Woodrow Wilson


Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States, was born in Virginia but spent much of his childhood in Georgia, where his father was minister of the First Presbyterian Church. Wilson did not learn to read until he was over ten years old, but he was a disciplined student, and after studying at home and at a small school in Augusta, he entered Davidson College. Medical problems kept him from returning for a second year, however, so he instead attended Princeton. Wilson graduated in 1879 and spent some time at the University of Virginia before opening a law practice in Atlanta. Unfortunately, finding cases in the city was difficult, and Woodrow soon returned to college to pursue a doctorate in history and political science.

Woodrow Wilson
Wilson completed his doctoral dissertation three years later, and after his graduation he secured positions at Bryn Mawr College and Wesleyan University. The young teacher was at the time debating a career in politics, but he disagreed with the U.S. Constitution and instead favored a parliamentary system, which he advocated in his book Congressional Government. After experiencing the presidencies of Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt, however, he had changed his mind, and he later saw his own term as similar to that of a British prime minister.

The trustees at Princeton chose Wilson as the school’s president in 1902, and he kept the position for eight years. While he did little to increase the school’s endowment, he developed innovative curriculums and increased the faculty. His plan to abolish the school’s social hierarchy by removing upper-class privileges, on the other hand, was met with strong opposition, and after being elected president of the American Political Science Association, Wilson left the school. That same year, he ran for and was elected governor of New Jersey as a Democrat. While in office, Wilson improved the public utility commission and established worker’s compensation for those injured while on job sites. In 1912, Wilson chose Governor Thomas Marshall as his running mate and ran for nomination for the presidency. Unfortunately, neither he nor his competitors were able to reach the two-thirds majority required for a nomination, and the Democratic convention was stalled until at last Wilson emerged as the party’s candidate. He went on to win the resulting election, becoming the 28th President of the United States.

During Wilson’s first term, he passed the Federal Reserve Act, creating the central banking system of the U.S. and granting it the legal authority to issue Federal Reserve Notes. He also lowered tariffs and passed anti-trust laws to stimulate the economy. In his international dealings, Wilson focused most of his time on trying to prevent America from entering The Great War, which was currently being waged in Europe. He offered to mediate peace and refused to build up the U.S. Army, which angered many Republicans, but in the next presidential election, his slogan “He kept us out of war” won him another term in office. His aims of neutrality and pacifism, however, were shattered when German submarines in the Atlantic began a new policy of unrestricted warfare, threatening U.S. shipping and even killing several American passengers aboard a British liner. By this point, Wilson had realized the serious consequences of an ongoing conflict in Europe, and in 1917 he officially declared war on the Central Powers—a “war to end war” that he hoped would result in lasting peace.

While Americans were sent overseas, Wilson fought the war at home, passing the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act to suppress pro-German and anti-British sentiments. Even letters and newspapers deemed antiwar were prohibited from the mail, and criticism of the Wilson administration could earn a man up to ten years in prison. Wilson supported labor industries that assisted in the war effort, but organizations that opposed it often found their leaders arrested and their unions dismantled. The president also set up the first western propaganda office, which encouraged food conservation and conducted strict censorship of unfavorable messages. After the conclusion of the war in 1918, Wilson attended the Paris Peace Conference, where he proposed a series of fourteen points intended to promote lasting peace. His suggestions ranged from the reduction of trade barriers to the readjustment of Italian borders to the creation of a League of Nations, but only about half of his arguments were initially accepted. Nevertheless, he was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. His real difficulties began after his return home, when he would need to convince the United States to approve of the Versailles treaty in order to reach the required two-thirds majority. The Senate was largely divided, some praising the treaty while others held stronger reservations or opposed it altogether. Unfortunately, Wilson refused to compromise with those wishing to ratify the treaty—unquestionably his greatest error during his presidency—and an agreement was not reached until after his retirement from office. The U.S. also refused to join the League of Nations. Wilson attempted to change the minds of his public, but during a national speaking tour, he collapsed, effectively ending any chance of political redemption. He later suffered a stroke that rendered him partially paralyzed and blind in one eye, and he rarely left the White House until the end of his term in 1921. After this time, he retired to Washington, D.C. and made few public appearances. Woodrow Wilson passed away in February 1924, and he was buried in the Washington National Cathedral.

Key events during the life of Woodrow Wilson:

Attended Davidson College for a year before transferring to Princeton.
Graduated from Princeton.
Started a law practice in Atlanta, Georgia.
Attended John Hopkins University.
Married Ellen Louise Axson.
Taught at Bryn Mawr College.
Transferred to Wesleyan University, where he coached football and established a debate team.
Served as the president of Princeton University.
Elected governor of New Jersey.
Served as U.S. president.
Ellen passed away.
  Start of World War I in Europe.
Married Edith Galt.
Brought America into World War I.
Proposed his Fourteen Points at the peace convention in Paris following the conclusion of WWI.
  Won the Nobel Peace Prize for his post-war efforts.
  Collapsed during a national speaking tour to rouse support for the League of Nations.
  Suffered a serious stroke that partially paralyzed and blinded him.
Retired to his home in Washington, D.C.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Wilson—Troubles with Mexico  in  This Country of Ours  by  H. E. Marshall
Relations Between Mexico and the United States in  The Story of Mexico  by  Charles Morris

Image Links

Woodrow Wilson
 in Story of the Great Republic

President Woodrow Wilson
 in The Story of Mexico

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