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). Remembered as an advocate for democracy, progressivism and world peace, Wilson left a complex legacy that included re-segregating many branches of the federal workforce. 

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.

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.

Did you know? Woodrow Wilson, who had a career as an academic and university president before entering politics, did not learn to read until he was 10, likely due to dyslexia.

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. 

During his tenure, however, he also prevented enrollment of Black students at the university. And in 1902, Wilson published a five-volume textbook, The History of the American People, which presented a romanticized view of the Confederacy and described the Ku Klux Klan, a violent terrorist group, as "roving knights-errant...an 'Invisible Empire of the South,' bound together in a loose organization to protect the Southern country of some of the ugliest hazards of a time of revolution." 

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.

Wilson's progressive agenda did not apply to all Americans, however. During his first term, he oversaw the re-segregation of many branches of the federal workforce,  including the Treasury, the Post Office, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the Navy, the Interior, the Marine Hospital, the War Department and the Government Printing Office. The action reversed hard-fought economic progress made by Black Americans since Reconstruction.

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.

Woodrow Wilson’s Second Administration: World War I

Woodrow Wilson’s second term in office was dominated by World War I. Although the president had advocated for peace during the initial years of the war, in early 1917 German submarines launched unrestricted submarine attacks against U.S. merchant ships. Around the same time, the United States learned about the Zimmerman Telegram, in which Germany tried to persuade Mexico to enter into an alliance against America. On April 2, 1917, Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany, stating, “The world must be made safe for democracy.”

America’s participation helped bring about victory for the Allies, and on November 11, 1918, an armistice was signed by the Germans. At the Paris Peace Conference, which opened in January 1919 and included the heads of the British, French and Italian governments, Wilson helped negotiate the Treaty of Versailles. The agreement included the charter for the League of Nations, an organization intended to arbitrate international disputes and prevent future wars. Wilson had initially advanced the idea for the League in a January 1918 speech to the U.S. Congress in which he outlined his “Fourteen Points” for a postwar peace settlement.

When Wilson returned from Europe in the summer of 1919, he encountered opposition to the Versailles treaty from isolationist Republicans in Congress who feared the League could limit America’s autonomy and draw the country into another war. In September of that year, the president embarked on a cross-country speaking tour to promote his ideas for the League directly to the American people. 

On the night of September 25, on a train bound for Wichita, Kansas, Wilson collapsed from mental and physical stress, and the rest of his tour was canceled. On October 2, he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. Wilson’s condition was kept largely hidden from the public, and his wife worked behind the scenes to fulfill a number of his administrative duties.

The Senate voted on the Treaty of Versailles first in November 1919 and again in March 1920. Both times it failed to gain the two-thirds vote required for ratification. The treaty’s defeat was partly blamed on Wilson’s refusal to compromise with the Republicans. The League of Nations held its first meeting in January 1920; the United States never joined the organization. However, in December 1920, Wilson received the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to include the Covenant of the League of Nations in the Treaty of Versailles.

Woodrow Wilson’s Second Administration: Domestic Issues

Woodrow Wilson’s second administration saw the passage of two significant constitutional amendments. The era of Prohibition was ushered in on January 17, 1920, when the 18th Amendment, banning the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcohol, went into effect following its ratification one year earlier. In 1919, Wilson vetoed the National Prohibition Act (or Volstead Act), designed to enforce the 18th Amendment; however, his veto was overridden by Congress. Prohibition lasted until 1933, when it was repealed by the 21st Amendment.

Also in 1920, American women gained the right to vote when the 19th Amendment became law that August; Wilson had pushed Congress to pass the amendment. That year’s presidential election–the first in which women from every state were allowed to vote–resulted in a victory for Republican Warren Harding (1865-1923), a congressman from Ohio who opposed the League of Nations and campaigned for a “return to normalcy” after Wilson’s tenure in the White House.

Woodrow Wilson’s Final Years

After leaving office in March 1921, Woodrow Wilson resided in Washington, D.C. He and a partner established a law firm, but poor health prevented the president from ever doing any serious work. Wilson died at his home on February 3, 1924, at age 67. He was buried in the Washington National Cathedral, the only president to be interred in the nation’s capital.

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