Thomas Woodrow Wilson, twenty-eighth president of the United States, might
have suffered from dyslexia. He never could read easily, but developed a strong
power of concentration and a near-photographic memory. The outbreak of World
War I coincided with the death of Wilson’s first wife Ellen Axson, who he was
passionately devoted to. Seven months after her death his friends introduced him to
Edith Bolling Galt, a descendant of the Indian princess Pocahontas, they were married
nine months later. By 1912 times were good for most Americans. Farmers were
enjoying their most prosperous period in living memory, the cost of living rose
slightly, unemployment was lower than it had been for several years, and working
conditions were improving. By 1913 when Wilson was inaugurated, American industries
were in a flood of consumer goods, including automobiles, telephones, and movies.
However, Wilson almost did not appear on the presidential ballot, the leading
contender for the Democratic nomination was House Speaker Champ Clark. It took
46 ballots before the delegates swung to Wilson. In the election, the Republicans
were split between Taft and Roosevelt, almost guaranteeing a Democratic, and Wilson
victory. He sought ways to build patriotism and to reshape the federal government
to govern the nation more effectively. Wilson was a conservative, in his books and
articles, he often displayed hostility to reformers and rebels. Although Woodrow
Wilson is mostly remembered for his success in foreign affairs, his domestic reform
and leadership abilities are notable as well. Commemorated by the public mainly for
his success in guiding the nation during it’s first great modern war, World War I, for
getting out of the Mexico/Philippine muddle inherited from ex-president Taft, and
for his dream of ending the threat of future wars through the League of Nations,
Wilson is also admired for his domestic successes, which represented the Progressive
Era of reform. Diplomatically, as well as domestically these events illustrate Wilsons
competent leadership skill.
Woodrow Wilsons nomination was strongly opposed by the progressives but he
eventually passed much of their domestic reforming legislation. The progressive
movement backed by Wilson called for some government control of industry and for
regulation of railroad and public utilities. Among its other goals were the adoption of
primary elections and the direct election of United States senators. Wilson called
Congress into special session to consider a new tariff bill, he personally delivered his
legislative request to Congress. Moved by Wilson’s aggressive leadership, the House
swiftly passed the first important reform measure, the Underwood Tariff Bill of
1913, which significantly reduced the tariff for the first time in many years and
reflected a new awareness that American businesses were now powerful enough to
compete in the markets of the world. In the end the Underwood Tariff had nothing
to do with trade but the importance was the income tax provision (later the 16th
amendment) which would replace the revenue lost when duties were reduced. It also
showed that America was powerful enough to compete without protection from the
As Congress debated the tariff bill, Wilson presented his program for reform
of the banking and currency laws. The nations banking system was outdated,
unmanageable, and chaotic. To fix this Wilson favored the establishment of a
Federal Reserve Board with presidentally appointed financial experts. The Board
would set national interest rates and manage a network of twelve major banks across
the country. These banks, which would issue currency, would in turn work with local
banks. Congress passed the Federal Reserve act basically in the form the President
had recommended. Amendments also provided for exclusive governmental control of
the Federal Reserve Board and for short term agricultural credit through the
reserve banks. This was one of the most notable domestic achievements of the
Wilson administration which modernized the nations banking and currency systems,
laying the basis for federal management of the economy and providing the legal basis
for an effective national banking system.
The final major item on Wilsons domestic agenda was the reform of big
business. Big businesses worked against the public by fixing prices and restraining
competition. Business and politics worked together, and Wilson sought to stop that.
Determined to accept big business as an inevitable, but to control its abuses and to
maintain an open door of opportunity for “the genius which springs up from the ranks
of unknown men,”1 Wilsons hoped to curb big business. He thought that government
should intervene in the regulation of business, and that it was essential to control
corporate behavior to prevent corporations from stifling opportunities for creative
and ambitious people. Business consolidation was inevitable and might be beneficial,
yet he insisted that great corporations behave in the public interest: These were the
balances Wilson sought to achieve and maintain. “Our laws are still meant for
business done, by individuals that have not been satisfactorily adjusted to business
done by great combinations and we have got to adjust them,”2in that big business was
unjust and somebody needed to watch out for the people, and Wilson was just the
man to do that. First, the Federal Trade commission, authorized to order companies
to “cease and desist”3 from engaging in unfair competition. Later came the Clayton
Anti-trust Act which outlawed a number of widely practiced business tactics.
Wilsons’ “New Freedom” domestic policies produced what turned out to be four
constitutional amendments. The 16th amendment assembled a graduated income tax
beginning on incomes over $3,000. The 17th, achieved direct election of senators by
the people. The 18th, was prohibition (of the sales or manufacturing) of alcoholic
liquors, and the 19th amendment, gave women the right to vote. Some of his
Progressive reforms include the Workingmen’s Compensation Act, which granted
assistance to federal civil service employees during periods of disabilities; The
Adamson Act established the eight hour day for all employees on trains in interstate
commerce, with extra pay for overtime, and The Federal Farm Loan Act, made credit
available to farmers at low interest rates. Wilsons’ administration produced major
legislation on tariffs, banks, business, and labor. It had been responsible for laws
that restricted child-labor, promoted the welfare of seamen, and created a credit
system for farmers. Although the administration demonstrated a new sensitivity to
labor’s interests, it did not generally win management over to its position. Businesses
made larger gains than labor as a result of the relaxation of the anti-trust laws, the
growth of trade associations, and the businessmen of an effective and publicly
accepted union-busting technique. Foreign affairs also demanded much of the
presidents’ attention. He persuaded Congress to repeal the Panama Tolls Act, which
had allowed American ships to use the Panama Canal toll-free when sailing between
U.S. coastal ports. Wilson believed that this new law violated a treaty with Great
Britain. The President also refused to approve a bankers’ loan to China, and put
himself on record against “dollar diplomacy.” Wilson insisted that his party live up to
its campaign promises of preparing the Philippines for independence. In 1916,
Congress passed the Jones Bill, which greatly increased Philippine self-government
and made many reforms in the administration of the islands. Convinced that freedom
and democracy were universal aspirations, Wilson was determined that the United
States would work to advance them. In Asia the United States lacked strength to do
much, but in the Western hemisphere it had the power to act; and so in Mexico,
Haiti, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and elsewhere around the Caribbean basin it
did. Wilson was not materialistic and assumed that American assistance would be
welcomed, when he realized this was not true he tried to minimize American
involvement. Wilson dismissed traditional American political isolationism, making
America a world power, “citizens of the world.”4 Most people did agree that the
nations increasing economic and military power obligated and permitted it to play a
larger political role in the world. Wilson struggled constantly between isolationist
sentiments and the necessity for American involvement in world affairs.
Determined to avoid entering World War I, he rigorously pursued neutrality.
At first Wilson merely proclaimed neutrality, even when German U-boats
(submarines) sank a US tanker. Then he tried “Peace without victory” because he
realized that the only lasting peace was one in which the conquered nations were not
left poverty-stricken, embittered and biding their time for revenge. Neither the
Allies nor the Central powers responded. Keeping America out of the war proved to
be an extremely difficult, and eventually impossible, job. Wilson’s greatest problems
concerned shipping. Britain had a blockade against Germany, seizing any cargoes
bound for Germany. The British paid for the goods confiscated but the United
States thought the interference in its sea trade was a violation of both freedom of
the seas and neutral rights. The United States’ problems with Britain were serious,
but its troubles with Germany were worse. The Germans continued to sink ships with
Americans on board. After the Sussex, a French channel streamer was sunk, killing
80 civilians, some American, Wilson declared that if these attacks did not stop “the
United States would have no choice but to sever diplomatic relations”5 with Germany.
In the end not even Woodrow Wilson could keep the United States out of World War
I. When the Germans declared unlimited submarine warfare, Wilson knew the United
States would have to get involved. Still he hesitated, hoping for some event that
would make an American declaration of war unnecessary. Instead two events
occurred destroying all hopes of neutrality. The first was the Zimmerman telegram.
This was a message intercepted by Britain proposing a secret alliance between
Germany and Mexico. The next event that pushed the US into the war was the
Russian Revolution, in which Russia withdrew from the war, this meant the Allies lost
a major part of their team, and without the United States, Germany would have
surely won. In April 1917 Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany.He
appointed able men to mobilize the economy and to command the armed forces, never
interfering with either. By September 1918 Germanys army was in retreat, its
civilians hungry and exhausted.
Wilsons’ real heart was in peace. He insisted on going to the Paris Peace
conference himself, where he was greeted by European crowds cheering wildly. He
and three other men, known as the Big Four, including Premier Vittorio Orlando of
Italy, Prime Minister David Lloyd George of Britain, and Premier Georges Clemenceau
of France drew up the Treaty of Versailles, based on Wilsons Fourteen Point address.
Aspirations of world order were represented in his Fourteen Points: Open diplomacy,
freedom of the seas, the removal of economic barriers among nations, reductions of
armaments, the ending of imperialism, self-determination for national groups, the
inclusion of Russia in the world community, and, most important to Wilson, the
creation of an association of nations to assume collective responsibility for
maintaining peace (the League of Nations). Wilson passionately wanted his Fourteen
Points implemented, he wanted a treaty that would be fair to fallen enemy as well as
to the victors. After many compromises, the Treaty of Versailles was signed,
including Wilsons League of Nations. Wilson formally got approval for his League of
Nations, but when he returned home with the treaty, he found resistance to him and
it. A group of senators refused to accept the treaty as a package, as Wilson
demanded. Frustrated, Wilson decided to appeal over the senators heads to the
country. He set out on a tour that took him through 30 cities in 24 days, this
grueling schedule caused him to he suffer two strokes, the second one leaving his left
side paralyzed. For the next few weeks Wilson was near death, nobody was allowed
to see him except for his wife who would carry messages to his bedroom and then
emerge with an answer. When his mind finally cleared he was presented with Senator
Lodge’s proposed fourteen reservations to his fourteen points. The treaty was
rejected because neither Wilson nor Lodge was willing to compromise. Although
Wilson was partially paralyzed by the stroke and suffering from other disabilities, he
wanted the honor of a third nomination. If he had received it, he may have ran again,
so great was his devotion to the League of Nations, which was created without the
participation of the United States. The League never took off without the support
of the United States behind it.
Wilsons political leadership experience was limited to his two year stint as
governor of New Jersey. Nevertheless, he had no doubts about his ability to lead the
nation, as he said in his inaugural address, “I summon all honest men, all patriotic, all
forward looking men to my side God helping me I will not fail them, if they will but
counsel and sustain me!”6 Part of his effective leadership ability, was that Wilson
knew how to dramatize issues and to capture public attention. He did not think
average citizens were qualified to lead. The leaders task was partly to sense the
wishes of the people, but it was also to shape their ideas and to act where they would
not naturally act. The Presidents leadership of his party gave him more influence
over Congress, but more importantly his standing as the interpreter of the countries
instinctive wishes and desires made him a unique national figure. He was the first
president since Thomas Jefferson to address Congress personally, which he did
several times. The president, in Wilsons view, thus had extraordinary potential
powers attained from his role as political leader and interpreter of the wishes of all
people. In contrast to what the people had expected when they chose Wilson as the
democratic nominee, he had proved that he could be a leader and that state
government could meet the challenges facing it. His academic work had shown that
he was not a profound thinker, but he had a rare ability to see the essentials of
issues and to delegate authority to others to handle details. While considering issues
he was open-minded and eager for practical suggestions about how to achieve a goal,
and once he had made up his mind he was firm and consistent.
Wilson adopted an approach to Congress that proved remarkably effective. He
outlined the main objectives he wanted to achieve and left legislatures to draft
special bills. He made use of public opinion to influence the legislative process by
going personally to the capitol to address Congress and by making other public
speeches. The significance of the Underwood tariff is debatable but the skill and
flexibility Wilson showed in getting it through Congress were not. If one of his
reforms stalled in Congress, he would generate pressure on the lawmakers to act by
calling public attention to the delay. Through Wilsons aggressive leadership, his
administration was responsible for four constitutional amendments. The eighteenth
amendment, prohibiting the sales of alcoholic beverages, was controversial because
many leading brewers were German, and this made the drive against alcohol all the
more popular. However, the main cause was to conserve the food supplies for the war
effort. One of his greatest strengths as a leader was his ability to focus on a single
issue, identifying its essential points and dealing with it quickly and efficiently.
Although the eighteenth amendment was eventually repealed by the twenty-first
amendment it was what the country need at the time and was effective in that sense.
Wilson thought that it was the presidents’ job to understand the hopes and
dreams of America, which he believed were centered on a peaceful, secure world.
Establishing his Fourteen Points, and the League of Nations in particular, was Wilsons
method of keeping world peace. In his address, point number fourteen, was “an
international organization that Wilson hoped would provide a system of collective
security.”7 Wilson earnestly wanted this to guarantee the political independence of
all countries, big or small. During the first year of peace, Wilson focused on the
treaty fight. Wilsons diplomatic leadership was strong, keeping the United States
out of the Great War and helping in the peace effort afterwards, and he stuck with
it, trying to pass legislation that would not only benefit the United States, but the
whole world as well.
Wilson, far more than any other world leader of his generation raised issues
that needed to be confronted and set an agenda for future domestic and
international policies. The Underwood Tariff shows successful domestic policy
because it inacted a favorable low tariff, in which the United States was open to
compete. It also showed mastery in leadership in the course that he used pushing it
through Congress. Although his administration is often associated with World War I,
Wilson sought world peace with his League of Nations. Faced with decisions and
appointments and foreign conflicts, Wilson was admittedly ill-prepared. Because of
his concentration on world peace he did not recognize hostility when it was aimed
toward the US Wilson, with a high sense of duty and destiny, administered a heady
dose of domestic reform, in his New Freedom progressive legislation; and foreign
intervention, in the League of Nations. Through his strong leadership, both
domestically and diplomatically, the nation came out stronger than it was before.
Wilson tried to apply his own moral standards to international politics, he was
convinced that the president should be the people’s leader, not merely the nations’
Bailey, Thomas A.: The American Pageant, DC Heath and Company, 1994.
Very useful, it was an easy way to look up a fact quickly.
Bailey, Thomas A.: Presidential Greatness, Thomas A. Bailey, 1966.
Not very useful, hard to read.
Clements, Kendrick A.: The Presidency of Woodrow Wilson, University Press of
I probably used this book the most.
Hoover, Herbert: The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson, McGraw-Hill Book Company,
This book was long and drawn out.
Leavell, Perry J.: World Leaders Past and Present, Wilson, Chelsea House
This was a good easy to read book.
Wilson, Woodrow: The New Freedom, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1961.
Also very hard to read, but had a few good facts.
“Woodrow Wilson” The World book Multimedia Encyclopedia, World Book Inc.,
This was a good overview of his presidency.
“Woodrow Wilson” Infopedia, Future Vision Multimedia Inc., 1995.
This was an okay source, not much information.