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American President Essays: Woodrow Wilson

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Woodrow Wilson: Life in Brief

Woodrow Wilson was one of America's greatest Presidents. His domestic program expanded the role of the federal government in managing the economy and protecting the interests of citizens. His foreign policy established a new vision of America's role in the world. And he helped to make the White House the center of power in Washington. Most historians rank him among the five most important American Presidents, along with Washington, Lincoln, and the two Roosevelts.

Born in Virginia in 1856 and raised in Georgia and South Carolina, Wilson's early memories included seeing Yankee soldiers marching into Augusta at the end of the Civil War. Wilson's father was a Presbyterian minister who fervently supported the South's secession from the Union. Because of the war's disruption, much of Wilson's early education came from his father at home. In 1875, he entered Princeton, graduating in 1879. After a brief period at the law school of the University of Virginia, he studied on his own and passed the Georgia bar examination. Bored as a lawyer in Atlanta, he enrolled at Johns Hopkins University, where he earned a Ph.D. in history and political science in 1886.

After a successful academic career as an author and professor at Bryn Mawr, Wesleyan, and Princeton, Wilson was elected president of Princeton in 1902. In that office, his efforts to modernize the college brought him attention as a progressive reformer, and in 1910, New Jersey Democrats approached him about running for governor. Wilson accepted, but on the condition that their support came with "no strings attached."

Rapid Rise to National Power

From this point, Wilson's rise to national power was astonishingly rapid. As governor of New Jersey, he immediately began to fight machine politics and party bosses, securing campaign finance reform, a primary law permitting voters rather than party bosses to nominate candidates, and a program to compensate workers injured on the job. In 1912, Wilson used his reputation as a progressive with strong Southern roots to run for the presidency as a Democrat. After narrowly winning the Democratic nomination, he faced a divided Republican Party. William Taft, the incumbent President, carried the official Republican nomination, but Theodore Roosevelt, believing that Taft had betrayed the cause of reform, walked out of the Republican convention and formed the short-lived Progressive or "Bull Moose" Party. Taft and Roosevelt split the Republican vote, and Wilson won the election with a little less than 42 percent of the vote.

Wilson's New Freedom platform was ambitious and thoroughly progressive. It called for tariff reduction, reform of the banking and monetary system, and new laws to weaken abusive corporations and restore economic competition. With a Presbyterian's confidence that God was guiding his course, Wilson pursued his New Freedom agenda with the zeal of a crusader, making use of his skill as an orator to galvanize the nation in support of his policies. Perhaps his greatest achievement was the passage of the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, which created the system that still provides the framework for regulating the nation's banks, credit, and money supply today. Other Wilson-backed legislation put new controls on big business and supported unions to ensure fair treatment of working Americans.

In 1914, World War I began in Europe, and with the United States trying to remain neutral, foreign policy played an important role in the 1916 presidential election. In addition to a bold program of reforms that attracted the support of farmers and laborers, Wilson's campaign slogan, "He Kept Us Out of War," helped him win reelection by a narrow margin.

Aggressive Policies

In foreign affairs, Wilson was determined to revise the imperialist practices of earlier administrations, promising independence to the Philippines and making Puerto Ricans American citizens. But Wilson's own policies could sometimes be high-handed. His administration intervened militarily more often in Latin America than any of his predecessors. In the European war, American neutrality ended when the Germans refused to suspend submarine warfare after 120 Americans were killed aboard the British liner Lusitania and a secret German offer of a military alliance with Mexico against the United States was uncovered. In 1917, Congress voted overwhelmingly to declare war on Germany.

With the nation at war, Wilson set aside his domestic agenda to concentrate on a full-scale mobilization of the economy and industry. During the war, industrial production increased by 20 percent, daylight saving time was instituted to save fuel, the government took over the railroad system, and massive airplane and shipbuilding programs were launched. Americans began paying a new income tax and buying Liberty Bonds to pay for the war. Although most of the power the federal government acquired over the economy during the war was based on voluntary cooperation by businesses and individuals, conformity and aggressive patriotism became the order of the day. Private patriotic organizations persecuted dissenters and anyone suspected of political radicalism, and the administration sponsored Espionage and Sedition Acts that outlawed criticism of the government, the armed forces, and the war effort. Violators of the law were imprisoned or fined, and even mainstream publications were censored or banned.

League of Nations

In January 1918, Wilson made a major speech to Congress in which he laid out "Fourteen Points" that he believed would, if made the basis of a postwar peace, prevent future wars. Trade restrictions and secret alliances would be abolished, armaments would be curtailed, colonies and the national states that made up the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires would be set on the road to independence, the German-occupied portions of France and Belgium would be evacuated, the revolutionary government of Russia would be welcomed into the community of nations, and a League of Nations would be created to maintain the peace. Believing that this revolutionary program required his personal support, Wilson decided that he would lead the American peace delegation to Paris, becoming the first President ever to go to Europe while in office. Despite Wilson's best efforts, however, the Treaty of Versailles, signed in June 1919, departed significantly from the Fourteen Points, leaving both the Germans and many Americans bitterly disillusioned.

Following his return to the United States in July 1919, Wilson presented the treaty to the Senate and spent much of the summer trying to build bipartisan support among senators for its approval, arguing that although imperfect, it was better than the sort of punitive treaty the British and French would have imposed on Germany. In September, having little success in winning Senate votes, Wilson began an arduous speaking tour to build public interest in the treaty and to promote U.S. participation in the new League of Nations. Near the end of the tour, he collapsed from exhaustion, and a few days later, after returning to the White House, he suffered a massive stroke. For the last seventeen months of his term, he was an invalid, seeing almost no one except his doctors and his second wife, Edith Bolling Wilson, through whom he conducted public business. Refusing to compromise with the Senate on amendments to the treaty, Wilson eventually told his supporters to vote against it. The Senate voted twice on the treaty—in November 1919 and March 1920—defeating it both times. Thus, the United States never joined the international organization that Wilson saw as the keystone of his new world order.

Though he left office broken and defeated, Wilson believed firmly that his vision of America leading a world community of nations would eventually be embraced by the American people. Twenty-five years later, the United Nations built its headquarters in New York, a tangible symbol of the bipartisan support that Wilsonian ideals had gained after a second world war. But Wilson's legacy was not confined to foreign policy. His progressive domestic programs helped stabilize and humanize a huge industrial system, and his success in making the presidency the intellectual and political leader of the American government enabled the United States to deal effectively with the challenges and threats of the modern world.

Woodrow Wilson: Life Before the Presidency

Thomas Woodrow Wilson—he would later drop his first name—was born on December 28, 1856, in the small Southern town of Staunton, Virginia. His father was a minister of the First Presbyterian Church, and Tommy was born at home. Less than a year later, the family moved to Augusta, Georgia. Young Wilson's earliest memories were of the Civil War, seeing Union soldiers march into town, watching his mother tend wounded Confederate soldiers in a local hospital, and witnessing Confederate President Jefferson Davis pass through town under Union guard. He also saw the poverty and devastation of Augusta during the early years of Reconstruction. In 1870, his family moved to Columbia, South Carolina, and then to Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1874.

Although Wilson's father, the Reverend Joseph Ruggles Wilson, had been reared in Ohio before moving to Virginia in 1849, he became "unreconstructedly Southern" in values and politics after moving to the South. The Reverend Wilson served as pastor of several Southern Presbyterian congregations and taught theology at Columbia Theological Seminary and, much later in life, at Southwestern Presbyterian Theological University. He helped organize the Presbyterian Church of the Confederate States of America, in which he became a leader. He taught his son the justification of the South's secession from the Union, a belief in Providence (God as the caring guide of human destiny), predestination (that all events have been willed by God), and the importance of daily prayer. Wilson's mother, Janet Woodrow Wilson, born in Carlisle, England, but raised in America, was a warm and loving companion to Wilson's father and a devoted mother to her four children—Woodrow, his two older sisters, and a younger brother. Later in life, Wilson described himself as a "mama's boy" who had clung to his mother's apron strings.

Passion for Education and Scholarship

Although troubled by weak eyesight and possible dyslexia that delayed his learning to read, Wilson was otherwise a normal boy, playing baseball and energetically exploring Augusta and Columbia with friends and cousins. Public schools scarcely existed in the South of his youth, and while he received some tutoring from former Confederate soldiers who set up primitive schools after the war, most of his early education came from his father, who emphasized religion and British history and literature. In 1873, although only sixteen and poorly prepared in most academic subjects, Tommy enrolled in Davidson College in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he excelled in logic, rhetoric (effective writing and public speaking), Latin, English, and composition while doing reasonably well in math and Greek. Unfortunately, his poor health—probably homesickness and concern about his father, who had resigned under pressure from the faculty of the Columbia seminary—forced him to drop out of school after one year. In 1875, Wilson enrolled at the College of New Jersey—which later changed its name to Princeton University. He graduated thirty-eighth out of 167 students in 1879. That same year, he entered the law school of the University of Virginia but dropped out in his second year after being spurned by a cousin, with whom he fancied himself in love. Returning home to Wilmington, North Carolina, Wilson continued to study law on his own. In 1882, he moved to Atlanta, where he set up a legal practice with a friend from the University of Virginia and passed the Georgia bar examination. Wilson practiced law for less than a year, however. Greatly bored with life as an attorney, he abandoned the practice of law and enrolled in Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore as a graduate student in history and political science. He earned his Ph.D. in 1886.

Wilson found his undergraduate courses undemanding and often spent more time on extracurricular activities than on his academic work. A history major in college, he read extensively on his own in British history, wrote and debated frequently, and contributed essays to the Nassau Literary Magazine and the International Review—Cabinet Government in the United States" was published in the summer of 1879 just after he graduated from Princeton. He also edited the Princetonian (the school newspaper), participated in the American Whig and Liberal debating clubs, served as president of the campus baseball association and secretary of the football association, and acted in school plays. At the University of Virginia, Wilson headed the Jefferson Literary Society debating club while singing in the campus glee club and a college quartet. He continued his glee club and debating interests at Johns Hopkins. His graduate school research and writing resulted in a published Ph.D. dissertation entitled Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics. In this work, which soon became one of the classics of American political science, Wilson criticized the congressional domination of government and the weak post-Civil War presidency. He argued in favor of replacing the American separation of powers between the President and Congress with the British parliamentary system, in which a prime minister would lead both the government and the majority party in Parliament. Such perspectives on governance, emphasizing strong leadership by the executive over the legislature, would be later reflected in his presidency—though he concluded by 1908 that constitutional change was not necessary, a vigorous President could lead as effectively as a prime minister.

In his last year of graduate school, Wilson, age twenty-eight, married Ellen Louise Axson, age twenty-five, at the home of her paternal grandfather in Savannah, Georgia. Savannah-born but reared in Rome, Georgia, Ellen, the daughter of the Reverend Samuel E. Axson, shared Wilson's Presbyterian upbringing. Ellen was a talented artist with polished manners and a strong character—a woman with a social conscience as well as refined tastes in art, music, and literature. Until her death in August 1914, she would exercise a strong influence on her husband, encouraging him to work for the welfare of the poor and dispossessed as well as for political and economic reform.

Although resigned to a career in education and scholarship, Wilson craved political power and dreamed of becoming a U.S. senator as a stepping stone to the presidency. He taught political economy and public law at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania from 1885 to 1888 before accepting a professorship in history at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. There, he published The State, a study of comparative government, a work that won him tenure. Two years later, he accepted the professorship of jurisprudence (law) and political economy at Princeton, where he offered popular courses for the next twelve years. During this time, he published nine more books, including a biography of George Washington and a five-volume history of the United States.

President of Princeton University

When the trustees of Princeton tapped Wilson as the new president of the university in 1902, they expected reform not revolution. The first president not trained as a clergyman, Wilson immediately set out to transform the old Ivy League institution into a modern liberal university. He replaced the impersonal lecture method of instruction with the preceptorial mode, in which instructors tutored small groups of students on the Oxford University model. Wilson reorganized the departments and redesigned the curriculum. For several years, everything he proposed was rubber-stamped by the faculty and trustees, but after 1906, things did not go as well. A plan to build a new graduate college in the center of the campus was defeated by a powerful dean, and a proposal to do away with the socially exclusive eating clubs and residential houses in favor of common meals and dormitories was blocked by stiff opposition from alumni and faculty. His final years at Princeton were thus fraught with stress and combat but kept Wilson in the public eye as a farsighted yet realistic reformer.

Governor of New Jersey

When approached by representatives of the New Jersey Democratic Party about running for governor of the state in 1910, Wilson agreed, provided that the nomination came with "no strings attached." Party bosses concurred because they needed an honest leader like Wilson to convince voters that recent scandals involving the Democrats would not tarnish the governorship and assumed the college professor would be politically naive and easy to control from behind the scenes. Wilson won the nomination on the first ballot and immediately shocked the professional politicians by declaring his independence from party bosses. He won a decisive victory in the general election over his Republican opponent and thereafter declared war on machine politics. Within two years, Wilson pushed through legislation that mandated direct party primaries for all elected officials in the state. A corrupt practices act required all candidates to file campaign financial statements, limited campaign expenditures, and outlawed corporate contributions to political campaigns. Additionally, Wilson called for a public utility commission empowered to set rates and supported passage of a workers' compensation law to aid the families of workers killed or injured on the job. By 1911, Wilson had caught the eye of the nation's progressive leaders, including William Jennings Bryan, the leading figure of the Democratic Party.

Woodrow Wilson: Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1912:

Although Woodrow Wilson was convinced that God had destined him to be President, it took all his political skill and a good deal of luck to garner the Democratic presidential nomination at the party convention in Baltimore in June 1912. At the convention, progressives divided their support between Speaker of the House Champ Clark of Missouri and Wilson. Many southern delegates supported Representative Oscar W. Underwood of Alabama. The majority of the party machine politicians favored Governor Judson Harmon of Ohio, a moderate Democrat. William Jennings Bryan, three-time candidate for President, still had a strong following in the party and was an unpredictable factor.

The support of two-thirds, or 726, of the delegates was required to win the nomination, and for the first fourteen ballots, Clark held a commanding lead. When Tammany Hall forces shifted from Harmon to Clark, Bryan, fearful that a deal had been cut with party bosses and Wall Street interests, threw his support to Wilson, stalling Clark's momentum but not carrying enough votes to give Wilson the nomination. Wilson's men then promised Underwood that if Wilson withdrew, their support would go to the Alabamian. With the danger that Underwood would withdraw in favor of Clark thus nullified, Wilson gradually gained ground, capturing the lead on the twenty-eight ballot. His victory on the forty-sixth ballot came only after his managers quietly made a deal with the leaders of the Indiana machine to give Governor Thomas R. Marshall the vice presidential nomination. (Marshall is remembered for little but a single witty remark. While listening to a senator drone on about the needs of the nation, Marshall commented audibly from his seat as presiding officer: "What this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar.")Candidate Wilson's platform called for limits on campaign contributions by corporations, tariff reductions, new and stronger antitrust laws, banking and currency reform, a federal income tax, direct election of senators, a single term presidency, and the independence of the Philippines. Unlike Theodore Roosevelt's call for the strict government regulation of monopolies, Wilson followed the advice of his key adviser, Louis Brandeis, in calling for the breakup of all monopolies—Brandeis was a Boston attorney and leading corporate critic whom Wilson would later name to the Supreme Court. Whereas Roosevelt differentiated between "good" and "bad" trusts, Wilson suggested that all monopolies were harmful to the nation. He advocated a restored competition that would benefit consumers and reduce the power of corporate wealth in the nation. Calling his program "New Freedom," in contrast to Roosevelt's "New Nationalism," Wilson accepted Brandeis's argument that regulation would never solve the problem of corporate power because corporations would use their power to control the regulator—the federal government. The differences between the New Freedom and the New Nationalism over trusts and the tariff became the central issues of the campaign, largely because they symbolized a basic difference between Wilson and Roosevelt over the role of government: Roosevelt believed the federal government should act as a "trustee" for the American people, controlling and supervising the economy in the public interest. Wilson argued that if big business was deprived of artificial advantages, such as the protective tariff, the government's role could be minimal because natural forces of competition would assure everyone of an equal chance at success.

The Republicans met in Chicago in June, hopelessly split between the Roosevelt progressives and the supporters of President William Howard Taft. "TR," as Roosevelt was called, came to the convention having won a series of party preferential primaries that put him ahead of the President in the race for delegates. However, Taft controlled the convention floor, and his backers managed to exclude most of the Roosevelt delegates by not recognizing their credentials. Roosevelt, enraged over Taft's tactics, refused to allow himself to be nominated, thus allowing Taft an easy win on the first ballot. The party faithful renominated Vice President James S. Sherman of New York. Their platform underlined retention of the protective tariff, civil service protection, conservation of natural resources, and restrictions on immigration.

Roosevelt's supporters bolted the Republican convention and reconvened across town to create a new party, the Progressives. The delegates nominated Roosevelt for President and California Governor Hiram Johnson for vice president. Roosevelt electrified the convention with a dramatic speech in which he announced that he would "stand at Armageddon and battle for the Lord" and declared that he felt "as strong as a Bull Moose," thus giving the new party its popular name. Their platform read like a listing of progressive issues, including most of those in the Democratic platform, with the addition of suffrage; a minimum wage for women; an eight-hour workday; a social security system; a national health service; a federal securities commission; the initiative; referendum, and recall; and an easier method for amending the Constitution. The Progressives supported a protective tariff only insofar as it benefited labor.

It might have been expected that the Republican split would have assured Wilson a landslide victory, but that was not the case. Because the Republicans had been the majority party since the 1890s, they enjoyed a natural advantage. When Taft retired to the White House and his favorite golf courses after making a few speeches, his conservative supporters had little choice but to sit out of the election, which many did, or hold their noses and vote for Roosevelt. The former President's colorful personality helped him overcome the disadvantage of running as a third-party candidate, and he and Wilson contended fiercely for the support of voters interested in reform. Near the end of the campaign, Roosevelt dramatized his vitality by insisting on finishing a campaign speech even with an attempted assassin's bullet lodged in his chest. Fortunately, the bullet had barely penetrated the pages of a thick speech the candidate had in his coat pocket, but Roosevelt's courageous—perhaps foolhardy—act reminded Americans of what they loved about him. Privately, Wilson admitted that he often felt like a colorless schoolmaster next to the charismatic Roosevelt, but people listened closely to his careful, elegantly phrased speeches. As the campaign went on and the candidates refined their positions, the differences between the New Freedom and the New Nationalism shrank. When all the votes were counted, Wilson won with fewer votes than Bryan had received in each of his three defeats in 1896, 1900, and 1908. He captured 41.9 percent of the vote (6,296,547) to Roosevelt's 27.4 percent (4,118,571) and Taft's 23 percent (3,486,720). Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debs won 6 percent (900,672). In the electoral college count, however, Wilson won in forty states, giving him 435 votes. Roosevelt carried only six states—California, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, and Washington—compiling a mere eighty-eight votes. Taft won eight electoral college votes from the two states that stayed with him, Utah and Vermont.

The Campaign and Election of 1916

In 1916, Wilson had the advantage of incumbency but feared the reunited Republican Party. Much had happened in the four years since the last election. Wilson had emerged as a powerful champion of the progressive agenda on the domestic scene and a strong spokesperson for American neutrality in the devastating war that raged across Western Europe. But the President recognized, as many Democrats in the West and South did not, that the United States could be drawn into the war at any moment by the act of some obscure German submarine commander. Hence, while he advocated continued neutrality, he also called for military preparedness, and the apparent tension between those two policies troubled many Democrats, particularly Irish Americans and German Americans. At the Democratic convention in St. Louis, Wilson won on the first ballot, as did his running mate, Vice President Marshall. The platform called for military preparedness, a world association of nations to maintain peace after the war in Europe had ended, Pan-American unity, a ban on child labor, women's suffrage, and prison reform. During the convention, the delegates cheered a new campaign slogan, "He Kept Us Out of War," which world conditions made a hope more than a promise.

On the Republican side, Theodore Roosevelt believed that the war would bring him back into the White House. He championed intervention and accused Wilson of cowardice for his mediation efforts. The outspoken Roosevelt failed to understand the depth of resentment many Republicans felt toward him for splitting the party in 1912. Most regular Republicans believed that he had handed the election to Wilson when he bolted the party. Equally important, his rantings and attacks on "hyphenated Americans" who opposed Great Britain alienated many of his progressive supporters. As a result, his drive for the nomination fell apart before it could get started. The Republicans nominated Charles Evans Hughes of New York, a moderate Republican whom Taft had appointed to the Supreme Court in 1910. Roosevelt derided Hughes as "a bearded iceberg," but Hughes won the nomination on the third ballot with 949 votes. Former Vice President Charles W. Fairbanks of Indiana was picked for the second spot on the ticket.

Perceptive observers of the American political scene were confident that Hughes would win in November. The Republican Party stood united behind a single candidate, and the Democrats had won only three presidential elections since 1860. Voters seemed apathetic and weary of progressive reforms, the key accomplishments of the Democratic administration over the last four years. Hughes's foreign policy, moreover, which emphasized a straightforward preparedness program, seemed less muddled than Wilson's call for neutrality and preparedness in the same breath. Critics charged Wilson with wanting the nation both in the war and aloof from it, a utopian stance that seemed unrealistic to many.

Hughes went to sleep on November 6 certain that he would win. It was not clear until two days later, when the returns from California and Ohio came in, that Wilson had squeaked to a narrow victory in both the popular vote and the electoral college. Hughes lost the traditionally Democratic South, the progressive West, and a few key midwestern states with large German American populations that opposed American entry into the war against Germany. Wilson captured the support of labor unions, western women in those few states where they enjoyed suffrage, most ethnic groups who hated the British and resented Roosevelt, and almost all progressives and many socialists. He captured thirty states to Hughes's eighteen. Wilson won 49.4 percent (9,127,695) of the popular vote; Hughes captured 46.2 percent (8,533,507). The electoral college ballot gave Wilson a narrow twenty-three vote margin—277 to 254. Had Hughes not slighted Senator Hiram Johnson and California's labor unions, he might have carried that state to victory in the electoral college. Ironically, for a President who campaigned as a champion of democracy, Wilson is the only President in American history to be elected twice without achieving a popular majority in either contest, though both times he did achieve a plurality.

Woodrow Wilson: Domestic Affairs

Woodrow Wilson's presidency fulfilled the progressive reform agenda and laid the foundations of the modern activist presidency. Although he built upon the example of Theodore Roosevelt, and while his immediate successors would return to the caretaker model of the presidency, Wilson's administration fundamentally altered the nature and character of the presidency. He changed it from an equal or lesser partner with Congress to its superior—the dominant branch of government. This is exactly what Wilson had in mind upon his assumption of office. He intended to lead his party and the nation much as the prime minister of England leads Parliament. Before setting forth his program, Wilson consulted extensively with congressional leaders to ensure that his programs would be dealt with sympathetically when Congress considered them. In April 1913, at the opening of a special session of Congress called by the President to consider tariff reform, Wilson appeared personally before a joint session of the House and Senate to explain his program. His speech made headlines because no President had addressed Congress personally since John Adams, and it demonstrated that Wilson intended to play a dominant role in policy making.

Crusade for Reform: Tariffs, Banking and Anti-Trust RegulationsWilson came into the White House like a "priestly visionary," intent on expanding economic opportunity for people at the bottom of society and eliminating special privileges enjoyed by the richest and most powerful members of society. For him, his New Freedom was a crusade. He focused first on tariff reform, pushing through Congress the Underwood-Simmons Act, which achieved the most significant reductions in rates since the Civil War. He argued that high tariffs created monopolies and hurt consumers, and his lower tariffs were especially popular in the South and West. The act offset lost revenue by providing for a small, graduated income tax as authorized by the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which was adopted on February 25, 1913, before Wilson took office.

Next, Wilson tackled the currency problem and banking reform. Since the Civil War, Democrats and agrarians had wanted a more flexible money supply and system of banking that would allow adjustments in the amount of money and credit available in times of economic expansion or crisis. By the early twentieth century, bankers and businessmen had also begun to demand reform. After the Panic of 1907, a special congressional investigating committee (the Pujo Committee) demonstrated to the American public the extent to which a handful of banks (J. P. Morgan, for example) and corporations controlled the nation's wealth. Reformers wanted a strong federal system that would regulate credit and oversee the nation's currency.

In response to the demand for reform, Wilson pushed for the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, which established twelve regional reserve banks controlled by the Federal Reserve Board, a new federal agency whose members were appointed by the President. This new federal system could adjust interest rates and the nation's money supply. Because it was authorized to issue currency based on government securities and "commercial paper" (the loans made to businesses by banks), the amount of money in circulation would expand or contract with the business cycle. Additionally, the Federal Reserve was empowered to adjust the interest rates, or the discount rate, charged to its member banks for money deposited in the branch reserve banks, which would indirectly control the interest rates that banks charged their borrowers. The new system could also set the amount of money banks would have to hold as an offset against deposits (the reserve requirement), thus establishing a reserve fund for times of economic crisis. This act, probably the most important domestic achievement of the Wilson administration, still provides the framework for regulating the nation's banks, credit, and money supply.

Wilson's support of the Clayton Antitrust Act, which Congress passed in 1914, endeared him to labor and farmers because it excluded their organizations from antitrust prosecution under the Sherman Antitrust Act. It also fulfilled a 1912 campaign promise by prohibiting some anti-competitive business practices, such as price-fixing and interlocking directorates (in which the same people sit on the executive boards of competing companies in one industry). This act complemented the Federal Trade Commission law passed the same year, which created a new government board appointed by the President and empowered to investigate and publicize corrupt, unfair, or anti-competitive business practices. When Congress created a separate cabinet-level Department of Labor on March 4, 1913, Wilson strengthened his support among progressives by appointing a former union official, William Wilson, as secretary of labor.

In 1916, Wilson nominated Louis Brandeis, a staunch progressive who had fought in court against the exploitation of women and children workers, to the Supreme Court. His confirmation, in a close vote, put the first Jewish justice on the Court. Following Brandeis's nomination, Wilson supported improved credit for farmers and workers' compensation for federal employees. He then pushed through a law to eliminate child labor, but the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1918. When American railroad unions threatened to strike in 1916, Wilson supported and signed into law a bill securing an eight-hour workday for railroad employees—the Adamson Act, which paved the way to shortened workdays for all industrial workers.

Federal Wartime Authority

Historians describe World War I as the first "total war" because it demanded the mobilization of belligerents' entire societies and economies, but because the United States entered the war three years after it began and fought for just over a year, the effects on the United States were less severe than for the other participants. Nevertheless, the war forced Wilson to set aside much of his reform agenda and encouraged at least the temporary centralization of power in Washington.

On the whole, the administration was able to manage mobilization by creating special agencies that were staffed largely by volunteers and functioned only for the duration of the war. For example, Wilson established a War Industries Board in 1917 under the direction of Bernard Baruch, a wealthy New York stock market investor, to coordinate industrial production. Baruch had little legal authority but was so skillful at persuasion that industrial production increased by 20 percent. Wilson also appointed Herbert Hoover, a prominent mining engineer famous for his success in coordinating a massive relief program for German-occupied Belgium in the early years of the war, as national Food Administrator. Hoover, who later became the thirty-first President of the United States, promoted voluntary conservation of food with "Meatless Mondays," "Wheatless Wednesdays," and "war gardens," but his most important achievement was in persuading farmers to expand production so rapidly that the United States was able, not only to feed its own civilian and military populations, but to supply much of the food for the European Allies as well. Included under the Food Administration was a Fuel Administration, which encouraged fuel conservation by such methods as the introduction of daylight saving time. Similar special agencies and boards supervised aircraft and ship building, acquired and operated merchant vessels to ship men and supplies to Europe, and ran a massive labor exchange program that matched workers and jobs around the country. The labor system achieved nearly full employment and good wages, and the unions cooperated by promising not to strike during the emergency. Union membership increased from 2.7 million to more than 4 million by 1919.

Not everything went smoothly, of course. Ship and aircraft construction programs never really got going before the end of the war, and both were plagued with inefficiency and minor financial scandals. The antiquated railroad system, upon which the country was almost completely dependent for moving people and goods, broke down completely in the winter of 1917-1918 and had to be nationalized for the duration of the war. The armed services drafted nearly four million men, but weapons, uniforms, and transportation for the two million sent to Europe had to be provided mostly by the British and French because American factories were unable to get into full production quickly enough. Still, considering that little preparation for war had been made before 1917 and given the voluntary method of organization that Wilson insisted upon, the American economy achieved miracles during 1917 and 1918. Perhaps the most amazing achievement of all was that when the war ended, the wartime agencies disbanded, and the government was reduced nearly to its prewar size and expenditure level.

To pay for the war, Wilson levied a new income tax, which accounted for about half of the $33 billion spent on the war. The rest of the cost was met through Liberty Loan drives, which rallied the population to invest in America by buying Liberty Bonds. In a personal touch, Wilson donated the wool from the sheep that grazed on the White House lawn to a Red Cross fundraising auction—the sheep had replaced gardeners drafted into the military.

Civil Liberties during the War Years

A minority of Americans bitterly opposed U.S. entry into World War I. Even such notables as the Speaker of the House and the president of Columbia University were skeptical about intervening beforehand, but most Americans supported Wilson's decision. Some German Americans and Irish Americans, however, led antiwar rallies and joined with the American Socialist Party in denouncing the war. Socialists greatly increased their share of the vote in several cities in 1917, winning 22 percent of the vote in New York City and 34 percent in Chicago.

To mobilize public opinion in support of the war, Wilson created the Committee on Public Information headed by George Creel, a muckraking journalist. Creel launched a campaign to sell the war to the American people by sponsoring 150,000 lecturers, writers, artists, actors, and scholars to champion the cause. His "Four-Minute-Men," meaning that they were prepared to make a four-minute speech anytime and anywhere a crowd gathered, made 755,190 speeches in theaters, lecture halls, churches, and social clubs and on street corners all over the nation. In the resulting patriotic fervor, opponents to the war were painted as slackers and even traitors. "Americanization" drives pressured immigrants to abandon their native cultures. Some states prohibited the use of foreign languages in public. New York State required voters to demonstrate literacy in English. Libraries publicly burned German books. Some communities banned playing the music of Bach and Beethoven, and schools dropped German courses from their curriculum. Sauerkraut became "liberty cabbage," and German measles was renamed "liberty measles." Some Americans with German names were beaten in the streets and even lynched. To avoid such violence, others anglicized their names.

Wilson sponsored the Espionage and Sedition Acts, prohibiting interference with the draft and outlawing criticism of the government, the armed forces, or the war effort. Violators were imprisoned or fined. Some 1,500 people were arrested for violating these laws, including Eugene V. Debs, leader of the Socialist Party. The Post Office was empowered to censor the mail, and over 400 periodicals were deprived of mailing privileges for greater or lesser periods of time. The Supreme Court upheld the Espionage and Sedition Acts as constitutional. Leaders and members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), known as "Wobblies," were especially singled out for attack. In one incident, Justice Department agents raided IWW offices nationwide, arresting union leaders who were sentenced to jail terms of up to twenty-five years. The IWW never recovered from this persecution.

Woodrow Wilson: Foreign Affairs

Woodrow Wilson and his secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, came into office with little experience in foreign relations but with a determination to base their policy on moral principles rather than the selfish materialism that they believed had animated their predecessors' programs. Convinced that democracy was gaining strength throughout the world, they were eager to encourage the process. In 1916, the Democratic-controlled Congress promised the residents of the Philippine Islands independence; the next year, Puerto Rico achieved territorial status, and its residents became U.S. citizens. Working closely with Secretary of State Bryan, Wilson signed twenty-two bilateral treaties which agreed to cooling-off periods and outside fact-finding commissions as alternatives to war.

In a statement issued soon after taking office, Wilson declared that the United States hoped "to cultivate the friendship and deserve the confidence" of the Latin American states, but he also emphasized that he believed "just government" must rest "upon the consent of the governed." Latin Americans were delighted by the prospect of being free to conduct their own affairs without American interference, but Wilson's insistence that their governments must be democratic undermined the promise of self-determination. In 1915, Wilson responded to chronic revolution in Haiti by sending in American marines to restore order, and he did the same in the Dominican Republic in 1916. The military occupations that followed failed to create the democratic states that were their main objective. In 1916, Wilson practiced an old-fashioned form of imperialism by buying the Virgin Islands from their colonial master, Denmark, for $25 million.

Aggressive Moral Diplomacy

Mexico posed a special problem for Wilsonian diplomacy. Having been in revolution since 1899, Mexico, in 1913, came under the rule of the counterrevolutionary General Victoriano Huerta, who clamped a bloody authoritarian rule on the country. Most European nations welcomed the order and friendly climate for foreign investments that Huerta offered, but Wilson refused to recognize "a government of butchers" that obviously did not reflect the wishes of the Mexican people. His stance encouraged anti-Huerta forces in northern Mexico led by Venustiano Carranza.

In April of 1914, Mexican officials in Tampico arrested a few American sailors who blundered into a prohibited area, and Wilson used the incident to justify ordering the U.S. Navy to occupy the port city of Veracruz. The move greatly weakened Huerta's control, and he abandoned power to Carranza, whom Wilson immediately recognized as the de facto president of Mexico. One of Carranza's rivals, Pancho Villa, moved to provoke a war between the Carranza government and the United States by crossing the border into New Mexico on March 9, 1916, and killing several Americans. Wilson, without securing permission from Carranza, sent an expedition of 7,000 U.S. soldiers commanded by General John "Black Jack" Pershing into Mexico in pursuit of Villa. The expedition failed to capture Villa but provoked a confrontation between the Americans and Carranza's forces in which men on both sides were killed and several Americans were captured. Alarmed by the danger of war, Wilson reaffirmed his commitment to Mexican self-determination and agreed to discuss methods of securing the border area with the Mexican government.

Early in 1917, when it began to appear that the United States could not avoid being dragged into the European war, Wilson withdrew all U.S. forces from Mexico. The decision coincided with the publication of an intercepted message from Arthur Zimmermann in the German foreign office to the German minister in Mexico, instructing him to propose an alliance with Mexico against the United States if Germany and the United States went to war. Following an American defeat, Mexico would regain New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, and California, which had been ceded to the United States after the Mexican War in 1848. Wilson's release of the "Zimmermann Telegram" solidified U.S. public opinion against Germany, though Mexico was never tempted to accept the German proposal.

Neutrality in World War I

With the outbreak of fighting in the "Great War" in Europe in August 1914, President Wilson appealed to Americans to remain strictly neutral. He believed that the underlying cause of the war, which would leave 14 million Europeans dead by 1917, was the militant nationalism of the major European powers, as well as the ethnic hatreds that existed in much of Central and Eastern Europe. The conflict lined up the Central Powers—Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Bulgaria—on one side, against the Allied Powers—initially Great Britain, France, Russia, and Serbia, and later Italy, Japan, Portugal, certain Latin American nations, China, and Greece—on the other. It started with the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary by a young Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo in June 1914. This incident triggered an explosion of demands and counterdemands. Within months, a complex set of entangling and secret treaties and alliances engulfed much of the world—due to the imperial holdings of Germany, France, and England—in war.

With nearly one in every seven Americans having been born in the countries at war, Wilson believed the United States must remain neutral. Because the American economy was in a recession when the war began, however, and the British and French were eager to buy American products, the administration interpreted neutral duties in ways that tended to favor the Allies. When Germany retaliated by using submarines to blockade the British Isles, Wilson refused to ban U.S. travel on British or American passenger ships or to cut off arms sales to the warring nations, as the Germans demanded.

End of Neutrality

In May 1915, a German submarine—called a "U-boat," which was a relatively fragile vessels that depended on surprise attacks from below the surface for its success—torpedoed the British liner Lusitania off the coast of Ireland, killing nearly 1,200 people, including 128 Americans. Wilson urged patience but demanded that Germany either halt or drastically curtail submarine warfare. Convinced that the President's policy would lead to an unnecessary war, Secretary Bryan resigned in June 1915. For a time, German concessions preserved peace, but Britain refused to abandon its blockade of Europe, and early in 1917, Germany resumed its submarine warfare. The Germans calculated that the move would force the United States into the war but not before they could mount a massive attack on Allied forces while destroying the British navy. After several American ships were sunk and the public release of the Zimmermann telegram outraged Americans, Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. The Senate voted 82 to 6 to declare war on April 4, 1917; the House concurred on April 6 by a vote of 373 to 50. Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman to serve in the House of Representatives, was among those who voted against the war.

Wilson's war message condemned German U-boat attacks as "warfare against mankind" but emphasized that the main goal of the war should be to end militarism and make the world "safe for Democracy," not merely to defend American ships. He promised that the United States would fight to ensure democracy, self-government, the rights and liberties of small nations, and an international peace organization that would end war forever.

American Troops in the War

Wilson had proposed a program of military preparedness as early as 1915. This helped the U.S. Navy move quickly to aid the British fleet in destroying the threat of German submarines to Allied shipping by late 1917. The Army required more time, however, before it was ready for action. Congress passed the Selective Service Act in May of 1917, and eventually 2.8 million men were drafted—about 72 percent of the entire Army. No women were drafted, but 13,000 joined the military, serving in clerical capacities in the Navy and Marines. Although the Army refused to enlist women, nearly 18,000 served in the Army Corps of Nurses but without rank, pay, or benefits. Another 5,000 civilian women served in various capacities in France, sometimes near the front lines. Many of these women were wealthy and well-educated; at first, they saw the war as a grand adventure, but like the soldiers, they soon understood its true horror.

Approximately 400,000 African Americans also served in the war, and 200,000 were sent overseas. Emmett J. Scott, an African American and former secretary to Booker T. Washington, functioned as the special assistant to the secretary of war in charge of black soldiers. Nonetheless, black soldiers were generally treated as second-class participants. Most black troops were commanded by white officers, served in segregated Jim Crow units in the Army that received the worst assignments, were relegated to food service in the Navy, and were totally excluded from the Marines.

Commanded by General John J. Pershing, American troops, defined as "associated" rather than Allied forces to preserve their independence, joined the Allied forces just in the nick of time. In the spring of 1918, a massive German offensive was launched to within fifty miles of Paris. When Russia pulled out of the war after the Bolshevik Revolution in November of 1917, tens of thousands of German soldiers were freed from the eastern front to join the assault on the western lines. With fresh American troops, the Allies launched a counteroffensive in July of 1918. A large contingent of newly arrived American soldiers and thousands of U.S. mules, which were used to pull heavy equipment through the viscous mud of the European front, pushed back German forces in a stunning one-day offensive at the Battle of St. Mihiel. By early November, after the victorious Allied offensive in the Meuse-Argonne region, the Germans faced defeat and called for an armistice. At that point, more than 2 million American soldiers were in France, giving the Allies an advantage of almost 600,000 men. Of the more than 8 million soldiers and 6 million civilians killed in the war, the United States lost 115,000 men, including 48,000 killed in action. The rest died from diseases and accidents, especially a global influenza epidemic that killed 600,000 Americans at home and abroad.

Wilson and the Fourteen Points

Victorious in war, Wilson hoped to revolutionize the conduct of international affairs at the peace table. He first outlined his vision in the "Fourteen Points" speech delivered to Congress in January 1918. It called for a "new diplomacy" consisting of "open covenants openly arrived at." No more secret treaties, like the ones that had pulled the world into war in 1914 would be tolerated, and all territories occupied during the war must be evacuated. Wilson wanted to dismantle the imperial order by opening up colonial holdings to eventual self-rule and all European sections of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires to immediate independence. He also proposed a general disarmament after the war, with the Germans and Austrians giving up their armed forces first. Fair treatment of revolutionary Russia, he declared, would be the "acid test" of the peace. Other points included freedom of the seas at all times and free trade all over the world. But Wilson's most important proposal was the prevention of future wars by means of a new international organization, a league of nations, open to membership by all democratic states. This new world body would be in charge of disarmament and the dismantling of colonial possessions. Most importantly, the League would hold power over all disputes among its members. Wilson believed that this League would transform international relations and usher in a new era of world peace.

When Wilson sailed for France in December of 1918 to head the American peace delegation, it marked the first time an American President in office had gone to Europe. He brought along some 200 experts on European history, culture, and ethnology but no Republicans as advisers, although a Republican majority controlled the Senate that would have to approve the final treaty. Everywhere he went in France, Britain, and Italy, huge crowds cheered him as the leader of the nation that had finally brought the slaughter to an end. He knew that few of the Allied leaders were ready to accept his proposals, but he hoped that if he could get his message to ordinary people, they would force their leaders to listen. The alternative, he feared, would be a victory for communism or a return to prewar militarism and imperialism. But ordinary Europeans, like their leaders, were embittered by four years of war and wanted vengeance on Germany.

In the end, faced with the determined insistence of Allied leaders to punish Germany with heavy reparations, territorial occupation, and total disarmament, Wilson was forced to compromise on most of his points. He got his League of Nations, but instead of a "peace without victory," the "Big Four" leaders—David Lloyd George (Great Britain), Georges Clemenceau (France), Vittorio Orlando (Italy), and Wilson—held secret negotiations and produced the Treaty of Versailles. This treaty imposed harsh terms on Germany, and Wilson was forced to present to the Senate a treaty that bore little resemblance to the ideal peace most Americans expected.

The opposition at home equaled the opposition abroad. Senate Republicans, who controlled the Senate, were split into two groups: the "reservationists" and the "irreconcilables." The first group was led by Henry Cabot Lodge, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Lodge believed the obligations of the League would compromise American independence and proposed amendments to meet that threat. The second group was smaller and was opposed to any involvement of the United States in world affairs. Most Senate Democrats supported Wilson and the treaty.

Embittered over Republican opposition, Wilson launched into an arduous speaking tour to rally the nation to his cause—9,981 miles with speeches in twenty-nine cities. The effort depleted his already exhausted body, and he collapsed in Pueblo, Colorado, on September 25. Soon after, he suffered a serious stroke that left him half-paralyzed and totally secluded for the remainder of his presidency. In one of the most controversial episodes in presidential history, Wilson—completely out of touch with the situation in the Senate—refused to consider any compromises to the League, issuing his orders via his wife, who was one of the few people, other than his doctors, who spoke with him during the League battle. When the Senate Republicans amended the treaty—to ensure that the President could not use U.S. forces on League business without securing congressional assent—Wilson told his supporters to vote against the amended treaty, and they joined with the Republican "irreconcilables" to reject the League. America never joined the international organization that Wilson had envisioned as the foundation of his new world order. This failure of the League was a devastating conclusion to Wilson's almost superhuman efforts for world peace based upon international cooperation and the peaceful solution of international disputes.

Woodrow Wilson: Life After the Presidency

In virtually complete seclusion in the White House following his stroke in 1919, Wilson left office on March 4, 1921, after riding to the Capitol with his successor, Warren G. Harding. He did not stay for the inaugural, however, and rarely appeared in public from that day until his death three years later. He retired to his recently purchased home at 2340 S Street in Washington, D.C., where he formed a short-lived law partnership with his former secretary of state, Bainbridge Colby, which was dissolved when it became obvious Wilson was unable to do the work. Although he was nearly blind and remained partially paralyzed, he fantasized about running for a third term in 1924 to seek a referendum from the American people on the League. In August 1923, he published a brief plea for a more enlightened foreign policy entitled "The Road Away from Revolution," and in November he labored through a short Armistice Day address on a nationwide radio network, but he could not manage any real public role. He died quietly at his home on February 3, 1924, and is buried in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

Wilson's last home, on S Street in Washington, which was filled with mementos of his public career and kept largely unchanged by Edith Wilson until her death in the 1960s, is now a museum maintained by the National Trust. His birthplace in Staunton, Virginia, has been a museum for many years and will become the basis of the planned Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library. Other family homes, in Augusta, Georgia, and Columbia, South Carolina, are also open to the public.

Woodrow Wilson: Family Life

Life in the White House during the Woodrow Wilson administration featured moments of great happiness and joy for the President as well as times of deep sorrow. His beloved first wife, Ellen Louise Wilson, died from Bright's disease on August 6, 1914. Her death devastated the President. Always in need of female companionship and affection, Wilson eventually rebounded to court and marry, on December 18, 1915, Edith Bolling Galt. Age forty-three at the time of their wedding, she was a Washington widow. They did not marry in the White House, however, because the press had been filled with much malicious gossip about the President's lack of respect for the memory of his first wife. One story even suggested that he and Mrs. Galt had murdered the First Lady.

Wilson's vigorous progressive agenda and supervision of the war left him little time for recreation. Upon the recommendation of his doctors, Wilson regularly exercised by playing golf, although he thought it a silly game. He also rode horses and enjoyed cruising Chesapeake Bay aboard the presidential yacht Mayflower. Above all, he loved to go for a ride in the country in the White House Pierce Arrow limousine. For entertainment, he liked to attend baseball games, vaudeville performances, and musical comedies and especially enjoyed, in the privacy of the White House, reading aloud from favorite English poets or, when in a frivolous mood, mimicking political rivals and telling dialect stories. When the whole family was at home, they often gathered around the piano to sing hymns and popular songs. His eldest daughter, Margaret, who was twenty-six in 1912, was a professional soprano, who often performed at Army camps during the war. She never married, eventually moving to India to live as a mystic. Jessie, a year younger than Margaret, and Eleanor, three years younger, were married at the White House in 1913 and 1914. Wilson was devoted to his family, once bitterly lecturing reporters at a press conference for intruding on the family's privacy when speculations about the girls' romances appeared in print.

Wilson screened the first feature film ever shown at the White House, D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. The film was based on a novel by one of Wilson's former students, Thomas Dixon, and was shown at Dixon's request. Its crude racism and argument that Reconstruction had set blacks free to prey upon defenseless whites in the postwar South did not reflect Wilson's own opinion of the period; in a book about the history of the era, Division and Reunion, he had written that the end of slavery was a benefit of the Civil War. He said nothing about the movie at the time of its showing, but a few days later, the White House issued a statement dissociating the President from the film's viewpoint. Nevertheless, many years later, a film publicist attributed to Wilson a colorful comment about the film that became famous. According to the story, Wilson was supposed to have said, "It is like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true." Despite the fact that Wilson never said anything of the kind, the unglamorous truth has never caught up to the colorful but fraudulent quote, and it is often cited as "proof" of Wilson's racism.

Woodrow Wilson: The American Franchise

The population of the United States grew by nearly 15 percent during the Wilson presidency, reaching 105.7 million in 1920. Nearly 6 million of these Americans were recent immigrants who had arrived in America after 1910. And for the first time, by 1920, more people lived in towns and cities than on farms—51.2 percent compared to 48.8 percent. The average life expectancy for white males reached fifty-five years in 1920, and white women lived one year longer than men on the average. In contrast, nonwhites could expect to live only to age forty-five. In 1913, just as Wilson was entering office, the states approved the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments to the Constitution, authorizing the collection of a federal income tax and the direct election of senators. At the end of his second term, in 1920, enough states ratified the Nineteenth Amendment to give American women the right to vote and thus enable millions of new women voters to cast ballots in the presidential election. The majority voted for Republican Warren Harding. Wilson, although originally opposed to female suffrage, accepted a plank in the 1916 Democratic platform endorsing it and became a strong supporter by 1918. He reluctantly supported the Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibited the manufacture and consumption of alcohol, but vetoed, on technical grounds, the Volstead Act passed by Congress to enforce it. Congress later passed the measure over his veto.

Unions and the "Red Scare"

The war years witnessed dramatic changes in the American workplace as the nation achieved nearly full employment. Thousands of workers joined unions, bolstered by Wilson's support for collective bargaining. Still, radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and those American Federation of Labor (AFL) locals dominated by antiwar socialists expressed their discontent with inflation and low wages by mounting more than 6,000 wartime strikes. In 1919, at the end of the war, 3,300 strikes involving 4 million workers rocked the nation. On May 1, traditionally a day of celebration for workers around the world, the United States Postal Service intercepted dozens of bombs addressed to American bankers and industrialists. When the Boston city police struck in September, some thought a Bolshevik conspiracy was at work. The conservative governor of Massachusetts, Calvin Coolidge, who would become the thirtieth President of the United States, brought in the state's National Guard to break the strike, making his national reputation.

In reaction to the labor unrest and rumors of a pending Communist uprising, Americans flocked to support the American Legion, a veterans' group that preached antiradicalism and anti-immigration. By 1920, the Legion had 843,000 members. Wilson's attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, created a new Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and appointed J. Edgar Hoover to run it. Hoover began compiling data on American radicals and arrested numerous IWW members (known as "Wobblies"). Palmer deported 249 alien radicals to Soviet Russia during 1919. Patriotic groups around the country assaulted labor members, and several "Wobblies" were killed by mob action. This so-called "Red Scare" peaked in 1920 after Palmer's house and Wall Street were bombed. Justice Department agents broke into meeting halls and homes without search warrants, arresting 4,000 people and holding them without counsel or charges filed. Of those arrested, nearly 600 aliens were deported. Historians today believe that Palmer overreacted, punishing many people without due process of law in response to a wave of public hysteria.

Labor and Migration

With 16 percent of the male workforce off to war and with the drop in immigration from 1918 to 1920, thousands of women and blacks found jobs in war-related industries. The big story was not that more women were working but that they shifted to jobs previously dominated by men: from domestic work to service industries, from department store clerks to stenographers and typists, from textile mills to manufacturing. Black women then took over the jobs abandoned by the white women. For the first time, department stores employed black women—usually those with light skin color—as elevator operators and cafeteria waitresses.

The war also triggered a massive movement—called the Great Migration—of 500,000 African Americans out of the rural South to northern and midwestern cities. For example, the black population in Cleveland, Ohio, soared by more than 300 percent; Detroit's grew by 600 percent; Chicago's by 150 percent. And it was not only the opportunity for war industry jobs that attracted southern blacks to northern cities. Many young black males left, enraged at the brutality of southern racism—especially the lynchings that regularly occurred. Political disfranchisement, debt peonage, prison chain gangs, and the boll weevil—insects that destroy cotton plants—left southern blacks with little hope for a decent life after 1916.

For most migrating blacks, the North offered a refuge where African Americans did not have to humble themselves before whites simply because no whites lived in black parts of the residentially segregated northern cities. Still, the "Negro invasion" was greatly resented by many northern whites. For example, in East St. Louis, Illinois, whites assaulted a black neighborhood, killing forty blacks, in July 1917. During the sweltering "Red Summer" of 1919, two dozen cities exploded in race riots. In Chicago alone, thirty-eight people died, twenty-three blacks and fifteen whites. Wilson, himself a southerner reared under racial segregation, denounced lynching but permitted some members of his cabinet to tighten segregation of the federal civil service and curtail the number of federal jobs held by African Americans.

Woodrow Wilson: Impact and Legacy

Woodrow Wilson left the White House broken physically but serenely confident that his vision of America playing a central role in a league of nations would be realized eventually. While it can be argued that his stubbornness or his physical collapse prevented his realizing the dream that was within his grasp in 1919, there can be no doubt that his ideal inspired many Americans and that it shaped much of American foreign policy for the remainder of the twentieth century.

Despite the tragedy of his last year in office, Wilson left an enduring legacy. His transformation of the basic objective of American foreign policy from isolation to internationalism, his success in making the Democratic Party a "party of reform," and his ability to shape and mobilize public opinion fashioned the modern presidency. Under his leadership, Congress enacted the most cohesive, complete, and elaborate program of federal oversight of the nation's economy up to that time: banking reform under the auspices of the Federal Reserve System, tariff reduction, federal regulation of business, support for labor and collective bargaining, and federal aid to education and agriculture. Together, these programs helped the United States begin to catch up with what was happening in other industrial states around the world. They reflected a deep commitment to humanization of the industrial system and laid the basis for the modern welfare state. His wartime mobilization program became a model for the New Deal's fight against the Great Depression in the 1930s and for Franklin Roosevelt's mobilization policies during World War II. He was the first statesman of world stature to speak out not only against European imperialism but against the newer form of economic domination sometimes described as "informal imperialism." For repressed ethnic and national groups around the world, his call for "national self-determination" was the herald's trumpet for a new era.

Domestically, he was perhaps the most important transitional figure among the Presidents since Lincoln. Theodore Roosevelt, while redefining the modern president as a steward of the common good of the nation, continued the progressive tradition long associated with the party of Lincoln. Wilson took a party mired in southern conservatism and big-city machine politics that had resisted William Jennings Bryan's reform proposals and made its basic agenda progressive. With his presidency, the Democratic Party assumed the mantle of reform while Republicans became more conservative. On the negative side, Wilson's idealism sometimes led to him astray. If his commitment to self-determination led him to set the Philippines on the road to independence, in Latin America, his desire to promote the benefits of democracy produced the invasion and military occupation of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. And if he generally avoided those mistakes in Mexico, it is hard not to suspect that major reasons for his restraint were the practical problems associated with imposing a regime on that large nation. He tolerated no dissent during the war and authorized serious violations of Americans' civil liberties in his quest for victory. Nor did his zest for humanitarian justice extend to American blacks: He accepted segregation in government departments and did little to stop the waves of antiblack violence and race riots that swept over the land during his administration, particularly in the years after the war—although, to be fair, it must be noted that his illness during this period kept him ignorant of much of what was happening. During the period of neutrality prior to American entrance into World War I, Wilson could have avoided conflict with Germany by restricting Americans' travel into the war zone, but his stubborn insistence that German submarines must respect the lives and property of neutrals upheld the ideals of international law while ignoring the reality that technology had transformed warfare. Moreover, his principled rejection of using the threat of an arms embargo to blackmail the British into modifying their restrictions on American trade frustrated and infuriated the Germans, thus increasing the risk of war with the United States. In these cases, idealism carried a substantial cost.

Critics claim that Wilson went to war at least partly to resist the spread of communism and to hasten U.S. economic penetration of world markets. Although Wilson described the postwar treatment of Russia, in his Fourteen Points speech, as the "acid test" of the peace treaty, he agreed to exclude the Russians from the peace conference. Some critics see that decision and his sending 15,000 American soldiers into Russia in 1918 as evidence of his hostility to communism and his aggressive desire to overthrow the Bolshevik government in order to make the world safe for American capitalism. For such historians, Wilson's action, when seen in the context of the Palmer Raids and his heavy-handed treatment of socialists at home, was a principal cause of the Cold War.

When legacy is defined as influence on the nation and future politics, Wilson ranks with Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt in importance. Richard Nixon recognized the power of Wilson's legacy when he returned Wilson's desk to the Oval Office in 1969. Nixon saw himself as the President who would establish a new, Wilsonian world order of stability and collective security to replace the Cold War confrontations of the 1950s and 1960s. That vision, of a world made safe and prosperous by the collective action of all nations, explains the enduring power of what former secretary of defense and head of the World Bank Robert McNamara called "Wilson's ghost." The spread of freedom and democracy, most Americans believe, would benefit everyone, and at the same time, a free, democratic world would be one in which the United States would be secure and American goods and services would be welcomed everywhere. The question of whether collective international action, such as Wilson advocated, or unilateral American policy will be most conducive to the creation of the sort of world Americans want is the basic foreign policy issue of the early twenty-first century, as it was of the early twentieth century.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Kendrick Clements

Professor Clements is a Distinguished Professor of History, Emeritus at the University of South Carolina. His writings include:

Woodrow Wilson (Co-authored with Eric A. Cheezum, American President Reference Series, Congressional Quarterly Press, 2003)

The Presidency of Woodrow Wilson (University Press of Kansas, 1992)

Woodrow Wilson: World Statesman (Twayne Publishers, 1987)