Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated as the 28th President of the United States on March 4, 1913 and served two terms, until 1921, during one of the most tumultuous and remarkable periods of world and American history. The period from 2013 to 2021 is the centennial of the Wilson years in the White House.
President Wilson is well known for his support of a League of Nations (the precursor to the modern United Nations). Under his leadership the United States fought World War I, American women received the right to vote, and the foundation of the modern federal government was laid (including federal income taxation, the Federal Reserve System, antitrust enforcement, and the President’s annual “State of the Union” address). Woodrow Wilson is probably the most important President during the period between President Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865) and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945).
In the Wilson years, the world saw the downfall of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, the Russian Revolution, the Mexican Revolution, and the 1919 global influenza epidemic. Modern ideas taking root in the era included Einstein’s physics, Freud’s psychology, and Picasso’s abstract art.
The period saw the diffusion of new technologies: Wilson placed the first trans-Atlantic telephone call, received the first airmail letter, and made the first remote radio broadcast to the American people. Wilson enjoyed baseball (there were no night games), his automobile (although he never learned to drive), and going out to movies (silent movies, of course).
Woodrow Wilson was first elected President in 1912 – one of the most remarkable elections in American history. The election featured four candidates, three of whom were past or future Presidents: William Howard Taft (the incumbent), Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt (a former President running in the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party), Eugene V. Debs (the Socialist Party candidate whom received 6% of the popular vote), and Wilson. Since Arizona and New Mexico had become states in 1912, this was the first election that featured 48 states. Wilson was the first Southern-born President elected after the Civil War and the first Democrat to be elected President in 20 years.
The 1916 election was conducting while World War I raged in Europe. Wilson had maintained American neutrality in the war and ran for reelection under the slogan “He kept us out of war.” The election was a more tradition “two-candidate” race between Wilson and Charles Evans Hughes, the Republican Party candidate, a former Governor of New York and former U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice. In 1912 Wilson had won 377 electoral votes (well exceeding Roosevelt’s 88 and Taft’s 8 — Taft’s total being the lowest ever received by an incumbent President), while receiving only 6.3 million votes (41.8%). In 1916 Wilson received many more votes (9.1 million) and a greater percentage (49.2), but in a two-candidate race, he won the electoral vote only 277-254, one of the closet elections in U.S. history.
Domestic Policy Achievements
President Wilson contributed significantly to the creation of the modern United States federal government. He was part of the Progressive Movement of the era and achieved many progressive reforms. During his time in office the following milestones occurred:
“State of the Union” Address: President George Washington gave the first “State of the Union” address to a joint session of Congress. President Thomas Jefferson discarded the practice of giving the “State of the Union” as a speech. President Wilson reinstituted that tradition in 1913, and it continues to today.
Federal Income Tax (16th Amendment) – The 16th Amendment was ratified in the months before Wilson took office. He therefore established the Internal Revenue Service and progressive federal income tax was first collected under his administration.
Direct Election of Senators (17th Amendment) – Under the U.S. Constitution, U.S. Senators had been elected by the legislatures of the various states. That was changed under the 17th Amendment so that Senators were elected directly by the voters of the various states, as they are today.
Prohibition (18th Amendment) – Although Prohibition of alcoholic beverages was considered a progressive reform, President Wilson did not support it and the enabling Volstead Act was passed over his veto. The 18th Amendment was repealed by the 22nd Amendment in 1933.
Women’s Suffrage (19th Amendment) – Women received the right to vote in the United States upon the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Wilson had three daughters and two of them were suffragists.
Federal Reserve System – President Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act into law on December 23, 1913, creating the Federal Reserve System that we have today.
Antitrust – Breaking up trusts was a major focus of Progressive reform, and President Wilson signed both the Clayton Antitrust Act (1913) and the Federal Trade Commission Act (1914).
Child Labor – President Wilson signed the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act in 1916. Although the act was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1918, the principle of federal regulation of child labor was eventually vindicated.
The years of the Wilson Administration saw the world experience tremendous transformation. World War I (then known as the “Great War”) was a cataclysm of human tragedy without precedent. The war saw the advent of armaments such as aircraft, submarines and tanks and the use of chemical weapons.
In August 1914 World War I broke out in Europe. President Wilson maintained a policy of neutrality, even after the sinking of the British ship Lusitania in May 1915, in which 1,195 people lost their lives, including 128 Americans. The United States joined the war on the side of the Allies in April 1917. The Wilson House collection includes the casing of the first shell fired by U.S. troops in Europe during World War I, which was also the first time that U.S. troops had ever fought in Europe.
An armistice ending the war was reached on November 11, 1918. The conclusion of World War I brought the end of the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire and allowed for the creation of the countries in Central and Eastern Europe that exist today.
Other international events during the Wilson years include the Mexican Revolution, the Russian Bolshevik Revolution, and the global influenza epidemic in 1919.
President Wilson traveled to Europe to attend the Paris Peace Conference at the beginning of 1919, and remained in Europe for most of the next six months negotiating treaties with leaders and diplomats from around the world. Wilson’s well-known “14 Points” were terms upon which he proposed that peace be achieved, including the establishment of a League of Nations.
League of Nations
Wilson returned from Paris in June 1919 proposing that the United States sign the Versailles Treaty and join the League of Nations. The treaty required confirmation by the U.S. Senate where there was great resistance to it from both parties. Wilson went on a nationwide train tour in September 1919 to promote the Treaty. During this tour he suffered a stroke that required he return to Washington. The Treaty failed in the Senate in November 1919. The United States never joined the League of Nations, never joined the Versailles Treaty and made separate treaties to conclude its involvement in World War I.
Intellectual and Technological Change in the Wilson Years
The Wilson years (1913-1921) were a time of great foment in the realm of ideas. Albert Einstein was revolutionizing physics; Sigmund Freud was in the middle of his career developing ideas about the subconscious; abstract art and modern art movements such as Cubism arose.
Remarkable technological change also occurred during the Wilson years. The automobile was growing in popularity. Henry Ford’s Model T was introduced in 1908. Innovations including airplanes, phonographs, radios, telephones and electric appliances, were developing. The mechanization of agriculture was pushing people off of farms and into cities.