28 Woodrow Wilson


  • Identify the domestic achievements and/or failures of Wilson’s tenure
  • Identify the foreign policy achievements and/or failures of Wilson’s presidency
  • Evaluate Wilson’s legacy

Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the Presidency when former Presidents Teddy Roosevelt—running as a third party candidate for the newly created Bull Moose Party—and William Howard Taft—the Republican incumbent and Roosevelt’s heir apparent—squared off, splitting the Republican vote.

Wilson had more in common withRooseveltthan Taft seemed to, judging from Taft’s term in the oval office.  Taft didn’t follow Roosevelt’s Progressive policies, whereasWilson’s two terms in office show a commitment to reform. Even after the reforms made during Roosevelt’s Presidency, Wilson still confronted unresolved ills of the Industrial Revolution—child labor, low pay, long hours, unsafe working conditions, overcrowded cities, pollution, etc.

Wilson was focused on a domestic policy called the New Freedom.  One of the New Freedom’s reforms was to lower tariffs—taxes collected on goods imported into the country.  Urged by Wilson’s during his first term, Congress passed the Underwood Tariff in 1913, opening U.S.markets to foreign goods, creating increased competition.  This served to protect American consumers as competition helped lower prices.

Also during Wilson’s first year, the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified.  The Sixteenth Amendment established a graduated federal income tax—also called a progressive tax.  This means that people who make more money pay a higher rate of tax than people who make less.  For instance, someone making $15,000 year might pay 10% of their income in tax.  Someone making $50,000 would pay 15%.  And a person making $1,000,000 would pay 35%.  This type of tax is controversial because the wealthy feel that they are unfairly made to pay more. They want a flat tax, where everyone pays the same percent. The lower and middle classes feel like the wealthy have more money, so they should pay a higher percentage of their income in tax.

The Sixteenth Amendment was fought for by members of the Temperance Movement, who wanted a federal ban on alcohol. Because the federal government collected taxes on the production of alcohol, they needed to create a new revenue stream for the government to get them to outlaw alcohol.  This led to the Eighteenth Amendment in 1920, which prohibited the production, distribution and sale of alcohol across the entire country. Prohibition, however, was a disaster as the federal government struggled to enforce it. It was later repealed by the Twenty-First Amendment

During Wilson’s first term, Congress enacted the Clayton Antitrust Act.  This legislation strengthened the Sherman Antitrust Act, making some key business practices illegal, such as interlocking directorships—where the same people served on the board of directors for competing companies—and price fixing—where competing companies make agreements to charge the same prices for their products to inflate the price. Wilson also pressured Congress to pass the Federal Trade Commission Act in 1914.  The Federal Trade Commission investigates and can halt questionable business practices.

One of Wilson’s key accomplishments was the establishment of the Federal Reserve System.  Before this, the federal government did not control the supply of currency.  Consequently, private banks often did not have enough cash on hand to conduct business.  If a bank could not cover its withdrawals, it would go out of business.  If many banks went out of business, it would cause severe economic problems for the whole country.  Progressive reformers called for the federal government to step in to insure that this couldn’t happen and Wilson supported the idea.

On Wilson’s urging, Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act in 1913, creating the Federal Reserve.  The FED, as it is called, established twelve regional banks, overseen by the Federal Reserve Board, a panel of bankers appointed by the President (and approved by the Senate).  These federally run banks would provide emergency loans to private banks to prevent financial panics.  Because money comes in and out of the Federal Reserve banks, the government controls the economy by controlling the supply of currency and availability of credit in the United States.  This means that the federal government could cause or prevent inflation, depending on the needs of the country.  The establishment of the FED created a level of financial stability for the country, although further measures had to be created after the Great Depression revealed shortcomings that needed to be addressed.

Also under Wilson’s watch, the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1913.  This called for the direct election of Senators.  In the Constitution, it had originally called on State legislatures to elect each States’ representatives in the Senate.  People began to feel that Senators were not truly accountable to the people of their State.  By allowing people to elect their Senators directly, Senators could be voted out if they didn’t do what their constituents wanted.

It was also during Woodrow Wilson’s Presidency that women got the vote.  Presidents have no role in the Constitutional Amendment process, so Wilson had nothing to do with the Nineteenth Amendment, directly.  But indirectly, his change of stance on the issue did have an impact.  Originally unwilling to support women’s suffrage nationally (out of fear that it would alienate Southern Democrats who were against it), Wilson waited to come out in support of the cause until it appeared it would pass.  This was after considerable pressure had been applied by suffragettes Lucy Burns and Alice Paul’s protests outside the White House.  With the President publicly behind it, Congress proposed and the states ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the vote.

For all of the progressive, domestic accomplishments of Wilson’s administration, Wilson’s record on civil rights for African-Americans stands out as an embarrassment.  Under Wilson, federal facilities inWashingtonwere actually segregated.

Despite his desire to focus on domestic issues during his presidency,Wilson’s time in office came to be dominated by international issues caused by World War I (called the Great War at the time).  At the outbreak of the war in August 1914, Wilson and most Americans wanted to remain neutral.  But while America didn’t want to send troops to fight in the war, American industry was supplying both sides with war materials and making money off the war.  Overtime, Americans became more involved in the conflict and would eventually feel compelled to join the fighting, though no single event pushed them there.

World War I was a significant change in the way modern wars would be fought.  Because of the stalemate on the Western Front, both sides became desperate to find ways to win.  This led to the adoption of what they called ‘total war,’ where the entire resources of a country would be used to fuel the war effort.

Both sides were eager to stop the flow of American supplies to the enemy.  Allied navies started stopping American ships head to the Central Powers, often seizing the cargo.  The Germans in turn, started to use their secret weapon, the U-boat (submarines) to sink ships heading Allied countries.  Due to the negative response to this practice, the Germans stopped, but as the war dragged on and they got more desperate, they would return it.

This would eventually boil over with the German sinking of the Lusitania. Lusitaniawas a British passenger liner traveling between New York and Liverpool.  The Germans suspected at war materials were on board these ships in the cargo hold, using the passengers as sort of human shield.  The Germans announced in 1917 that they were going to resume unrestricted submarine warfare—meaning any Allied ships would be attacked without warning.  They even took ads out in the paper warning of it. Lusitania was sunk by a U-boat and 123 Americans aboard it died.  While there was outrage, most Americans still didn’t want to get involved in the war.  But it did start to move public opinion towards getting involved.  In the period after Lusitania, the Germans started sinking American cargo ship as part of unrestricted submarine warfare.  Normally, these sinking would be considered acts of war and, as a result, many Americans started to think that entering the conflict might be inevitable.

The desperation to find something—anything—to break the stalemate in the war lead the Germans to make an unlikely proposal to Mexico that would ultimately push the United States into the Great War.  The Germans sent the Mexicans a desperate plea to keep the Americans out of the conflict.  The Germans wanted the Mexicans to start a war with the United States in North America and promised to help them in that war after the war in Europe was over.  The Mexican government wasn’t interested inGermany’s offer.  The Zimmerman Note (aka Zimmerman Telegram) was intercepted by American intelligence and when news of it reached the public, they were outraged.

So over time, American’s desire to remain neutral gave way to getting involved in World War I on the Allied side.  In 1917, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war (since they alone have the power to do so—the President can’t), saying that American must fight to “make the world safe for democracy.”  Congress obliged and the U.S. military—since there was no standing army—started building a force to send “Over There.”  The entire American economy was mobilized to support the war effort.  The government managed war production with the War Industries Board, which told factories what to make.  Goods were rationed at home, meaning the public went without in order to send important supplies to the war.

Not that there wasn’t controversy over the war.  Congress passed the Espionage Act in 1917 and the Sedition Act in 1918.  Both measure made it illegal to criticize the government during the war, just like the Alien and Sedition Acts from the War of 1812.  The laws were challenged in the 1919 Supreme Court case of  Schenck v. the United States.  Schenck was a socialist who published pamphlets urging people to fight against the draft.  Schenck was arrested and charged with violating the Espionage Act.  His defense was that the Act was unconstitutional because it violated his First Amendment right to free speech.

In it’s ruling, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Espionage Act did not violate the Constitution because free speech did not extend to acts of insubordination.  The ruling established the precedent of the “clear and present danger” test.  This means that government can limit one’s free speech if it can be established that it is a threat to national security.

The addition of America to the weary combatants hastened the end of the brutal conflict.  All this proved to tip the balance between the Allies and Central Powers.  By November 1918, the war was over when Germany surrendered, unable to keep up. Wilsonhad been focused on the peace process even before the first doughboy—as the American troops were called by the Europeans—was deployed.

Wilson’s peace plan was called the Fourteen Points of Light. Wilson arrived at the Paris Peace Conference, urging the other Allies not to punish Germany for the war.  ButBritainandFrancedidn’t want to listen.  Angry at the destruction of the war, they were set on making the Germans pay and ignored Wilson’s pleas.

Wilson’s plan called for several measures to prevent future wars.  For instance, since the war was started in part by a nationalistic movement (the assassination of Austro-Hungarian heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist), Wilson argued that self-determination—letting people decided for themselves who should rule them—would prevent future conflicts.  The Fourteen Points also called for “freedom of the seas,” meaning that no country should try and stop ships from other countries from traveling freely, such as the Germans did to the Americans, causing them to enter the war.

But the most important of the Fourteen Points was Wilson’s plan was to create an international peace-keeping organization called the League of Nations.  Countries would be able to settle their differences there instead of going to war. Wilsonwas forced to compromise on most of his peace plan as Britain and France were unwilling to listen to him.  But he was able to get the Allies to agree to include the creation of the League of Nations in the Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919.

Little did Wilson know at the time that what he thought was his great victory would be his most bitter defeat.  When he—head of the Executive branch that is empowered by the Constitution to make treaties—returned to Washington with the Treaty of Versailles, he figured the Republican controlled Senate—who approves treaties as a check-and-balance—would have to follow suit and approve it.  But due to political in-fighting, the Senate refused to approve the agreement.  Serious questions arose about whether or not it was prudent to tie the country to an international organization like the League of Nations.

Wilson went on an exhausting speaking tour trying to raise public pressure on the Senators to sign the Treaty of Versailles, but to no avail.  The United States never signed it and never joined the League of Nations.  Most historians think that this hindered the effectiveness of the League, which was ultimately unable to prevent World War II just twenty years later. which was ultimately unable to prevent World War II just twenty years later.  For Wilson, this was an embarrassment.  His health had deteriorated to the point that he had a debilitating stroke after the speaking tour.  He died a few years after leaving office.

Writing Assignment – Presidential Decisions: Woodrow Wilson

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Woodrow Wilson and World War I

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