Woodrow Wilson’s title as “president” wasn’t the first of that name under his belt. From 1902-1910, President Wilson was the president of Princeton University. He was one smart cookie– he’s our only president to hold a Ph.D., and to be considered an academic. After his role at Princeton, he then left to become governor of New Jersey. It was his only other elected office.
Wilson wasn’t known for being warm and fuzzy. He was described by many as outwardly cold. But, his speaking skills were top notch. He was the first president since John Adams to deliver his State of the Union address to Congress in person, setting the standard for presidents today.
No matter the ways he went about it, the man got a lot done. He’s often considered one of our nation’s greatest presidents.
Woodrow Wilson, our nation’s 28th president, was born in Stauton, Virginia in December 1856. His family moved to Augusta, Georgia when he was two when his father accepted a job as a minister of a church. Can you imagine growing up in the deep South during the Civil War and Reconstruction era? Many historians say it shaped who Wilson was to the core.
The Education of Woodrow Wilson
It’s not like any of our nation’s presidents have been unqualified . . . technically. But certainly, experience aside, some have been better educated than others. However, Woodrow Wilson’s education blows every other presidents’ out of the water. He graduated from Princeton. Then he studied law at the University of Virginia. It doesn’t end there. He then went on to study political science at Johns Hopkins, earning his Ph.D. Teaching came next. He became a faculty member at Bryn Mawr College, then Wesleyan University, then returned to Princeton as a professor of political economy. In between all that, he had time to author a text book on comparative government. He then wrote nine more books, including a five-volume set called History of the American People. And that’s not even everything! Wowza!
In 1902 he became the president of Princeton. He remained there until 1910 when he was persuaded by the Democratic Party of New Jersey to run for governor. That didn’t even last a full term before he was convinced to get himself into a campaign to top all campaigns.
The Campaign of 1912
The campaign of 1912 was something else. Thanks to two heavy weights who were battling it out for Republican votes (ultimately splitting them), Wilson easily won the election.
William Howard Taft was the incumbent who made his predecessor so mad that he (Roosevelt) decided to run against him. When his own party wouldn’t elect him as their nominee, Roosevelt created his own party, the Progressive Party (you may have heard of it referred to as the Bull Moose Party). Unfortunately, for both Roosevelt and Taft, both of them being in the race meant the Republican vote was split. Wilson won easily enough, with Roosevelt coming in second and Taft dead last (but not all that sad about it)
Some historians speculate that if Taft hadn’t decided to seek a second term and split the Republican vote against Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson may not have been elected at all. They think TR would have been re-elected by a landslide. Because of it, they think the course of world history could have been completely altered, including WWII possibly never happening. But, of course, that’s pure speculation and we’ll never really know what could have happened. Speculation can be interesting though, right?
The Wilson Administration (1913-1921)
“Woodrow Wilson was neither fondly remembered nor very well understood by most Americans today. However, he occupies a secure position in that exclusive patheon of great presidents.” Thomas Knock, author.
Woodrow Wilson was a work horse. He knew how to get things done. He was also quite focused. He chose to concentrate on labor and welfare. During his first term, he also oversaw the adoption of two constitutional amendments: the 18th (prohibition of alcohol) and 19th (giving women the right to vote).
Wilson also created the Federal Reserve to manage our country’s currency system– a system still in place today.
Sometimes the smaller, less policy oriented accomplishments get overlooked. But you can thank Woodrow Wilson for Mother’s Day. Under his administration, Congress passed a law declaring the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.
Wilson signed the Federal Trade Commission Act in the fall of 1914. The act established the Federal Trade Commission, a five-member board, to regulate questionable business practices.
The president’s wife Ellen passed away of a kidney disease just a year into his first term as president. Wilson was beside himself. She had been at the forefront of everything he did.
Nearly a year and a half later, however, Wilson remarried. Later that year he won re-election, but just barely. It made him the first Democrat to be re-elected since Andrew Jackson nearly a hundred years earlier.
Woodrow Wilson and WWI
“The world must be made safe for democracy.” Woodrow Wilson
Wilson did everything he could to keep America out of WWI. He knew Americans didn’t want it and neither did he. In fact, the slogan of his re-election campaign was “He kept us out of war.” However, as his second term began and Germany declared American ships would no longer be spared their wrath, Wilson felt he had no choice. In his speech to Congress regarding entering the war, he changed the face of our country’s foreign policy. He said the world must be kept safe for democracy. That meant America had to get involved.
Wilson’s involvement basically began when the Germans sunk the Lusitania in 1915. The Germans vowed to Wilson that they would no longer strike a vessel without giving warning first. But in 1917, Germany broke their promise, leaving Wilson feeling like he didn’t have a choice.
Wilson implemented the Selective Service to draft nearly three million men into military service.
The First Family helped in the war efforts by raising sheep on the White House lawn and auctioning off the wool.
Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations
“I can predict with absolute certainty that within another generation there will be another world war if the nations of the world do not concert the method by which to prevent it.”
In 1918, Wilson presented to Congress something that became known as the Fourteen Points. It was a statement of objectives that led to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and to the Versailles Treaty. The Fourteen Points included an international organization to keep the peace. It would do so by providing a place where disputes could be discussed and issues considered civilly. That organization was named the League of Nations.
The League of Nations was Wilson’s baby. It was at the forefront of what he did as president during his second term and he became almost obsessed with it. He spent six months in Paris for the Peace Conference where he petitioned fellow leaders of Allied Nations to get on board with his idea. He traveled around the country trying to promote it.
Eventually, the League was formed. But Wilson, much to his dismay, was unable to convince the U.S. to join it. Why wouldn’t Congress sign on? Senators worried over the U.S. losing sovereignty and becoming the “policeman of the globe.” Those worries still exist today.
Wilson didn’t give up without a fight though. He literally crossed the entire country in an effort to win over the American people. Unfortunately, the stress of his efforts caught up with him.
The Incapacitated President
In September of 1919, President Wilson was promoting the League of Nations on a national speaking tour when he suffered a massive stroke. His body and mind were completely gone for awhile. But his wife and top aides did a great job at not letting the American people know how serious it was. She and some of his key advisers basically governed for him. In fact, there’s an interesting article here about how his wife was basically the first woman president (though obviously she was never elected).
In fact, with President Wilson partially in mind (but of course JFK’s assassination was at the forefront of the decision), the 25th Amendment was later passed to address procedures for both filling a vacancy in the office of vice president (should he assume the presidency) as well as responding to presidential disabilities. Had the public known how incapacitated President Wilson really was, Congress may have called for him to be removed from office. Now, thanks to the 25th Amendment, there’s a process in place for that.
The First Ladies
Woodrow and Ellen Wilson were close. The had three daughters together. Ellen Wilson was her husband’s right hand. He didn’t even publish his books without her approval of his drafts. She handled everything and he depended on her. So, a year into her husband’s presidency, when Ellen suddenly collapsed of exhaustion, it wasn’t a surprise to her. It was a surprise, however, when upon a medical evaluation, she was told her fall wasn’t due from overdoing it, but from Bright’s Disease at advance stages. In the Victorian Era, Bright’s Disease, a disease of the kidney, was always fatal.
At Ellen’s request, Woodrow Wilson wasn’t told of the disease until two days before she died. Ellen knew it would affect how he carried on his presidential duties and possibly even his own health if he knew. When she died, Wilson was devastated and wondered aloud what he was going to do without her.
Less than a year later, Wilson was remarried. Her name was Edith Gall. She was 43 and he was 59. She was a wealthy owner of a local jewelry store and a widow. She loved politics and the two hit it off right away. They were engaged just three months after they met.
Edith went full force into her First Lady duties and became pivotal to his success, especially in his second term. When Wilson suffered his stroke, Edith took over full force. Many called her “The Secret President” because of her basically assuming the office and responsibilities of the presidency. She met with heads of state, members of Congress, held regular press and Cabinet meetings, and even made major decisions–all without the advice of her husband–for several months until Wilson was well enough to speak again. Even when he regained some strength, Edith basically took over the office throughout the remainder of his presidency.
To learn more about Edith’s “presidency,” check out this book. Sadly, even though Edith was recognized at the time for playing such a major role in her husband’s presidency, history has largely forgotten her. It’s time to change that!
When Wilson became president, several trusted cabinet members came to him with a request: segregate government offices. They claimed it was for the good of all government employees–that they would work better that way and be more comfortable. It’s said that Wilson trusted his advisers and told them to go for it if that’s what they thought best. Well, hindsight is 20/20, obviously, but that didn’t exactly bode well for Wilson in the 21st century. As one NYTimes article states, Wilson’s legacy is now complicated with labels of racism.
Student protesters at the very school Wilson was once head of, have demanded the former president’s name be removed from The Public and International Affairs school. Other instances are cited for Wilson being termed a “racist” (such as showing the film “Birth of a Nation” at the White House), but on the flip side, he’s also called by many historians one of the top 10 best presidents our country has ever seen.
So, can we properly evaluate a president’s historical legacy through our present-day lenses? Should Wilson have known better? Was his better judgement clouded by the trust of his advisers?
Why Woodrow Wilson is Cool
President Wilson didn’t see his dream fulfilled of the U.S. entering the League of Nations. However, as a consolation prize, he was offered the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts (the second president to receive it). That’s huge. Additionally, his education is quite impressive. The man holds a Ph.D. and was president of an Ivy League school. Kudos to him.
Wilson was an automobile enthusiast. It’s said that while he was in office, he took daily rides in his favorite car, a 1919 Pierce Arrow. Because he loved cars so much, many say this is what made him an advocate for funding public highways.
President Wilson also loved baseball. During college he had been a center fielder. In 1915 he became the first sitting president to attend and throw out the first ball at a World Series game.
President Woodrow Wilson did a lot of great things. However, looking back, some of his decisions were flawed. But, a question to ask your children is this– is it fair to judge someone from the past with our present day eyes? Today, if anyone were to even suggest segregating an office workplace, that person would be lucky to ever find a job again. But the early 20th century, circumstances were different–the Civil Rights movement wouldn’t even start for several more decades. Should President Wilson have known better anyway? What do your kids think about his legacy?
Former White House and Capitol Hill staffer, wife, and mom.