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Woodrow Wilson Biography




Lesson Plans | Quotes | Biographies of Presidents



Thomas Woodrow Wilson (December 28, 1856 – February 3, 1924) governed during an era of enormous upheaval. The 16th (federal income tax) Amendment had just been ratified when Wilson took office. The country was swept up in, and divided by, a progressivism which Wilson embraced, advancing legislation which ensured that the “invisible hand” would not guide the economy alone. Women got the right to vote thanks in part to Wilson’s support. World War I raged during Wilson’s presidency, forcing him to guide the US through unprecedented challenges. He envisioned a postwar world order complete with an international organization devoted to fostering and preserving worldwide harmony. While the League of Nations ultimately did not succeed, the United Nations would never have existed without it. Above all, Wilson was an idealist, dedicated to achieving what he believed in – even if his “all or nothing” approach sometimes backfired.

Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia. For most of his childhood, he lived in Augusta, Georgia, where his slave-owning father was a minister and a chaplain in the Confederate Army. He spent a few years in South Carolina during Reconstruction and started college in North Carolina, but transferred to present-day Princeton University, putting down roots in New Jersey which would serve him well in his career. He studied law in Virginia and North Carolina and in 1882, began practicing in Atlanta but could not succeed in a city glutted with lawyers. The following year, he entered Johns Hopkins for his Ph.D. in history and political science. His academic career took off, leading him back to Princeton in 1890 as a professor; he became president of the university in 1902. Wilson also gained prominence as a political writer. Elected Governor of New Jersey as a Democrat in 1910, he embraced progressivism, bringing state primaries and worker’s compensation to the Garden State. Wilson ran for President in 1912; the election was unusual in that former President Theodore Roosevelt, having already passed the torch to William Taft, now broke from the Republican Party and ran against Taft on the Progressive ticket; the results were just as strange, Wilson winning only 42% of the popular vote but garnering a whopping 435 electoral votes.

President Wilson’s first term was dominated by legislation intended to regulate the economy. For banking, there was the Federal Reserve Act. For trade, the Underwood Act lowered tariffs but offset that action with a graduated federal income tax. The Clayton Antitrust Act clamped down on corporate excesses. Support for agriculture came in the form of education (the Smith-Lever Act) and money (the Federal Farm Loan Act). The Adamson Act capped the workday at eight hours for railroad laborers; the Keating-Owen Act tried to suppress child labor, but the Supreme Court struck it down in 1918. Meanwhile, Wilson won re-election in 1916 on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” That was too good to last.

War was underway overseas and tough Wilson had maintained neutrality, he had to change his stance when Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare, and attempt to ally with Mexico, proved too threatening to the US. But when Wilson entered the war in 1917, his idealism was still at the fore. He believed the war would “make the world safe for democracy” and end war entirely, and he stridently cracked down against anti-war forces at home. Though the US came out on the winning side, Wilson faced a bitter fight with Congress over the Treaty of Versailles. His unwillingness to compromise led the Senate to shoot down the treaty, meaning the US did not join the League of Nations which Wilson had so passionately championed.

 


woodrow wilson biographical information

President Biographies
World War 1

US Involvement in WWI
Wilson: The Roots of Modern Liberalism