Woodrow Wilson

THOMAS WOODROW WILSON was the 28th president of the United States. Born on the 28th of December 1856, he was an American scholar and statesman who was best remembered for his high-minded and leading the United States into World War I.

Wilson was born to religious and well-educated people, mainly of Scottish background. Wilson's father, Joseph Ruggles Wilson, studied for the clergy at the Presbyterian directed Princeton University. He married Janet Woodrow, and early in the 1850s the Wilsons moved to Virginia, where he became minister of a church in Staunton. There, in 1856 Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born, the first son and third child.

Apparently dyslexic from childhood, Wilson did not learn to read until he was 10 and never became a rapid reader. Nevertheless, he developed passionate interests in literature and especially politics. He attended Davidson College North Carolina, for a year before entering Princeton University in 1875. At Princeton he blossomed intellectually, reading widely, engaging in debate, and editing the college newspaper.

After graduation from Princeton in 1879, Wilson studied law at the University of Virginia, with the hope that it would lead to politics. However, he became inpatient with the fine points of law and only reluctantly mastered them. Although his work was outstanding, he found public speaking and political history more satisfying. Despite intermittent illness, he received his law degree and in 1882 settled in Atlanta, Georgia, where he opened a law practice. In 1883 he became tired of the firm and abandoned his law career for graduate study in government and history at Johns Hopkins University, where in 1886 he received a Ph.D.

Wilson's doctoral thesis was also his first book, Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics (1885), which further developed his comparison between the American and parliamentary government and suggested reforms that would make the American system more efficient and more answerable to public opinion. Accepted and published early in 1885, it sold well. Influential reviewers found Wilson's attitude toward American democracy novel and stimulating.

Wilson had been engaged for several years to Ellen Louise Axson, and they were married in June 1885. Proficient and lively, Ellen proved the perfect mate for her husband. She gave him unqualified support and helped free his mind from everyday pressures. The couple had three daughters.

Wilson was the only professional academic to become president. He began his career teaching history and political science at Bryn Mawr College in 1885 and moved to Wesleyan University in Connecticut in 1888. Two years later he went to Princeton, where he quickly became the most popular and highest-paid faculty member. In 1902 he was the unanimous choice to become president of Princeton. Wilson upgraded the university both financially and intellectually.

Meanwhile, the publicity that Wilson had generated as Princeton's president attracted the attention of Colonel George B. Harvey, a member of the Democratic party, and in 1906 he suggested to other party members that Wilson would make a good presidential candidate. The idea restored Wilson's political ambitions.

The people were in Wilson's favor. He was enthusiastically received by many audiences. Voters did not appear to resent Wilson's aristocratic manners, and they responded well to his speeches, which combined amusing stories with a call to action. In November, he won a landslide victory, even in areas that normally voted Republican. Once in office he put his earlier ideas about parliamentary practices to work in implementing a reform program that gave him a national reputation and made him a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Prevailing at the 1912 convention after a hard struggle against better-entrenched rivals, Wilson entered into an exciting three-way race for president. Former president Theodore Roosevelt's bolt to the Progressive Party had split the dominant Republican Party, a factor that allowed Wilson to be elected with only 41.85 percent of the popular vote. Although he polled 435 electoral votes, compared with Roosevelt's 88 and William Taft's 8. The Democrats also controlled both houses of Congress.

The first thing Wilson did was lower tariff rates which freed American consumers from artificially protected monopolies. Although it was indeed complicated Wilson acted quickly and as a result slashed taxes on imported goods. Wilson’s second act was to pass the act creating the Federal Reserve System. The system served as the bank for both the banking community and the government, and has a major role in supervising banks to help stabilize the national banking system. A third victory came with the Clayton Antitrust Act, which strengthened existing laws against anticompetitive business actions and gave labour unions relief from court injunctions. Other New Freedom legislation passed during Wilson's first term included an act improving working conditions for American sailors; the Warehouse Act, which helped farmers obtain loans; a bill providing greater self-government for the Philippines; and a bill prohibiting child labor.

Foreign affairs worried Wilson from his first days in the White House. Latin America with Republican interventionism, and Mexico, which was torn by revolution and counterrevolution.

Wilson suffered a severe personal loss on August 6, 1914, with the death of his wife. The outbreak of World War I in August 1914, which coincided with his wife's death, tried Wilson's mind and soul. He remarried in December to Edith who was not different to Ellen.

World War I began in Europe in 1914. It started as a war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, but the war eventually became a global one involving 32 nations. When the war began, Wilson immediately announced that the United States would be neutral in the struggle, and he urged Americans to be neutral in fact as well as in name. No one questioned American neutrality in the beginning, but both the British blockade of maritime trade and German U-boat attacks soon made neutrality painful. Wilson now made the crucial distinction that would thereafter dominate U.S. opinion. He agreed that the Allies had been uncooperative but emphasized that they had not threatened the lives of neutrals. Wilson warned that he would hold the Germans strictly accountable for their actions.

On May 7, 1915, when a German U-boat sank the British liner Lusitania, killing more than 1,100 people, including 128 Americans, the threat of war set in. In the United States there was an outburst of horror and condemnation of Germany. Wilson responded by stressing the need for fair warnings that would preserve lives. He pressed the Germans to control in their submarines and decided to build up the armed forces. A combination of patience and firmness paid off when the Germans, for military reasons, held back submarine warfare in April 1916. For the rest of that year the threat of war for America died down.

In June 1916 the Democrats renominated Wilson. Their platform emphasized peace, and argued that Wilson had kept the United States out of the war. The Republicans nominated Charles Evans Hughes, a former governor of New York with an honored record of reform, and an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. On election night Hughes appeared to have had won, but as the returns came in from California in the early morning hours, the race went to Wilson, who won the state by a mere 1983 votes.

With the sinking of Lusitania and others, it was in January 1917 when Germany renewed unrestricted submarine warfare, along with that and the ‘Zimmermann telegraph’, which suggested German support for a Mexican conquest of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, Wilson was forced to ask congress for permission for war. He was backed to the full extent so America declared war on Germany on the 6th of April and later Austria on the 7th December.

During the war Wilson was surprisingly effective. Recognising what he did not understand Wilson left all military decisions to the professional soldiers. It was the most efficient and corruption-free war effort to that time. American troops went into combat in France during 1918 joining the counteroffensive that finished the war.

The previous January Wilson made his famous ‘Fourteen Points’ speech to congress. He hoped they would provide the basis for a fair and lasting peace. They included an end to colonialism, national self-determination and a League of Nations: ‘A general association of nations to be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.’

The new German chancellor, Prince Maximilian, on October 6, 1918, decided that Wilson's Fourteen Points gave his government a way to surrender without admitting defeat. On November 11 an armistice was signed by Wilson and his discontented Allies, who would have preferred total military victory.

Wilson decided to attend the Paris peace conference despite the fact that no President had ever traveled overseas during his time in office. It was obvious from the beginning that it would be difficult to draw up a treaty to suit so many countries. The conference was a disaster for Wilson. He wanted a treaty that would ‘make the world safe for democracy’ and ensure a lasting peace in Europe. As time went by Wilson’s interventions became unpopular in America itself. Americans had had enough of Europeans and wanted to return to isolationism. Wilson was the dominant figure in the conference but he had to agree with harsher terms than he would’ve liked in order to get the Allies to agree to the League of Nations. Germany was made to pay for the war and racial groups were to be given their own country.

Wilson had lost a lot of support by the time he had returned in 1919. Opposition had already gathered against the peace treaty, especially the League of Nations for people feared that it would plunge the United States into future wars. Republican senators led by Henry Lodge threatened either to defeat the treaty by denying it the two-thirds needed for ratification, or to attach stringent limits on the participation in he league. Wilson refused and went on a cross-country speaking tour to try and sway the nation. The strain, both mental and physical, was too much for him. He had a near breakdown on September 25, after which his doctor canceled the rest of the tour and rushed him back to Washington. On October 2, 1919, Wilson suffered a massive stroke that left him partially paralyzed on his left side. His intellectual capacity was not affected, but his emotional balance and judgment were badly impaired. No one seriously suggested that Wilson resign. His wife, Edith, controlled access to him, made decisions by default, and engineered a cover-up of his condition. Although he gradually recovered from the worst effects of the stroke, Wilson never again fully functioned as president. Meanwhile the Senate twice rejected the peace treaty as Wilson had refused to compromise. The United States never joined the League of Nations.

Wilson left the White House in March 1921, a broken man. The 1920 election was a landslide victory won by the conservative Republican, Warren Harding, who called for a return to “normalcy”, and a repudiation of all Wilson’s domestic and foreign politics. After leaving office he retired to a house in Washington, D.C., and for the most part he disappeared from public view. Wilson died in his sleep at his Washington home. His remains were interred in the newly begun National Cathedral; he is the only president buried in the capital city.

During World War II Wilson's reputation soared, as he came to be regarded as a wrongly unheeded prophet whose policies would have prevented world calamity. The United Nations and collective security pacts are viewed as fulfillment of Wilson's internationalist vision.


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