Woodrow Wilson (1856 -1924) became the 28th president of the United States in 1913 at the age of 56. His was a contradictory administration, bringing back segregation while giving women the right to vote.
Born on December 28, 1856, in Staunton, Virginia, Wilson was raised in a southern Christian home. His father was a Presbyterian minister and his mother a minister’s daughter originally from England. During the Civil War, the elder Wilson served as a chaplain in the Confederate army, using the church as a hospital for injured soldiers.
Woodrow Wilson’s first career was academia. He studied law and received a Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins University. He became a professor of jurisprudence and politics at Princeton in 1890 and served as president of the university from 1902 to 1910. He was the only U.S. president to earn a doctorate, and, oddly enough, the young Woodrow did not even learn to read until he was ten – some suggest dyslexia played a role.
In 1910, he began his political career and was elected governor of New Jersey. Just two years later, the Democrats nominated him for president.
Wilson’s First Administration
Wilson was the last American president to travel to his inauguration ceremony in a horse-drawn carriage. During his first administration, the new president worked on progressive reform. Under the Underwood-Simmons Act, tariffs on imports were reduced, a new federal income tax was imposed, and the Federal Reserve and Federal Trade Commission were established. Wilson was also able to provide child labor laws, government loans to farmers, and reduced railroad worker shifts to eight-hour days.
A Step Backward
While serving as president of Princeton, Wilson prevented black students from enrolling in the university. He also published a five-volume textbook, The History of American People, which painted the Ku Klux Klan as “roving knights errant … an ‘Invisible Empire of the South,’ bound together in loose organization to protect the Southern country of some of the ugliest hazards of a time of revolution.”
As U.S. president, he supervised the resegregation of many areas of the federal offices, including the Navy, the Interior, Post Office, and the War Department. On the other hand, he nominated Louis Brandeis to the U.S. Supreme Court, the first Jewish person to be confirmed by the Senate.
The World War
World War I broke out in 1914, and the president was determined that the U.S. would stay out of the conflict. On May 5, 1915, a German submarine torpedoed the British ocean liner Lusitania, sinking it and killing more than 1,100 people, including 128 Americans. Wilson warned that any future attacks would be viewed as “deliberately unfriendly.”
In 1916, Wilson was renominated by the Democrats with the campaign slogan, “He kept us out of War.” But that only lasted until he began his second term.
Wilson’s Second Term and the War
In 1917, German submarines launched more attacks against U.S. merchant ships. The United States also learned about the Zimmerman Telegram, which showed Germany trying to get Mexico to go against the U.S. On April 2, 1917, Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany, saying, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” On November 11, 1918, the Germans signed an armistice to end the war.
Much of Wilson’s second presidential term was consumed by the war, but he did work hard to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles, which included plans for the League of Nations to help settle international disputes and hopefully prevent future wars. But the idea was not met well, so Wilson decided to travel and bring the idea to the American people. On September 25, Wilson was on a train heading to Wichita, Kansas when he collapsed from exhaustion. On October 2, he had a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. The president’s medical condition was hidden as much as possible from the people.
In December 1920, Wilson received the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize for his Treaty of Versailles and League of Nations work.
Wilson’s second administration saw Prohibition begin on January 17, 1920, by the power of the 18th Amendment. Although Wilson vetoed the National Prohibition Act, which would enforce the Amendment, Congress overrode his veto and the Prohibition lasted until 1933 and the 21st Amendment.
Wilson had been pushing Congress to give women the right to vote, and in 1920, the 19th Amendment was passed and became law, making it legal for women throughout the United States to be able to vote.
On February 3, 1924, at the age of 67, Wilson died at his home. He was the only president to be interred in the nation’s capital when he was buried in the Washington National Cathedral.