memory was of hearing that Abraham Lincoln had been elected and that a war was coming. Wilson's father and mother were originally from Ohio, but sympathized with the South in the Civil War. They cared for wounded Confederate soldiers at their church and let their son go out and see Jefferson Davis paraded in handcuffs by the victorious Union army. Wilson would forever recall standing "for a moment at General Lee's side and looking up into his face". (To End All Wars, pg 3.)
Despite suffering from dyslexia, Wilson taught himself shorthand to compensate for his difficulties and was able to achieve academically through determination and self-discipline, but never quite overcame his dyslexia. Wilson attended Davidson College for one year and then transferred to Princeton University, graduating in 1879. He was a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternal organization. Afterward, Wilson studied law at the University of Virginia for one year. After completing and publishing his dissertation, Congressional Government, in 1886, he received his Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins University. (His carved initials are still visible on the underside of a table in the History Department.) Wilson remains the only American president to have earned a doctoral degree.
Political writings and academic career
Woodrow Wilson came of age in the decades after the Civil War, when Congress was supreme - "the gist of all policy is decided by the legislature" - and corruption rampant. Instead of focusing on individuals in explaining where American politics went wrong, Wilson focused on the American constitutional structure. (Congressional Government 180)
Under the influence of Walter Bagehot's "The English Constitution", Wilson saw the American Constitution as pre-modern, cumbersome, and open to corruption. Before the vigorous presidencies of the turn of the Twentieth Century, Wilson even favored a parliamentary system for the United States. Writing in the early 1880s in a journal edited by Henry Cabot Lodge, Wilson wrote
"I ask you to put this question to yourselves, should we not draw the Executive and Legislature closer together? Should we not, on the one hand, give the individual leaders of opinion in Congress a better chance to have an intimate party in determining who should be president, and the president, on the other hand, a better chance to approve himself a statesman, and his advisors capable men of affairs, in the guidance of Congress?" (the Politics of Woodrow Wilson, 41-48)
Wilson started "Congressional Government," his best known political work, as an argument for a parliamentary system, but Wilson was impressed by Grover Cleveland, and "Congressional Government" emerged as a critical description of America's system, with frequent negative comparisons to Westminster. Wilson himself claimed "I am pointing out facts, - diagnosing, not prescribing, remedies.". (Congressional Government. 205)
Wilson believed that America's intricate system of checks and balances was the cause of the problems in American governance. Wilson said that the divided power made it impossible for voters to see who was accountable for ill-doing. If government behaved badly, Wilson asked,
- "...how is the schoolmaster, the nation, to know which boy needs the whipping? ... Power and strict accountability for its use are the essential constituents of good government.... It is, therefore, manifestly a radical defect in our federal system that it parcels out power and confuses responsibility as it does. The main purpose of the Convention of 1787 seems to have been to accomplish this grievous mistake. The `literary theory' of checks and balances is simply a consistent account of what our Constitution makers tried to do; and those checks and balances have proved mischievous just to the extent which they have succeeded in establishing themselves... [the Framers] would be the first to admit that the only fruit of dividing power had been to make it irresponsible." (ibid, 186-7)
The longest section of "Congressional Government" is on the House of Representatives, where Wilson pours out scorn for the Committee system. Power, Wilson wrote, "is divided up, as it were, into forty-seven seigniories, in each of which a Standing Committee is the court baron and its chairman lord proprietor. These petty barons, some of them not a little powerful, but none of them within reach the full powers of rule, may at will exercise an almost despotic sway within their own shires, and may sometimes threaten to convulse even the realm itself." (ibid, 76) Wilson said that the committee system was fundamentally undemocratic, because committee chairs, who ruled by seniority, were responsible to no one except their constituents, even though they determined national policy.
In addition to their undemocratic nature, Wilson also believed that the Committee System facilitated corruption.
- the voter is, moreover, feels that his want of confidence in Congress is justified by what he hears of the power of corrupt lobbyists to turn legislation to their own uses. He hears of enormous subsidies begged and obtained... of appropriations made in the interest of dishonest contractors; he is not altogether unwarranted in the conclusion that these are evils inherent in the very nature of Congress, there can be no doubt that the power of the lobbyist consists in great part, if not altogether, in the facility afforded him by the Committee system. (ibid, 132)
But by the time Wilson finished "Congressional Government", Grover Cleveland was president, and Wilson had his faith in the United States government restored. By the time he was president, Wilson had seen vigorous presidencies from McKinley and Roosevelt, and Wilson no longer entertained thoughts of parliamentary government at home. In his last scholarly work in 1908, "Constitutional Government of the United States", Wilson said that the presidency "will be as big as and as influential as the man who occupies it". By the time of his presidency, Wilson merely hoped that presidents could be party leaders in the same way prime ministers were. Wilson also hoped that the parties could be reorganized along ideological, not geographic, lines. "Eight words," Wilson wrote, "contain the sum of the present degradation of our political parties: No leaders, no principles; no principles, no parties." (Frozen Republic, 145)
Wilson served on the faculties of Bryn Mawr College and Wesleyan University before joining the Princeton faculty as professor of jurisprudence and political economy in 1890. A popular teacher and respected scholar, Wilson delivered an oration at Princeton's sesquicentennial celebration (1896) entitled Princeton in the Nation's Service. (This has become a frequently alluded-to motto of the University, sometimes expanded to "Princeton in the World's Service.") In this famous speech, he outlined his vision of the university in a democratic nation, calling on institutions of higher learning "to illuminate duty by every lesson that can be drawn out of the past".
Woodrow Wilson was unanimously elected President of Princeton on Monday, June 9, 1902. In his inaugural address as Princeton's president, Wilson developed these themes, attempting to strike a balance that would please both populists and aristocrats in the audience..
As president, Wilson began a fund-raising campaign to bolster the university corporation. The curriculum guidelines he developed during his tenure as president of Princeton proved among the most important innovations in the field of higher education. He instituted the now common system of core requirements followed by two years of concentration in a selected area. When he attempted to curtail the influence of the elitist "social clubs", however, Wilson met with resistance from trustees and potential donors. He believed the system was smothering the intellectual and moral life of the undergraduates. Opposition from wealthy and powerful alumni further convinced Wilson of the undesirability of exclusiveness and moved him towards a more populist position in his politics.
Wilson was president of the American Political Science Association from 1910 to 1911. Through his published commentary on contemporary political matters, Wilson developed a national reputation and, with increasing seriousness, considered a public service career. In 1910, he received an unsolicited nomination for the governorship of New Jersey, which he eagerly accepted. As governor from 1911 to 1913, he developed a platform of progressive liberalism in matters of domestic and economic policy.
In the presidential election of 1912, the Democratic Party nominated Wilson as its presidential candidate - even though Champ Clark was widely expected to get the nomination. William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt split the Republican Party by running against each other, allowing Wilson's victory.
On the day before Wilson's inauguration in March 1913, members of the Congressional Union, later known as the National Women's Party, organized a suffrage parade in Washington, DC, to siphon attention away from inaugural events. It is said that when Wilson arrived in town, he found the streets empty of welcoming crowds and was told that everyone was on Pennsylvania Avenue watching the parade.
Wilson experienced early success by implementing his "New Freedom" pledges of antitrust modification, tariff revision, and reform in banking and currency matters. His actions led to the establishment of the Federal Reserve System and Federal Trade Commission.
Suffrage was only one of the volatile issues Wilson faced during his presidency; until Wilson announced his support for the suffrage amendment, a group of women calling themselves the Silent Sentinels protested in front of the White House, holding banners such as "Mr. President -- What will you do for woman suffrage?" Domestically, his generally progressive measures for reform often met with opposition, although he did succeed in passing a bill instituting the Federal Reserve. His attitude to racial issues is generally regarded as a stain on his reputation. His administration instituted segregation in federal government for the first time since Abraham Lincoln began desegregation in 1863, and required photographs from job applicants to determine their race. Wilson is widely alleged to have praised the notoriously racist movie Birth of a Nation (based on a book by his former classmate Thomas Dixon), saying: "It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so true." The quote has not been definitively traced to Wilson, who screened the movie at the White House but never commented publicly on it. Wilson also regarded those whom he termed "hyphenated Americans" (German-Americans, Irish-Americans, etc.) with suspicion: "Any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready."
In the last year of his first term Wilson assembled an impressive record of progressive legislation, borrowing much from Theodore Roosevelt's 1912 platform and the Socialist Party of America. Wilson signed the Federal Farm Loan Act, which lowered interest rates for farmers. The Farm Loan Act immediately lowered interest rates and farmers hailed it as "the Magna Carta of American farm finance." Wilson aggressively and successfully lobbied on Capital Hill for the Keating-Owen Act, which banned child labor, the Kern-McGillicuddy Act, which set up a workmen's compensation system, and the Adamson Act, which improved conditions and wages for railroad workers. To prepare for the possibility of entering the War, Wilson expanded the army and navy with an estate tax and tax on high incomes. (To End All Wars, 90-92)
Wilson was able to narrowly win reelection in 1916 by picking up many votes who had gone with Roosevelt and Eugene V. Debs in 1912. Even radicals like John Reed and Max Eastman happily supported Wilson. Mother Jones wrote "I am a Socialist, but I admire Wilson for the things he has done . . . And when a man or woman does something for humanity I say go to him and shake him by the hand and say 'I'm for you.'" (Ibid, 94)
Wilson spent 1914, 1915, 1916, and the beginning of 1917 trying to keep America out of the War in Europe. He offered to be a mediator, but neither the Allies nor the Central Powers took his requests seriously. When Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare and made a clumsy attempt to get Mexico on its side in the Zimmerman Note, Wilson took America into the Great War as an "associated belligerent."
Wilson pushed the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 through Congress to suppress socialist, anti-British, pro-Irish, pro-German, or anti-war opinions. He also set up the United States Committee on Public Information, headed by George Creel (thus its popular name, Creel Committee), which filled the country with anti-German propaganda and, during the first Red Scare, ordered the Palmer Raids against leftists. Wilson had the socialist leader and Presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs arrested for attributing World War I to financial interests and criticizing the Espionage Act. Additionally, Wilson supported the American Protective League, a private pro-war organization notorious for its flagrant violations of American civil liberties.
Between 1914 and 1918 the United States invaded or intervened in Latin America many times, particularly in Mexico, Haiti, Cuba, and Panama. The United States maintained troops in Nicaragua throughout his administration and used them to select the president of Nicaragua and then to force Nicaragua to pass the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty. American troops in Haiti forced the Haiti legislature to choose the candidate Wilson selected as Haitian president. After Haiti refused to declare war on Germany, Wilson had Haiti's government dissolved and then forced a new less democratic constitution on Haiti through a sham referendum. American soldiers also expelled small farmers from their lands to work in chain gangs on public works projects and transferred the land to plantation owners. In 1919, Haitians rose up in rebellion against the Americans, resulting in 3,000 deaths. Gleijesus (1992) notes: "It is not that Wilson failed in his earnest efforts to bring democracy to these little countries. He never tried. He intervened to impose hegemony, not democracy."
World War I
He kept the United States neutral in the early years of World War I, which contributed to his popular re-election in 1916. However, with increased pressure, the United States entered the conflict with a formal declaration of war against Germany on Friday, April 6, 1917. A declaration of war against Austria-Hungary followed on December 7.
After the Great War, Wilson worked with mixed success to assure statehood for formerly oppressed nations and an equitable peace. On Tuesday, January 8, 1918, Wilson made his famous "Fourteen Points" address, introducing the idea of a League of Nations, an organization that would strive to help preserve territorial integrity and political independence among large and small nations alike.
Wilson intended the Fourteen Points as a means toward ending the war and achieving an equitable peace for all the nations. He sailed for Versailles on Wednesday, December 4, 1918 for the 1919 Paris Peace Conference (making him the first US president to travel to Europe while in office), where he worked tirelessly to promote his plan. In an effort to gain French support for the League, Wilson ordered U.S. marines to stop the German delegation from entering the conference. The charter of the proposed League of Nations was incorporated into the conference's Treaty of Versailles, but most of the other Fourteen Points fell by the wayside.
For his peacemaking efforts, Wilson was awarded the 1920 Nobel Peace Prize. Receiving the award was bittersweet, however, because he was unable to convince congressional opponents, such as Henry Cabot Lodge, to support the resolution endorsing US entry into the league. United States membership, Wilson believed, was essential to ensuring lasting world peace. The Versailles settlement also led to economic devastation in Germany that led to the under consumption problems that led to the Great Depression. Opponents of Wilson believed that by supporting the Versailles Settlement, which was actually a series of treaties, they would create economic .
On Thursday, September 25, 1919, Wilson suffered a mild stroke that went unannounced to the public. A week later, on Thursday, October 2, Wilson suffered a second, far more serious stroke that almost totally incapacitated him. Although the extent of his disability was kept from the public until after his death, Wilson was purposely kept out of the presence of Vice President Thomas R. Marshall, his cabinet or Congressional visitors to the White House for the remainder of his presidential term.
While Wilson was incapacitated, Wilson's second wife, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, served as steward, selecting issues for his attention and delegating other issues to his cabinet heads. This was to date the most serious case of presidential disability in American history, and was cited as a key example why ratification of the 25th amendment was seen as important. The amendment, which provides for installation of the Vice President as Acting President in case of presidential disability, was ratified in 1967.
In 1921, Wilson and his wife retired from the White House to a home in the Embassy Row section of Washington, DC. Wilson died there on Sunday, February 3, 1924. Mrs. Wilson stayed in the home another 37 years, dying on Thursday, December 28, 1961. He was buried in Washington National Cathedral.
|Vice President||Thomas R. Marshall||1913–1921|
|Secretary of State||William J. Bryan||1913–1915|
|Secretary of the Treasury||William G. McAdoo||1913–1918|
|David F. Houston||1920–1921|
|Secretary of War||Lindley M. Garrison||1913–1916|
|Newton D. Baker||1916–1921|
|Attorney General||James C. McReynolds||1913–1914|
|Thomas W. Gregory||1914–1919|
|A. Mitchell Palmer||1919–1921|
|Postmaster General||Albert S. Burleson||1913–1921|
|Secretary of the Navy||Josephus Daniels||1913–1921|
|Secretary of the Interior||Franklin K. Lane||1913–1920|
|John B. Payne||1920–1921|
|Secretary of Agriculture||David F. Houston||1913–1920|
|Edwin T. Meredith||1920–1921|
|Secretary of Commerce||William C. Redfield||1913–1919|
|Joshua W. Alexander||1919–1921|
|Secretary of Labor||William B. Wilson||1913–1921|
Major presidential acts
- Signed Revenue Act of 1913
- Signed Federal Reserve Act of 1913
- Signed Federal Farm Loan Act of 1916
- Signed Espionage Act of 1917
- Signed Sedition Act of 1918
Supreme Court appointments
Wilson appointed the following Justices to the Supreme Court of the United States:
Many memorials to Wilson exist:
- Wilson House, an undergraduate dormitory at Johns Hopkins University, is named in his honor.
- Wilson Hall, an administrative building at James Madison University, is named in his honor.
- His portrait appeared on the U.S. $100,000 bill, issued in 1934. This bill was used only for transactions between the Federal Reserve and Treasury.
- The city of Bratislava (now capital of Slovakia, Europe) was named "Wilsonovo mesto" (Wilson City) after U.S. President Wilson for a short period of time after World War I. This was to commemorate President Wilson's support for creating the independent state of Czechoslovakia. For the same reason, the central railway station in Prague bears the name "Wilsonovo nádraží" (Wilson station).
- The Avenue du President Wilson in Paris, France, is named in honor of Woodrow Wilson.
- Wilson has been the subject of books by two particularly noteworthy authors. Herbert Hoover's The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson is extremely sympathetic, and remains the only book written by one ex-President about another one. Sigmund Freud and William Bullitt's Thomas Woodrow Wilson: A Psychological Study is devastatingly unsympathetic, and was unpublished for 30 years after Freud's death.
- Woodrow Wilson Bridge across the Potomac River on the portion of the Capital Beltway which is also Interstate 95 is located in three jurisdictions, Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia; more than any other Interstate Highway bridge. Wilson was an early automobile enthusiast and, while president, he took daily rides to calm himself, a hallmark behavior of modern adults with Attention Deficit Disorder. It is one of the most heavily-traveled bridges in the world.
- U.S. presidential election, 1912
- U.S. presidential election, 1916
- History of the United States (1865–1918)
- USS Woodrow Wilson (SSBN-624) (An USN SSBN named after President Wilson.)
- Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library
- Audio clips of Wilson's speeches
- First Inaugural Address
- Second Inaugural Address
- President Wilson's War Address
- Woodrow Wilson Biography
- Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library at His Birthplace Staunton, Virginia
- Woodorow Wilson House Washington,DC
- Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Washington,DC
- Library of Congress: "Today in History: December 28"
- Library of Congress: "Today in History: June 9"
- Gleijesus, Piero. "The other Americas," Washington Post Book World, December 27, 1992, 5.
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