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Woodrow Wilson

b. Dec. 28, 1856, Staunton, Va., U.S.

d. Feb. 3, 1924, Washington, D.C.

Shorter biography of Woodrow Wilson

Twenty-eighth U.S. president; born in Staunton, Va. Son of a Presbyterian minister, he studied at Princeton and Johns Hopkins, gaining his Ph.D. with the first of his major books on American government, Congressional Government (1885). After teaching at Bryn Mawr and Wesleyan (1885--90), he moved to Princeton, whose president he became in 1902 and where his reforms had a wide impact on American university education. In 1910, Wilson entered politics as a Democrat and was elected governor of New Jersey (1911--13); his liberal reforms brought him national attention and the Democratic presidential nomination in 1912 (although only on the 46th ballot). With the Republicans split between Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson won by a landslide. He effectively continued a reformist program he called the "New Freedom"; his initiatives included lowering tariffs, a graduated income tax, the Federal Reserve Act, the Federal Trade Commission, the Clayton Antitrust Act, the eight-hour workday, and landmark laws against child labor. On the international front he was less successful, especially in his attempts to intervene in Mexican politics. He won reelection in 1916 with a pledge to keep America out of the European war, but found the U.S.A. inexorably drawn in; declaring war on Germany in April 1917, he proposed a peace in the form of the "Fourteen Points," which brought Germany to the bargaining table in late 1918. Much of the world now hailed him as virtually a savior, but at the Versailles Peace Conference he was confronted by the compromises of Realpolitik. On his return to America his dream of a League of Nations - largely due to his refusal to compromise - went down to defeat in Congress as his health collapsed. He spent his last months in office incapacitated (his wife served as his intermediary for many decisions) and in 1921 retired to seclusion. Undeniably one of the most intelligent and high-minded presidents the U.S. has had, he was also rigid in certain ways and unresolved in others so that when it came to the climax of his life's work - America's entry into a League of Nations - he was unable to make the appropriate moves.

in full THOMAS WOODROW WILSON 28th president of the United States (1913-21), an American statesman remembered for his high-minded and sometimes inflexible idealism, who led his country into World War I and became the leading advocate of the League of Nations at the Paris Peace Conference. He suffered a nervous collapse and stroke of paralysis while vainly seeking American public support for the Treaty of Versailles (September-October 1919).

Early life, education, and governorship

Wilson had two older sisters, Marion and Anne, and a younger brother, Joseph. The stern Presbyterianism of Woodrow's father, Joseph Ruggles Wilson, a minister of indomitable character and theological distinction, left an indelible impression upon the character of the future president. Wilson's early years were spent in Georgia and South Carolina, where he was deeply affected by the ravages of the Civil War and the suffering of the South during the postwar Reconstruction period. After a brief stay at Davidson College in North Carolina he entered what is now Princeton University in 1875, took a prominent part in debate, literary activities, and the administration of student athletics, and was graduated in about the middle of his class. His most notable undergraduate achievement was the publication of an article that skillfully analyzed the committee system of the U.S. Congress and foreshadowed his more mature political principles. After graduation he studied law at the University of Virginia until poor health cut short his residence. Following an unsuccessful attempt at legal practice in Atlanta, Ga., he pursued advanced studies in government and history at Johns Hopkins University, where, in 1886, he received a Ph.D.

Wilson's doctoral dissertation, Congressional Government, developed his attack upon the congressional committees. In the same year he married Ellen Louise Axson of Savannah, Ga., and began a teaching career at Bryn Mawr College as associate professor of history and political economy.

In 1888 he became a professor at Wesleyan University in Connecticut; two years later he joined the Princeton faculty as professor of jurisprudence and political economy, in which capacity he served until 1902, when he was chosen president of the university.

At Princeton, Wilson achieved a national reputation by his addresses and articles on political questions of the day, and in September 1910 he was offered the Democratic nomination for the governorship of New Jersey. The offer came at a moment when prospects for the success of his policies at Princeton seemed most discouraging, and he readily accepted. Conducting a dynamic and fearless campaign, he won the support of progressive elements throughout the state and was elected.

Wilson's rapid and resounding success in New Jersey brought him into the arena of national politics, and when the Democratic National Convention met in June 1912 to select a presidential candidate, Wilson was nominated. In the presidential campaign that followed, the clarity and positive quality of Wilson's domestic program won him the leadership of the Democratic Party and of the progressive movement throughout the country.

First term as president

Once in the White House, Wilson proceeded with amazing vigour to initiate and carry through major items of legislation he had advocated in his campaign. He delivered his first message to Congress in person, thus renewing the custom that had lapsed with John Adams. In this session and later he constantly intervened to influence individual senators and representatives on behalf of his programs. Wilson's legislative record in his first two years of office was impressive. His first major victory came with passage of the Underwood Tariff, which reduced customs levies despite the bitter opposition of varied industrial interests. To counterbalance the downward drift of tariff funds, the act levied a federal income tax, under authority of the then recently adopted 16th Amendment to the constitution. The new tariff act was followed by a broad measure of currency reform--the Federal Reserve Act, signed Dec. 23, 1913. Designed to supplant the alleged dictatorship of private banking institutions by the creation of a Federal Reserve Board, which would control the expansion and contraction of currency, it was destined to become the pediment of the national financial structure. The establishment of the Federal Trade Commission in 1914, the same year in which his wife died, provided for the use of federal powers to assure competitive conditions in trade. In the same year the Clayton Anti-Trust Act strengthened labour organization by prohibiting the use of injunctions in labour disputes (unless they were necessary to prevent irreparable damage) and legalizing strikes and boycotts. The achievement in these four fields helped create a new social and economic atmosphere. (See Underwood Tariff Act.)

Wilson's foreign policy was characterized, at least in principle, by a refusal to exert material power against weaker countries and by a studied respect for the rights and interests of small ones. Steps were taken, for example, to prepare the people of the Philippine Islands for self-government. At Wilson's urgent request, Congress repealed the law that exempted U.S. shipping from Panama Canal tolls, thereby greatly relieving tension with the British. Confronted with disturbing conditions in the Caribbean, the United States tightened its vigilance. By a treaty signed on Sept. 16, 1915, the United States assumed a virtual protectorate over Haiti. Precautionary visits of U.S. cruisers to Santo Domingo were followed in the summer of 1916 by the landing of marines and in November by proclamation of a military government under U.S. auspices.

Revolutionary Mexico confronted Wilson with a dangerously chaotic situation. Unable to depose Gen. Victoriano Huerta from his dictatorship, Wilson resigned himself to a policy of "watchful waiting"; he opposed the formal intervention being urged on him by U.S. and European business interests. In April 1914, following affronts to U.S. sailors for which no apology was forthcoming, and to prevent the landing of munitions from a German ship, a U.S. naval force seized terminal facilities of Veracruz.

The overthrow of Huerta brought no settlement of the civil war, which continued to threaten U.S. business interests, and Wilson's recognition of the government of Venustiano Carranza did not end the problem. The raids of the guerrilla leader Pancho Villa into U.S. territory in March 1916 led Wilson to authorize a punitive expedition under Gen. John J. Pershing. The Mexican revolution was to plague Wilson to the end of his administration.

United States foreign affairs after July 1914 were dominated by Wilson's efforts to protect the rights of the country as a neutral in World War I. A formal proclamation of neutrality was emphasized by a more personal appeal, in which he adjured Americans to remain neutral in thought as well as in behaviour. Meanwhile, his offer of mediation evoked no favourable response, and his attempts to initiate secret peace negotiations failed. On Feb. 4, 1915, the government in Berlin, declaring the waters around the British Isles a war zone, threatened to sink all belligerent ships within that zone and gave warning that neutral ships might also be sunk. Wilson replied in a vigorous note on February 10, warning Germany that it would be held to "strict accountability" for the lawless acts of its submarine commanders. Destruction of a U.S. vessel or of American lives, Wilson said, would be regarded as an "indefensible violation of neutral rights." The Germans, nevertheless, maintained their position, and on May 7 the British liner Lusitania was sunk without warning by a German submarine; more than 1,000 persons were drowned, among them 128 Americans.

Determined to avoid war, Wilson displayed long-suffering patience in the negotiations of the ensuing weeks, but his will to compel Germany to abide by the established rules of cruiser warfare was unshakable. His protest to Germany was, in fact, so strongly worded that Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan resigned rather than sign it. Following the sinking of the Arabic in August 1915, the German government promised that in the future liners would not be attacked without warning. In the spring of 1916, when a rupture with Germany was imminent because of the torpedoing of the steamer Sussex, Wilson protested in terms that amounted to an ultimatum and finally drew from Berlin a more comprehensive pledge to abandon their submarine campaign altogether. For the next seven months, relations with Germany were less disturbed.

Second term as president

This diplomatic victory not only postponed U.S. intervention in the war but was of political value in Wilson's reelection campaign of 1916. It gave strength to the argument that he had vindicated the rights of the country successfully and had "kept us out of war." The slogan had strong popular appeal, especially west of the Mississippi. The Republicans, who nominated Charles Evans Hughes, denounced Wilson as hesitating and cowardly, both in his dealing with Germany and in his handling of the Mexican problem. They criticized his legislative reforms as demagogic and cited the Adamson Act, which Wilson had urged upon Congress to avert a railroad strike, as an untimely surrender to labour. On the eastern seaboard and in most of the industrial centres of the Midwest the reunited Republican party could count on success, but in the farming districts west of the Mississippi and on the Pacific coast Wilson showed great strength drawing largely from the Progressives, who refused to follow Theodore Roosevelt back into the Republican fold. The result of the election was so close that for hours Republican victory was generally conceded. Only as returns from the west came in was it determined that Wilson had been reelected.

Wilson's drive for peace negotiations was frustrated by the German decision on Jan. 9, 1917, to renew the unrestricted submarine campaign. Wilson was willing to negotiate everything except the sinking without warning of passenger and merchant ships, but the Germans showed no sign of weakening. Opinion in the United States was exasperated by the formal declaration of the renewal of the submarine warfare and especially by the virtual blockade of cargoes in U.S. ports held there by fear of submarine attacks. It was infuriated by publication of the so-called Zimmermann Telegram that suggested a German-Mexican-Japanese alliance and a Mexican reconquest of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona and by the sinking of the Laconia with the loss of American lives. Unable to resist longer the pressure of events and public opinion, Wilson asked Congress on April 2 for a declaration of war, which was passed by an overwhelming majority.

The United States was ill prepared for war, a condition for which Wilson carried a heavy share of responsibility, but once in the war he displayed outstanding qualities of leadership. In a speech on Jan. 8, 1918, he enumerated the Fourteen Points that he regarded as being an essential basis of a just and lasting peace, and in the course of the following eight months he elaborated on them. When the Germans faced complete defeat in early October 1918, they naturally turned to Wilson and offered to accept his Fourteen Points and later speeches as the basis of peace. Though the British and French were by no means prepared to accept the peace, the Fourteen Points (with certain exceptions) were accepted by the Allied chiefs and Germany as the basis of the forthcoming settlement. This strategic advantage to Wilson in the coming peace negotiations was offset by the congressional elections in November 1918 whereby his party lost control of the Senate and his adversaries gained control of the important Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Wilson was determined to go himself to the peace conference at Paris and to lead the battle for the principles he had been advocating. These principles constituted a threefold and interlocking concept: the liberation of peoples, justice to friend and enemy alike, and the assurance of peace through the establishment of a League of Nations. Wilson arrived at Brest, France, on Dec. 13, 1918. He was received in France, England, and Italy with enthusiasm, but his prestige became clouded when he confronted the nationalistic aspirations of individual peoples. The president won acceptance of the principle that a League of Nations should be an integral part of the treaties, but his success in the establishment of the League was obscured by the concessions he was forced to make to national territorial and economic demands. The peace of reconciliation which he had preached was not achieved. On every debatable issue, Germany and its wartime allies got the worst of it. The unilateral disarmament imposed on Germany made a mockery of the program outlined in the Fourteen Points. But the overall settlement, if it could actually be carried into effect, promised the security that everyone demanded. It recognized the claims of the smaller nationalities to a degree hitherto never approached. It provided for a working partnership of the new world with the old. On June 28, 1919, the Versailles Treaty with Germany was signed, and on the following day Wilson sailed for home.

The strain of the conference had told upon the president's physical and nervous strength, and he was not well equipped to carry on the contest with his opponents in the Senate that was to develop upon his presentation of the treaty. In search of popular support that would overwhelm the Senate, he set forth on a crusade in behalf of the treaty and the League. In Colorado, on Sept. 25, 1919, after 34 major addresses and scores of interviews, parades, and rear platform talks, he was compelled to give up his tour. He returned to Washington, D.C., in a state of collapse and shortly suffered a thrombosis that impaired control over the left side of his body.

No one else was capable of leading the fight for ratification, and efforts to arrange a compromise proved fruitless. With something of his physical health regained, with his mind nervously active, but with his grasp of affairs unrealistic, Wilson drafted a far-fetched plan to submit the issue to popular vote at a special election--"a great and solemn referendum." Efforts to achieve agreement made in a bipartisan conference of the Senate foundered on the bitter-end opposition of Republican irreconcilables. On March 19, 1920, the final vote was taken on the ratifying resolution that again contained a strong enough reservation on Article X (providing for collective security) to evoke Wilson's condemnation. Once more he urged his followers to vote against ratification and 23 of them did so. The United States was thus ironically kept out of the League of Nations at the behest of the man who had done more than any other to create it.

Election, 1920

Wilson's physical condition in 1920 prevented him from taking an active role in the presidential campaign. The Democrats chose Governor James M. Cox of Ohio as their presidential candidate. Wilson's hope that the election would serve as a popular referendum settling the issues between himself and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, leader of the opposition to the League of Nations, was not fulfilled. Indeed, many influential advocates of the League supported the Republican candidate, Warren G. Harding, and the election proved an overwhelming victory for the Republicans. The bitterness of Wilson's disappointment over the election was to some extent alleviated by the 1919 Nobel Prize for Peace awarded him in December 1920. His annual message to Congress made no reference to what always lay nearest his heart--the League of Nations. This reticence on world affairs he maintained until the end of his administration, March 4, 1921.

Wilson lived quietly in Washington, D.C., refraining from political comments and avoiding political contacts, for the remaining three years of his life. The legal and the literary activities that he had anticipated lay beyond his waning physical powers. He died in 1924. He was survived by his second wife, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, whom he had married on Dec. 18, 1915. During the worst of his illness in the White House she had sought to spare him every political anxiety and in the process had assumed much of the responsibility belonging to the presidential office. She lived until Dec. 28, 1961.


Woodrow Wilson was qualified in the highest degree for a career in public affairs by his sense of responsibility to the public welfare. The depth of his idealistic fervour gave force to his political leadership, which was further strengthened by his outstanding oratorical capacity, but the intensity of that fervour crippled his ability for effective compromise. He was impatient of partisan opposition, and there was much of the intolerant Calvinist in his refusal to deviate from the path that he believed himself appointed by providence to tread. His illusion that the nobility of ideals would suffice to obliterate the stubborn facts of political life took his international policy down the road to bankruptcy. Though a great leader, he lacked the political intuition and deftness that might have saved him at Princeton, strengthened his contribution to the Paris Peace Conference, and brought his country into the League of Nations.

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