Thomas Woodrow Wilson, nicknamed the “schoolmaster in politics,” is chiefly remembered for his high-minded idealism, which appeared both in his leadership on the faculty and in the presidency of Princeton University, and in his national and world statesmanship during and after World War I. Wilson’s accomplishments have been re-evaluated with the passage of time and with changes in the United States. His visionary internationalism and domestic legislative record are juxtaposed with his views and actions on racial issues and Women’s Suffrage. His full record includes:
- Served two terms as the 28th President of the United States, including leading the country’s participation in World War I as commander-in-chief
- Was awarded Nobel Peace Prize - 1919
- Issued principles for peace, the Fourteen Points, and participated in the Paris Peace Talks, promoting the establishment of the League of Nations
- Led for Congressional passage of:
o Federal Reserve Act
o Federal Trade Commission Act
o Clayton Antitrust Act
o Federal Farm Loan Act
o Espionage Act of 1917
o Sedition Act of 1918
- Oversaw implementation of the Revenue Act of 1913 establishing the federal income tax
- Racially segregated the U.S. federal government and oversaw the expansion of Jim Crow segregation measures in the District of Columbia
- At first delayed a nationwide constitutional amendment granting Women’s Suffrage, although later, in 1919, he appealed directly to the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the amendment
- Held the first presidential press conference
- Dispatched the U.S. Army to occupy Vera Cruz during the Mexican Revolution
- Served as 34th governor of New Jersey
- Served as the 13th president of Princeton University
- Earned Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins University, completing a dissertation titled Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics.
Wilson was born in 1856 in Staunton, Virginia (and named Thomas Woodrow Wilson). He grew up in Georgia and South Carolina during the suffering of the Civil War and its aftermath. He was also deeply influenced by the Presbyterianism of his father, a minister and sometime college teacher.
Wilson first went to Davidson (N.C.) College, but withdrew shortly because of ill health. He ultimately graduated from the College of New Jersey (later to become Princeton University) in 1879. Determined to become a statesman, he studied law for a year at the University of Virginia in 1879-80 and was admitted to the Georgia bar in 1882, but his law practice did not prosper.
Wilson went to Johns Hopkins University in 1883, studying government and history. At Johns Hopkins, he wrote Congressional Government, which was published in 1885. That book, still admired today as a study of lawmaking in the national U.S. government, was accepted as his dissertation, and he received the Ph.D. degree in political science from Johns Hopkins the following year. Wilson is the only U.S. president to hold a Ph.D.
Wilson taught at Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia, then at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. In 1890 he became professor of jurisprudence and political economy at Princeton University. He wrote nine books and was an accomplished essayist. The trustees of Princeton University named him president of the institution in 1902.
As president of Princeton, Wilson strove to institutionalize intellectual contacts between students and teachers. He resisted in some ways Princeton's reshaping of the time as it became a university focused more on graduate studies and less on the moral and intellectual upbringing of undergraduates.
In 1910 Wilson accepted the Democratic nomination for governor of New Jersey. He won the election in a landslide. His ambitious and successful Progressive agenda, centered around protecting the public from exploitation by trusts, earned him national recognition, and in 1912 he won the Democratic nomination for president. Wilson's "New Freedom" platform, focused on revitalization of the American economy, won him the presidency with 435 electoral votes out of 531, and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.
As president, Wilson's domestic agenda continued his campaign against corrupt trusts, although he also oversaw the re-segregation of parts of the federal government. In 1913, the Underwood Act and the Federal Reserve Bill were passed, the former creating honest tariff reform by greatly reducing rates (for the first time since the Civil War) and instituting an income tax; the latter creating new currency and establishing the twelve Federal Reserve banks and their boards of governors to perform central banking functions. The Federal Trade Commission was established in 1914 to restrict "unfair" trade practices.
Despite provocation and pressure to enter the widening war in Europe that had begun in 1914, Woodrow Wilson maintained American neutrality for two years. He ran for reelection in 1916 with the slogan, "he kept us out of war." But rapid escalation of submarine warfare by Germany to include unlimited war on neutrals as well as belligerents left Wilson with no alternative but to ask Congress for a declaration of war in April 1917.
The world would look to America and Wilson's leadership to resolve the First World War. Wilson's Fourteen Points Address of 1918 called for a peace of reconciliation, based on democracy, self-determination, rejection of annexations and indemnities, and a postwar League of Nations. The Paris Peace Conference in 1919 concluded with the signing of the Versailles Treaty with Germany, but a new Republican Congress at home was not in agreement with the peace negotiated under Wilson, particularly with the League of Nations and collective security aspects. Ultimately, a separate peace was negotiated between the United States and Germany. Wilson was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize and heralded in Europe as a savior of peace.
Exhausted from his vigorous efforts toward ratification of the Versailles Treaty, which included traveling 8,000 miles by rail around the country; Wilson fell ill and would never fully recover. Wilson was unable to campaign for the presidency, which Warren G. Harding would win in 1920 defeating Democratic candidate James M. Cox. Wilson retired to Washington, D.C., where he passed away in 1924.
Wilson's idealism and status as a great world leader led to the creation of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as the U.S. memorial to him. The Center is not an institution for the study of Woodrow Wilson, but aims to embody Wilson's ideals by putting scholarship at the service of the world's public life.
John Milton Cooper, Jr.
Professor Emeritus, University of Wisconsin
Public Policy Scholar, 2007-2008; Project title: "This Man's Life." A Biography of Woodrow Wilson
Senior Scholar, 2010-
Cooper, John Milton Jr. Woodrow Wilson: a biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.
Cooper, John Milton Jr., editor. Reconsidering Woodrow Wilson: progressivism, internationalism, war, and peace. Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, c2008
Senior Scholar, 2006-2012; Project Title: “The Women Who Ran for President”
Freeman, Jo. We Will Be Heard: Women’s Struggles for Political Power in the United States. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008.
Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost, Hopkins P. Breazeale Professor of Journalism, Louisiana State University
Senior Scholar 2013-2014; Project title: “A History on the Committee on Public Information”
David Levering Lewis
Professor of History, Rutgers University
Fellow, 1990-1991; Project title: “The Life and Times of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois”
Lewis, David L. W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1993.
Scott M. Matheson
Professor of Law, University of Utah
Public Policy Scholar, 2006-2007; Project title: "Executive Power, the Constitution, and National Security"
Matheson, Scott M. “Woodrow Wilson: "If there should be disloyalty, it will be dealt with a firm hand of stern repression" in Presidential constitutionalism in perilous times. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009
Charles E. Neu
Professor of History, Emeritus, Brown University; Adjunct Professor of History, University of Miami
Public Policy Scholar, 2007; Project title: "Edward M. House: A Biography"
Neu, Charles E. Colonel House: a biography of Woodrow Wilson's silent partner. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Biographer and Associate Professor of Nonfiction, Columbia University
Public Policy Scholar, 2006: Project title: “Engaging the World, a book on Woodrow Wilson's--and America's--response to the foreign policy challenges of his presidency”
Blair A. Ruble
Director, Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Ruble, Blair A. Washington’s U Street: A biography. Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.
Cornelia M. Jackson Professor of Political Science, Tufts University
Public Policy Scholar, 2014; Project title: "Democracy Promotion Abroad in Woodrow Wilson’s Time" –
Professor of History, University of Virginia
Fellow, 2015-2016; Project title: “"After Lawrence: Woodrow Wilson and the Brief Promise of Arab Liberalism"
Major Events at the Wilson Center
Wilson at 150 National Symposium (October 27, 2006)
President Wilson’s Centennial (June 4-5, 2013)
Additional Wilson Center Press Publications
Morris, James M., editor. Legacies of Woodrow Wilson. Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1995.
Hoover, Herbert. The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson. With a new introduction by Senator Mark Hatfield. Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992
Quotations Featured in the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Hallway of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
This is not a day of triumph: It is a day of dedication. Here, muster, not the forces of party, but the forces of humanity. Men's hearts wait upon us, men's lives hang in the balance; men's hopes call upon us to say what we will do. Who shall live up to the great trust? Who dares fail to try?
---First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1913
It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war...but the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts, -- for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments...for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.
---Address to a Joint Session of Congress, April 2, 1917
The arrangements of justice do not stand of themselves, my fellow citizens...
There is one thing that the American people always rise to and extend their hand to, and that is the truth of justice and of liberty and of peace. We have accepted that truth, and we are going to be led by it, and it is going to lead us, and through us, the world, out into pastures of quietness and peace such as the world never dreamed of before.
---An Address in the City Auditorium in Pueblo, Colorado, September 25, 1919
The man who has the time, the discrimination, and the sagacity to collect and comprehend the principal facts and the man who must act upon them must draw near to one another and feel they are engaged in a common enterprise.
---Address to American Political Science Association, December 27, 1910
The sum of the whole matter is this, that our civilization cannot survive materially unless it be redeemed spiritually.
---"The Road Away from Revolution," Atlantic Monthly, August, 1923.
Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition, whilst Congress in its committee rooms is Congress at work.
---Congressional Government, A Study in American Politics (1885).
We live in an age disturbed, confused, bewildered, afraid of its own forces, in search not merely of its road but even of its direction. There are many voices of counsel, but few voices of vision; there is much excitement and feverish activity, but little concert of thoughtful purpose. We are distressed by our own ungoverned, undirected energies and do many things, but nothing long. It is our duty to find ourselves.
---Baccalaureate address as President of Princeton University, June 9, 1907.
Government should not be made an end in itself; it is a means only -- a means to be freely adapted to advance the best interests of the social organism. The state exists for the sake of society, not society for the sake of the state.
---The State; Elements of Historical and Practical Politics (1911)
Sometimes people call me an idealist. Well, that is the way I know I am an American. America, my fellow citizens -- I do not say it in disparagement of any other great people -- America is the only idealistic nation in the world.
---Address supporting the League of Nations, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, September 8, 1919.
The history of liberty is a history of resistance. The history of liberty is a history of the limitation of governmental power, not the increase of it.
---Address to New York Press Club, September 9, 1912.
The program of the world's peace, therefore, is our program; and that program, the only possible program, as we see it, is this: 1. Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.
---"Fourteen Points" Address to Joint Session of Congress, January 8, 1918.
When I resist, therefore, when I as a Democrat resist the concentration of power, I am resisting the processes of death, because the concentration of power is what always precedes the destruction of human initiative, and, therefore of human energy.
---Address, New York City, September 4, 1912.
There is no cause half so sacred as the cause of a people. There is no idea so uplifting as the idea of the service of humanity.
---Address, Madison Square Garden, New York City, October 31, 1912.
Responsibility of People
In the last analysis, my fellow countrymen, as we in America would be the first to claim, a people are responsible for the acts of their government.
---Address, Columbus, Ohio, September 4, 1919.
World War I
The world must be made safe for democracy.
---Address to Joint Session of Congress, asking for a declaration of war, April 2, 1917.
It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts, for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free. To such a task we dedicate our lives and our fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have, with the pride of those who know that the day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured. God helping her, she can do no other.
---Address to Joint Session of Congress, asking for a declaration of war, April 2, 1917.
For further information:
The White House page on Woodrow Wilson
From the Internet Public Library. Many facts and figures. Includes links to texts of speeches by Wilson and sound recordings of his voice.
From Grolier Online. An article from the Encyclopedia Americana by Arthur S. Link, the preeminent scholar on Woodrow Wilson and editor of Wilson's papers
Selected Works of Woodrow Wilson
Congressional Government: a study in American politics. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1885.
Constitutional Government in the United States. New York : The Columbia University Press, 1908.
The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, edited by Arthur S. Link et al. 69 vols. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1966-1994.
Daniels, Josephus. The life of Woodrow Wilson, 1856-1924. Philadelphia; Chicago: The John C. Winston Company, 1924.
Grayson, Cary T. Woodrow Wilson: an intimate memoir. 2d ed. Washington : Potomac Books, c1977.
Tumulty, Joseph P. Woodrow Wilson as I know him. Garden City, N.Y., and Toronto, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1921.
Wilson, Edith Bolling. My Memoir. Indianpolis; New York: The Bobbs-Merrill company [c1939].
Books about Woodrow Wilson and his presidency
Ambrosius, Lloyd E. Wilsonianism: Woodrow Wilson and his legacy in American foreign relations. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2002
Baker, Ray Stannard. Woodrow Wilson: life and letters, 8 vols. Garden City, N.Y. : Doubleday, Page & Co., 1927-1939.
Berg, A. Scott. Wilson. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2013.
Clements, Kendrick A. The presidency of Woodrow Wilson. Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 1992.
Cooper, John Milton Jr. and Thomas J. Knock, editors. Jefferson, Lincoln, and Wilson: the American dilemma of race and democracy. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010.
Gould, Lewis L. Four hats in the ring: the 1912 election and the birth of modern American politics. Lawrence : University Press of Kansas, 2008.
Kennedy, Ross A., editor. A companion to Woodrow Wilson. Chichester, West Sussex; Malden, MA : Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.
Knock, Thomas J. To end all wars : Woodrow Wilson and the quest for a new world order . New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Link, Arthur S. Wilson. 5 volumes. Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1947-1965.
MacMillan, Margaret . Paris 1919: six months that changed the world. New York: Random House, 2002.
Manela, Erez. The Wilsonian moment: self-determination and the international origins of anticolonial nationalism. Oxford; New York : Oxford University Press, 2007.
Walworth, Arthur . Wilson and his peacemakers : American diplomacy at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919. New York: Norton, 1986.
Yellin, Eric S. Racism in the nation's service: government workers and the color line in Woodrow Wilson's America. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013.
Woodrow Wilson House, Washington, D.C.
The home Wilson lived in after his presidency, containing his furniture, clothing, and personal effects, is a museum for the general public.
Woodrow Wilson Birthplace and Museum, Staunton, Virginia
Woodrow Wilson Boyhood Home, Columbia, South Carolina. There is another boyhood home of Wilson in Augusta, Georgia.
The Library of Congress maintains Woodrow Wilson's papers.
The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the official national memorial to Woodrow Wilson, is an institute for advanced study in Washington, D.C.
The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, in Princeton, New Jersey, is dedicated to the encouragement of excellence in education through the identification of critical needs and the development of effective programs to address them.