Thomas Woodrow Wilson
Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born on December 28, 1856 in Staunton, Virginia. After graduating from Princeton, Wilson studied law at the University of Virginia, dropping out to practice law in Atlanta. He then got a doctorate in history and political philosophy from Johns Hopkins. He then taught a Bryn Mawr and Wesleyan before accepting a teaching position at Princeton. He was elected President of Princeton University in 1902.
Wilson ran for Governor of New Jersey in 1910 and won as a reform candidate. He broke the power of the party bosses by establishing primaries, revamped the public utility commissions and created worker’s compensation. He proved to be a very popular governor, which gave him the prestige to run for President in 1912.
In the 1912 election, the Republican Party vote was split between incumbent President Taft, who had the support of the party elite but lukewarm public support, and Progressive Party candidate Theodore Roosevelt, the former president who still had the love of the public. This split in the party vote allowed for a 41.8% victory by Democratic challenger Wilson.
One of Wilson’s first major pieces of legislation was the Federal Reserve Act in late 1913. It established the Federal Reserve System as a political compromise between a single central Federal public bank and private bankers controlled by the New York banking syndicate. He also established the Federal Trade Commission to stop unfair trade practices, such as promoting truth in advertising. The Clayton Anti-trust Act promoted fair competition in the marketplace and eliminated price discrimination. The Republican-sponsored 16th amendment the Constitution created the federal income tax to provide additional revenue. Wilson used this to significantly reduce tariffs, which opened up international trade. Wilson also set up the agricultural extension system and farm loan programs. Women gained the right to vote during the Wilson Administration, but Wilson did not step in to stop the segregation that many white Southerners brought into the Federal government.
Wilson’s greatest challenge was in foreign policy. America’s basic foreign policy was neutrality, but Wilson believed in “idealistic internationalism”–that the U.S. had a duty to fight for democracy around the world. The U.S. intervened many times in Latin America and the Caribbean islands between 1914 and 1918 to restore democracy. When WWI broke out in 1914, the U.S. announced an official stance of neutrality in accordance with the will of the majority of Americans. This stance won him reelection in 1916, with the slogan “He kept us out of the war.” That neutrality was shattered in 1917, when the Germans began unrestricted submarine warfare and sank American ships. Wilson asked Congress to declare war to help “make the world safe for democracy,” which they did on April 4, 1917.
With the addition of fresh American troops and equipment, the Allies quickly made huge advances toward winning the war. Wilson personally met with the Germans to negotiate the surrender and armistice, with an eye toward curbing excessive reparations in order to prevent another war. By the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the other Allies had attached so much in reparations that it bankrupted the German economy, setting the stage for the rise of Hitler and WWII. In order to prevent another war by promoting communication and diplomacy, Wilson developed the concept for the League of Nations, a precursor to the United Nations. This idea developed from his work the “Fourteen Points” that spelled out his vision of a peaceful post-war world. The stressful losing battle for U.S. ratification of the Covenant of the League of Nations against a Republican-controlled Senate caused Wilson to have a debilitating stroke in September 1919 that paralyzed the left side of his body and blind in his left eye. The League of Nations was created, but the U.S. did not join.
The remaining portion of Wilson’s term was spent demobilizing from the war and dealing with the economic instability caused by market and price adjustments. Wilson remained in Washington, D.C. after leaving office and dies in his Embassy Row home on February 3, 1924.