Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson American History Law and Politics American Presidents

This image depicts a portrait of the 28th President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. The photo was taken by Harris & Ewing, in 1919.

From Thomas Jefferson forward, American Presidents sent their "State of the Union" speeches to Congress. Woodrow Wilson changed that when he actually delivered his "State of the Union" addresses.

Who was Wilson ... and ... what was he like as President? 

Before Thomas Woodrow Wilson was elected as America’s 28th President, in 1912, he was a husband and father, a scholar, an educator, a college president and a governor (of New Jersey). Later, he became a Nobel Peace-Prize winner (in 1919).

In 1914—during the very month that the “Guns of August” launched World War One in Europe—Wilson sustained a major eruption in his personal life. His much-loved wife, Ellen Axson Wilson—a descendant of Southern slave-owners who tried very hard to improve the plight of African-Americans living in Washington, D.C.—died of Bright’s Disease on August 6, 1914.

The day before she died, Mrs. Wilson extracted a promise from her doctor. He would tell her husband, once he was a widower, that his wife expressed hope that he’d marry again.

Before his tenure as America’s commander-in-chief ended, in January of 1921, Wilson sustained a massive stroke (in September of 1919). Cared-for by his second wife Edith, who strictly regulated access to the President during his last seventeen months in office, Wilson died in 1924.

Wilson never fully recovered from his debilitating stroke. That fact led people to refer to Edith as the “Secret President” and “the first woman to run the government.” She referred to her new role as a “stewardship.”

We learn more about the man who was President during World War I—and during many of the Suffragette Protests—from the White House’s official website:

Like [Theodore] Roosevelt before him, Woodrow Wilson 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 frightfulness of war. He was born in Virginia in 1856, the son of a Presbyterian minister who during the Civil War was a pastor in Augusta, Georgia, and during Reconstruction 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, Wilson earned his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University and entered upon an academic career. In 1885 he married Ellen Louise Axson.

Wilson advanced rapidly as a conservative young professor of political science and became president of Princeton in 1902.

His growing national reputation led some conservative Democrats to consider him Presidential timber. First they persuaded him to run for Governor of New Jersey in 1910. In the campaign he asserted his independence of the conservatives and of the machine that had nominated him, endorsing a progressive platform, which he pursued as governor.

He was nominated for President at the 1912 Democratic Convention and campaigned 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 an overwhelming electoral vote.

Wilson maneuvered through Congress three major pieces of legislation. The first was a lower tariff, the Underwood Act; attached to the measure was a graduated Federal income tax. The passage of the Federal Reserve Act provided the Nation with the more elastic money supply it badly needed. In 1914 antitrust legislation established a Federal Trade Commission to prohibit unfair business practices.

Another burst of legislation followed in 1916. One new law prohibited child labor; 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.

But after the election Wilson concluded that America could not remain neutral in the World War. On April 2,1917, he asked Congress for a declaration of war on Germany.

Massive American effort slowly tipped the balance in favor of the Allies. Wilson went before Congress in January 1918, to enunciate American war aims--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, 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, he lived until 1924.

A few additional facts, about Woodrow Wilson, are also important to understand his legacy:

  • It was under his administration that the United States implemented a federal income tax;
  • He urged Congress to pass the Espionage Act (of 1917) and the Sedition Act (of 1918), leading to the deportation of protestors like Schenck and Abrams.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5190stories and lessons created

Original Release: Oct 07, 2013

Updated Last Revision: Jan 24, 2020

Media Credits

Image online, courtesy the U.S. Library of Congress.



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