Woodrow Wilson

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Wilson, Woodrow

(Thomas Woodrow Wilson), 1856–1924, 28th President of the United States (1913–21), b. Staunton, Va.


He graduated from Princeton in 1879 and studied law at the Univ. of Virginia. Admitted (1882) to the bar, he practiced in Atlanta, Ga., for a year before going to Johns Hopkins to study political science and jurisprudence. In 1885, he published Congressional Government, a significant work. After receiving (1886) his Ph.D. degree, he taught history and political economy at Bryn Mawr (1885–88) and Wesleyan Univ. (1888–90).

In 1890 he became professor of jurisprudence and political economy at Princeton and gained a reputation for his eloquent orations. Popular with the student body, Wilson, a descendant of Presbyterian ministers on both sides of his family, was elected (1902) president of Princeton, becoming its first nonclerical head. He strove to raise academic standards, reorganized the curriculum, and introduced the preceptorial system of instruction, which provided for more individualized education.

His attempt to change the social and living facilities by eliminating the elite eating clubs for upperclassmen and introducing the quadrangle system, where students from all of the classes would live and eat together, was less successful. It aroused great hostility, which reached a climax in his bitter struggle with the group headed by Dean Andrew F. West. Wilson lost, but with prompting from George B. M. Harvey, a New York publisher with strong connections in the Democratic party, he ran for governor of New Jersey in 1910 soon after resigning his post at Princeton.

Governor of New Jersey

With the aid of the New Jersey Democratic machine, Wilson secured the gubernatorial nomination and, breaking with the machine to espouse progressive policies, went on to win the election. Despite much resistance from the regular Democrats, Wilson forced through the New Jersey legislature such reforms as an employer's liability act, the direct primary, a corrupt-practices act, and revitalization of the state public utilities commission.


Wilson's resolute and progressive gubernatorial record brought him to the forefront of national politics. Although Champ ClarkClark, Champ
(James Beauchamp Clark), 1850–1921, American legislator, b. near Lawrenceburg, Ky. After a career as lawyer, newspaper editor, and politician in Missouri, he was (1893–95, 1897–1921) a member of the U.S.
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 was the leading contender for the presidential nomination at the Democratic convention in 1912, he could not muster the necessary two-thirds vote, and after he had exhausted his strength, Wilson won on the 46th ballot. He was helped by the switch to his side of William Jennings BryanBryan, William Jennings
, 1860–1925, American political leader, b. Salem, Ill. Although the nation consistently rejected him for the presidency, it eventually adopted many of the reforms he urged—the graduated federal income tax, popular election of senators, woman
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 (prompted by Edward M. HouseHouse, Edward Mandell,
1858–1938, American political figure, adviser to President Wilson, b. Houston. Active in Texas politics, he was (1882–92) campaign manager and adviser to Gov. James Hogg and his successors.
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). The split in the Republican party, which divided into the regular Republicans supporting William Howard Taft and the Progressive partyProgressive party,
in U.S. history, the name of three political organizations, active, respectively, in the presidential elections of 1912, 1924, and 1948. Election of 1912
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 backing Theodore RooseveltRoosevelt, Theodore,
1858–1919, 26th President of the United States (1901–9), b. New York City. Early Life and Political Posts

Of a prosperous and distinguished family, Theodore Roosevelt was educated by private tutors and traveled widely.
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, gained the election for Wilson, who captured 435 electoral votes.

Domestic Policy

Wilson revived the custom, abandoned in 1801, of addressing Congress in person and immediately called for a series of reforms, which he had called the "New Freedom" in his presidential campaign. During his administration the tariff was drastically decreased (1913; see Underwood, Oscar WilderUnderwood, Oscar Wilder,
1862–1929, American political leader, U.S. Senator from Alabama (1915–27), b. Louisville, Ky. A lawyer in Birmingham, Ala., he became important in Democratic party politics. In the U.S.
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); the Federal Reserve SystemFederal Reserve System,
central banking system of the United States. Established in 1913, it began to operate in Nov., 1914. Its setup, although somewhat altered since its establishment, particularly by the Banking Act of 1935, has remained substantially the same.
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 was instituted (1913); the La Follette Seamen's Act, regulating labor conditions aboard ship, became law (1915); the Adamson Act, establishing an eight-hour day for railroad employees, was enacted (1916); and the Federal Farm Loan Act, providing for loans to cooperative farm associations, was passed (1916). Wilson continued the policy of curbing monopoly by creating (1914) the Federal Trade CommissionFederal Trade Commission
(FTC), independent agency of the U.S. government established in 1915 and charged with keeping American business competition free and fair. The FTC has no jurisdiction over banks and common carriers, which are under the supervision of other governmental
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 to investigate and expose unfair practices of corporations, pushed the passage (1914) of the Clayton Antitrust ActClayton Antitrust Act,
1914, passed by the U.S. Congress as an amendment to clarify and supplement the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. It was drafted by Henry De Lamar Clayton.
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, and instituted antitrust proceedings in 92 cases. In addition, child labor was abolished, and a graduated income tax and a federal inheritance tax were introduced. The Seventeenth Amendment, providing for the direct popular election of U.S. Senators, the Eighteenth Amendment, which instituted prohibitionprohibition,
legal prevention of the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages, the extreme of the regulatory liquor laws. The modern movement for prohibition had its main growth in the United States and developed largely as a result of the agitation of
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, and the Nineteenth Amendment, by which women received the vote, were all launched while Wilson was President.

Foreign Policy

In foreign affairs the Wilson administration was faced with mounting difficulties. In Mexico, a revolution brought (Feb., 1913) Victoriano HuertaHuerta, Victoriano
, 1854–1916, Mexican general and president (1913–14). He served under Porfirio Díaz. After the revolution of Francisco I. Madero (1911) he aided the new president, who, reluctantly, made him (1912) commander of the federal forces.
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 to the presidency. Wilson refused to recognize Huerta on the grounds that he had gained power by assassinating his predecessor, and instead resorted to a policy of "watchful waiting." In 1914, this policy ended when U.S. marines landed in Veracruz in retaliation for the arrest of U.S. sailors in Tampico. Mediation by Argentina, Brazil, and Chile prevented war but failed to settle the aggravated situation. After Huerta was driven from power, new troubles arose from the internal situation in Mexico. The raid of Francisco ("Pancho") VillaVilla, Francisco
, c.1877–1923, Mexican revolutionary, nicknamed Pancho Villa.
His real name was Doroteo Arango.

When Villa came of age, he declared his freedom from the peonage of his parents and became notorious as a bandit in Chihuahua and Durango.
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 across the U.S. border resulted in the punitive expedition (1916) into Mexico led by John J. PershingPershing, John Joseph
, 1860–1948, American army officer and commander in chief of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I, b. Linn co., Mo. After graduating (1886) from West Point he served as a cavalry officer in campaigns against the Native American chief
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. Border incidents continued, and relations between the two countries remained unfriendly. During this period, Wilson also sent U.S. troops to Haiti (1915), the Dominican Republic (1916), and Cuba (1917), and established protectorates over the first two. In his East Asian policy, notably his refusal (1913) to support loans to China by American bankers, Wilson openly rejected "dollar diplomacy."

World War I

The outbreak of World War I in Europe overshadowed all other problems. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, who scrupulously favored neutrality, resigned (1915) and was succeeded by Robert LansingLansing, Robert,
1864–1928, U.S. Secretary of State (1915–20), b. Watertown, N.Y. An authority in the field of international law, he founded the American Journal of International Law in 1907 and remained an editor of it until his death.
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, who tended to favor intervention on the side of the Allies. Wilson during his first term nevertheless sought by all diplomatic means to maintain an impartial neutrality. American public opinion, however, increasingly mounted against Germany, and the sinking (May 7, 1915) of the LusitaniaLusitania,
liner under British registration, sunk off the Irish coast by a German submarine on May 7, 1915. In the sinking, 1,198 persons lost their lives, 128 of whom were U.S. citizens.
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 by a German submarine aroused a storm of protest. After the sinking (Mar. 24, 1916) of the American vessel Sussex, Wilson issued an ultimatum to which Germany responded with a pledge to cease its unrestricted submarine attacks. Trouble over shipping also occurred with Great Britain in its effort to enforce the blockade of Germany. In the 1916 election, the Democratic campaign slogan, "He kept us out of war," helped return Wilson to the White House; Charles Evans HughesHughes, Charles Evans
, 1862–1948, American statesman and jurist, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1910–16), U.S. secretary of state (1921–25), and 11th chief justice of the United States (1930–41), b. Glens Falls, N.Y.
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 was defeated by a very close margin. Wilson immediately attempted to mediate between the warring nations, but without success. Relations with Germany became more and more tense, especially after the announcement (Jan. 31, 1917) by Germany of a renewal of unrestricted submarine warfare.

On Feb. 3, Wilson broke diplomatic relations with Germany. Several more U.S. vessels were sunk, and on Apr. 2, 1917, Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. In his war message Wilson stated that "the world must be made safe for democracy" and that the United States would wage war for liberty and peace. War was declared Apr. 6. Wilson's speeches, elaborating his war aims, did much to consolidate U.S. opinion behind his policies as the country mobilized. In addition to the establishment of a fighting force, war industries were placed under government control and the President was given wide powers over the production and distribution of food and fuel. Late in Dec., 1917, Wilson put the railroads under government operation. The Committee on Public Information was established to propagandize for the war.

The Fourteen Points and the Peace Conference

In Jan., 1918, prompted by the publication by the Bolshevik revolutionary government in Russia of secret treaties that revealed the imperialistic war aims of the Allies, Wilson presented the Fourteen PointsFourteen Points,
formulation of a peace program, presented at the end of World War I by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in an address before both houses of Congress on Jan. 8, 1918.
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 to Congress; these outlined the basic provisions that he believed the peace settlement must cover. As the war drew to a close and preparations were begun for a peace conference, Wilson was generally looked upon in Europe as the savior of the future. In the United States, however, he suffered an electoral setback in Nov., 1918, after appealing for the return of a Democratic Congress as an endorsement of his foreign policy; the Republicans captured both houses of Congress.

Shortly afterward (December) Wilson set sail for Europe as head of the U.S. delegation to the Paris Peace Conference; his attendance broke all American precedents. Angry at Republican criticism, Wilson did not include any active Republican, or any Senator, on the peace commission. Wilson was received in Europe with warm ovations and set about trying to create a new world society, which would be governed by the "self-determination of peoples," which would be free from secret diplomacy and wars, and, most important, which would have an association of nations to maintain international justice.

At the peace conference he became involved in long and bitter wrangles with Georges ClemenceauClemenceau, Georges
, 1841–1929, French political figure, twice premier (1906–9, 1917–20), called "the Tiger." He was trained as a doctor, but his republicanism brought him into conflict with the government of Napoleon III, and he went to the United States,
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, David Lloyd GeorgeLloyd George, David, 1st Earl Lloyd-George of Dwyfor
, 1863–1945, British statesman, of Welsh extraction.
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, Vittorio OrlandoOrlando, Vittorio Emanuele
, 1860–1952, Italian statesman and jurist. He held several cabinet posts from 1903 to 1917 and was premier from 1917 to 1919. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, he demanded the fulfillment of the secret Treaty of London of 1915, by which the
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, and the other representatives of European powers. The resulting treaty (see Versailles, Treaty ofVersailles, Treaty of,
any of several treaties signed in the palace of Versailles, France. For the Treaty of Versailles of 1783, which ended the American Revolution, see Paris, Treaty of, 1783.
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) was far from being the fulfillment of his dream, although he did secure the adoption of the covenant establishing the League of NationsLeague of Nations,
former international organization, established by the peace treaties that ended World War I. Like its successor, the United Nations, its purpose was the promotion of international peace and security.
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. Wilson accepted the treaty as being the best obtainable.

Disillusionment and Death

At home, opposition to the League had been growing, and when Wilson returned (July, 1919) with the signed treaty, his accomplishments at Paris were received with mixed feelings. In the Senate, quarrels over the ratification of the treaty and the proposed amendments broke out immediately. In the group that emerged as opponents of the League, Henry Cabot LodgeLodge, Henry Cabot,
1850–1924, U.S. senator (1893–1924), b. Boston. He was admitted to the bar in 1876. Before beginning his long career in the U.S. Senate he edited (1873–76) the North American Review,
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 was outstanding. Nevertheless, despite the agitation of a handful of "irreconcilables," the Senate would probably have ratified the treaty if certain reservations protecting U.S. sovereignty had been added. Wilson, however, refused to compromise and sought popular support by making a speaking tour of the United States. He was on his way east from the Pacific coast when fatigue and strain brought on a sudden physical breakdown in Sept., 1919, and forced him to cancel his trip.

On Oct. 2, 1919, Wilson suffered a stroke, which incapacitated him for several months. He never entirely recovered, and for the remainder of his second term, Wilson, bitterly disillusioned and emotionally unstable, was essentially detached from the political scene. It has been postulated that he was so ill that his wife, Edith Bolling Wilson, made virtually all his political decisions for him. He continued to be uncompromising in his refusal to accept reservations on the League. Three years after the expiration of his term Wilson died. His character and policies have been the subject of acrimonious debate, but even those who have doubted his wisdom have recognized him as one of the pivotal figures of American and world history. In 1920 he was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize for his Fourteen Points and for securing the adoption of the Convenant of the League of Nations as part of the Treaty of Versailles.


Wilson's writings on history and jurisprudence include Division and Reunion, 1829–1889 (1893), George Washington (1896), A History of the American People (5 vol., 1902), and Constitutional Government in the United States (1908). These books are distinguished by a wide knowledge of constitutional law and by the severe and polished literary style that also characterizes An Old Master and Other Political Essays (1893) and Mere Literature and Other Essays (1893). Wilson's addresses, messages, and speeches, the last to be completely written by the president himself, are considered among the finest by an American, and have been published and republished in various collections; see L. S. Turnbull, Woodrow Wilson: A Selected Bibliography of His Published Writings, Addresses, and Public Papers (1948, repr. 1971). The definitive edition of Wilson's papers was ed. by A. S. Link et al. (69 vol., 1966–94).


The Woodrow Wilsons (1937), by E. W. McAdoo (his daughter) and M. Y. Gaffrey, is an intimate account of his family life. See also R. S. Baker, Woodrow Wilson: Life and Letters (8 vol., 1927–39, repr. 1968); biographies by J. M. Blum (1956), S. B. McKinley (1957), H. Hoover (1958), A. Link (5 vol., 1947–65), A. Heckscher (1992), J. W. S. Nordholt (1992), L. Auchincloss (2000), J. M. Cooper, Jr. (2009), A. Scott Berg (2013), and P. O'Toole (2018); R. S. Baker, Woodrow Wilson and the World Settlement (3 vol., 1922; repr. 1960); T. A. Bailey, Woodrow Wilson and the Lost Peace (1944, repr. 1963) and Woodrow Wilson and the Great Betrayal (1945); J. Daniels, The Wilson Era (1946); E. H. Buehrig, Woodrow Wilson and the Balance of Power (1955, repr. 1968) and Wilson's Foreign Policy in Perspective (1957, repr. 1970); H. W. Bragdon, Woodrow Wilson: The Academic Years (1967); A. Link, ed., Woodrow Wilson: A Profile (1968); L. E. Ambrosius, Woodrow Wilson and the American Diplomatic Tradition (1987); J. M. Cooper, Jr., Breaking the Heart of the World: Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the League of Nations (2001).

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Wilson, (Thomas) Woodrow

(1856–1924) twenty-eighth U.S. president; born in Staunton, Va. Son of a Presbyterian minister, he studied at Princeton and Johns Hopkins, gaining his Ph.D. with the first of his major books on American government, Congressional Government (1885). After teaching at Bryn Mawr and Wesleyan (1885–90), he moved to Princeton, whose president he became in 1902 and where his reforms had a wide impact on American university education. In 1910, Wilson entered politics as a Democrat and was elected governor of New Jersey (1911–13); his liberal reforms brought him national attention and the Democratic presidential nomination in 1912 (although only on the 46th ballot). With the Republicans split between Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson won by a landslide. He effectively continued a reformist program he called the "New Freedom"; his initiatives included lowering tariffs, a graduated income tax, the Federal Reserve Act, the Federal Trade Commission, the Clayton Antitrust Act, the eight-hour workday, and landmark laws against child labor. On the international front he was less successful, especially in his attempts to intervene in Mexican politics. He won reelection in 1916 with a pledge to keep America out of the European war, but found the U.S.A. inexorably drawn in; declaring war on Germany in April 1917, he proposed a peace in the form of the "Fourteen Points," which brought Germany to the bargaining table in late 1918. Much of the world now hailed him as virtually a savior, but at the Versailles Peace Conference he was confronted by the compromises of Realpolitik. On his return to America his dream of a League of Nations—largely due to his refusal to compromise—went down to defeat in Congress as his health collapsed. He spent his last months in office incapacitated (his wife served as his intermediary for many decisions) and in 1921 retired to seclusion. Undeniably one of the most intelligent and high-minded presidents the U.S. has had, he was also rigid in certain ways and unresolved in others so that when it came to the climax of his life's work—America's entry into a League of Nations—he was unable to make the appropriate moves.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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