Thomas W. Wilson

From Ohio History Central
Wilson, Woodrow Visiting Columbus.jpg
President Woodrow Wilson is seen visiting Columbus, Ohio on December 10, 1915.

Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born on December 29, 1856, in Staunton, Virginia. His father, Joseph Ruggles Wilson, who was born in Steubenville, Ohio, was a Presbyterian minister. During his childhood, Wilson lived in Augusta, Georgia, and Columbia, South Carolina. He attended Davidson College for one year beginning in 1873. In 1875, Wilson enrolled at Princeton University, where he graduated in 1879. He then studied law at the University of Virginia, before setting up a law practice in Atlanta, Georgia.

Wilson found that he did not like his career as an attorney and decided to go to graduate school at Johns Hopkins University in 1883. There, he studied history and political science. He received his doctorate in 1885. In this same year, he married Ellen Louise Axson, who was from Rome, Georgia. Wilson took a job teaching at Bryn Mawr College in 1885. Three years later, he took a position at Wesleyan University, before accepting a professorship at Princeton in 1890. There, Wilson quickly gained a reputation for both his teaching and scholarly ability.

In 1902, Wilson became president of Princeton. Under his leadership, the university was restructured and academic standards strengthened. Princeton became known as one of the top universities in the country, if not the world. In 1910, Wilson decided to enter the political arena as a member of the Democratic Party. He successfully ran for governor of New Jersey.

Only two years later, the Democratic Party chose Wilson as their candidate for the presidency. The Presidential Election of 1912 reflected both the important influence of Progressivism on American politics and the deep divisions that it could cause. His opponents were President William Howard Taft, an Ohioan, who ran for reelection on the Republican ticket, and former president Theodore Roosevelt, who split the Republican Party in his desire to obtain the nomination and who ultimately ran on the Progressive Party ticket. The divisions within the Republican Party contributed to Wilson's success in the election. Interestingly, even though Taft was from Ohio, Wilson received a plurality of the state's votes. It was the first time since the creation of the Republican Party in 1854 that Ohio's electoral college votes went to the Democratic Party's candidate. The results in Ohio reflected national trends as well. Woodrow Wilson became the United States' next president.

Wilson ran for reelection in 1916. The Presidential Election of 1916 was not as divisive as the one four years earlier, and this time the results were much closer. The Republican candidate was Charles Evan Hughes. By 1916, the Progressive Party had ceased to exist. Its members had returned to their previous party affiliations. The election was very close, but ultimately Wilson won using the campaign slogan, "He kept us out of war." Ironically, it was only a few months before the United States entered World War I. Once again, Ohio voters supported Wilson's campaign.

During Wilson's two terms as president, he supported a number of Progressive reforms. In 1913, the United States passed the Underwood Tariff, which reduced the tariff rates charged on imports from other countries. The United States Congress also established a graduated income tax. To reform the banking system in the United States, Wilson supported the passage of the Federal Reserve Act, which created the Federal Reserve System. His administration also supported passage of the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, which strengthened government regulation of business and provided additional restrictions on monopolies.

Ultimately, Wilson's administration became known more for its foreign policy than for its domestic policies. When World War I began in Europe in 1914, the United States originally chose to remain neutral. Wilson instructed Americans to be neutral in their thoughts as well as in their actions. Despite neutrality, Americans did take sides. Many Americans were recent immigrants from the European countries participating in the war, and they still had families there. They often supported their home countries. Irish immigrants tended to hope that Germany would win because of their historical hatred for Great Britain. Even the United States government found that neutrality was difficult to maintain. Germany used u-boats, underwater boats or submarines, in their attempts to defeat Great Britain. Unfortunately, u-boats attacked commercial shipping as well as military vessels. In one instance, the sinking of the British luxury liner Lusitania, American lives were lost. The Germans temporarily restricted their submarine activities after this incident because they did not want the United States to become involved in the war, but ultimately the German government decided that defeating its enemies was more important. In early 1917, the German government returned to unrestricted submarine warfare.

The German submarine policy, other diplomatic failures, and ultimately President Wilson's desire to have an influence on the peace process at the end of the war led the United States to enter World War I in April 1917. Wilson wanted the First World War, which most people referred to as the Great War, to be a war to end all wars. When the war was over, Wilson wanted to put into effect reforms that would keep future wars from occurring. The president spelled out his goals in his Fourteen Points, which presented such ideas as self-determination (the right of people to decide for themselves what form of government they would have), democracy, freedom of the seas, free trade, and collective security. Wilson viewed collective security as the most important issue to prevent future wars. If all countries belonged to an international organization, which he called the League of Nations, the president believed that this agency would be able to put pressure on countries and force them to act properly in the world arena.

When the war ended, a peace conference began in Paris, France, at the Palace of Versailles. The president personally led the American delegation at Versailles. It soon became apparent that Wilson had a different view of the treaty than did the British and the French. These two countries had fought a long, bitter war against Germany. Both Great Britain and France had suffered tremendous casualties during the war and faced serious economic problems because of the war's costs. The two countries' leaders wanted to see Germany pay reparations for the cost of the war and accept the blame for causing the war. Wilson's intentions, in contrast, were very different. The American president desired to create a system that would keep future wars from happening, as well as promoting an American vision of democracy and peace.

Ultimately, the Treaty of Versailles (1919) required Germany to accept responsibility for World War I and imposed reparations. It also called for the establishment of the League of Nations, as Wilson had envisioned. Unfortunately, the treaty failed to create a long-term environment favorable to peace. Germans resented the treaty's provisions, and that resentment helped to fuel support for the Nazis in the 1930s and a return to war in World War II. Although Americans were happy to see an end to World War I, the United States Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. Republicans in the Senate were unhappy that Wilson had not included them in the negotiations and refused to vote in favor of the treaty. The United States never joined the League of Nations, and that organization failed to be successful in its attempts to prevent future wars.

Wilson's health declined as he toured the country, attempting to gain support for the Treaty of Versailles. He suffered a massive stroke that kept him from pursuing his duties as president for the remainder of his second term. Wilson died at his home in Washington, DC, on February 3, 1924.

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