Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson
President Woodrow Wilson

Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia, in 1856. Wilson's father, a Presbyterian minister, moved the family during the Civil War to Georgia, where his son witnessed the devastation wrought upon the South by Northern troops; this left a lifetime impression on him.

Wilson graduated from the College of New Jersey (Princeton) and the University of Virginia Law School before earning a doctorate at Johns Hopkins University. After teaching at Bryn Mawr and Wesleyan, he became the first lay presidentat Princeton in 1902. He implemented policies directed at restructuring and modernizing instructional techniques and discouraged student discrimination bye liminating elite eating clubs.

Entering politics, he became the Democratic governor of New Jersey, where he distinguished himself as a reformer while pursuing a progressive strategy that alienated the entrenched political machine of Boss James Smith, Jr. Wilson's support for finance reform, worker's compensation, a direct primary, and public service commissions elevated him to a national figure and a presidential hopeful.

In the presidential election of 1912, the Republican vote split between William Howard Taft and Bull Moose Party candidate Theodore Roosevelt, who also received support from the National Progressive Republican League. Wilson, having obtained the Democratic nomination on the 46th ballot, prevailed with an overwhelming majority of the electoral votes and implemented his New Freedom agenda.

This innovative progressive program advanced women's suffrage, reduced tariffs, and instituted an income tax as well as creating the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 with a central bank in 12 reserves, the legality of unions under the Clayton Antitrust Act, a low rate of loans for farmers under the Federal Farm Loan Act of 1916, and the regulation of child labor under the Keating-Owen Act of 1916.

Although his administration had not hesitated on military interventions in Latin America, two years after World War I began in 1914 Wilson was reelected on the slogan "He Kept Us Out of War."

At the beginning of World War I, isolationist sentiment in the United States was very strong, and Wilson was determined to follow a policy of neutrality. But as trade with Great Britain and the Allies increased almost fourfold and as Germany refused to discontinue submarine warfare, sentiment changed.

When the inflammatory Zimmermann Note regarding Mexican intervention against the United States at the behest of Germany was intercepted, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war to "Make the World Safe for Democracy." His was to be a peace without victory.

Woodrow Wilson's vision of an enduring world peace was set forth in his Fourteen Points, presented before the peace conference at Versailles. They called for:

I. Open covenants of peace
II. Freedom of navigation
III. Equality of trade conditions IV. Armamentreductions
V. Impartial adjustment of colonial claims
VI. Evacuation of Russian territory
VII. Restoration of Belgium
VIII. Restoration of French territories, including Alsace-Lorraine
IX. Readjustment of Italy's borders
X. Autonomous development of Austria-Hungary
XI. Evacuation and restoration of Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro
XII. Sovereignty for Turkish portions of the Ottoman Empire and free passage through the Dardanelles
XIII. Creation of an independent Polish state
XIV. Formation of an association of nations to guarantee political independence

The Allies did not share Wilson's vision and only accepted the plan for a League of Nations. At home the "Irreconcilables," 16 senators and representatives who were led by Henry Cabot Lodge, refused to sign the Versailles Treaty and campaigned vigorously against the League of Nations.

Wilson embarked on a demanding national tour to take his message to the U.S. public, who responded with enthusiasm, but no congressional vote changed. Exhausted, the president suffered a stroke and served out his term as a virtual invalid before dying in 1924. The United States never signed the Versailles Treaty and never joined the League of Nations.

Despite his impressive efforts toward achieving and maintaining world peace, Wilson's legacy is tarnished by his views on race. He allowed his cabinet members to segregate their respective offices, leading to the first widespread segregation in Washington, D.C., since the American Civil War.

In later years, as president of Princeton University, Wilson discouraged African Americans from even bothering to apply. Perhaps the greatest indictment of Wilson's racial views come in the movie Birth of a Nation, a flim that depicts the Ku Klux Klan in a postive light. Wilson's History of the American People endorses the southern version of Reconstruction, that is, the victimization of southern whites.