Who Was Woodrow Wilson?
Woodrow Wilson was an academic and politician who served as the two-term 28th president of the United States from 1913 to 1921. Wilson spent his youth in the South observing the Civil War and its aftermath. A dedicated scholar and enthusiastic orator, he earned multiple degrees before embarking on a university career. In a fast rise politically, he spent two years as governor of New Jersey before being elected in 1912 to the presidency of the United States.
As president, Wilson saw America through World War I, negotiating the Treaty of Versailles and crafting the League of Nations, a precursor to the United Nations. His legacy includes sweeping reforms for the middle class, voting rights for women and precepts for world peace. However, Wilson is also known for a dismal record on race relations. During the last year of his presidency, Wilson suffered his second stroke and died three years after leaving office.
Wilson was born on December 28, 1856, to Jessie Janet Woodrow and Joseph Ruggles Wilson, a Presbyterian minister. Tommy, as Wilson was called in his youth, was the third of four children. A warm, studious and devout household, the family lived all over the South, moving from Staunton, Virginia, to Augusta, Georgia, in Wilson's first year. In 1870, they moved to Columbia, South Carolina, where Wilson’s father taught at the Columbia Theological Seminary.
Living in the South and witnessing the ravages of the Civil War up close, Wilson's father, a Northern transplant, adopted the Confederate cause. Wilson's mother nursed wounded soldiers during the conflict. After the war, Wilson saw Confederate president Jefferson Davis march through Augusta in chains, and always remembered looking up into the face of the defeated General Robert E. Lee.
Less than stellar in school — scholars now think that Wilson had a form of dyslexia — Wilson was rigorously trained by his father in oratory and debate, which became a particular passion for the boy. He enrolled at nearby Davidson College but transferred to Princeton in 1875 (known as the College of New Jersey until 1896). Wilson went on to study law at the University of Virginia and earned his Ph.D. in political science and history at Johns Hopkins University. His thesis, Congressional Government, was published, launching a university career.
Wilson was appointed to teach at Bryn Mawr and Wesleyan. He achieved his dream job, a professorship at Princeton, in 1890. In 1902, he became the university's 13th president. It was largely due to Wilson's efforts that the College of New Jersey evolved into the prestigious Princeton University. In addition to a focus on innovative curriculum upgrades, he was often voted the most popular teacher on campus, renowned for his caring demeanor and high ideals. But it was his oratory skill that brought him renown beyond the university setting. Wilson's first stroke occurred while at Princeton in May 1906, seriously threatening his life.
A scrupulous scholar, Wilson’s books include a biography of George Washington and the five-volume History of the American People.
Political ambitions and university politics had transformed Wilson into a social Democrat, and he was tapped for the governorship of New Jersey in 1910. A determined reformer, his successes made him the darling of Progressives preceding his election to the presidency in 1912.
Woodrow Wilson Presidency
Wilson was the 28th president of the United States, serving two terms from 1913 to 1921. Wilson was nominated as the Democratic presidential candidate on the New Freedom platform in 1912, opposing Republican incumbent William Howard Taft. However, Theodore Roosevelt, Taft's predecessor, was disgruntled with his performance as president and launched a third-party run. This split the Republican vote, ensuring Wilson's win. He was inaugurated on March 4, 1913.
The new president entered the White House just as the women’s suffrage movement was gaining full steam. Though Wilson was initially “lukewarm” towards a women’s right to vote, historians generally agree that his views of suffrage evolved and he eventually supported the cause.
In 1917, a group of suffragists picketed outside the White House demanding Wilson’s support. The group was peaceful but soon turned violent, with many protesters arrested and thrown in jail. At first, Wilson was outraged by the women’s conduct, but he was appalled to learn that some had gone on a hunger strike and were being force-fed by the police. In a speech before the Senate in January 1918, Wilson publicly endorsed a woman’s right to vote.
Joining his daughter, Jessie Woodrow Wilson Sayre, Wilson continued to speak for the cause and contacted members of Congress with personal and written appeals. Finally, on August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified by a two-thirds majority of the states.
Wilson’s New Freedom platform favored small businesses and farmers, and he went after what he termed the "Triple Wall of Privilege." In 1913, he signed the Underwood-Simmons Act, which reduced tax rates that had previously favored industrialists over small businesses. He also approved the Federal Reserve Act, making loans more accessible to the average American. He further enforced anti-trust legislation in 1914 with the Clayton Antitrust Act, which supported labor unions, allowing for strikes, boycotts and peaceful picketing.
At the outbreak of World War I in Europe on July 26, 1914, Wilson declared America neutral, believing that "to fight, you must be brutal and ruthless, and the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into the very fiber of our national life." This produced a campaign slogan for his second-term election: "He kept us out of war."
Wilson tried to dispense a peace protocol to Great Britain along with the money and munitions they asked for but was rebuffed. He finally asked Congress to declare war in April 1917, when Germany repeatedly ignored U.S. neutrality and sunk American ships. When the war was over, nearly a year and a half later, Americans were perceived as heroes. (The "Great War" was also meant to be the last war.)
Wilson proposed the "Fourteen Points" as the basis for the peace treaty at Versailles, with the last point being the creation of a League of Nations to ensure world peace. While adopted by Europe, Congress did not approve of the United States joining the League of Nations. Wilson toured the nation in an effort to increase public support for the League. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1920 for his efforts.
Record on Racism
Though Wilson’s legacy on world peace, women’s rights and labor reform is exemplary, his record on race can only be described as dismal. Perhaps it was his Southern upbringing or perhaps he was just a product of his times when racial inequality was considered normal by most Americans.
Some of Wilson's views on race first came to light during his time as university president. He had unfavorably written about eastern and southern Europeans as "men of the lowest class."
There is also the well-known story of Wilson praising the motion picture “Birth of a Nation,” a film by director D. W. Griffith, that denounced Reconstruction and hailed the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. African Americans in the film (played mostly by white actors in black face) were portrayed as brutes. After the private screening in the White House with Cabinet members and their families, Wilson is reported to have said, “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Later, he reportedly called the film an “unfortunate production” and hoped the film would not be shown in Black communities.
As President of the United States, Wilson appointed a number of Southern Democrats to his Cabinet. Together with their allies in Congress, members of his administration rolled back many of the advancements African Americans had made in government employment since the Civil War. In several departments including Treasury, the Navy, and the Post Office, Jim Crow policies were implemented, instituting segregated toilets, cafeterias and even some “whites only” buildings. These policies extended to other areas of the District as well. Though never advocating these practices, Wilson did not oppose them either.
Perhaps the most telling account about Wilson’s racist attitude came from his own lips. “Segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen,” said during a meeting with civil-rights leader William Monroe Trotter in November 1914.
Trotter had come to the White House with a contingent of people and a petition from 38 states containing 20,000 signatures protesting against segregating federal employees. After presenting the petition, Trotter posed an accusing question asking whether Wilson’s new economic reform program was only for white Americans and African-Americans were going to be relegated to slavery. Wilson then commented that segregation was a benefit to African Americans and stated his policies were seeking “not to put Negro employees at a disadvantage” but to prevent friction between Black and White employees.
Trotter was not persuaded by Wilson’s excuse. He replied that segregation was humiliating to Black workers because it made them feel they were not equals. He then went on to accuse the president of lying. He said that Wilson’s claim that his administration was protecting Black people from friction was ridiculous.
Wilson didn’t take too kindly to the criticism. “Your tone, sir, offends me,” Wilson shot back at Trotter. “You have spoiled the whole cause for which you came.” Trotter tried to get the meeting back on track, saying, “I am pleading for simple justice.” If his tone seemed contentious, Trotter said, he had been misunderstood. But Wilson was angry and the meeting was over. Trotter and his group were shown the door.
Wilson married Ellen Louise Axson on June 24, 1885, in Savannah, Georgia. Wilson had fallen in love with Ellen, an accomplished artist and the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, at church while traveling and working at his Atlanta law practice in 1883. Ellen was an educated woman; a cousin of hers had actually feared she’d never marry because he felt that “men didn’t like smart women.” But Wilson did. The couple had three daughters, and Wilson relied on Ellen a great deal for shared decision-making.
In 1907, Wilson broke Ellen’s heart when he had an affair while visiting Bermuda on a restorative trip. The couple moved on from the incident, however, and remained together. When Ellen died of kidney disease in 1914, following Wilson's first year in the White House, he reportedly walked around in a daze for days, whispering, "My God, what am I to do?"
On December 18, 1915, Wilson married Edith Bolling Galt at her Washington, D.C. home. A widow herself, Edith met the grieving Wilson several months after the death of his first wife. Admiration quickly deepened into a more profound relationship, and the two married in late December 1915.
True helpmates, Wilson entrusted Edith with a secret code that accessed highly confidential war documents, and she often sat with him during Oval Office meetings. Additionally, Edith was the first U.S. first lady to travel with a sitting president on a European goodwill tour.
When President Wilson suffered his second serious stroke in October 1919, Edith masked the severity of his illness, making decisions in his stead and becoming, undercover, what some historians term America's first female president. Wilson made a partial recovery but spent his remaining years seriously disabled. After leaving office in 1921, the Wilsons moved to a home in northwest Washington, D.C.
Wilson died from a stroke and heart complications at the age of 67, on February 3, 1924. Wilson was buried in the Washington National Cathedral.
Wilson was driven by a sense of mission and an ideal his father had instilled in him to leave the world a better place than you found it. Wilson left a legacy of peace, social and financial reform, and statesmanship with integrity, which lives on at the many schools and programs named after him, most notably the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and his old alma mater, Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
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