Today in History

Today in History: December 28

Woodrow Wilson

It is not needful or possible at this time, whilst yet he lives, to say that Wilson is a Washington or another Lincoln, but he is a great American. He is one of the great presidents of American history.

Rabbi Stephen A. Wise in a tribute to Woodrow Wilson.
American Leaders Speak: Recordings from World War I and the 1920 Election, 1918-1920

Woodrow Wilson, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left
Woodrow Wilson, circa 1912.
By Popular Demand: Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies, 1789-Present

Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born on December 28, 1856, in Staunton, Virginia. His father was a Presbyterian minister whose religious moralism deeply influenced young “Tommy Wilson” (as he was then known) during his formative years growing up in Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas. (He later dropped his first name.)

The twenty-eighth president of the United States, Wilson served two consecutive terms in the White House, from 1913 to 1921, including the pivotal years of the First World War. “He thinks he is another Jesus Christ come upon the Earth to reform men,” French president Georges Clemenceau once complained—and indeed, such idealism was both Wilson’s strength and his downfall as an international political visionary.

Before entering politics, Wilson took his undergraduate degree at Princeton University, briefly studied law at the University of Virginia, and earned a doctorate in history at Johns Hopkins University. He then taught history, law, and political science at Bryn Mawr College, Wesleyan University, and Princeton while producing a distinguished series of scholarly publications.

Princeton University
Princeton University, 1909.
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In 1902 Wilson became president of Princeton, instituting far-reaching educational reforms that contributed to his election as governor of New Jersey in 1910. The politicians who nominated him had assumed that a college president would be politically unsophisticated and easy to manipulate, but Wilson instead struck out on a bold course of independence and progressive reform.

Two years later, the Democratic National Convention nominated him for president of the United States. Facing a divided Republican Party with former president Theodore Roosevelt as the breakaway Progressive Party nominee, Wilson defeated incumbent President William Howard Taft to win the White House, the first Southerner and second Democrat to do so since the Civil War half a century before.

On the day before Wilson's inauguration in March 1913, the Congressional Committee of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and local suffrage groups organized a suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., to bring the question of women’s suffrage to the forefront of national and presidential attention. More than 8,000 people marched in the parade, which also met large numbers of protesters. It is said that when Wilson arrived in town, he found the streets empty of welcoming crowds and was told that everyone was on Pennsylvania Avenue watching the parade.

A true progressive reformer in many respects, Wilson was not so completely. He retained the racial prejudice of his white Southern roots, instituted racial segregation at the Federal level, and proved unsympathetic to women’s struggle to gain the vote, although Congress ultimately passed the Nineteenth Amendment during his second term.

Cover of official program
Official Program, Woman Suffrage Procession, Washington, D.C., March 3, 1913.
By Popular Demand: "Votes for Women" Suffrage Pictures, 1850-1920

Suffrage was only one of the volatile issues that Wilson faced during his presidency. A man who believed the president should be a strong force for democratic change, he succeeded in reforming the nation’s tariff system, its banking and currency laws, and its antitrust policies. Yet his progressive measures often met with opposition, and in foreign policy he faced greater challenges than any president since Abraham Lincoln.

Determining whether or not to involve the U.S. in World War I severely tested his leadership. Wilson was initially reluctant to enter World War I and struggled to maintain American neutrality. When German submarines began sinking U.S. ships shortly after his second inauguration, however, the United States entered the conflict with a formal declaration of war against Germany on April 6, 1917. Wilson framed even this event in terms of his governing ideals: he asked Congress to take the nation to war on the grounds that “the world must be made safe for democracy.”

Less than a year later, on January 8, 1918, Wilson made his famous "Fourteen Points" address, in which he proclaimed that the outcome of the war should be an expansion of national self-determination, greater freedom and transparency in international relations, and disarmament. He also introduced the idea of a League of Nations, an organization that would strive to preserve territorial integrity and political independence among large and small nations alike.

speech notes
Shorthand Notes for the "Fourteen Points," Woodrow Wilson, January 8, 1918.
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Wilson intended the Fourteen Points to help end the war and achieve an equitable peace for all. He worked tirelessly to promote his plan at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. The charter of the proposed League of Nations was incorporated into the conference's Treaty of Versailles, but most of the other Fourteen Points fell by the wayside.

For his peacemaking efforts, Wilson was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize. The award was bittersweet, however, because he was unable to convince congressional opponents, such as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, to support U.S. entry into the League of Nations. United States membership, Wilson believed, was essential to ensuring lasting world peace, for he considered the League “the only hope for mankind,” and its creation a God-given mission for America. Despite his appeal directly to the American people in a nationwide tour, the Senate in the end refused to ratify the treaty.

By that time the exhausted president had suffered two strokes, the second massive and incapacitating. He refused to resign. His beloved first wife, Ellen Axson Wilson, had died in 1914; now his second wife, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, hid the severity of his illness from the public and quietly took almost complete control of his presidency as he struggled towards a partial recovery. 

Edith Bolling Galt Wilson
Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, between 1915 and 1921.
By Popular Demand: Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies, 1789-Present

Though she had no authority to do so and no first lady, or any woman, had ever held such power in the United States before, Mrs. Wilson justified her actions on the grounds that her husband’s life was more important than the nation’s legitimate political order. As she put it, “Woodrow Wilson was first my beloved husband whose life I was trying to save, fighting with my back to the wall—after that he was the President of the United States.” For the final year and a half of his presidency the nation never realized how ill Wilson was, or how completely his wife held the reigns of power.

In 1921, the Wilsons retired from the White House to a home (external link) in the Embassy Row section of Washington, D.C.  Woodrow Wilson died there on February 3, 1924, and was buried in Washington’s National Cathedral. Edith Wilson lived on in their home another thirty-seven years, carefully guarding his legacy until her own death on December 28, 1961—her husband’s 105th birthday.

American Memory collections hold a wealth of material on Wilson and the era of his presidency.