A former president of Princeton University and governor of New Jersey, Wilson won election to his first term in the White House as a Democrat in 1912 on a campaign program called The New Freedom, which stressed individualism and states’ rights. From the day he took office in March 1913—when a parade organized by the Congressional Union, later to become known as the National Organization for Women, drew crowds away from the inauguration ceremonies—Wilson had to contend with the growing controversy over women’s suffrage on the home front. His administration saw the passage of several major acts of legislation, including the Federal Reserve Act and the creation of the Federal Trade Commission, designed to regulate business practices.
As war broke out in Europe in the summer of 1914, Wilson lost his wife of thirty years, Ellen, to liver cancer. Unable to abandon himself to his grief, he instead dedicated himself to his work, winning re-election in 1916 on a strict neutrality platform and the slogan He kept us out of the war. But Wilson soon decided that the U.S. could not remain neutral in the face of German aggression on the high seas and in April 1917 he asked Congress for a Declaration of War.
American participation in World War I helped turn the tide towards the Allies, and Wilson played a crucial role in determining the terms of the resulting peace. His famous Fourteen Points, presented to Congress in January 1918, introduced the idea of an international covenant aimed at resolving conflict, an idea that would come to fruition with the formation of the League of Nations. At Versailles in the month’s following Germany’s surrender, Wilson struggled to convince his counterparts in Britain and France, David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau, that in order for peace to endure, Germany must not be punished too harshly.
Wilson faced even tougher resistance at home. In late 1919, the Versailles Treaty was defeated in Congress by steadfast opposition from Henry Cabot Lodge and other Republican legislators. (Because it was not ratified, the U.S. negotiated a separate Treaty of Berlin with Germany that was signed on August 25, 1921.) Despite this failure, Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His idea of his country as the world’s leader in shaping international relations is a vision that, to a certain extent, has continued to inspire U.S. foreign policy to the present day.
Wilson left the White House in 1921 after suffering a physical breakdown and a stroke that left him paralyzed. Nursed by his second wife, Edith, he died on February 3, 1924.