The Wilson family bible records Thomas Woodrow Wilson's birth in Staunton, Virginia, on the 28th December, 1856 at 12 3/4 o'clock at night. Growing up amid the tumult of the Civil War and Reconstruction, Tommy (as he was called) was immersed in the terror and despair of the South in those years. On May 14, 1865, an 8-year-old Wilson watched as captured Confederate president Jefferson Davis was led through town in chains. Though for many, life in the South would never be the same, Wilson, his two older sisters, and a younger brother experienced a comfortable childhood, enjoying the affection of a warm, attentive mother and the instruction of a gregarious yet demanding Presbyterian minister father.

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Young WilsonWilson's father would give him an idea that the true test was making the world a place where justice, where goodness had a better and bigger place than it had before he came on the scene.
Jay Winter, Historian

Wilson was a poor student early in life, still unable to read at age ten. Though teachers thought him slow, Wilson's parents provided him with plenty of support. Historians now believe young Wilson was afflicted by a form of dyslexia. To help his son overcome these difficulties, Wilson's father spent hours coaching him in the art of debate. From these early years forward, the Presbyterian faith his father preached would be Wilson's guiding belief. Enrolling first at Davidson College in North Carolina and then at the College of New Jersey in Princeton, Woodrow ( his mother's maiden name, and his newly adopted given name) excelled at oratory and debate, which led him to the study of law at the University of Virginia as a means to public office. Wilson's practice of law quickly stalled; mundane case work could not compete with his sweeping ambitions in politics and government. While on a rare business trip from his law office in Atlanta to nearby Rome, Georgia, Wilson fell in love with an extremely intelligent young woman he saw in church, a burgeoning artist named Ellen Axson. They were married in 1885 and brought the first of their three daughters into the world the following year.

Ellen and Woodrow agreed that to further his political ambitions, he should become a professor. He started graduate study at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he virtually created his own curriculum emphasizing literary-style commentary instead of specialized, primary research. Wilson's first book, Congressional Government, criticized the American model of government in favor of the British parliamentary system. The book's success landed Wilson teaching posts at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, and Wesleyan College in Connecticut. An academic rising star, Wilson returned to Princeton in 1890 to become a professor of jurisprudence and economics at his beloved alma mater. The most popular professor on campus, Wilson lectured on the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots in America in the early 1890s. Captains of industry like the Rockefellers, Carnegies and Morgans had become fabulously wealthy, while the majority of American workers lived in poverty. Wilson proposed the federal government be given more power to rein in big business. Publishing his views in magazines like Harper's and accepting numerous speaking invitations, Wilson soon became a nationally-known public figure. In 1902, Wilson was unanimously elected president of Princeton University.


Wilson in Princeton RobeHe apparently had an extraordinary effect on
audiences.  And his voice was powerful and very moving . . . I think he's probably at his best when he spoke.Louis Auchincloss, Historian

As president of Princeton, Wilson sought to build the university into the nation's foremost center of scholarship. He proposed sweeping educational and social reforms, including the creation of a world-class graduate school in the center of campus. To make the university attractive to serious scholars, Wilson planned to abolish Princeton's fraternity-like eating clubs, filled with some of the school's richest and laziest students. While Wilson's proposals were initially well received, they soon became the objects of strong resistance from conservative trustees and rich alumni. As a result of the highly publicized battle, Wilson gained a national reputation for not only advocating educational reform, but for fighting social inequity.


Princeton Reforms
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Governor Wilson The first years of Wilson's Princeton presidency were extraordinarily 
successful.  He reorganized the entire university, hired forty new faculty 
members, and raised a great deal of money.
John M. Mulder, Historian

Soon, Wilson's name was mentioned as a leading candidate for public office. The New Jersey Democratic Party political bosses, who mistakenly thought the college president would play the part of political stooge, convinced Wilson that their support would guarantee his election as the state's governor. Once in office, Wilson successfully pushed a decidedly progressive agenda, and along the way outwitted the very bosses who thought Wilson a puppet for their use. His New Jersey successes positioned Wilson at the forefront of the cresting, national wave of progressivism. Wilson became the Democratic Party candidate for the 1912 presidential election and won the tight race, helped in large part by the Republican Party's split between William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt< a>.



Oval Office
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Wilson signing legislation

During his first two years as president, Wilson demonstrated his political acumen in accomplishing one of the most impressive strings of domestic legislative victories in history. In the summer of 1914, as the world's first world war erupted in Europe, Wilson watched helplessly as his wife of thirty years died of a kidney disease. Losing Ellen threw Wilson into despair, but with the world at war, clear thinking had never been more important. Wilson maintained a precarious neutrality for nearly three years, promising to keep the country out of war as he ran for a second term in 1916, but then found no option but to lead the nation into battle.


Wilson at Paris Peace ConferenceThe first two years of Wilson's first term are one of the most remarkable moments in modern American politics.  There's more reform agenda accomplished in that brief moment than in virtually any 
other two year period in the 20th century.
David M. Kennedy, Historian


Wilson hoped participation in the war would enable him to broker a peace treaty that might end war forever. Central to the treaty would be the creation of a forum for non-violent resolution of international hostilities - a League of Nations. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, he painstakingly won key points of the treaty from British prime minister David Lloyd George and French premier Georges Clemenceau, who vengefully favored heavy restitution from Germany. But back home Wilson's dreams were thwarted by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and other powerful political enemies who blocked the treaty's ratification.

Wilson at S street houseHe was a man who believed in this extraordinarily difficult goal and when he knew that he wouldn't get there ÷ he must have felt every much like an Old Testament prophet who saw that he would never reach the Promise land.
Jay Winter, Historian


The stress of a last-ditch, cross-country campaign to rally popular support for the treaty, coupled with recurring health problems, resulted in Wilson's suffering a physical breakdown and then a paralytic stroke. Rendered incapable of executing his duties, the president was sequestered from nearly all visitors by his personal physician and by his second wife, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, whom he had married in 1916.

"The country was effectively without a chief executive for the last months of Wilson's term in office. In 1919, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Woodrow Wilson left the White House in March 1921, and he lived the next three years as a partial invalid in his Washington, D.C. home. He died on February 3, 1924, and was interred at the National Cathedral."





Wilson - A PortraitMajor Legislative Victories


Wilson's performance as President between 1912 and 1914 is ÷ brilliant. John Morton Blum, Historian 

Woodrow Wilson settled into his new job as president with a deep sense of mission. His domestic program, called the New Freedom, sought to extend opportunity to all, and wrest power away from entrenched interests.

Wilson signing legislation

Tariffs Reduced

The Democrats carried majorities in both houses of Congress, and many newly elected rank-and-file lawmakers were eager to gain favor with Wilson by supporting his agenda. Party leaders, controlling powerful committee chairs after many terms in the minority, were also willing to give the president much of what he wanted. Wilson exerted his power boldly-more than any chief executive had done before-by drawing from his strengths as orator, educator and political scholar. He cast complex legislation in moral and uplifting terms. He often conferred with party leaders, to find and build consensus. He participated actively in drafting the details of proposed legislation.

Income Tax
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Wilson speaking before CongressThe first two years of Wilson's first term÷ saw more reform agenda accomplished in that brief moment than in virtually any other two year period in the 20th Century. David M. Kennedy, Historian

Most dramatically, Wilson journeyed more often to Capitol Hill than any president had before. To inaugurate his unprecedented legislative effort, he broke with 113 years of tradition by personally addressing a joint session of Congress, drafting his speech himself on a newfangled machine -- the typewriter. But Wilson didn't stop there. The day after his historic congressional address, Wilson lobbied legislators from the Capitol's rarely used President's Room. He also found useful operatives in political aides drawn from the Democratic Party's various blocs. These aides provided conduits through which Wilson received counsel and compelled discipline. His first two years produced some of the most enduring reform in history, including the establishment of the Federal Reserve and passage of the Clayton Anti-Trust Act.
Nearly all who came to see him were struck by the president's deep sense of mission. When the chairman of the Democratic Party came to demand a job in return for helping Wilson win the presidency, Wilson told him that it was not the Democratic Party, but God, who had made him president.

Federal Reserve
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Woodrow Wilson


Wilson was fortunate that in his early days in office there was little organized opposition to his plans for change. Yet although Wilson accomplished many major legislative goals during his first two years in office, events appeared to stall continued reform. Political opposition strengthened when the newly reunified Republican Party eroded Democratic control of Congress at the midterm elections in 1914. Enthusiasm for reform was inhibited more by the onset of an economic recession, which triggered pro-business legislation as a means of revitalizing the economy. It seemed Wilson's political future was dependent upon a move to the right.




Wilson signing legislation

Looking ahead to re-election, however, Wilson calculated that further reform was the only politically viable means to capture a second term. Wilson saw as his best course a consolidation of his support among Democratic Party progressives and those of the former Progressive Party. Political realities dovetailed with his own convictions to produce a legislative agenda attractive to social reformers, farmers and labor. In a second flurry of legislative productivity, Wilson championed some of his more far-reaching, previously shelved reforms, including the Nineteenth Amendment extending suffrage to women.

Legislation During the Wilson Administration



Legislation During the Wilson Administration

Underwood-Simmons Tariff Act (1913)
The first successful downward revision of the tariff since the Civil War, the Underwood-Simmons Tariff Act enacted an across-the-board reduction in tariffs, making manufacturers more efficient and providing consumers with competitive pricing. To compensate for lost revenue, a rider to the act created a small, graduated income tax.

Federal Reserve Act (1913)
The banking system was put under governmental supervision, loosening Wall Street's grip on the nation's finances. This act is considered Wilson's most significant accomplishment.

Seventeenth Amendment (1913)
This amendment provided for direct popular election of senators.

Federal Trade Commission Act (1914)
The Federal Trade Commission was charged with enforcing antitrust laws and preventing the unlawful suppression of competition.

Clayton Antitrust Act (1914)
The trusts were attacked and labor unions protected under this act. This law prohibited interlocking directorates and clearly defined unfair business practices. Labor unions were exempted from antitrust considerations. Benefiting labor further was the legalization of peaceful strikes, picketing and boycotts.

Seaman Act (1915)
Considered the Magna Carta of American seamen, this act set standards for the treatment of merchant sailors.

Farm Loan Act (1916)
This legislation made it easier for farmers to secure loans.

Keating-Owen Child Labor Act (1916)
The child labor act limited the work hours of children, forbade the interstate sale of goods produced by child labor, and began a new program of federal regulation in industry.

Adamson Act (1916)
This legislation established an eight-hour workday for railroad employees, and dramatically averted a potentially crippling railroad strike.

Workingmen's Compensation Act (1916)
With this act the government provided financial assistance to federal employees injured on the job.

Eighteenth Amendment (1919)
This amendment prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors and their importation and exportation

Nineteenth Amendment (1920)
This amendment extended to women the right to vote.



African American and whites in front of Christmas Tree[Wilson's] stance on race is perhaps the greatest single defect of his moral vision of what the United States should be.John M. Mulder, Historian

Woodrow Wilson's record on race relations was not very good. African Americans welcomed his election in 1912, but they were worried too. During his first term in office, the House passed a law making racial intermarriage a felony in the District of Columbia. His new Postmaster General also ordered that his Washington offices be segregated, with the Treasury and Navy soon doing the same. Suddenly, photographs were required of all applicants for federal jobs. When pressed by black leaders, Wilson replied, "The purpose of these measures was to reduce the friction ÷ It is as far as possible from being a movement against the Negroes. I sincerely believe it to be in their interest."

As president, Wilson confronted a new generation of militant African American leaders, men like William Monroe Trotter, W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, who had begun to challenge their more conservative elders - and the expectations and assumptions of much of white America.


The Crisis
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W.E.B. Du Bois To understand Woodrow Wilson's racial views, it is important to remember that he was a southerner.  He had been raised in a climate in which it was presumed that African American people were less evolved than Anglo Saxon people.Victoria Bissell Brown, Historian


Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 1868, a town with few black citizens. Thus Du Bois, whose family was the only black one in the local Congregational Church, knew only muted prejudice growing up. Only when he ventured into the world as a teenager and a student at Fisk University in Tennessee did he fully encounter what he called "the whole gorgeous gamut of the American Negro." His faith shifted slowly from Christianity to a belief in the genius and cultural power of the black race. The sixth black man admitted to Harvard, he earned his degree in European philosophy and graduated with honors. He was no longer "Willie" but the fiercely proud W.E.B. Du Bois.


Marcus Garvey


A personal and political antagonist to Du Bois, Garvey was both a visionary and a manipulator, a brilliant orator and a pompous autocrat. Following his 1917 emigration from Jamaica, Marcus Garvey led the largest black organization Americans had ever known. His Universal Negro Improvement Association promoted ambitious goals - racial unity, economic independence, educational achievement, and moral reform. He inspired African Americans to support his economic enterprises with their hard-earned money, established the Black Star Line shipping company, and founded the Negro Factories Corporation, which developed grocery stores, a restaurant, a laundry, a moving van fleet and a publishing house.


William Monroe Trotter


Born in Boston in 1872, Trotter attended Harvard and became the first black member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor fraternity. Trotter edited the militant newspaper, The Guardian, which he founded to disseminate "propaganda against discrimination." He advocated vociferously for racial and social justice, leading non-violent protests not only against plays and films such as Birth of a Nation which had glorified the Ku Klux Klan, but also against more accommodating black leaders like Booker T. Washington Along with Du Bois and others, Trotter organized the militant Niagara movement in 1905, but as the organization evolved into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Trotter would eventually drop out, accusing the group of being controlled by "white money."


The Black Vote
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Newspaper headline Trotter was a man whose African American father was a major in the Union Army.  He grew up ÷ with a silver spoon in his mouth.  He is not a supplicant. David Levering Lewis, Historian


When Wilson allowed his cabinet members to segregate government offices, William Monroe Trotter led the delegation from the National Independent Political League to meet with the president and protest this discriminatory policy. Wilson's explanation, that "segregation was caused by friction between the colored and white clerks, and not done to injure or humiliate the colored clerks, but to avoid friction," infuriated Trotter. After the shouting match that followed, Trotter was ordered out of the White House. Trotter then did what Wilson considered unforgivable. Standing on the White House grounds, he held a press conference and detailed what had just happened. A Wilson supporter in 1912, Du Bois now sided with Trotter. In Du Bois' view, Wilson "was by birth . . . unfitted for largesse of view or depth of feeling about racial injustice."


The Birth of a Nation
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African American soldiers


Du Bois supported America's entry into war as one more way for black Americans to gain equality and to advance political reform both at home and abroad. It was largely wishful thinking. When black workers began appearing in the great war factories in the North, white resentment intensified, leading to race riots in cities like St. Louis. A rampage by black troops near Houston over the arrest of one of their members coming to the aid of a black woman left seventeen whites dead. Nineteen of the soldiers were convicted and executed without any chance to appeal.


In the Trenches
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In every man's life, there's the possibility of making a considerable difference.  By attitude, by word spoken, by something done or not done.  You'd have to say that in the area of race relations, Woodrow Wilson was deficient on all those points. David Levering Lewis, Historian


In 1919, as the peace talks in Paris began, Du Bois reached Europe as part of the American press delegation. But Trotter, denied a passport by Wilson's State Department, had to obtain a job on a trans-Atlantic steamer as a cook in order to get there. He appeared at the conference as a delegate from two groups pressing for more racial justice in the postwar world. Du Bois quietly pressured the French to mount a three-day Pan African Conference, with its findings presented to the president's inner circle. He also met with Wilson's advisor Colonel House on the matter, but, predictably, nothing came of it.

Du Bois, Trotter, and Garvey continued their efforts in the fight for civil rights long after Wilson was gone. Marcus Garvey was permanently deported from the U.S. in 1927 after a vicious campaign by the federal government and other black leaders to discredit him. Yet Garvey's legacy extended directly to later civil rights activists, like Malcolm X, whose parents had been Garveyites. By the time of his death in 1934, Trotter had become increasingly marginalized because of his strident unwillingness to work with established groups, but his use of nonviolent protest was adopted in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s. Du Bois lived long enough to become increasingly radicalized, both embracing Communism and leaving America for Ghana in 1959. He died there four years later at the age of 95.


Returning Home




Wilson - A PortraitWomen's Suffrage



Suffrage banner We tend to think of suffrage as an on-off switch.  Women didn't have the vote, then women did have the vote in 1920.  The story is quite different. Victorian Bissell Brown, Historian


After the United States entered the war, American suffragists strongly felt that if America could defend democracy abroad, they deserved it at home, in the form of votes for women. Beginning in early 1917, a small but determined group of militant suffragists led by Alice Paul had been picketing the White House, urging Woodrow Wilson to support a Constitutional amendment to give women the right to vote. Calling themselves the " Silent Sentinels," a rotating cluster of women stood at the White House gates for months. They carried signs intended to challenge and embarrass Wilson.

At first, Wilson seemed bemused by the picketers. He tipped his hat and smiled. He even invited them in for coffee. But as time went on, his attitude changed.

Banners & Parades
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Suffragist being arrested Wilson did not think women should be chaining themselves to the White House fence.  ÷ His reaction was not very gentlemanly, and not very democratic.Victoria Bissell Brown, Historian


In late June 1917, six women were arrested. Eleven more were detained on July 4. Ten days later, a third group was taken into custody. All the women were charged with "obstructing traffic." The protesters were sentenced to 60 days in the workhouse. There, they suffered beatings, forced feeding, and unsanitary conditions. But the pickets - and the arrests - continued. In August, scuffles broke out right in front of the White House gates. For three days suffragists were dragged, punched and choked by angry crowds. City police stood by, refusing to intervene.


 Silent Sentinels
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Suffragist with banner


Presidents have to maneuver carefully on politically hot issues, and women's suffrage was no exception. The movement had been growing for decades. Despite a history of hostility to their cause, Wilson soon saw the political handwriting on the wall. Gradually, he began modifying his position. But only a world war would bring the president fully behind efforts to secure a federal amendment for women's suffrage.

The War
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Carrie Chapman Catt Wilson wants women's votes for a number of reasons.  He wants as much support for the war as he can get, half of the American population. Ronald Schaffer, Historian



Wilson was repelled by the militant suffragists outside his gate. To him, their methods were insulting, unfeminine, and unpatriotic. But there were other suffrage supporters who shunned confrontational tactics. This group, led by Carrie Chapman Catt, embraced the war as an opportunity for women to earn the vote through their patriotism. On the eve of a Congressional vote on the women's suffrage amendment, Catt made a personal plea to the president. Her appeal worked. Addressing the Senate, Wilson finally spoke out in favor of the suffrage amendment. But it was to no avail. The Senate rejected women's suffrage by two votes. The Nineteenth Amendment would have to wait until 1920, after the war was already won.


Final Victory