History, History Column

Woodrow Wilson – 28th President

Thomas Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States, was a child of the Civil War; a pacifist who led his country into WWI, a domestic reformer who failed to fully implement the post-war League of Nations.  Tommy was born December 28, 1856 in Staunton, Virginia, the Scotch-Irish son of Presbyterian minister Joseph Ruggles Wilson and Janet Woodrow Wilson.  He remembered the family’s black servants; secession and the Civil War, Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ prison trek, Reconstruction and its 1877 end.

The Civil War, Woodrow said, is “but a memory of a short day.”  Yet it was Wilson who segregated the federal government in 1913.  His Texas-born Postmaster General, former US Congressman Albert S. Burleson disliked “racial mingling in federal offices, particularly in the case of black supervisors overseeing white clerks.”

Despite W.E.B. DuBois’ Presidential endorsement, Wilson “had made no promises to negroes.”  The problem was different when dealing with his daughters, two of whom were suffragists.  The social tensions, some dating from the 19th century, were many.

“Woodrow Wilson may well have witnessed more dramatic changes in national and global affairs than any other president since Washington,” Carter Smith wrote.  “He entered Presidential office as a highly regarded reformer.”  Wilson served as Governor of New Jersey from 1910 until 1913.

Woodrow Wilson was first inaugurated President on March 4, 1913.  In his speech he said: “There has been a change of government…What does the change mean?…No one can mistake the purpose for which the Nation now seeks to use the Democratic Party.  It seeks to use it to interpret change.”

“We have itemized [what] ought to be altered,” Wilson’s 1913 speech continued.  “Here are some of the chief items: A tariff which cuts us off from our proper part in the commerce of the world…; a banking and currency system based on the necessity of government to sell its bonds fifty years ago…; an industrial system which…holds capital in leading strings, restricts the liberties and limits the opportunities of  labor, and exploits without renewing or conserving the natural resources of the country; a body of agricultural activities never yet given the efficiency of great business undertakings or served as it should be through the instrumentality of science…; watercourses undeveloped, wastes places unreclaimed, forests untended,…unregarded waste heaps at every mine.  We have studied as perhaps no other nation has the most effective means of production, but we have not studied cost or economy as we should either as organizers of industry, as statesmen or as individuals.”

President Wilson, buoyed by a Democratic election sweep, signed an array of legislation.  He lowered tariffs and created the Federal Trade Commission; established a graduated income tax and the Federal Reserve System.  Wilson also limited work day hours and banned child labor.

The President’s foreign policy was not nearly as aggressive as his domestic.  However by the summer of 1914 Europe was bracing for war.  On August 1, 1914 Germany declared war on Russia; on France two days later.  Wilson responded by ordering wireless telegraph stations to remain neutral.

“The United States must be neutral in fact, as well as in name, during these days that are to try men’s souls,” Wilson explained on August 19, 1914.  War talk divided America and neutrality was policy with a presidential pedigree.

In 1916 Woodrow Wilson was re-elected President.  His electoral decline was partly blamed on his anti-war platform.  Wilson won the 1912 Presidential election by 82% of the electoral college votes, his second term by 52% of the electoral college votes.

On January 31, 1917 Germany notified the United States unrestricted submarine attacks would continue.  They announced Germany would sink on sight all merchant vessels found in a zone around the British Isles or in the Mediterranean.  President Wilson broke off diplomatic negotiations and ordered the arming of American freighters.

“Although we have centered counsel and action…upon the [domestic] problems…to which we addressed ourselves four years ago,” President Wilson said in his March 5, 1917 inaugural address, “other matters have more and more forced themselves upon our attention—matters…which, despite our wish to keep free of them, have drawn us more and more irresistibly into their own current and influence.”

In February 1917 the Germans sank 540,000 tons of Allied shipping; in March 578,000 tons, and 874,000 tons in April.  On April 6, 1917 America responded by declaring war.  The United States entered the global war on the condition that it could legitimately demand universal liberal democracy from the world.

“It is fearful 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,” President Wilson said.  “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 government, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal domination 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.”

Stopping German submarines was only part of Wilson’s naval predicament.  America’s once proud merchant marine had withered away.  It was the victim of devastation wrought by Confederate raiders during the Civil War as well as post-Reconstruction changes in the American economy.  More merchant vessels were needed.

Wilson’s 1916 shipbuilding program produced remarkable results including the 1918 Virginia Shipbuilding Corporation located in Alexandria at Jones Point along the Potomac River.  VSC employed 7000 men who built and repaired standardized steel cargo ships.  The permanent yard was constructed in 85 days, an alleged world record.

President Wilson visited the shipyard on May 30, 1918 but, in the end, the military’s need was short-lived.  The VSC’s first ship, the steamer Gunston Hall was launched on February 27, 1919.  The Big Four’s peace Treaty of Versailles was resolved four months later, on June 28, 1919.

Wilson presented his principles for peace, his Fourteen Points on January 8, 1918.  The Points included absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas, equality of trade conditions, and a general association of nations [The League of Nations].  The League of Nations, which the US Congress declined to join, convened in 1920.

President Wilson, a 1920 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, retired from office in 1921.  Upon retirement he moved to 2340 S Street NW in the District of Columbia.  The NTHP’s Woodrow Wilson House opens Images of the Great War: The European Offenses, an exhibition on April 3rd.

Wilson and his second wife Edith Bolling Galt Wilson remained in the House until his death on February 3, 1924.  His remains are interred at Washington National Cathedral.  Edith, who died in 1961, rests with him in the Cathedral’s Woodrow Wilson Bay.  Wilson reportedly declined an Arlington Cemetery burial because he “believed that the land for the cemetery had been taken unfairly from the family of Robert E. Lee.”

Written by: Sarah Becker, ©2014

Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com


0.00 avg. rating (0% score) - 0 votes