President Woodrow Wilson: Biography, Characteristics & Facts

Instructor: Jessica M Lathrop

Jessica has a master's degree in history with a focus on ancient and classical civilizations.

Woodrow Wilson navigated America through World War I, drafted the Versailles Treaty, and created the League of Nations. Wilson was responsible for many changes during his eight years as president, but there was more to him than his presidency.

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson

Childhood Years

Woodrow Wilson, whose full name was actually Thomas Woodrow Wilson, was born on December 28th, 1856, in Staunton, Virginia. Wilson moved with his parents and three siblings to various towns throughout the south, where his father, a Presbyterian preacher, would minister to the Confederate soldiers and use his church as a makeshift hospital site for the wounded, while his mother tended to the injuries of the soldiers. The Civil War, which ended in 1865, had deeply affected the southern states during Wilson's early childhood, so it came as no surprise that Wilson grew up to be a staunch advocate for world peace with democratic ideals.

Young Woodrow Wilson
Young Woodrow Wilson

Wilson's Education

School was very difficult for Wilson, with speculations among modern historians that he suffered from dyslexia. Despite his trouble studying, Wilson absolutely loved to learn. In 1879, Wilson graduated from Princeton University, and received a Ph.D. in political science from John Hopkins University in 1886. After holding a few teaching positions at various universities, he served as Princeton's president from 1902 to 1910. Wilson was recognized nationally for his educational reform, and his southern roots and strong principles helped him stand out among his peers.

Wilson's Political Rise

Wilson's values and educational reform efforts began attracting attention in the political realm, and Wilson became Governor of New Jersey in 1910. Initially securing the nomination for governor with the help of New Jersey's most powerful businessmen and Democratic party leaders, Wilson's campaign for governor promised to lead independently from the party bosses, steering further into progressive ideas. Wilson stayed true to this promise of free-thinking when he refused to support the re-nomination of one of the U.S. Senators who had helped secure Wilson's nomination, and instead endorsed an opponent who was more closely aligned with Wilson's own political beliefs. Among some of Wilson's state reforms were election law changes, regulations to address corruption, and Worker's Compensation.

Wilson believed in tackling societal problems with solutions such as better education, racial segregation and increased safety in the workplace. These beliefs were popular among the Democratic party, and Wilson earned the Democratic presidential nomination for the 1912 election. The Republican party found themselves split between Progressives and Conservatives, nominating a Republican representative for each and separating the Republicans into two definitive parties. In addition, the Socialist party was on the ballot, creating a total of four political parties. Wilson won the presidency with 42% of the popular vote as a result of the unique split. This left 27% for the Progressive Republicans (Theodore Roosevelt), 24% for the Conservative Republicans (incumbent William Taft), and only 6% for the Socialists (Eugene Debs).

Woodrow Wilson accepting the Democratic nomination in 1916.
Democratic Nomination

Wilson's Presidency

Wilson immediately launched several new legislative policies upon becoming president. He passed the Revenue Act of 1913, introducing income taxes and lowering tariffs, and established the Federal Reserve. These are considered some of Wilson's largest presidential accomplishments, despite occurring early in his presidential career. While many of Wilson's policies helped to secure an economically stronger and socially better America, some of his ideas were less popular. Wilson introduced controversial fair trade legislation which included lowering tolls to import goods through the Panama Canal, and supported the increase of segregation policies.

World War I began in 1914, and despite initially keeping America out of the war, in 1917 Wilson called upon Congress to declare war as an informal ally, after Germany engaged in heavy submarine warfare and attempted an alliance with Mexico. In order to secure war funding, Wilson raised income taxes, established agriculture and food legislation, and supported stricter labor laws and other measures to keep the American economy stable.

In 1917, Wilson issued the Fourteen Points, one of his most famous writings, which outlined a post-war settlement in anticipation of ending the war. In 1919, upon the Allies' defeat of Germany, Wilson helped draft the Treaty of Versailles, a peace agreement which established the League of Nations, an organization to mediate disputes and promote international settlements to create lasting world peace. This organization was a forerunner to today's United Nations, and the Treaty of Versailles was a great victory for Wilson in Europe and earned him a Nobel Peace Prize.

Woodrow Wilson making a public speech at the Arlington National Cemetery in 1917.
Wilson Public Speech

Unfortunately, when Wilson returned to America he received a lot of criticism from some Republican members of Congress, and the treaty failed to gain enough votes to pass in both 1919 and 1920. The United States' refusal to join the League of Nations is argued by historians to have been a contributing factor to the Second World War, which resulted in the formation of the stronger United Nations- which did include the U.S.

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