Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), the 28th U.S. president, served in office from 1913 to 1921 and led America through World War I (1914-1918). An advocate for democracy and world peace, Wilson is often ranked by historians as one of the nation’s greatest presidents. Wilson was a college professor, university president and Democratic governor of New Jersey before winning the White House in 1912. Once in office, he pursued an ambitious agenda of progressive reform that included the establishment of the Federal Reserve and Federal Trade Commission. Wilson tried to keep the United States neutral during World War I but ultimately called on Congress to declare war on Germany in 1917. After the war, he helped negotiate a peace treaty that included a plan for the League of Nations. Although the Senate rejected U.S. membership in the League, Wilson received the Nobel Prize for his peacemaking efforts.
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World War I
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Did You Know?
Woodrow Wilson, who had an esteemed career as an academic and university president before entering politics, did not learn to read until he was 10, likely due to dyslexia.
- Woodrow Wilson's Early Years
- Woodrow Wilson's Rise in Politics
- Woodrow Wilson's First Administration
- Woodrow Wilson's Second Administration: World War I
- Woodrow Wilson's Second Administration: Domestic Issues
- Woodrow Wilson's Final Years
Woodrow Wilson's Early Years
Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born on December 28, 1856, in Staunton, Virginia. (Because his mother said he arrived around midnight, some sources list Wilson’s birthday as December 29.) His father, Joseph Ruggles Wilson (1822-1903), was a Presbyterian minister, and his mother, Janet Woodrow Wilson (1826-1888), was a minister’s daughter and originally from England. Tommy Wilson, as he was called growing up, spent his childhood and teen years in Augusta, Georgia, and Columbia, South Carolina. During the American Civil War (1861-1865), Wilson’s father served as a chaplain in the Confederate army and used his church as a hospital for injured Confederate troops.
Wilson graduated from Princeton University (then called the College of New Jersey) in 1879 and went on to attend law school at the University of Virginia. After briefly practicing law in Atlanta, Georgia, he received a Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins University in 1886. (Wilson remains the only U.S. president to earn a doctorate degree.) He taught at Bryn Mawr College and Wesleyan College before being hired by Princeton in 1890 as a professor of jurisprudence and politics. From 1902 to 1910, Wilson was president of Princeton, where he developed a national reputation for his educational reform policies.
In 1885, Wilson married Ellen Axson (1860-1914), a minister’s daughter and Georgia native. The couple had three daughters before Ellen died of kidney disease in 1914, during her husband’s first presidential term. The following year, Wilson married Edith Bolling Galt (1872-1961), a widow whose husband had owned a Washington, D.C., jewelry business.
Woodrow Wilson's Rise in Politics
In 1910, Woodrow Wilson was elected governor of New Jersey, where he fought machine politics and garnered national attention as a progressive reformer. In 1912, the Democrats nominated Wilson for president, selecting Thomas Marshall (1854-1925), the governor of Indiana, as his vice presidential running mate. The Republican Party split over their choice for a presidential candidate: Conservative Republicans re-nominated President William Taft (1857-1930), while the progressive wing broke off to form the Progressive (or Bull Moose) Party and nominated Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), who had served as president from 1901 to 1909.
With the Republicans divided, Wilson, who campaigned on a platform of liberal reform, won 435 electoral votes, compared to 88 for Roosevelt and eight for Taft. He garnered nearly 42 percent of the popular vote; Roosevelt came in second place with more than 27 percent of the popular vote.
Woodrow Wilson's First Administration
At the age of 56, Woodrow Wilson was sworn into office in March 1913. He was the last American president to travel to his inauguration ceremony in a horse-drawn carriage. Once in the White House, Wilson achieved significant progressive reform. Congress passed the Underwood-Simmons Act, which reduced the tariff on imports and imposed a new federal income tax. It also passed legislation establishing the Federal Reserve (which provides a system for regulating the nation's banks, credit and money supply) and the Federal Trade Commission (which investigates and prohibits unfair business practices). Other accomplishments included child labor laws, an eight-hour day for railroad workers and government loans to farmers. Additionally, Wilson nominated the first Jewish person to the U.S. Supreme Court, Louis Brandeis (1856-1941), who was confirmed by the Senate in 1916.
When World War I broke out in Europe in the summer of 1914, Wilson was determined to keep the United States out of the conflict. On May 7, 1915, a German submarine torpedoed and sank the British ocean liner Lusitania, killing more than 1,100 people (including 128 Americans). Wilson continued to maintain U.S. neutrality but warned Germany that any future sinkings would be viewed by America as “deliberately unfriendly.”
In 1916, Wilson and Vice President Marshall were re-nominated by the Democrats. The Republicans chose Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes (1862-1948) as their presidential candidate and Charles Fairbanks (1852-1918), the U.S. vice president under Theodore Roosevelt, as his running mate. Wilson, who campaigned on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” won with a narrow electoral margin of 277-254 and a little more than 49 percent of the popular vote.
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