Back   Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924)

an extract from the Peace and Non-Violence Curriculum,

written by Cecil Ramnaraine,

on the website of the Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse.



Woodrow Wilson, the thirty-first President of the United States, was born on December 28, 1856 in Staunton, Virginia. His father, Reverend Joseph Ruggles Wilson, was a Presbyterian minister and his mother, Janet (Jessie) Wilson, was the daughter of a minister. Wilson's family was a religious people who filled his early years with literature, knowledge, righteousness, morality, and ideals of fair play and justice for all. Woodrow deeply loved his father and was greatly influenced by him. When his father was old and feeble and could not take care of himself, Woodrow Wilson brought the Reverend J. Wilson to live with him and took care of the reverend gentleman until his death. His goodness and gentleness came from his mother whom he worshipped for her purity, nobility and gentility.


Young Wilson attended Davidson College in North Carolina when he was sixteen, then transferred to Princeton University from which he graduated in 1879. He studied law at the University of Virginia and was admitted to the bar in Atlanta, Georgia, where he practiced law briefly in 1852. He moved on to John Hopkins University for graduate studies and completed his Ph.D. there in 1886.


Wilson was a prolific writer. He published a biography of George Washington, a five-volume History of the American People, and a thesis entitled "Congressional Government", all before he was forty-five years old.

When he was twenty-eight, Wilson married Ellen Louise Anon, daughter of a Presbyterian minister. They had three daughters, Margaret, Jessie and Eleanor. For the twenty-nine years of their marriage, Ellen Louise Wilson made her husband very happy. She was a great source of support, inspiration and comfort to him all the days of their life together. As Wilson himself acknowledged, "My love for you released my real personality. . .Love unlocks everything within me that is a pleasure for me to use" (Shachtman.25). Ellen Louise died on August 6,1914. Wilson grieved her death for many months. He was greatly preoccupied with her memory. Wilson was depressed and existed as if in a deep sleep, being conscious of people around him but not being able to relate to them. He was afraid and lonely in his affected state. Only the discovery of Edith Boiling Galt in 1915 and the process of courting and marrying her brought him back to reality. Wilson needed the love and support of a woman.


In the first year of his marriage to Ellen(1885), Woodrow Wilson taught at Bryn Mawr College. He moved to Wesleyan University in 1888, and then to Princeton in 1890. His work on behalf of the faculty at Princeton led to his elevation after two years to the Presidency of that institution. During his tenure he tried to improve the intellectual standard at the school and appointed forty-seven preceptors to lead discussions in the graduate school. He also became the leader of the conservative wing of the Democratic Party.


In 1910, Wilson ran for governor of New Jersey and was elected with the support of the state party headed by a-Senator James S. Smith Jr. The party saw him as a man of great intelligence, vigor and sincerity and one who could articulate their feeling with clear and convincing oratory~ The liberals were also satisfied hat he was a progressive man who could put their programs into action. Wilson quickly put through the New Jersey state legislature some very good progressive laws such as 1)direct primary election; 2) an employers' liability act which provided workmen's compensation; 3)a fair and efficient Public Utilities Act and 4)a law that gave the cities of the state a commission form of government.


Wilson became the favorite of the Progressives in the Democratic Party because of his record as governor of New Jersey. In 1912 he was nominated for the presidency of the United States on the New Freedom platform. The National Democratic Party hoped he would break up monopolies and restore national politics to vigor, purity, and self respect. In 1912 Wilson was elected president of the United States. During his first term, Wilson supported the following bills in Congress which eventually became law 1) reduction of tariff from 40% to 26%; 2) establishment of the Federal Reserve System which set up twelve federal banks in twelve different areas of the country under the control of a board appointed by the president; 3) provision of low interest mortgage loans to farmers; 4) passage of a workmen's compensation law for federal employees which served as a model for private employers; 5) enactment of the eight-hour work day; 6) the prohibition of interstate Commerce in goods manufactured by children; and 7) voting rights for women. These laws ensured government by the people for the good of the entire population.


World War I started in Europe on July 26, 1914. Woodrow Wilson declared the U.S.'s neutrality and patiently tried to keep America from active involvement in the struggle. Thousands of men were killed daily in the senseless trench warfare between the opposing lines. In the battle of Verdun, nearly 500,000 men lost their lives fighting for a few miles of muddy terrain.


Wilson repeatedly tried to intervene for a cease-fire that would stop the carnage. He did not succeed in getting the belligerents to talk peace or negotiate their differences during his first term in office.


In 1916 Woodrow Wilson ran for a second time for the presidency. He was elected for four more years under the slogan, "he kept us out of war". He started behind-the-scenes pressure on Great Britain and Germany to negotiate peace but was rejected. Wilson realized that Britain wanted only money and supplies from the-U.S., and not advice. The munitions makers, businessmen and Wall Street tycoons who had invested millions in the Allied Cause kept pushing Wilson to declare war against Germany. Wilson countered by saying "War...would mean illiberalism, because one couldn't fight with strength and at .the same time maintain true democracy. Lead this people into war, and they'll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance. To fight, you must be brutal and ruthless, and the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into the very fiber of our national life, infecting Congress, the courts, the policeman on the beat, the man in the street" (Shachtman.147).


Meanwhile, Germany's submarine warfare against cargo carriers, neutral shipping and passenger liners continued. Germany initially respected Wilson's demand for strict observance of neutrality. Germany however, would soon resume sinking neutral ships. When Germany continued sinking ships with loss of American lives, Wilson had no recourse but to ask Congress on April 2, 1917, to declare war.


Americans enlisted, were trained and went to Europe under General John Pershing to help the Allies defeat Germany. Many American troops were put under British command. These troops were sent to help Russia hold the line against the German Kaiser. At this time, Russia was still in the midst of her own revolution in which the Communist Party, under Lenin, successfully overthrew the Czar in October 1917.


Wilson checked Japanese expansion into China by forbidding the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway through a consortium of six nations, thus assuring Chinese Territorial integrity. He also tried to restore some semblance of democracy in Mexico.


On January 8, 1918, President Wilson addressed Congress and proposed "a just and lasting peace. . .a new world order resting upon. a general association of nations, guaranteeing political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike." (Breaeman. p.11) These ideas were based on his famous Fourteen Points, which can be summarized as follows:


  1. Open discussion and public treaty of peace among the nations, after which there shall be no private deals made.

  2. Freedom of navigation in the open seas at all times beyond territorial limits.

  3. Removal of trade barriers and establishing of equitable trade conditions among the consenting nations and fair enforcement of same.

  4. Disarmament of consenting nations and retention of only a small force to keep domestic tranquility.

  5. Colonial governments to evacuate and settle impartially with the peoples they govern and to the satisfaction of the equal rights and interest of the rulers and the ruled.

  6. Allow Russia to choose her own form of government and welcome her into the comity of nations and the withdrawal of all foreign troops from her territory.

  7. Belgium to be evacuated and restored as a free sovereign state.

  8. All occupied French territories to be freed and Alsace Lorraine territory negotiated between France and Germany.

  9. The boundaries of Italy to be adjusted along clear national lines.

  10. Austria-Hungary to be allowed freedom and autonomy.

  11. Romania, Serbia, Montenegro and other lands taken during the war to be free of invaders.

  12. The Dardanelles to be declared as an open passageway for all nations and Turkey allowed control of her own country.

  13. Poland to be an independent state and

  14. A League of Nations to be formed as a general association of nations and to agree by treaty to uphold the territorial integrity and political independence of all states in this consortium (Braemnn.69-7O).


Woodrow Wilson believed that the same rules and morality that govern the behavior of individuals must also govern the conduct of sovereign nations. He thought that people should rule themselves and not be under a king or dictator. He wanted colonial peoples to be set free by their rulers and given autonomy. He desired that nations settle their disputes by negotiations, not aggression, and by binding arbitration, not wars. Towards the end of 1918 the First World War came to a halt. Wilson went to Paris to attend the Peace Conference and was greeted in England and France as a hero. He had finally succeeded in getting the warring countries of Europe to sit down for peace negotiations. He realized that punishing Germany too harshly would back-fire and he tried to make things easier for that defeated country. He prevented the separation of the Saar and the Rhine region from Germany because he knew that deprivation of these industrial areas would cause great hardship to the Germans. Nevertheless, he was not able to deflect all the vengeance that France and Great Britain dumped on Germany. By demanding huge reparations and other harsh controls, the British and French set the stage for a future great war with Germany. The allies did not heed Wilson's advice that a lasting peace meant a peace without victory, but were intent on obtaining more territory, more colonial possessions, and more world power. He did prevail upon them to set up a League of Nations where all the countries could discuss their disputes, negotiate, submit them to binding arbitration, enforce the peace and thus stop short of resorting to aggression. As he said, "Heretofore, the world has been governed.. .by partnerships of interest, and they have broken down. Interests separate men, for the moment there is the slightest departure from the nice adjustment of interests, jealousies begin to spring up. There is only one thing that can bind people together and that is a common devotion to right" (Shachtman.175).


President Wilson returned to the U.S. on February 14, 1919 and left his adviser Colonel House to represent him at the conference. With the allied leaders united against him, House agreed to many of their enormous demands including non-recognition of the Lenin government in Russia, all very grave mistakes on the part of the Allied Powers. Wilson was back in Paris on March 14, 1919. Even he could not move his peers to more lenient peace terms.


However, the European Powers did agree to his idea of the formation The League of Nations as an international organization. He signed the Treaty of Versailles, knowing its flaws but believing that the passage of time and the League of Nations which he proposed would rectify its mistakes. He envisioned America not as a military power (he detested military power), but as a leader of humankind. to show the other nations how to achieve rightful ends by peaceful means. He hated war and all the killing, and opted for peace and arbitration whenever he could. He kept the romance of war and war psychosis at bay, realizing that nations could win a war yet lose the peace. He entered World War I only when there was no other choice and only as a means to obtain peace a$ justice for all. Many believed that this was "the war to end all wars?


While in Europe in 1919, President Wilson became sick with what was thought to be influenza. Medical specialists today believe it could have been viral encephalitis. The illness damaged his brain and spinal cord and left him permanently impaired.


In the election of 1918 the Republicans had gained majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. This made Wilson's job of getting the Senate to endorse the League of Nations very difficult. Several factors threatened the acceptance of the League; the aftermath of war and the ensuing demobilization of millions of men, the economic depression and the battle between labor and management were but a few. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge was also against the President, whom he did not like personally. Members of the Senate also feared Article X of the Treaty which calls for sanctions against aggressor nations. Although it was specified that the President could not authorize any action without the advice of Congress, they feared that they would lose control over their government to some international body if the U.S. was viewed as an aggressor nation. Even when the wording of the various bills and amendments did not greatly differ from what Wilson wanted, he would not compromise. This was probably a grave mistake on his part.


President Wilson took his case to the people. He thought he could thus put pressure on Congress to accede to his demand. Wilson started on his nation-wide tour in the Presidential Train on August 3, 1919, covering some four hundred miles every day. The people were responsive. Due to his medical condition however, he became exhausted and finally collapsed at the end of September. Wilson had suffered a stroke which left him blind in one eye, paralyzed on one side and somewhat restricted mentally. Many of his advisers asked him to compromise on the treaty. Wilson stubbornly refused. It is now believed that had he realized how sick he had become, he would have allowed others to carry on his work and make a compromise possible. The Senate rejected his bill in 1919 and again in 1920. American participation in the League of Nations was scuttled.


Governor James M. Cox of Ohio and Franklin Delano Roosevelt of New York headed the Democratic ticket in 1920. Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, the Republican candidates, beat them in the Presidential election of 1920. The Nobel Peace Prize for 1919 and 1920 was awarded to Woodrow Wilson in 1920.


After the White House years, Mr. and Mrs. Wilson moved to a house in the 2300 block of S. Street, Washington D.C. Wilson gave a short radio broadcast on Armistice Day, 1923, in which he said, "I am not one of those who have the least anxiety about the triumph of the principles I ha9e stood for. I have seen fools resist Providence before, and I have seen their destruction, as will come upon these again, utter destruction and contempt. That we shall prevail is as sure as that God reigns" (Shachtman.270).

Edith Wilson cared for him from 1920 until his death in 1924. Wilson's faithful friend Grayson said that the courage with which Wilson faced death is a lesson to all of us and that Wilson had taught men many things including how to die. On January 31, 1924, he said "I am ready", and on the beautiful sunny Sunday morning of February 3, 1924, Thomas Woodrow Wilson gave up this life.


Works Cited

  1. Great Lives Observed - Wilson by John Braemen. New York Prentice Hall, 1972.

  2. Edith and Woodrow - A Presidential Romance by Tom Shachtman.


Homework Sheet on Woodrow Wilson

  1. What habits did Woodrow Wilson's father and mother inculcate in him?

  2. Tell about his education.

  3. What did he write about his wife's influence on him?

  4. Why did the Democratic Party pick him as their Presidential candidate?

  5. List some of the laws he successfully steered through Congress.

  6. Paraphrase some of Woodrow Wilson's sayings on waging war.

  7. List Fourteen Point Proposal.

  8. How did the Treaty of Versailles affect Germany and why did Wilson disagree with it?

  9. The League of Nations, as proposed by Wilson would have brought peace. Defend your agreement or disagreement.

  10. Write a few sentences telling why you think Wilson was ahead of his time.