Woodrow Wilson: the idealistic President

Among the fourty-four presidents in the History of the United States, we can establish a classification which divided them into three groups: bad Presidents, good Presidents and those who manage to enter in the pantheon of the true American heroes. In the first group we found incompetents as George Bush Jr, liars without scruples as Richard Nixon, or imperialists who believed in the superiority of a supposed American race as William H. Taft. A good example of who could be considered a good President is Bill Clinton, for example. Today we are going to speak briefly about the 28th US President, Woodrow Wilson, who, for many people is one of that handful of Presidents who became an authentic reference to follow for his successors. So, there is a huge quantity of biographical material about him, such as that one we can find in the always meticulous biography of the website of the White House (in spite of being more a meticulous hagiography than a true biography, this website offers an eloquent understanding of the idealization that surrounds the historic figure of Wilson). About the life of Woodrow Wilson before he became President, the best source is, undoubtedly, the book ‘Woodrow Wilson: Princeton to the Presidency’ by W. Barksdale Maynard, which is about one of the most frequently unknown parts of the biography of a relevant person.

Woodrow Wilson was indeed one of the greatest Presidents in the US History. During his Presidency, from 1913 to 1921, it was expanded the role of the federal Government in the handling of the national economy, against the influence of the big trusts. The foreign policy followed those years established a new vision of the role of the United States in the world, aware of its role as a great power, nothing to do with the traditional isolationist policy of his predecessors. Wilson is considered by most of the historians as one of the five most beneficial American Presidents, along with Washington, Lincoln, Chester Arthur and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born in Virginia in 1856; however he raised in Georgia and South Carolina.  His father was a Presbyterian minister who supported the Confederation during the Secession War (1861-1865). Because of this war, he could not have a normal education during his childhood: he had to be taught by his father, at home. In 1875 he entered Princeton, graduating in 1879. Then he spent some years in the Faculty of law of the University of Virginia, after which he studied on his own and passed his exams in Georgia.

This successful academic career had its continuity at Johns Hopkins University; after it at last he could exercise as a lawyer in Atlanta. However this life bored him: soon he enrolled at Princeton University, where  for years he was a recognized professor: this helped him to be elected president of Princeton in 1902. His reformist work in that office soon drew attention of the Democrats: in 1910, they suggested him about presenting to the election for Governor of New Jersey. Wilson finally accepted being their candidate, but he established a condition in exchange: that their support would come with any kind of condition.

Since that point, the ascent from Wilson to national power was surprisingly fast: as Governor of New Jersey, he fought against the bosses of the Democrat party in order to get a reform of the campaign finance system, apart of a new primary law which allowed voters to nominate candidates, to the detriment of those party bosses. After that, Wilson had already a brilliant reputation, and in 1912 he used it to run for the Presidency.

After winning the Democratic nomination, he had to faced a divided Republican Party. William H. Taft, the current President, led to the official Republican nomination, but Theodore Roosevelt, the former President, opposed to the policy of Taft, left the Republican Convention and formed the ephemeral Progressive Party, also known as the “Bull Moose” Party. Thanks to this division into the Republican vote, Wilson got the election with a narrow margin, with a little less than 42 percent of the votes, in November 1912.

Already in office, Wilson applied the reforms he had outlined in his book The New Freedom, published in 1912 for his electoral campaign. Most of them were focused on the control of the national economy by the federal goverment, and they were re-established decades later by the Roosevelt Administration, including the changing of the tariff, the revising of the banking system, the checking of monopolies and fraudulent advertising, the prohibiting of unfair business practices, etc.

But the attention of Wilson soon was forced to resort to war. In the first three years of the I World War, Wilson maintained the traditional foreign neutrality of the United States. In fact he offered mediation on both sides, but it was rejected both by the Germans and by the British, who reproached him this policy. But in November 1916 the American electorate, reacting to the famous slogan “He kept us out of war”, re-elected him to the Presidency.

However, soon the thorny issue of freedom of the seas forced him to change dramatically his foreign policy: on January 31 Germany announced the «unrestricted submarine warfare». Only two months later, after the sinking of four American ships, Wilson took the decision: on April 2 he made the formal war declaration request to US Congress; and on April 6 1917 the Congress granted it.

Massive American effort slowly tipped the balance in favor of the Allies. Wilson went before Congress in January 1918, to enunciate American war aims–the Fourteen Points, the last of which would establish “A general association of nations…affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.”

Frank Freidel and Hugh Sidey The Presidential biographies on WhiteHouse.gov – Woodrow Wilson (2006). – the web page of The White House retrieved February 06, 2014 http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/presidents/woodrowwilson

After the German Armistice (11 November, 1918), Wilson went to the Conference of Paris in order to try building an enduring peace after “the war which will end with all the wars” in the words of Wilson himself. This trip made him the first American President who travelled abroad the Union during his Presidency. The result of the negotiations of Paris was the Versailles Treaty, which Wilson presented to the US Senate, trying to the get its approval about the Covenant of the League of Nations (his personal project) with a famous rhetoric question: “Dare we reject it and break the heart of the world?”

But the election of 1918 had shifted the balance in Congress to the Republicans. By seven votes the Versailles Treaty failed in the Senate. 

The President, against the warnings of his doctors, had made a national tour to mobilize public sentiment for the treaty. Exhausted, he suffered a stroke and nearly died. Tenderly nursed by his second wife, Edith Bolling Galt, he lived until 1924.

Frank Freidel and Hugh Sidey The Presidential biographies on WhiteHouse.gov – Woodrow Wilson (2006). – the web page of The White House retrieved February 06, 2014 http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/presidents/woodrowwilson

For the American national collective memory, Woodrow Wilson is remembered as a politician, intelligent and idealistic, but determined and firm in defending those high ideals, as well as tenacious in his struggle for a world more secure, free and fair.


Frank Freidel and Hugh Sidey The Presidential biographies on WhiteHouse.gov – Woodrow Wilson (2006). – the web page of The White House retrieved February 06, 2014 http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/presidents/woodrowwilson

W. Barksdale Maynard (2008). Woodrow Wilson: Princeton to the Presidency

John Milton Cooper Jr. (2009). Woodrow Wilson: a biography


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