Thomas Woodrow Wilson

Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), twenty-eighth president of the United States, led the country into World War I and was a primary architect of the League of Nations.

Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton, Va., on Dec. 28, 1856. His father, a Presbyterian minister, communicated his moral austerity to his son, resulting in an inflexibility that sometimes revealed itself. Wilson attended Davison University in North Carolina for a brief time but graduated from Princeton in 1879. In his senior year he published an important essay in the International Review, revealing his early interest in American government. He studied law briefly and, though he did not complete the course, practiced for a time in Atlanta, Ga., without much success. He pursued graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University, receiving his doctorate in 1886.

In his doctoral thesis Wilson analyzed the American political system, pointing to the fracturing of power that flowed from the committee system in Congress. This thesis foreshadowed his intense belief in the role of the presidency as the only national office and in the duty of the president to lead the nation. He was to put these views into practice when he occupied the White House.

From 1886 to 1910 Wilson was in academic life—as a professor of political science at Bryn Mawr, Wesleyan, and Princeton and, after 1902, president of Princeton. A magnificent teacher, Wilson was a strong and imaginative college executive. His establishment of the preceptorial system at Princeton was an important contribution to university education that emphasized intimacy between teacher and student. He also fought for democracy in education.

Governor of New Jersey

By 1910 Wilson had established a wide reputation but had also aroused many enmities at Princeton. Thus he was ready to accept when, in 1910, the Democratic party in New Jersey offered him the nomination for governor. He was elected by a large plurality.

As governor, Wilson demonstrated masterly leadership, pushing through the legislature a direct primary law, a corrupt-practices act, an employers' liability act, and a law regulating the public utilities. His success made him a prominent candidate for the presidency in 1912. He was nominated, after a long convention battle, and easily elected in November. At the same time the Democratic party secured a substantial majority in both houses of Congress.

First Term as President

Once elected, Wilson proceeded to put into practice his theory of presidential leadership. In the first 2 years of his presidency he dominated Congress and secured legislation of long-term historical significance. The tariff was revised downward, initiating a policy which was to be of substantial importance later. The Federal Reserve Act created a banking system under governmental control. The Federal Trade Commission Act, directed against monopoly, created a body which has had an important role in preventing overwhelming concentration of power in industry.

Wilson from the beginning confronted difficult questions of foreign policy. In Mexico a revolution was taking place, but just before Wilson's inauguration a military dictator, Victoriano Huerta, seized the presidency. Wilson refused to recognize Huerta, setting a course sympathetic with the struggle of the Mexican masses for social reform. He prevented Huerta from consolidating power, and in 1914 he ordered the occupation of Veracruz to prevent the dictator from receiving arms from abroad. He was saved from the possibility of war by the proffered mediation of Argentina, Brazil, and Chile; and Huerta was overthrown. But the Mexican question continued causing trouble.

Beginning of World War I

In August 1914 World War I broke out in Europe. The basis of Wilson's policy was the preservation of neutrality. But there can be little doubt that in his heart he sympathized with France and Great Britain and feared the victory of imperial Germany. The warring powers soon began interfering with American trade. The British more and more restricted American commerce, but the Germans proclaimed a new kind of warfare, submarine warfare, with the prospect of American ships being sunk and their passengers and crew being lost. Wilson took German policies more seriously, not only because of his innate partiality for the British, but because German policies involved the destruction of human life, whereas the British interfered only with trade. As early as February 1915, in response to a German declaration instituting the U-boat war, the President declared that Germany would be held to "strict accountability" for the loss of American lives.

For a time thereafter Wilson took no action. But on May 7, 1915, the liner Lusitania was sunk, with over a hundred American lives lost. The President addressed a stiff note to Germany but clung to the hope that the war might be ended by the good offices of the United States. He engaged in a debate with Berlin and, after other painful submarine episodes, got Germany to abandon the U-boat war in 1916.

Wilson then addressed himself to Great Britain but made little headway. In the meantime the presidential campaign of 1916 was approaching. He was renominated virtually by acclamation; the Democratic platform praised him for keeping the country out of war. He won in a very close campaign. It is important to note that though the President profited from his stand in preserving peace, and though the Democratic politicians made the most of the slogan "He kept us out of war," Wilson promised nothing for the future.

Second Term as President

Wilson's efforts to bring the belligerents together were ineffectual. When the German government cast the die for unlimited warfare on the sea, Wilson severed diplomatic relations with Berlin but continued to hope that a direct challenge could be avoided. No president has ever taken more seriously the immense responsibility of leading the American people into war. But on April 2, 1917, Wilson demanded a declaration of war against Germany from Congress, and Congress responded by overwhelming majorities.

There is every reason to regard Wilson as a great war president. He put politics aside, appointing a professional soldier to head American forces in Europe. Fully as important, he appealed to American idealism in a striking way. Though he believed that the defeat of Germany was necessary, he held out hope that at the end of the war a League of Nations might be established which would make impossible the recurrence of another bloody struggle. As early as April 1916 he had begun to formulate his views on this. He advocated an association of nations which would act together against any nation which broke the peace. There was much support for his point of view.

Fourteen Points

Throughout the war Wilson insisted on two things: the defeat of German militarism and the establishment of peace resting on just principles. In January 1918 he gave his speech of the Fourteen Points. In the negotiations that autumn he made the acceptance of these points the primary condition on the part of his European associates and of the Germans as well. Wilson was at the apogee of his career in November 1918, when the armistice was signed. No American president had ever attained so high a position in world esteem, and millions looked to him as the prophet of a new order.

But difficulties loomed. The 1918 elections returned a Republican majority to Congress. The President himself stimulated partisanship by his appeal to elect a Democratic legislature. Though he selected able men for his delegation to the forthcoming peace conference at Paris, he did not think of conciliating the Republican opposition. By insisting on going to Paris in person and remaining there until the treaty was finished, he cut himself off from American opinion.

Versailles and the League Covenant

At the peace conference Wilson strove to realize his ideals. He was able to win the negotiating powers' consent for drafting the Covenant of the League of Nations. This provided for a League Council of the five Great Powers and four elective members and for an Assembly in which every member state would have a vote. The signatories bound themselves to submit disputes to either arbitration or conciliation through the Council. If they failed to do this, they would be subjected to economic and possibly to military sanctions. They were also to agree to respect and preserve the territorial integrity and political independence of the members of the League.

Wilson fought also for what he conceived to be a just peace. On territorial questions he strove to apply the principle of nationality; he fought successfully against French ambitions to detach the Rhineland from Germany and against the Italian desire for Dalmatia, a province peopled by Yugoslavs. Many of the new boundaries of Europe were to be determined by plebiscite. At times, however, the principle of nationality was violated. On the question of reparations Wilson was unsuccessful in limiting German payments in amount and time, and he accepted a formula which was subject to grave criticism. In the Orient, much against his will, he was compelled to recognize the claims of Japan (which had in 1914 entered the war on the side of the Allies) to economic control of the Chinese province of Shantung (formerly in the hands of Germany).

The Treaty of Versailles was not to stand the test of time. In detaching substantial territories from Germany and in fixing Germany with responsibility for the war, it furnished the basis for that German nationalism which was to come to full flower with Adolf Hitler.

Wilson returned to the United States with a political battle ahead. There was much partisanship in the opposition to him but also a genuine dislike of the Treaty of Versailles and honest opposition to "entanglement" in world politics. He erred in demanding ratification of the treaty without modification. He made his appeal in a countrywide tour. He was hailed by tremendous crowds and greeted with immense enthusiasm, but his health gave way, and he was compelled to go back to the White House. A stroke temporarily incapacitated him.

The Senate in November rejected unconditional ratification but adopted the treaty with reservations which the President refused to accept. In January a compromise was attempted. But Wilson spoiled these efforts by taking the issue into the 1920 presidential campaign. That campaign resulted in an overwhelming Republican victory and the election of Warren G. Harding as president. The new chief executive never sought to bring the Treaty of Versailles to the Senate or to bring the United States into the League, which was by now actually in existence. Wilson's presidency ended in a stunning defeat.

Evaluation of Wilson's Policies

Despite his failure to secure American adherence to the League, the long-run judgment on the President must be that he was one of the few great presidents of the United States. In his first term he exerted a presidential leadership that has rarely been equaled and won legislation of far-reaching importance. In his policy toward Germany he faithfully interpreted the majority opinion of the nation, neither rushing passionately into war at the possible cost of national unity nor hesitating to face the issue once it seemed clear. He was a war leader of the first magnitude. In his campaign for a world order, moreover, he has lasting significance. He bequeathed to his generation, and that which followed, a passionate faith in the possibility of such an order.

The Charter of the United Nations reflects in no small degree Woodrow Wilson's aspirations. Whether such an order as he dreamed will ever eventuate in fact is a question that must be left to the prophets. But if a day comes when men seek the means of settling their disputes in international organization, the failure of Woodrow Wilson will appear a transitory thing, and his idealism and his vision will receive their due praise from posterity.

Wilson was twice married. His first wife bore him three daughters. She died in the White House shortly after the outbreak of World War I. In 1916 he married Edith Bolling Galt, who survived him by many years. He died on Feb. 3, 1924.

Further Reading on Thomas Woodrow Wilson

The foremost biographer of Wilson is Arthur S. Link, whose still uncompleted definitive work, Wilson (5 vols., 1947-1965), takes Wilson's life up to 1917; Link's work is a monumental, detailed record of Wilson's times. The biography by Arthur Walworth, Woodrow Wilson (2 vols., 1958; 2d rev. ed., 2 vols. in 1, 1964), presents a fine understanding of Wilson the man. Henry Wilkinson Bragdon, Woodrow Wilson: The Academic Years (1967), describes Wilson's years as writer, teacher, and scholar, and George C. Osborn, Woodrow Wilson: The Early Years (1968), relates his prepolitical years generally.

A critical study of Wilson is John M. Blum, Woodrow Wilson and the Politics of Morality (1956). Other biographies include William Allen White, Woodrow Wilson (1924); H. Hale Bellot, Woodrow Wilson (1955); John A. Garraty, Woodrow Wilson: A Great Life in Brief (1956); and Silas Bent McKinley, Woodrow Wilson (1957). See also Eleanor Wilson McAdoo, The Woodrow Wilsons (1937). A synoptic view of Wilson's personality emerges from Arthur S. Link, ed., Woodrow Wilson: A Profile (1968), an anthology by persons who knew Wilson or who assessed his impact during their lifetimes. The papers of Wilson's confidant, Edward Mandell House, The Intimate Papers of Colonel House, arranged by Charles Seymour (4 vols., 1926-1928), provide intimate glimpses of Wilson.

Specialized studies include excellent works by Thomas A. Bailey dealing with the peace treaty and the struggle that followed, Woodrow Wilson and the Lost Peace (1944) and Woodrow Wilson and the Great Betrayal (1945); Arthur S. Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910-1917 (1954) and Wilson the Diplomatist (1957); the well-documented study of Wilson's relations with Congress during World War I by Seward W. Livermore, Politics Is Adjourned: Woodrow Wilson and the War Congress, 1916-1918 (1966); and Norman Gordon Levin, Jr., Woodrow Wilson and World Politics: America's Response to War and Revolution (1968). The elections of 1912 and 1916 are covered in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed., History of American Presidential Elections (4 vols., 1971).