Woodrow Wilson's Administration
By Paul Dean
"Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy"
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Often it is difficult to determine whether a man is significant because
of his own deeds or because he happened to be in the right place at the
right time. Woodrow Wilson certainly presided over the nation at a memorable
time, but his actions were significant and his policies still influence
the United States today. His life is more a thought of what could have
been, then what came to pass. Still, despite the inconsistencies, errors,
and hesitations, Wilson's style and principles were unique. This enables
his legacy to shine beyond the shadow of tragedy.
From Princeton to President
Wilson's rise to power was extraordinary. Few have risen from relative
obscurity to world prominence so quickly. In 1909 he was the president
of a small, struggling university, in 1918 he was the world's one hope
for lasting peace.
In 1909 Wilson's progressive programs and innovations as president of
Princeton University attracted the attention of the Democratic political
machine. They helped elect him Governor of New Jersey, but learned to regret
it. Instead of following orders Wilson ended up cleaning house and riding
the state house of much deep-seeded corruption. Presidential aspirations
cut his tenure as Governor short. His writing, oratory skills, and progressive
accomplishments gave him enough visibility to attract Democrats looking
for a national leader. A speaking tour designed to test the waters was
a rousing success and Governor Wilson stepped into national politics.
Wilson could not have picked a more opportune time to run. Teddy Roosevelt's
dissatisfaction with William Howard Taft's record caused a split in the
Republican Party . Roosevelt tried and failed to receive the Republican
nomination, so he and his rowdy following left the convention and formed
the progressive (Bull Moose) party. This dissension virtually guaranteed
a Wilson Presidency. This unique election between 3 presidents (one past,
one present, and one future) ended with 88 electoral votes for Roosevelt,
8 for Taft, and the remaining 435 for Wilson. Wilson brought a democratic
Congress with him and the stage was set for progressive reform.
Wilson's cabinet was relatively weak and understandably inexperienced.
The Democrats had not been in power since 1897, and the only member of
any national prominence was three time Democratic Presidential candidate
William Jennings Bryan. Wilson reluctantly agreed to choose Bryan as Secretary
of State to appease a segment of the Democratic party. Bryan and Wilson
saw eye to eye on most issues until war was imminent with the Central Powers.
Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the Navy, was another important selection.
He was most notable for who he choose as his under secretary, a young politician
from New York named Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Perhaps the most influential of all the president's advisors was a Texas
gentleman nicknamed "Colonel" House. He noticed Wilson while
he was governor of New Jersey and was invaluable throughout Wilson's administration
although he never held an official post.
The New Freedom
"Action is Character."
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Wilson's first legislative step could have been disastrous. Revision
of Tariffs had destroyed politicians before. Teddy Roosevelt predicted
that any politician who attempted Tariff reform was committing political
suicide. However Wilson was determined to succeed. The current Tariff placed
undue burden on the average American and provided an atmosphere that trusts
and monopolies could flourish. Through skillful statesmanship and determined
leadership Wilson passed the bill through both houses of Congress. Attached
to the bill was a graduated income tax. This tax made it far easier in
later years to raise the funds necessary to prepare for war. The "New
Freedom" which included legislation concerning tariff reform, currency
reform, and child labor reform, was a significant accomplishment and may
have been his legacy if not for the troubles in Europe.
The turmoil of Mexico
Mexico was an inherited headache. The many factions and political parties
insured almost continual turmoil. Taft had sent U.S. warships to Mexican
waters to ward off potential problems, but had practically ignored the
brutal assassination of the duly elected Mexican President Francisco Madero.
Wilson walked into a no-win situation and did not win. Throughout his presidency
Wilson wavered between his policy of "watchful waiting," and
armed intervention. Meanwhile various bandits, such as Pancho Villa, conducted
raids across the border, or kidnapped key U.S. officials. Mexican politicians
made open threats, and negotiated possible alliances with Germany. This
made coherent policy very difficult to initiate and maintain. Wilson battled
to keep his principles at work in Mexico. The harsh reality of short term
solutions chipped away at his ideals of national self-determination, and
prevented Wilson from solving the Mexico problem before he left office.
The danger was most evident in 1917 when the United States intercepted
a note from Germany to Mexico. The "Zimmerman Note" proposed
an alliance between Mexico and Germany and promised financial support as
well as the return of New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona to Mexican control.
This alliance, which never materialized, between Mexico and Germany would
have severely hampered the United States ability to fight Germany in Europe.
"Of course you know what has happened to me.
God has stricken me almost more than I can bear."
Woodrow Wilson, 1914
While Woodrow tended the affairs of state Ellen Wilson worked tirelessly
for the condition of the slums in Washington D.C. She also hosted numerous
events at the White House which caused great stress to one used to the
quiet setting of Princeton. Ellen, fragile, artistic and intelligent, did
not have the constitution for the daily pressures of the public eye. Her
health deteriorated quickly and by the summer of 1914 President Wilson
was spending hours by her bedside comforting his wife and writing while
she slept. August 4th with her family around her bed and Woodrow holding
her hand Ellen Axson Wilson passed away. Her last wish was that the slum-clearance
bill that she had worked for be passed. The bill was acted upon favorably
at first, but met resistance and never solved the problems that Ellen had
hoped to eliminate. Woodrow wondered aloud how he could cope, partially
blaming his ambition for her death.
Wilson would remarry in 1915 to Edith Boling Galt, but in the meantime
would feel deeply this immense personal loss. The world would not give
him time to mourn. By August 6 the armies of Europe were mobilized and
on the move.
"As some of the injuries done us have become intolerable we
have still been clear that we wished nothing for ourselves that we were
not ready to demand for all mankind-fair dealing, justice, the freedom
to live and to be at ease against organized wrong."
Woodrow Wilson, 2nd Inaugural
In 1916 Wilson ran on the slogan,"he kept us out of war,"
and narrowly defeated Supreme Court Justice Charles Even Hughes. Wilson
managed to keep America out of the war until it was clear that Germany's
submarine warfare would continue to claim American civilian lives. During
the 976 days of neutrality Wilson repeatedly tried to negotiate for an
end to the fighting, and called on all those involved to accept peace without
victory. Facing the imminent defeat of France, and seeing no end to Germany's
attacks on civilian shipping, Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany
2-Apr-1917. Neutrality had ended, the nation was at war.
United States Involvement in WW1
Wilson continued to work for an end to the fighting while mobilizing
the nation for war. American forces led by General Pershing made a significant
addition to the allied fighting force in both numbers and morale. When
America entered the war France was on the verge of collapse. Within months
the Germans agreed to an armistice based on Wilson's 14 points. It was
clear that they could not continue.
The Versailles Peace Conference
"Punitive damages, the dismemberment of empire we deem childish
and in the end less than futile"
Woodrow Wilson, 1917
Wilson became the first President to leave the country while in office
when he left for France aboard the S.S. George Washington 4-Dec-1918. Wherever
he went in Europe huge crowds gathered to cheer him on. His 14 points were
very popular and the common people saw him as the savior of France, and
the greatest hope for world peace. His efforts, for the most part, would
end in vain. British Prime Minister Lloyd George and French Prime Minister
Georges Clemenceau resisted most of his ideas. To them the goal was to
punish Germany to the extent that it could never make war again. They both
were very conscious of the revengeful attitude of constituents, and would
not budge. Wilson, through much effort, did manage to prevent some of the
more extreme punishments against Germany, and convinced the allies that
a League of Nations was necessary. With these small victories in hand Wilson
The Last Battle
"There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Wilson could not convince people at home that it was time for America
to join the World Community. America had stepped back into isolationism,
and would not be budged. The Congress was in Republican hands and was generally
uncooperative with Wilson. Led by Wilson's longtime adversary Senator Henry
Cabot Lodge, the Republicans insisted that certain parts of the League
be altered. Wilson refused to make even the smallest concessions, fearing
it would make it impotent. The Senate would not agree to the treaty so
Wilson entered the final chapter of his relatively short political story.
He decided to take the matter directly to the public.
His doctor warned him not to go. His wife begged him to reconsider.
Wilson was determined and would not be turned back. The Senate would not
listen to him, so he hoped to convince the public through an extensive
speaking tour, and thus pressure the Senate into ratifying the treaty.
The tour started out well. Enthusiastic supporters cheered him at each
stop. Victory turned out to be beyond his grasp. Wilsonís fragile health
halted the tour abruptly in Colorado. . "I don't seem to realize it,"
he commented to an advisor, "but I seem to have gone to pieces."
For the remainder of his administration Wilson was a near invalid. His
wife looked over him carefully and was suspected of making important decisions
for him. His hope was not shattered, but his body was, and that handicap
was insurmountable. Wilson lived on until 1924, but never fully regained
his mental or physical abilities. He died with his wife by his side, confident
to the end that wrongs would be righted, and that America's mission would
be fulfilled. His last words were "Edith,(His wife) I'm
a broken machine, but I'm ready."
His influence has been significant. During his tenure there were 3 amendments
to the constitution. The Seventeenth provided for the direct election of
United States Senators.
The Eighteenth prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of
intoxicating liquors. The Nineteenth, guaranteed suffrage for women. His
legislative successes included the Federal Reserve Act, the Clayton Anti-trust
Act, Keating-Owen Child Labor Act, and the Adamson Act which established
the eight-hour work day on railroads. According to Henry Kissinger, his
foreign policy has shaped 20th Century United States policy like no other.
He was a man known for his principles, drawn from the pages of the Bible
and the doctrine of the Presbyterians. He was an unusual president in that
he had years of thinking and writing the philosophy of government, but
little in the way of political experience. In the end he may be remembered
more for his failure concerning the League of Nations than his progressive
Wilson served in an era before Watergate, and before all of the scandals
that have reduced faith in government to tired cynicism. Wilson was a great
man in an age when people still believed in great men.
"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."
Woodrow Wilson, 1919
- Link, Arthur S. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson. Volumes 23-31.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977.
- Daniels, Josephus. The Life of Woodrow Wilson. Will H. Johnston.
- Heckscher, August. Woodrow Wilson. Collier Books Macmillian Publishing
Company. New York. 1991.
- Kane, Joseph Nathan. Facts About the Presidents. H.W. Wilson
Company. New York. 1959
- Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy Touchstone New York. 1995.
- Nordholt, Jan Willem Schulte. Translated by Hervert H. Rowen. Woodrow
Wilson: A Life for World Peace. University of California Press. Berkeley
and Los Angeles, California. 1991.