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Thomas Woodrow Wilson was the twenty-eighth president of the United States of America. He served as president from March 4, 1913, until March 3, 1921. Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia, on December 28, 1856, and died in Washington, D.C., on February 3, 1924.
Wilson was the son of a prominent Presbyterian minister and grew up in Georgia and South Carolina. Wilson attended Davidson College in North Carolina and was graduated from Princeton University in 1879. He studied law at the University of Virginia and earned a PhD in political science from Johns Hopkins in 1886. He later taught at Princeton and became its president in 1902.
Well-known for his support of progressive causes and his academic reforms at Princeton, Wilson was elected governor of New Jersey as a Democrat in 1910. Wilson attracted favorable national attention from progressive Democrats for his eloquence, integrity, and opposition to machine politics and from southern Democrats for his support of a “states’ rights” position that argued that Southern states should be free to pursue their own policies of racial segregation. Supported by former Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, Wilson received the Democratic presidential nomination of 1912. Calling his progressive platform the New Freedom, Wilson emphasized a more competitive, decentralized economy, lower tariffs, and states’ rights. Wilson was elected president with 42 percent of the popular vote when most voters divided their support between Republican president William H. Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party’s nominee and a former Republican president.
Wilson revolutionized the rhetorical role of the American president by personally addressing Congress about his legislative proposals and, later, conducting national speaking tours to promote his foreign policy. Wilson, however, also strengthened racial segregation in Washington, D.C., and admired the romanticized portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan in the silent film Birth of a Nation. In domestic policy, Wilson secured passage of major economic reform legislation. The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 decentralized and stabilized the national money supply by broadly distributing federal bank notes among several reserve banks. The Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914 promoted consumer protection and regulated interstate business behavior in order to eliminate, punish, and deter anticompetitive practices. Promoted by Wilson in order to prevent a national railroad strike, the Adamson Act of 1916 required an eight-hour workday for railroad workers.
Having adopted some of the Progressive Party’s 1912 platform through his legislation, Wilson was narrowly reelected in 1916 after he secured California’s electoral votes. His neutrality in World War I (1914-1918), summarized by the campaign slogan “He Kept Us Out of War,” also helped his reelection. After Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 and tried to form an anti-American alliance with Mexico, Wilson secured a declaration of war from Congress on April 6, 1917.
Wilson believed that U.S. military and diplomatic efforts should be devoted to making World War I the “war to end all wars” and the war “to make the world safe for democracy.” In a speech to Congress on January 8, 1918, Wilson announced his Fourteen Points as the basis for establishing a just, lasting peace in Europe. These principles and objectives included national self-determination, freedom of the seas, and the creating of a League of Nations to enforce the peace after World War I. Unfortunately for Wilson, Britain and France opposed major elements of the Fourteen Points, especially national self-determination, which threatened their empires. Nonetheless, the League of Nations was included in the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, which officially ended World War I. For his diplomatic efforts, Wilson received the Nobel Peace Prize of 1919.
Some of Wilson’s critics perceived his egotistical, self-righteous refusal to compromise with Republican senators, especially Henry Cabot Lodge, to be the primary reason why the Senate rejected an active role for the United States in the League of Nations. While conducting a national speaking tour to increase public support for the League of Nations, Wilson suffered a severe stroke on October 2, 1919. The extent and nature of Wilson’s physical and mental disability were kept hidden from the vice president, cabinet, Congress, and the press by his second wife, Edith Wilson. As the Republicans prepared for landslide victories in the 1920 presidential and congressional elections, the nation experienced a Red Scare, labor disputes, and high inflation. After he left the White House in 1921, Wilson continued to live in Washington, D.C., until his death in 1924.
- Blum, John Morton. 1956. Woodrow Wilson and the Politics of Morality. Boston: Little, Brown.
- Knock, Thomas J. 1992. To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Link, Arthur S. 1954. Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910–1917. New York: Harper. Reprint, Norwalk, CT: Easton Press, 1989.
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