Thomas Woodrow Wilson (he would later drop his first name) was born at home on December 28, 1856 in the small southern town of Staunton, Virginia. Less than a year later his family moved to Augusta, Georgia. Woodrow’s earliest memories were of the Civil War, watching Union soldiers march into town and watching his mother tend wounded Confederate soldiers. He witnessed General Robert E. Lee pass through town under Union guard after surrendering at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. He saw the poverty and destruction of war and its aftermath. Wilson’s father was a Presbyterian minister and served as Pastor of several congregations and taught Theology at Columbia Theological Seminary. Because of the war’s disruption Woodrow’s early education came from his father at home. His father emphasized religion and British history and literature. Later in his life Woodrow Wilson was quoted as saying,
“There is no higher religion than human service. To work for the common good is the greatest creed.”
In 1873, at the age of sixteen, Wilson enrolled in Davidson College in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he excelled in logic, rhetoric, Latin, English, and composition. In 1875, he enrolled at the College of New Jersey, which later changed its name to Princeton University, and graduated thirty-eighth out of 167 students. He started law school at the University of Virginia and dropped out in his second year and studied law on his own. He passed the Georgia bar exam. Wilson practiced law for less than a year however. Life as an attorney to him was boring. He once again enrolled in college, John Hopkins University in Baltimore, as a graduate student in history and political science. He edited the school newspaper and joined the glee club, a college quartet and two debating clubs. He had found his passion and earned his Ph. D. in 1886. Wilson’s Ph. D. dissertation was entitled Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics and it soon became one of the classics of American political science.
Wilson started his career in education and politics teaching at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He taught law and political economy at Princeton for twelve years. During this time he published nine books, including a biography of George Washington and a five-volume history of the United States. Throughout his teaching years he dreamed of becoming a U.S. Senator as a stepping-stone to the presidency. In 1902, Princeton University tapped Wilson as their new President. These years gave him experience in administration and organization. He proposed a plan to do away with the socially exclusive eating clubs and residential houses in favor of common meals and dormitories but was blocked by stiff opposition from alumni and faculty. Even though this caused him stress it kept him in the public eye as a farsighted yet realistic reformer.
The representatives of the New Jersey Democratic Party to run for Governor approached Woodrow Wilson in 1901. He agreed, provided that the nomination came with “no strings attached”. The party bosses agreed with his nomination because they needed an honest leader to convince the voters that recent political scandals would be cleared up. As soon as he won the election he shocked the professional politicians by declaring war on machine politics. Within two years, Wilson pushed through legislation that mandated direct party primaries for all elected officials. All candidates were required to file financial statements and were not permitted to receive corporate contributions. He supported passage of a workers’ compensation law and called for a public utility commission to set rates. By 1911, Wilson had caught the eye of the nation’s progressive leaders.
Woodrow Wilson’s debating skills helped him win the presidency in 1912, against strong opposition from Theodore Roosevelt and the incumbent President, William Howard Taft, by his ability to take his message directly to the voters. The people listened to his careful, elegantly phrased speeches. In the end he won in 40 states. His first term was a continuation of his domestic endeavors as Governor of New Jersey. He was intent on expanding economic opportunity for people at the bottom of society and eliminating special privileges by the rich and powerful. He focused on tariff reform and reformed the banking industry. The Federal Reserve Act was established in 1913. He supported the Clayton Antitrust act and created the Department of Labor as a cabinet position. Wilson once said, “Business underlies everything in our national life, including our spiritual life. Witness the fact that in the Lord’s Prayer, the first petition is for daily bread. No one can worship God or love his neighbor on an empty stomach.”
With the outbreak of fighting in the “Great War” in Europe in August 1914, President Wilson appealed to Americans to remain strictly neutral. He believed that the underlying cause of the war was the militant nationalism of the major European powers and the ethnic hatreds in Central and Eastern Europe. In May 1915, a German submarine called a U-Boat torpedoed the British liner, Lusitania, killing 1,200 people, including 120 Americans. Wilson urged patience but demanded that Germany either halt or drastically curtail submarine warfare. For a time the Germans conceded but England refused to stop its blockade of Europe and eventually Germany resumed its U-Boat warfare. Several American ships were sunk. President Wilson asked Congress to declare war on April 4, 1917. His war message condemned the U-Boat attacks as “warfare against mankind” but emphasized the main goal of the war was to end militarism and make the world “safe for Democracy”. He promised that the United States would fight to ensure democracy, self-government, the rights and liberties of small nations, and an international peace organization that would end war forever. The US forces joined with the Allied forces in the nick of time. With fresh American troops and equipment the Allies launched a counteroffensive in July of 1918. By November the Germans faced defeat and called for an armistice.
Victorious in war, President Wilson hoped to revolutionize the conduct of international affairs at the peace table. He proposed a new international organization as a means to prevent future wars. This new world body would be open to membership by all democratic states. He believed this “League of Nations” would transform international relations and usher in a new era of peace. When Wilson sailed for France in December of 1918 to head the American peace delegation it marked the first time an American President in office had gone to Europe. The treaty of Versailles was signed. Everywhere he went in France, Britain and Italy huge crowds cheered him as the leader of the nation that finally brought the slaughter to an end. Back at home he continued to speak out for his League of Nations but ran into much opposition from politicians who thought it would compromise America’s independence and they tried to amend it. He asked his supporters to vote against the amended version. This failure of the League was a devastating conclusion to his almost superhuman efforts for world peace based on international cooperation. In 1919, President Wilson suffered a serious stroke and was totally secluded for the remainder of his presidency. Woodrow Wilson left the White House broken physically but was confident that his vision of America playing a central role in a league of nations would be realized eventually. There can be no doubt that his ideal inspired many Americans. “You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget your errand.”