before him, Woodrow Wilson regarded himself as the personal representative of
the people. "No one but the President," he said, "seems to be expected ... to
look out for the general interests of the country." He developed a program of
progressive reform and asserted international leadership in building a new
world order. In 1917 he proclaimed American entrance into World War I a crusade
to make the world "safe for democracy."
Wilson had seen the
frightfulness of war. He was born in Virginia in 1856, the son of a
Presbyterian minister who during the Civil War was a pastor in Augusta,
Georgia, and during Reconstruction a professor in the charred city of Columbia,
After graduation from Princeton (then the College of
New Jersey) and the University of Virginia Law School, Wilson earned his
doctorate at Johns Hopkins University and entered upon an academic career. In
1885 he married Ellen Louise Axson.
Wilson advanced rapidly as a
conservative young professor of political science and became president of
Princeton in 1902.
His growing national reputation led some
conservative Democrats to consider him Presidential timber. First they
persuaded him to run for Governor of New Jersey in 1910. In the campaign he
asserted his independence of the conservatives and of the machine that had
nominated him, endorsing a progressive platform, which he pursued as governor.
He was nominated for President at the 1912 Democratic Convention and
campaigned on a program called the New Freedom, which stressed individualism
and states' rights. In the three-way election he received only 42 percent of
the popular vote but an overwhelming electoral vote.
through Congress three major pieces of legislation. The first was a lower
tariff, the Underwood Act; attached to the measure was a graduated Federal
income tax. The passage of the Federal Reserve Act provided the Nation with the
more elastic money supply it badly needed. In 1914 antitrust legislation
established a Federal Trade Commission to prohibit unfair business practices.
Another burst of legislation followed in 1916. One new law prohibited
child labor; another limited railroad workers to an eight-hour day. By virtue
of this legislation and the slogan "he kept us out of war," Wilson narrowly won
But after the election Wilson concluded that America
could not remain neutral in the World War. On April 2,1917, he asked Congress
for a declaration of war on Germany.
Massive American effort slowly
tipped the balance in favor of the Allies. Wilson went before Congress in
January 1918, to enunciate American war aims--the Fourteen Points, the last of
which would establish "A general association of nations...affording mutual
guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and
small states alike."
After the Germans signed the Armistice in November
1918, Wilson went to Paris to try to build an enduring peace. He later
presented to the Senate the Versailles Treaty, containing the Covenant of the
League of Nations, and asked, "Dare we reject it and break the heart of the
But the election of 1918 had shifted the balance in Congress
to the Republicans. By seven votes the Versailles Treaty failed in the
The President, against the warnings of his doctors, had made a
national tour to mobilize public sentiment for the treaty. Exhausted, he
suffered a stroke and nearly died. Tenderly nursed by his second wife, Edith
Bolling Galt, he lived until 1924.