Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)
Episode #5 of the course Greatest US presidents by Patrick Allitt
Woodrow Wilson, a stern and humorless figure in the American puritan tradition, was also the first southerner to enter the White House since the Civil War. An academic by training, he had been a political science professor at Princeton, then the university’s president, and finally, the governor of New Jersey. Like Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson favored “progressive” politics, and under his supervision, the United States became a more democratic nation than ever before.
Four constitutional amendments were implemented during his administration, two of which increased democratic participation. The 17th provided for the direct election of US Senators, who until then had been selected by the state legislatures, and the 19th gave votes to women, doubling the size of the American electorate. Wilson also declared the first Mother’s’ Day in 1915.
Wilson was sincere in his commitment to improving working and living conditions for ordinary citizens. In 1916, he supported the Adamson Act that gave an eight-hour working day to all railroad employees. He also helped cut the cost of living by reducing tariffs and stabilized the nation’s finances by establishing the Federal Reserve system. He supported the nation’s first laws against child labor, appointed the first Jewish Supreme Court justice (Louis Brandeis), and vetoed immigration-restriction laws.
On the other hand, Wilson favored racial segregation. Most southern states had passed segregation laws during the 1880s and 1890s. The Supreme Court had upheld them in the 1896 case, Plessy v. Ferguson, and Wilson now extended their reach to include the federal government. In his view, this was a progressive reform, but recent historians have deplored it for counteracting African-American efforts to move up in the world. It is the greatest blemish on his record.
Growing up in the devastated post-Civil War South, Wilson had seen first hand the damage that war can do and hoped to keep the United States out of the world war that began in 1914. This aim was in keeping with America’s long tradition of isolationism but conflicted with the openly pro-British position of most politicians. Winning re-election in 1916 on the slogan, “He kept us out of war,” Wilson was soon forced to reverse himself. German submarine captains in the North Atlantic began to attack American ships ferrying war materials to Britain and France. He responded by declaring war on Germany and joining the Allies.
Wilson declared that unlike the European powers, America had no material aims in the war, only idealistic ones. This, he said, was the war to end all wars and the war to make the world safe for democracy. When Germany surrendered in November 1918, Wilson traveled to Paris to participate in the peace negotiations at Versailles. His “14 Points” was an ambitious program for creating stability in international politics, designed to assure mutual prosperity and replace war with arbitration.
In view of what happened over the next two decades in Germany, there can be no doubt that Wilson’s approach of avoiding a vengeful treaty was wise. Unfortunately, he was outmaneuvered by the British and French leaders at Versailles, who wanted Germany to bear blame for the war and to be made weak through reparation payments.
To make matters worse, Wilson was unable to convince the US Senate to join the League of Nations, the central support of his design. As a result, the League was compromised from the outset and proved unable to prevent the slide toward an even more destructive war in the 1930s. Wilson is a tragic figure, denied the chance to put into practice what was, up to that time, the most enlightened political plan in world history.
Wilson’s under-secretary of the Navy, Franklin Roosevelt, overcame great adversity in the 1920s to become the next Democrat in the White House during the crisis years of the Great Depression. We’ll talk about Franklin Roosevelt tomorrow.
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