Like Roosevelt before him, Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States, regarded himself as the personal representative of the people. “No one but the President,” he said, “seems to be expected … to look out for the general interests of the country.” He developed a program of progressive reform and asserted international leadership in building a new world order. In 1917 he proclaimed American entrance into World War I a crusade to make the world “safe for democracy.”
Wilson had seen the horrors that a war caused when he was just a child. He was born in Virginia in 1856, the son of a Presbyterian minister who was a pastor in Augusta, Georgia, during the Civil War. During the Reconstruction Era, his father became a professor in the charred city of Columbia, South Carolina.
After graduation from Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) and the University of Virginia Law School, Woodrow Wilson earned his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University and pursued an academic career. In 1885, he married Ellen Louise Axson.
Woodrow Wilson advanced rapidly as a conservative young professor of political science and became president of Princeton in 1902.
Early Political Career
His growing national reputation led some conservative Democrats to consider he had the standing to become a future American President. First they persuaded him to run for Governor of New Jersey in 1910. In the campaign, he showed he could think and make decisions independently of the conservatives and of the machine that had nominated him. Wilson endorsed a progressive platform, which he then continued as governor.
He was nominated for American President at the 1912 Democratic Convention and focused his campaign on a program called the New Freedom, which stressed individualism and states’ rights. In the three-way election he received only 42 percent of the popular vote but a great majority of the electoral vote.
Woodrow Wilson managed to move three major pieces of legislation through Congress. The first was a lower tariff, called the Underwood Act, and attached to the measure was a graduated Federal income tax. The passage of the Federal Reserve Act provided the Nation with the more diverse money supply it sorely needed. In 1914, antitrust legislation established a Federal Trade Commission to ban unfair business practices.
Another series of legislative bills followed in 1916. One new law prohibited child labor, and another limited railroad workers to an eight-hour day. By virtue of this legislation and the slogan “he kept us out of war,” Wilson narrowly won re-election as American President.
World War I
But after the election, Woodrow Wilson concluded that America could not remain neutral in the World War. On April 2, 1917, he asked Congress to make a formal declaration of war on Germany.
Massive American efforts gradually tipped the balance in favor of the Allies. Woodrow Wilson again went before Congress in January 1918, to enunciate American war aims. These were known as the Fourteen Points, the last of which would establish “A general association of nations…affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.”
After the Germans signed the Armistice in November 1918, Woodrow Wilson went to Paris to try to build an enduring peace. He later presented to the Senate the Versailles Treaty, containing the Covenant of the League of Nations, and asked, “Dare we reject it and break the heart of the world?”
But the election of 1918 had shifted the balance in Congress to the Republicans. By seven votes the Versailles Treaty failed in the Senate.
The President, against the warnings of his doctors, had made a national tour to mobilize public sentiment for the treaty. Exhausted, he suffered a stroke and nearly died. Tenderly nursed by his second wife, Edith Bolling Galt, Woodrow Wilson lived until 1924.
The accompanying graphic shows the highlights and notable moments of Woodrow Wilson: