Thomas Woodrow Wilson died 90 years ago, on February 3, 1924. It has been said that “the world we’re all living in today was essentially created by President Woodrow Wilson during his Presidency.” Certainly, he is a man well worth remembering.
Wilson was born in December 1856 and called Tommy until adulthood. Woodrow was his mother’s maiden name.
Like many children who later became people of note, Tommy was a PK. At the time of his birth, his father, Joseph, was pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Staunton, Virginia. (The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum is now located in Staunton.)
In July 1912, Wilson was nominated for President on the 46th ballot of the Democratic Convention, after William Jennings Bryan, who had been the Democratic candidate for President three times (and most recently in 1908), threw his support to Wilson.
Having defeated William Howard Taft (R), the incumbent President, former President Teddy Roosevelt (who ran this time on the Progressive, “Bull Moose,” ticket), and Eugene Debs (who ran for the fourth time as the Socialist Party’s candidate), Wilson was inaugurated POTUS in March 1913.
Soon after his election, Wilson reportedly said, “God ordained that I should be the next president of the United States.” Commenting on that statement in his 2003 book on Wilson, H.W. Brands remarks, “Though Wilson had chosen a different career from his father, he was as orthodox a Presbyterian as the Reverend Wilson.”
In December 1913, Wilson became the first President in over 100 years to deliver the State of the Union address to Congress in person—and largely for that reason an article in the Washington Post recently called it the fifth best of all time.
One of the early accomplishments of the Wilson administration was the enactment of a national income tax. (The original tax was quite modest, though: 1% on incomes over $4,000 and rising to 2% on incomes over $20,000.)
In another influential act that is prominent yet today, Wilson led in the establishment of the Federal Reserve System (“the Fed”) in December 1913. The following year, he pushed the founding of the Federal Trade Commission, which, again, is still a valuable agency in American society.
Wilson “rewarded” Bryan with the premier cabinet appointment: Secretary of State. But Bryan, who embraced a “biblically inspired pacifism,” left that position in 1915, partly because of disagreement with the President over the “Great War” in Europe.
Still, for two years after World War I began, Wilson preserved the neutrality of the United States. The slogan, “He kept us out of war,” helped him to be re-elected, narrowly, in 1916. The following year, however, he decided that entering the war was unavoidable.
In January 1918 Wilson articulated a 14-point peace plan, and that was the basis of the war-ending armistice in November. The last point was an appeal for what came to be called the League of Nations (about which I will write again soon).
Wilson’s efforts for peace, including his call for the founding of the League of Nations, led to his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919.
His greatest political disappointment, though, was the opposition of the U.S. Senate, which refused to approve the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations.
Presidents sometimes have goals and ideals that exceed the capacity of Congress to legislate or the general populace to support. That was certainly true for Wilson.
And that may well be true for the current President, who perhaps has more in common with Wilson than any other previous President.