Like Roosevelt before him, Woodrow Wilson regarded himself as
the personal representative of the people. "No one but the
President," he said, "seems to be expected ... to look
out for the general interests of the country." He developed a
program of progressive reform and asserted international
leadership in building a new world order. In 1917 he proclaimed
American entrance into World War I a crusade to make the world
"safe for democracy."
Wilson had seen the frightfulness of war. He was born in
Virginia in 1856, the son of a Presbyterian minister who during
the Civil War was a pastor in Augusta, Georgia, and during
Reconstruction a professor in the charred city of Columbia, South
After graduation from Princeton (then the College of New
Jersey) and the University of Virginia Law School, Wilson earned
his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University and entered upon an
academic career. In 1885 he married Ellen Louise Axson.
Wilson advanced rapidly as a conservative young professor of
political science and became president of Princeton in 1902.
His growing national reputation led some conservative Democrats
to consider him Presidential timber. First they persuaded him to
run for Governor of New Jersey in 1910. In the campaign he
asserted his independence of the conservatives and of the machine
that had nominated him, endorsing a progressive platform, which he
pursued as governor.
He was nominated for President at the 1912 Democratic
Convention and campaigned on a program called the New Freedom,
which stressed individualism and states' rights. In the three-way
election he received only 42 percent of the popular vote but an
overwhelming electoral vote.
Wilson maneuvered through Congress three major pieces of
legislation. The first was a lower tariff, the Underwood Act;
attached to the measure was a graduated Federal income tax. The
passage of the Federal Reserve Act provided the Nation with the
more elastic money supply it badly needed. In 1914 antitrust
legislation established a Federal Trade Commission to prohibit
unfair business practices.
Another burst of legislation followed in 1916. One new law
prohibited child labor; another limited railroad workers to an
eight-hour day. By virtue of this legislation and the slogan
"he kept us out of war," Wilson narrowly won
But after the election Wilson concluded that America could not
remain neutral in the World War. On April 2,1917, he asked
Congress for a declaration of war on Germany.
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."
After the Germans signed the Armistice in November 1918, Wilson
went to Paris to try to build an enduring peace. He later
presented to the Senate the Versailles Treaty, containing the
Covenant of the League of Nations, and asked, "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 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.