Thomas Woodrow Wilson, twenty-eighth president of the United States, mighthave suffered from dyslexia. He never could read easily, but developed a strongpower of concentration and a near-photographic memory. The outbreak of WorldWar I coincided with the death of Wilson’s first wife Ellen Axson, who he waspassionately devoted to. Seven months after her death his friends introduced him toEdith Bolling Galt, a descendant of the Indian princess Pocahontas, they were marriednine months later.
By 1912 times were good for most Americans. Farmers wereenjoying their most prosperous period in living memory, the cost of living roseslightly, unemployment was lower than it had been for several years, and workingconditions were improving. By 1913 when Wilson was inaugurated, American industrieswere in a flood of consumer goods, including automobiles, telephones, and movies. However, Wilson almost did not appear on the presidential ballot, the leadingcontender for the Democratic nomination was House Speaker Champ Clark. It took46 ballots before the delegates swung to Wilson. In the election, the Republicanswere split between Taft and Roosevelt, almost guaranteeing a Democratic, and Wilsonvictory. He sought ways to build patriotism and to reshape the federal governmentto govern the nation more effectively. Wilson was a conservative, in his books andarticles, he often displayed hostility to reformers and rebels.
Although WoodrowWilson is mostly remembered for his success in foreign affairs, his domestic reformand leadership abilities are notable as well. Commemorated by the public mainly forhis success in guiding the nation during it’s first great modern war, World War I, forgetting out of the Mexico/Philippine muddle inherited from ex-president Taft, andfor his dream of ending the threat of future wars through the League of Nations,Wilson is also admired for his domestic successes, which represented the ProgressiveEra of reform. Diplomatically, as well as domestically these events illustrate Wilsonscompetent leadership skill.
Woodrow Wilsons nomination was strongly opposed by the progressives but heeventually passed much of their domestic reforming legislation. The progressivemovement backed by Wilson called for some government control of industry and forregulation of railroad and public utilities. Among its other goals were the adoption ofprimary elections and the direct election of United States senators. Wilson calledCongress into special session to consider a new tariff bill, he personally delivered hislegislative request to Congress. Moved by Wilson’s aggressive leadership, the Houseswiftly passed the first important reform measure, the Underwood Tariff Bill of1913, which significantly reduced the tariff for the first time in many years andreflected a new awareness that American businesses were now powerful enough tocompete in the markets of the world. In the end the Underwood Tariff had nothingto do with trade but the importance was the income tax provision (later the 16thamendment) which would replace the revenue lost when duties were reduced. It alsoshowed that America was powerful enough to compete without protection from thegovernment.
As Congress debated the tariff bill, Wilson presented his program for reformof the banking and currency laws. The nations banking system was outdated,unmanageable, and chaotic. To fix this Wilson favored the establishment of aFederal Reserve Board with presidentally appointed financial experts. The Boardwould set national interest rates and manage a network of twelve major banks acrossthe country.
These banks, which would issue currency, would in turn work with localbanks. Congress passed the Federal Reserve act basically in the form the Presidenthad recommended. Amendments also provided for exclusive governmental control ofthe Federal Reserve Board and for short term agricultural credit through thereserve banks. This was one of the most notable domestic achievements of theWilson administration which modernized the nations banking and currency systems,laying the basis for federal management of the economy and providing the legal basisfor an effective national banking system.The final major item on Wilsons domestic agenda was the reform of bigbusiness. Big businesses worked against the public by fixing prices and restrainingcompetition. Business and politics worked together, and Wilson sought to stop that. Determined to accept big business as an inevitable, but to control its abuses and tomaintain an open door of opportunity for “the genius which springs up from the ranksof unknown men,”1 Wilsons hoped to curb big business.
He thought that governmentshould intervene in the regulation of business, and that it was essential to controlcorporate behavior to prevent corporations from stifling opportunities for creativeand ambitious people. Business consolidation was inevitable and might be beneficial,yet he insisted that great corporations behave in the public interest: These were thebalances Wilson sought to achieve and maintain. “Our laws are still meant forbusiness done, by individuals that have not been satisfactorily adjusted to businessdone by great combinations and we have got to adjust them,”2in that big business wasunjust and somebody needed to watch out for the people, and Wilson was just theman to do that. First, the Federal Trade commission, authorized to order companiesto “cease and desist”3 from engaging in unfair competition. Later came the ClaytonAnti-trust Act which outlawed a number of widely practiced business tactics. Wilsons’ “New Freedom” domestic policies produced what turned out to be fourconstitutional amendments.
The 16th amendment assembled a graduated income taxbeginning on incomes over $3,000. The 17th, achieved direct election of senators bythe people. The 18th, was prohibition (of the sales or manufacturing) of alcoholicliquors, and the 19th amendment, gave women the right to vote. Some of hisProgressive reforms include the Workingmen’s Compensation Act, which grantedassistance to federal civil service employees during periods of disabilities; TheAdamson Act established the eight hour day for all employees on trains in interstatecommerce, with extra pay for overtime, and The Federal Farm Loan Act, made creditavailable to farmers at low interest rates. Wilsons’ administration produced majorlegislation on tariffs, banks, business, and labor.
It had been responsible for lawsthat restricted child-labor, promoted the welfare of seamen, and created a creditsystem for farmers. Although the administration demonstrated a new sensitivity tolabor’s interests, it did not generally win management over to its position. Businessesmade larger gains than labor as a result of the relaxation of the anti-trust laws, thegrowth of trade associations, and the businessmen of an effective and publiclyaccepted union-busting technique. Foreign affairs also demanded much of thepresidents’ attention. He persuaded Congress to repeal the Panama Tolls Act, whichhad allowed American ships to use the Panama Canal toll-free when sailing betweenU.S. coastal ports. Wilson believed that this new law violated a treaty with GreatBritain.
The President also refused to approve a bankers’ loan to China, and puthimself on record against “dollar diplomacy.” Wilson insisted that his party live up toits campaign promises of preparing the Philippines for independence. In 1916,Congress passed the Jones Bill, which greatly increased Philippine self-governmentand made many reforms in the administration of the islands. Convinced that freedomand democracy were universal aspirations, Wilson was determined that the UnitedStates would work to advance them. In Asia the United States lacked strength to domuch, but in the Western hemisphere it had the power to act; and so in Mexico,Haiti, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and elsewhere around the Caribbean basin itdid. Wilson was not materialistic and assumed that American assistance would bewelcomed, when he realized this was not true he tried to minimize Americaninvolvement. Wilson dismissed traditional American political isolationism, makingAmerica a world power, “citizens of the world.
“4 Most people did agree that thenations increasing economic and military power obligated and permitted it to play alarger political role in the world. Wilson struggled constantly between isolationistsentiments and the necessity for American involvement in world affairs. Determined to avoid entering World War I, he rigorously pursued neutrality. At first Wilson merely proclaimed neutrality, even when German U-boats(submarines) sank a US tanker.
Then he tried “Peace without victory” because herealized that the only lasting peace was one in which the conquered nations were notleft poverty-stricken, embittered and biding their time for revenge. Neither theAllies nor the Central powers responded. Keeping America out of the war proved tobe an extremely difficult, and eventually impossible, job. Wilson’s greatest problemsconcerned shipping. Britain had a blockade against Germany, seizing any cargoesbound for Germany. The British paid for the goods confiscated but the UnitedStates thought the interference in its sea trade was a violation of both freedom ofthe seas and neutral rights. The United States’ problems with Britain were serious,but its troubles with Germany were worse. The Germans continued to sink ships withAmericans on board.
After the Sussex, a French channel streamer was sunk, killing80 civilians, some American, Wilson declared that if these attacks did not stop “theUnited States would have no choice but to sever diplomatic relations”5 with Germany. In the end not even Woodrow Wilson could keep the United States out of World WarI. When the Germans declared unlimited submarine warfare, Wilson knew the UnitedStates would have to get involved. Still he hesitated, hoping for some event thatwould make an American declaration of war unnecessary. Instead two eventsoccurred destroying all hopes of neutrality. The first was the Zimmerman telegram.
This was a message intercepted by Britain proposing a secret alliance betweenGermany and Mexico. The next event that pushed the US into the war was theRussian Revolution, in which Russia withdrew from the war, this meant the Allies losta major part of their team, and without the United States, Germany would havesurely won. In April 1917 Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany.Heappointed able men to mobilize the economy and to command the armed forces, neverinterfering with either. By September 1918 Germanys army was in retreat, itscivilians hungry and exhausted.
Wilsons’ real heart was in peace. He insisted on going to the Paris Peaceconference himself, where he was greeted by European crowds cheering wildly. Heand three other men, known as the Big Four, including Premier Vittorio Orlando ofItaly, Prime Minister David Lloyd George of Britain, and Premier Georges Clemenceauof France drew up the Treaty of Versailles, based on Wilsons Fourteen Point address. Aspirations of world order were represented in his Fourteen Points: Open diplomacy,freedom of the seas, the removal of economic barriers among nations, reductions ofarmaments, the ending of imperialism, self-determination for national groups, theinclusion of Russia in the world community, and, most important to Wilson, thecreation of an association of nations to assume collective responsibility formaintaining peace (the League of Nations). Wilson passionately wanted his FourteenPoints implemented, he wanted a treaty that would be fair to fallen enemy as well asto the victors. After many compromises, the Treaty of Versailles was signed,including Wilsons League of Nations.
Wilson formally got approval for his League ofNations, but when he returned home with the treaty, he found resistance to him andit. A group of senators refused to accept the treaty as a package, as Wilsondemanded. Frustrated, Wilson decided to appeal over the senators heads to thecountry. He set out on a tour that took him through 30 cities in 24 days, thisgrueling schedule caused him to he suffer two strokes, the second one leaving his leftside paralyzed.
For the next few weeks Wilson was near death, nobody was allowedto see him except for his wife who would carry messages to his bedroom and thenemerge with an answer. When his mind finally cleared he was presented with SenatorLodge’s proposed fourteen reservations to his fourteen points. The treaty wasrejected because neither Wilson nor Lodge was willing to compromise. AlthoughWilson was partially paralyzed by the stroke and suffering from other disabilities, hewanted the honor of a third nomination. If he had received it, he may have ran again,so great was his devotion to the League of Nations, which was created without theparticipation of the United States. The League never took off without the supportof the United States behind it.
Wilsons political leadership experience was limited to his two year stint asgovernor of New Jersey. Nevertheless, he had no doubts about his ability to lead thenation, as he said in his inaugural address, “I summon all honest men, all patriotic, allforward looking men to my side God helping me I will not fail them, if they will butcounsel and sustain me!”6 Part of his effective leadership ability, was that Wilsonknew how to dramatize issues and to capture public attention. He did not thinkaverage citizens were qualified to lead.
The leaders task was partly to sense thewishes of the people, but it was also to shape their ideas and to act where they wouldnot naturally act. The Presidents leadership of his party gave him more influenceover Congress, but more importantly his standing as the interpreter of the countriesinstinctive wishes and desires made him a unique national figure. He was the firstpresident since Thomas Jefferson to address Congress personally, which he didseveral times. The president, in Wilsons view, thus had extraordinary potentialpowers attained from his role as political leader and interpreter of the wishes of allpeople.
In contrast to what the people had expected when they chose Wilson as thedemocratic nominee, he had proved that he could be a leader and that stategovernment could meet the challenges facing it. His academic work had shown thathe was not a profound thinker, but he had a rare ability to see the essentials ofissues and to delegate authority to others to handle details. While considering issueshe was open-minded and eager for practical suggestions about how to achieve a goal,and once he had made up his mind he was firm and consistent. Wilson adopted an approach to Congress that proved remarkably effective.
Heoutlined the main objectives he wanted to achieve and left legislatures to draftspecial bills. He made use of public opinion to influence the legislative process bygoing personally to the capitol to address Congress and by making other publicspeeches. The significance of the Underwood tariff is debatable but the skill andflexibility Wilson showed in getting it through Congress were not. If one of hisreforms stalled in Congress, he would generate pressure on the lawmakers to act bycalling public attention to the delay. Through Wilsons aggressive leadership, hisadministration was responsible for four constitutional amendments.
The eighteenthamendment, prohibiting the sales of alcoholic beverages, was controversial becausemany leading brewers were German, and this made the drive against alcohol all themore popular. However, the main cause was to conserve the food supplies for the wareffort. One of his greatest strengths as a leader was his ability to focus on a singleissue, identifying its essential points and dealing with it quickly and efficiently. Although the eighteenth amendment was eventually repealed by the twenty-firstamendment it was what the country need at the time and was effective in that sense.
Wilson thought that it was the presidents’ job to understand the hopes anddreams of America, which he believed were centered on a peaceful, secure world. Establishing his Fourteen Points, and the League of Nations in particular, was Wilsonsmethod of keeping world peace. In his address, point number fourteen, was “aninternational organization that Wilson hoped would provide a system of collectivesecurity.”7 Wilson earnestly wanted this to guarantee the political independence ofall countries, big or small. During the first year of peace, Wilson focused on thetreaty fight.
Wilsons diplomatic leadership was strong, keeping the United Statesout of the Great War and helping in the peace effort afterwards, and he stuck withit, trying to pass legislation that would not only benefit the United States, but thewhole world as well.Wilson, far more than any other world leader of his generation raised issuesthat needed to be confronted and set an agenda for future domestic andinternational policies. The Underwood Tariff shows successful domestic policybecause it inacted a favorable low tariff, in which the United States was open tocompete. It also showed mastery in leadership in the course that he used pushing itthrough Congress. Although his administration is often associated with World War I,Wilson sought world peace with his League of Nations. Faced with decisions andappointments and foreign conflicts, Wilson was admittedly ill-prepared. Because ofhis concentration on world peace he did not recognize hostility when it was aimedtoward the US Wilson, with a high sense of duty and destiny, administered a headydose of domestic reform, in his New Freedom progressive legislation; and foreignintervention, in the League of Nations.
Through his strong leadership, bothdomestically and diplomatically, the nation came out stronger than it was before. Wilson tried to apply his own moral standards to international politics, he wasconvinced that the president should be the people’s leader, not merely the nations’chief executive.BIBLIOGRAPHYBailey, Thomas A.: The American Pageant, DC Heath and Company, 1994.Very useful, it was an easy way to look up a fact quickly.
Bailey, Thomas A.: Presidential Greatness, Thomas A. Bailey, 1966.
Not very useful, hard to read.Clements, Kendrick A.: The Presidency of Woodrow Wilson, University Press ofKansas, 1939.I probably used this book the most.Hoover, Herbert: The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson, McGraw-Hill Book Company,Inc., 1958.
This book was long and drawn out. Leavell, Perry J.: World Leaders Past and Present, Wilson, Chelsea HousePublishers, 1987.This was a good easy to read book.
Wilson, Woodrow: The New Freedom, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1961. Also very hard to read, but had a few good facts.”Woodrow Wilson” The World book Multimedia Encyclopedia, World Book Inc.,1996.This was a good overview of his presidency.
“Woodrow Wilson” Infopedia, Future Vision Multimedia Inc., 1995.This was an okay source, not much information.