World War One, WOODROW
The president who led the nation through the hard years
of World War I was Woodrow Wilson. He was probably the
only president who was a brilliant student and teacher
as well as a statesman. He had been a college professor,
president of Princeton University, and the author of
books on American government. He had also been governor
of New Jersey. Woodrow Wilson worked out his political
beliefs in the classroom. Then he entered politics to
put his theories of government into practice.
Appearance and Personality
Wilson was a slender man, about five feet eleven inches
tall. He had a high forehead, high cheekbones, long,
thin nose, and long jaw, thrust forward in a stubborn
line. His blue-gray eyes, behind rimless nose glasses,
had a way of narrowing when he talked, giving him a
stern, almost grim expression. He could be cold and
disagreeable with men he felt were not sympathetic to
him. In fact his greatest fault was his inability to
work with those who were not willing to follow his lead
completely. He had absolute confidence in his own
His family and his many close friends knew him as a
totally different kind of man--affectionate, charming,
generous, and full of fun. He might have been a
successful vaudeville actor. He could dance a jig and
the cakewalk. He told delightful stories in black,
Scottish, and Irish dialects and wrote nonsense jingles.
His friends went into gales of laughter over his
imitations of mutual acquaintances. He sang well and he
had a beautiful speaking voice.
Above all, he loved good conversation. Clever, well-bred
people who understood him brought out the best qualities
of his brilliant and witty mind. His friends made up a
very important part of his life. Once a friendship with
him was broken, however, he could never again resume it.
A Family of Ministers and Educators
Woodrow Wilson was born into a family of Presbyterian
ministers and teachers. His grandfather, James Wilson,
migrated to the United States from Ulster, Ireland, in
1807. He married an Irish girl, Anne Adams, who came on
the same ship. James Wilson became a newspaper publisher
in Steubenville, Ohio. One of his sons, Joseph Ruggles
Wilson, was Woodrow Wilson's father. He became a
Wilson's mother was Janet (Jessie) Woodrow. She was born
in Carlisle, England, just across the border from
Scotland. Her father, Thomas Woodrow, was a Scottish
Presbyterian minister. In 1836 he brought his family to
the United States. In time he settled in Ohio, and there
his daughter and Joseph Ruggles Wilson were married.
Childhood and Schooling
Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born Christmas week, Dec. 28,
1856, in Staunton, Va., where his father was minister of
the First Presbyterian Church. He had two older sisters,
Marion and Anne. A brother, Joseph Ruggles Wilson, Jr.,
was ten years younger.
Tommy, as he was called in his childhood, was a year old
when the family moved to Augusta, Ga. He remembered as a
child of four standing beside the garden gate and
hearing a man say in great excitement that Mr. Lincoln
was elected and there was to be war. He ran into the
house to ask his father what it meant. He was to see a
great deal of the destruction and waste of war in the
South and to learn to hate it.
The Wilson family was happy and affectionate. Tommy and
his father were unusually close. The boy did not go to
school until he was 13. Until then his father had been
his only teacher. Dr. Wilson took the boy on visits to
the neighboring cotton gin, corn mill, iron foundry, and
ammunition plant and explained how they operated. He
taught him to look up unfamiliar words in the dictionary
and to repeat them until he could use them easily. He
taught him how to write simply and express his meaning
exactly. This skill with words helped make Wilson
Tommy's interest in parliamentary law began when he was
a boy. He organized and made himself president of a
club, the Lightfoots, which played baseball and engaged
in various secret and adventurous activities. They met
in the hayloft of Dr. Wilson's barn. Tommy wrote a
constitution for the club and conducted its meetings
according to 'Robert's Rules of Order'. The boys were
impressed with their leader. They would have been more
impressed if they could have known that this tall, thin
boy with spectacles, big ears, and a pale face would one
day write the constitution for the League of Nations.
In 1870, when the boy was 14, the family moved to
Columbia, S.C. It was a lonely period, and he amused
himself by studying nautical terms and writing a
fanciful yarn of the sea. He imagined himself to be
Admiral Wilson of the United States Navy, whose fleet
destroyed a nest of pirates in the South Pacific. The
story took the form of daily reports, directed to the
Navy Department at Washington, D.C.
He began to read books on the science of government. A
picture of William Gladstone hung over his desk. He
explained to his cousin: "That is Gladstone, the
greatest statesman that ever lived. I intend to be a
The College Student
In 1873 he entered Davidson College in North Carolina.
He was badly prepared for college. By the end of the
term his health broke down from overwork. After 15
months of studying by himself he entered Princeton, then
known as the College of New Jersey. Here he discovered
the fine qualities of his mind and gained a confidence
in himself which he never lost. He studied the art of
public speaking and was active in the college debating
society. In his senior year he wrote a brilliant essay
on "Cabinet Government in the United States." He dropped
the name Thomas and signed himself "Woodrow Wilson."
After his graduation from Princeton in 1879 he entered
the University of Virginia to study law. He took his law
degree in 1882 and entered into a partnership, Renick
and Wilson, in Atlanta, Ga. A brief struggle to build up
a practice convinced him that he would never make a
successful lawyer. He returned to the "advantages and
delights of study" in 1883.
This time he spent two years at Johns Hopkins University
studying history and political science. For all his
brilliance, Wilson never stood at the top of his class.
He refused to study subjects that bored him, and he had
great contempt for the pursuit of high marks and
academic degrees. He took his degree of doctor of
philosophy from Johns Hopkins only at the insistence of
friends who pointed out that it meant a higher salary as
a teacher. He submitted as his dissertation a book on
'Congressional Government', which was published in 1885,
a year after he left the university. In this penetrating
study he made the point that congressional government,
as practiced in the United States, divides
responsibility and thus lends itself to inefficiency and
The College Professor
When he was 29 years old he started on his career as an
educator. He was associate professor of history at Bryn
Mawr College (for women) (1885-88) and then professor of
history and political economy at Wesleyan University,
Middletown, Conn. (1888-90). In 1890 he returned as
professor of jurisprudence and political economy to the
College of New Jersey. In the next 20 years he was to
see it grow into the great Princeton University. For
eight years (1902-10) he was president of the
Year after year the Princeton students elected him their
most popular professor. He was an inspiring teacher. He
had small respect for the kind of mind that accumulates
facts and dates. He believed in the importance of
"developing the mind by using it rather than stuffing
it." "The essence of the cultured mind is its capacity
for relating knowledge," he declared.
They were busy years. In addition to teaching he had
published 'Congressional Government' (1885), 'The State'
(1889), 'Division and Reunion' (1893), 'George
Washington' (1896), 'A History of the American People'
(1902), and 'Constitutional Government in the United
States' (1908). He wrote many essays and book reviews
and was in great demand as a lecturer.
He was always overworked and suffered repeated sick
spells which required long periods of rest. Historians
have suspected that he suffered perhaps as many as three
strokes--two minor and one more serious--during the
1890s. In 1906 he was told that he must retire and lead
a very quiet life, but he kept on going. Without the
help and sympathy of his wife, he could never have
accomplished all that he did.
Marriage and Family Life
He had married Ellen Axson of Rome, Ga., in 1885. They
had three daughters--Margaret (born in 1886), Jessie
(1887), and Eleanor (1889). His wife saw that he had
quiet for his working hours, freedom from money worries,
and the frequent association of intellectual friends. On
the small salary of a teacher they managed to help their
younger relatives get a college education by opening
their home to them.
A friend of later years wrote, "The more I am with the
Wilsons the more I am struck by their unrivaled home
life. I have never dreamed such sweetness and love could
President of Princeton University
As president of Princeton, Wilson launched his first
reform crusade--to build a university that would produce
leaders and statesmen. The first problem was to get rid
of the upper-class eating clubs. "The side-shows are
swallowing up the circus," he remarked. The second was
to establish a stronger graduate college. He proposed a
plan in which graduates and undergraduates should live
together in small colleges presided over by teachers and
tutors. Students and professors would benefit by the
mutual stimulation of cultured, scholarly ideals.
He succeeded in reorganizing the courses of study and in
adding to the faculty 47 young scholars, called
preceptors. Their duty was individual supervision of the
students and the development of small discussion groups.
But on the major issues he failed.
Students and alumni opposed elimination of social clubs.
A group in the faculty was determined to place the
graduate college under a separate administration and to
house its students in a quadrangle far removed from the
undergraduate campus, libraries, and laboratories.
Wilson was convinced that such plans reduced the
graduate college to little more than an expensive hall
of residence. When two alumni willed several million
dollars to the graduate college on condition that the
opposition's plans be carried out, Wilson was defeated.
He felt that the issue was between democracy and the
power of money and special privilege.
Reform Governor of New Jersey
The Princeton battle attracted wide publicity and led to
his election as governor of New Jersey in 1910. He
showed his independence and his capacity for getting
things done. Again, as at Princeton, he plunged into
battle with forces he was convinced opposed the public
good. New Jersey was run by a group of political bosses
who thought they could use Wilson as a respectable
front. He side-stepped the Democratic party machine and
appealed directly to the voters for support of his
program. In a little over a year he put through a public
utility control act, a corrupt political practices act,
a workmen's compensation act, and a direct primary act.
These bold reforms attracted national attention to the
college president turned politician. In 1912 he won the
Democratic party's nomination for president of the
United States. Theodore Roosevelt split the Republican
party and Wilson won the election. The electoral vote
was 435 for Wilson, 88 for Roosevelt, and 8 for Taft.
But Wilson won only 42 percent of the popular vote. The
combined vote for Roosevelt and Taft exceeded Wilson's
by more than 1,300,000.
Life in the White House
The Wilson family was far from happy about the prospect
of going to the White House. The outgoing president,
William Howard Taft, said to them, "I'm glad to be
going--this is the lonesomest place in the world."
Eleanor Wilson wrote in her memoirs that the day before
her father's inauguration she wept until she was
exhausted, crying, "It will kill them--it will kill them
Yet the Wilson family adapted themselves very quickly to
life in the White House. Mrs. Wilson made a simple and
democratic home, as she had done wherever they went. Two
weddings took place in the White House in the first two
years. Jessie married Francis B. Sayre on Nov. 26, 1913,
and Eleanor married William Gibbs McAdoo on May 7, 1914.
Mrs. Wilson's health began to fail early in 1914. Her
ability to endear herself to everyone was indicated by
an action of Congress. Informed that she was sinking,
they hastily passed a bill for slum clearance in
Washington, which she had very much at heart, so that
she might be told of it before she died, in August of
Dependent as he had always been on his wife's
companionship, the president became lonely and
depressed. Through his personal physician, Col. Cary
Grayson, he met a beautiful and gracious widow, Mrs.
Edith Bolling Galt. Wilson and Mrs. Galt were married in
A Political Reformer in the White House
Wilson called his philosophy of government the "new
freedom." "What I am interested in is having the
government of the United States more concerned about
human rights than about property rights," he declared.
Convinced that strong executive leadership was necessary
for progress, he went further than any other president
in forcing his wishes on Congress. He called Congress in
extra session early in April 1913 and addressed the two
houses in person. This broke a precedent of long
standing. From time to time after that he went before
Congress with parts of his program. The result was a
mass of progressive legislation unequaled in any
administration up to that time.
Tariff reform. The Underwood-Simmons tariff lowered
duties on more than a hundred items. A tariff commission
was established in 1916 to study tariffs and make
Income tax. To offset the loss in revenue from tariff
reductions, a graduated income tax law was enacted as
authorized by the newly adopted 16th Amendment to the
Constitution. It was levied according to wealth.
Currency and credit reform. The Federal Reserve banking
system was established, and a board of control was set
up to administer the system. For the first time in
American history, finance and credits were placed under
government direction. The Federal Farm Loan Act created
12 farm loan-banks to give cheap and easy credit to
farmers and tenants.
Regulation of business. The Federal Trade Commission was
created, with power to forbid unfair business practices.
The Clayton Act, designed to strengthen the Sherman
Anti-Trust Act, defined the methods of competition that
the Commission was empowered to forbid. It made officers
of corporations liable for illegal acts of those
corporations, exempted labor unions from antitrust acts,
and forbade the use of labor injunctions except where
necessary to protect property.
Other social legislation. The La Follette Seamen's bill
required better living and working conditions for ocean
and lake sailors. The Adamson Act set an eight-hour
working day for railroad workers.
Diplomacy in Latin America
Congress in 1912 had enacted a Panama tolls law that
violated the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty of 1901 with Great
Britain, guaranteeing equal treatment in the use of the
canal. Wilson persuaded Congress to repeal the act.
American businessmen were investing heavily in the
mines, railroads, and other resources of Latin America.
Wilson announced soon after his inauguration that he
would abandon "dollar diplomacy." This meant that
investors could no longer expect the United States
government to protect their interests. Nevertheless,
Wilson permitted United States intervention to restore
order in Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.
In 1914 the Marines seized the port of Veracruz, Mexico,
when Mexican police arrested several American sailors.
Mediation by the "A B C powers" (Argentina, Brazil, and
Chile) averted war. In March 1916 a Mexican rebel,
Francisco (Pancho) Villa, raided Columbus, N. M.,
killing 17 Americans. With the permission of President
Carranza of Mexico, the United States sent an expedition
into Mexico under Gen. John J. Pershing. They failed to
catch Villa and were withdrawn in January 1917.
Wilson and World War I
In the summer of 1914 all Europe was plunged into war.
Wilson called upon the United States to be neutral "even
in spirit," but few Americans were able to remain
impartial. For two years the president made every effort
to avoid war. Even after the unarmed British liner
Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine with a loss of
almost 1,200 lives including 124 Americans, he argued:
"There is such a thing as a man being too proud to
In 1916 he was reelected. He defeated the Republican
candidate Charles Evans Hughes by an electoral vote of
277 to 254. The campaign slogan "He kept us out of war"
probably won him more popular votes than any other
factor. After the election Wilson tried to end the war
by active mediation. The Germans, however, resumed
unrestricted submarine warfare. On April 2, 1917, the
president asked Congress for a declaration of war.
Before a joint session of the two houses he read the
solemn words, "The present German submarine warfare
against commerce is a warfare against mankind. It is a
war against all nations. . . . We are accepting this
challenge. . . . The world must be made safe for
democracy." On April 6, Congress declared war.
In the next 18 months the United States built an army of
4 million men by conscription, sent 2 million men
overseas to France, and united the entire population
behind the war effort. A vast propaganda machine was
created under the title of the Committee on Public
Information. The words of Wilson reached the German
people by radio for the first time in history. Leaflets
were scattered from airplanes, shot from guns and
rockets, and smuggled behind the enemy lines. Wilson
said that this was a "war to end war." He spoke of
"peace without victory" and without revenge.
On Jan. 8, 1918, he announced his Fourteen Points as the
basis for a peace settlement. They were more than peace
terms; they were terms for a better world. He followed
this speech with his famous "self-determination" speech
on February 11 in which he said: "National aspirations
must be respected; people may now be dominated and
governed only by their own consent. 'Self determination'
is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of
action. . . . "
The Battle for the Peace Treaty
The war came to an end on Nov. 11, 1918. The German
proposals for peace came in the midst of the
Congressional elections. Wilson appealed to the people
to support his policies by returning a Democratic
majority to both houses. The party was defeated,
however, and with a Republican majority in control he
was no longer able to lead the Congress.
Against the advice of those close to him, the president
decided to attend the peace conference in Paris and
fight for his policies in person. He took with him few
advisers, and none from the Republican party. On
December 13 he arrived in Europe. Probably no man has
ever been given such an ovation. Wherever he went
enormous crowds gathered, sobbing, cheering, shouting
The peace conference dragged on week after weary week.
David Lloyd George of England, Vittorio Orlando of
Italy, Georges Clemenceau of France, all were
experienced and shrewd diplomats and each was determined
to have his own way. The endless arguing and the
official receptions and banquets frayed Wilson's nerves.
He suffered a brief but severe illness. Thereafter he
was more tense, nervous, and irritable.
The peace as agreed upon in June 1919 did contain many
of his ideas. His greatest success was in writing into
the Versailles Treaty the Covenant (constitution) of a
League of Nations. On July 10, 1919, he laid it before a
hostile Senate, led by Henry Cabot Lodge and a "little
group of willful men," as Wilson called them. They were
especially opposed to the League of Nations, but Wilson
refused to compromise his dream. In search of popular
support that would overwhelm the Senate, he toured the
country in defense of the League. Exhausted, he
collapsed in Pueblo, Colo., late in September. A stroke
left him paralyzed.
For a month only his wife and his doctor were allowed to
see him. Then, with his wife guiding his hand, he placed
a wobbly signature on major bills. Only a strong will
kept him alive. When Secretary of State Robert Lansing
presumed to call Cabinet meetings, Wilson promptly
dismissed him. He refused to let his vice-president,
Thomas R. Marshall, take charge. In her memoirs Edith
Wilson said that the president remained the active head
of state, making decisions on the basis of digests that
she had prepared.
Wilson was unable to participate in the 1920
presidential campaign, and the Democratic candidate,
James M. Cox, was overwhelmingly defeated by the
Republican Warren G. Harding. Wilson died on Feb. 3,
1924. He was buried in the National Cathedral of St.
Peter and St. Paul in Washington, D.C.
World History Project