“Progressiveness means not standing still when everything else is moving.”
Wilson was responsible for the longest list of reforms ever seen in the U.S. until Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal a generation later. In his first month in office, Wilson went before a joint session of Congress to have the legislative branch act on “the New Freedom,” his reform package. His entire reform package, including tariff, banking, labor and tax-related issues, passed in Congress by the end of his first year in office.
Wilson created the Federal Reserve Bank to make the U.S. banking system more responsive to national economic conditions. He pushed Congress to radically reform the high tariff then in place in order to lower the cost of living for the middle and working classes. Wilson’s administration passed the first child labor laws, established labor rights against big business, put in place the Federal Trade Commission and established the 8 hour day. Wilson supported the Clayton Anti-Trust Act which not only regulated business practices to prevent unfair competition, it also protected unions. Wilson appointed Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish member of the U.S. Supreme Court, despite strong opposition from business interests and powerful members of Congress. Wilson also backed legislation that gave the Philippines, then an American colony, self-rule and the right to elect their own legislature.
Wilson also instituted the first income tax, set on a sliding progressive scale so that the wealthy paid their fair share of the burden. He supported immigration rights and vetoed anti-immigrant legislation, noting that the U.S. had always welcomed immigrants who came to the U.S. to work hard and start a new life.
As a political leader at a time of great political turmoil, Wilson sometimes held contradictory positions. He believed in expanding democracy but at the same time he accepted and supported the status quo of “Jim Crow” at the early stages of an emerging civil rights movement. The progressivism which Wilson embraced in terms of child labor laws, and workers’ rights contrasted with the suppression of dissent during the World War and his delayed conversion to Woman’s Suffrage.
Wilson’s record of reform not only reshaped much of American life, it also inspired the next generation; Franklin Roosevelt and other young progressives continued his work under the New Deal in the 1930s and beyond as those young Wilsonian progressives came into their own as national leaders.