National Trust for Historic Preservation

President Woodrow Wilson info page

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. President Wilson is well known for his support of The League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations. Under his leadership, the United States fought World War I, American women received the right to vote, and the legislation laid the foundation of the modern government (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). 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 Woodrow Wilson. Since Arizona and New Mexico had become states in 1912, this was the first election that featured 48 states. For this election, Wilson 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%).  Wilson was the first Southern-born President elected after the Civil War and the first Democrat to be elected in 20 years. The 1916 election was conducted while World War I raged on in Europe. Wilson had maintained American neutrality in the war and ran for reelection under the slogan “He kept us out of war.” Compared to the last election, this one was a more traditional “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. Wilson received many more votes (9.1 million) and a greater percentage (49.2) than his prior election, but only received 277 electoral votes, 23 more than his opponent, resulting in one of the closet elections in U.S. history.

President Wilson contributed significantly to the creation of the modern United States federal government. He was part of the Progressive Movement and accomplished many progressive reforms. During his time in office the following milestones occurred: “State of the Union” Address: While President George Washington gave the first State of the Union address on January 8, 1790 to a joint session of Congress; however, President Thomas Jefferson quickly discarded the practice 11 years later in 1801. It was never performed in person again until 1913 when President Wilson reinstituted that tradition, and it still continues today. 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. Federal Income Tax (16th Amendment) – The 16th Amendment was ratified in the months before Wilson took office. He therefore reinvented 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 but the amendment, also known as the Volstead Act, was passed over his veto. The 22nd Amendment eventually repealed the 18th 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.  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 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, a step which allowed the creation of the countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Other international events during the Wilson years include the Mexican Revolution, the Russian Bolshevik Revolution, and the influenza epidemic in 1918. 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 “Fourteen Points” were terms upon which he proposed that peace be achieved, including the establishment of The 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 him to return to Washington. The Treaty failed in the Senate in November 1919. The United States never joined The League of Nations or the Versailles Treaty. Ultimately, it created separate treaties to conclude its involvement in World War I. 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. Modern ideas took root in the era, such as Einstein’s physics, Freud’s psychology, and Picasso’s abstract art. The diffusion of new technologies was also present: Wilson placed the first trans-Atlantic telephone call, received the first airmail letter, and made the first remote radio broadcast to the American people. President Wilson enjoyed baseball (there were no night games), his automobile (although he never learned to drive), and movies (silent movies, of course). Although he lived until the 1920’s, President Woodrow Wilson did not stop embracing the changing world he lived in.

 

 

 

 

 

Click on any picture to the left to read more information about President Woodrow Wilson

 

Links to other Woodrow Wilson related sites and information:

President Electric, the accompanying website from the 2012 award-winning exhibition Woodrow Wilson, President Electric: Harnessing the Power of Innovation in the Progressive Era

Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum in Staunton, Virginia

Woodrow Wilson Boyhood Home in Augusta, Georgia

Woodrow Wilson Family Home in Columbia, South Carolina

World War I Centennial Association

World War I Centennial Network

Woodrow and Edith: Costumed for the World Stage, in White House History, the journal of the White House Historical Association

The Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum in Wytheville, Virginia