Feature Articles - Woodrow Wilson's Administration

Woodrow Wilson's Birthplace Staunton Virginia Often it is difficult to determine whether a man is significant because of his own deeds or because he happened to be in the right place at the right time.  Woodrow Wilson certainly presided over the nation at a memorable time, but his actions were significant and his policies still influence the United States today.

His life is more a thought of what could have been, then what came to pass.  Still, despite the inconsistencies, errors, and hesitations, Wilson's style and principles were unique.  This enables his legacy to shine beyond the shadow of tragedy.

From Princeton to President

Wilson's rise to power was extraordinary.  Few have risen from relative obscurity to world prominence so quickly.  In 1909 he was the president of a small, struggling university, in 1918 he was the world's one hope for lasting peace.

In 1909 Wilson's progressive programs and innovations as president of Princeton University attracted the attention of the Democratic political machine.  They helped elect him Governor of New Jersey, but learned to regret it.  Instead of following orders Wilson ended up cleaning house and riding the state house of much deep-seeded corruption.

Presidential aspirations cut his tenure as Governor short.  His writing, oratory skills, and progressive accomplishments gave him enough visibility to attract Democrats looking for a national leader.  A speaking tour designed to test the waters was a rousing success and Governor Wilson stepped into national politics.

Woodrow Wilson: "Man of the Hour"Wilson could not have picked a more opportune time to run.  Teddy Roosevelt's dissatisfaction with William Howard Taft's record caused a split in the Republican Party.  Roosevelt tried and failed to receive the Republican nomination, so he and his rowdy following left the convention and formed the progressive (Bull Moose) party.

This dissension virtually guaranteed a Wilson Presidency.  This unique election between 3 presidents (one past, one present, and one future) ended with 88 electoral votes for Roosevelt, 8 for Taft, and the remaining 435 for Wilson.  Wilson brought a democratic Congress with him and the stage was set for progressive reform.

Wilson's Cabinet

Wilson's cabinet was relatively weak and understandably inexperienced.  The Democrats had not been in power since 1897, and the only member of any national prominence was three time Democratic Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.  Wilson reluctantly agreed to choose Bryan as Secretary of State to appease a segment of the Democratic party.  Bryan and Wilson saw eye to eye on most issues until war was imminent with the Central Powers.

Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the Navy, was another important selection.  He was most notable for who he choose as his under secretary, a young politician from New York named Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Perhaps the most influential of all the president's advisors was a Texas gentleman nicknamed "Colonel" House.  He noticed Wilson while he was governor of New Jersey and was invaluable throughout Wilson's administration although he never held an official post.

The New Freedom

Wilson's first legislative step could have been disastrous.  Revision of Tariffs had destroyed politicians before.  Teddy Roosevelt predicted that any politician who attempted Tariff reform was committing political suicide.  However Wilson was determined to succeed.  The current Tariff placed undue burden on the average American and provided an atmosphere that trusts and monopolies could flourish.

Through skilful statesmanship and determined leadership Wilson passed the bill through both houses of Congress.  Attached to the bill was a graduated income tax.  This tax made it far easier in later years to raise the funds necessary to prepare for war.  The "New Freedom" which included legislation concerning tariff reform, currency reform, and child labour reform, was a significant accomplishment and may have been his legacy if not for the troubles in Europe.

The Turmoil of Mexico

Mexico was an inherited headache.  The many factions and political parties insured almost continual turmoil.  Taft had sent U.S. warships to Mexican waters to ward off potential problems, but had practically ignored the brutal assassination of the duly elected Mexican President Francisco Madero.

Wilson walked into a no-win situation and did not win.  Throughout his presidency Wilson wavered between his policy of "watchful waiting," and armed intervention.  Meanwhile various bandits, such as Pancho Villa, conducted raids across the border, or kidnapped key U.S. officials.

Mexican politicians made open threats, and negotiated possible alliances with Germany.  This made coherent policy very difficult to initiate and maintain.  Wilson battled to keep his principles at work in Mexico.  The harsh reality of short term solutions chipped away at his ideals of national self-determination, and prevented Wilson from solving the Mexico problem before he left office.

The danger was most evident in 1917 when the United States intercepted a note from Germany to Mexico.  The "Zimmermann Note" proposed an alliance between Mexico and Germany and promised financial support as well as the return of New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona to Mexican control.  This alliance, which never materialized, between Mexico and Germany would have severely hampered the United States' ability to fight Germany in Europe.

Personal Loss

"Of course you know what has happened to me.
God has stricken me almost more than I can bear."
Woodrow Wilson, 1914

While Woodrow tended the affairs of state Ellen Wilson worked tirelessly for the condition of the slums in Washington D.C.  She also hosted numerous events at the White House which caused great stress to one used to the quiet setting of Princeton.

Ellen, fragile, artistic and intelligent, did not have the constitution for the daily pressures of the public eye.  Her health deteriorated quickly and by the summer of 1914 President Wilson was spending hours by her bedside comforting his wife and writing while she slept.  August 4th with her family around her bed and Woodrow holding her hand Ellen Axson Wilson passed away.

Her last wish was that the slum-clearance bill that she had worked for be passed.  The bill was acted upon favourably at first, but met resistance and never solved the problems that Ellen had hoped to eliminate.  Woodrow wondered aloud how he could cope, partially blaming his ambition for her death.

Wilson would remarry in 1915 to Edith Boling Galt, but in the meantime would feel deeply this immense personal loss.  The world would not give him time to mourn.  By August 6 the armies of Europe were mobilized and on the move.

1916 Election

"As some of the injuries done us have become intolerable we have still been clear that we wished nothing for ourselves that we were not ready to demand for all mankind-fair dealing, justice, the freedom to live and to be at ease against organized wrong."
Woodrow Wilson, 2nd Inaugural

1916 Election Badge1916 Election BadgeIn 1916 Wilson ran on the slogan, "he kept us out of war," and narrowly defeated Supreme Court Justice Charles Even Hughes.  Wilson managed to keep America out of the war until it was clear that Germany's submarine warfare would continue to claim American civilian lives.  During the 976 days of neutrality Wilson repeatedly tried to negotiate for an end to the fighting, and called on all those involved to accept peace without victory.  Facing the imminent defeat of France, and seeing no end to Germany's attacks on civilian shipping, Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany 2 April 1917.  Neutrality had ended, the nation was at war.

United States Involvement in WW1

Wilson continued to work for an end to the fighting while mobilizing the nation for war.  American forces led by General Pershing made a significant addition to the allied fighting force in both numbers and morale.  When America entered the war France was on the verge of collapse.  Within months the Germans agreed to an armistice based on Wilson's 14 points.  It was clear that they could not continue.

The Versailles Peace Conference

"Punitive damages, the dismemberment of empire we deem childish and in the end less than futile"
Woodrow Wilson, 1917

Wilson at VersaillesWilson became the first President to travel to Europe while in office when he left for France aboard the S.S. George Washington 4 December 1918.

Wherever he went in Europe huge crowds gathered to cheer him on.  His 14 points were very popular and the common people saw him as the saviour of France, and the greatest hope for world peace.

His efforts, for the most part, would end in vain.  British Prime Minister Lloyd George and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau resisted most of his ideas.  To them the goal was to punish Germany to the extent that it could never make war again.  They both were very conscious of the revengeful attitude of constituents, and would not budge.

Wilson, through much effort, did manage to prevent some of the more extreme punishments against Germany, and convinced the allies that a League of Nations was necessary.  With these small victories in hand Wilson headed home.

The Last Battle

"There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired."
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Wilson could not convince people at home that it was time for America to join the World Community.  America had stepped back into isolationism, and would not be budged.  The Congress was in Republican hands and was generally uncooperative with Wilson.  Led by Wilson's long-time adversary Senator Henry Cabot Lodge,  the Republicans insisted that certain parts of the League be altered.

Wilson refused to make even the smallest concessions, fearing it would make it impotent.  The Senate would not agree to the treaty so Wilson entered the final chapter of his relatively short political story.  He decided to take the matter directly to the public.

His doctor warned him not to go. His wife begged him to reconsider.  Wilson was determined and would not be turned back.  The Senate would not listen to him, so he hoped to convince the public through an extensive speaking tour, and thus pressure the Senate into ratifying the treaty.

The tour started out well.  Enthusiastic supporters cheered him at each stop.  Victory turned out to be beyond his grasp.  Wilson's fragile health halted the tour abruptly in Colorado.  "I don't seem to realize it," he commented to an advisor, "but I seem to have gone to pieces."

Mourners outside the Wilson home soon after Woodrow's death.For the remainder of his administration Wilson was a near invalid.

His wife looked over him carefully and was suspected of making important decisions for him.  His hope was not shattered, but his body was, and that handicap was insurmountable.  Wilson lived on until 1924, but never fully regained his mental or physical abilities.  He died with his wife by his side, confident to the end that wrongs would be righted, and that America's mission would be fulfilled.  His last words were "Edith, (His wife) I'm a broken machine, but I'm ready."

His influence has been significant.  During his tenure there were 3 amendments to the constitution.  The Seventeenth provided for the direct election of United States Senators.  The Eighteenth prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.  The Nineteenth, guaranteed suffrage for women.

His legislative successes included the Federal Reserve Act, the Clayton Anti-trust Act, Keating-Owen Child Labor Act, and the Adamson Act which established the eight-hour work day on railroads.  According to Henry Kissinger, his foreign policy has shaped 20th Century United States policy like no other.

He was a man known for his principles, drawn from the pages of the Bible and the doctrine of the Presbyterians.  He was an unusual president in that he had years of thinking and writing the philosophy of government, but little in the way of political experience.  In the end he may be remembered more for his failure concerning the League of Nations than his progressive reform.

Wilson served in an era before Watergate, and before all of the scandals that have reduced faith in government to tired cynicism.  Wilson was a great man in an age when people still believed in great men.


"I can predict with absolute certainty that within another generation there will be another world war if the nations of the world do not concert the method by which to prevent it."
Woodrow Wilson, 1919

Sources Consulted

Primary Source:

  • Link, Arthur S. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson. Volumes 23-31. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977.

Secondary Sources:

  • Daniels, Josephus. The Life of Woodrow Wilson. Will H. Johnston. U.S.A. 1924.
  • Heckscher, August. Woodrow Wilson. Collier Books Macmillian Publishing Company. New York. 1991.
  • Kane, Joseph Nathan. Facts About the Presidents. H.W. Wilson Company. New York. 1959
  • Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy Touchstone New York. 1995.
  • Nordholt, Jan Willem Schulte. Translated by Hervert H. Rowen. Woodrow Wilson: A Life for World Peace. University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California. 1991.

Article contributed by Paul Dean, Woodrow Wilson website.

Profile: Woodrow Wilson

A 'Base Rat' was a soldier perpetually at the base, typically in conditions of comfort and safety.

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