Wilson, Woodrow

Wilson, Woodrow
   The 28th President of the United States (1913–1921), Woodrow Thomas Wilson, the son of Joseph Ruggles Wilson and Janet Woodrow, attended Davidson College, a small Presbyterian school in North Carolina, of which his father was a trustee. Although Wilson was interested in English literature, he nonetheless had a gift for politics and during his last year at college he published an essay, “Cabinet Government in the United States,” in the International Review. In 1885, a book-length expansion of his earlier essay on Congress sold well. Wilson published The State, a lengthy textbook analyzing the political nature of society in 1889. He became a professor at Princeton University in 1890 and its president in 1902. Wilson’s presidency at Princeton coincided with the advent of the Progressive Era in American politics. His educational reforms were radical, but his social and political outlook remained largely conservative.
   Colonel George B. Harvey, editor of Harper’s Weekly, who was instrumental in shifting Wilson’s interests to politics, suggested that Wilson would make a good Democratic presidential candidate. Wilson sought and won the governorship of New Jersey and won the Democratic presidential nomination of 1912, thereafter coasting to an election victory as a result of a split of the Republican vote between President William Howard Taft and the “Bull Moose” candidate, former President Theodore Roosevelt. At the top of Wilson’s list of ideas was that of lower tariff rates to free American consumers from artificially protected monopolies. He established the Federal Trade Commission in 1914 to ensure that one company or group of companies did not gain control of an entire industry and force up prices artificially.
   Although elected to reform domestic politics, Wilson spent the better part of his tenure dealing with foreign policy. Wilson’s predecessors—McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft—viewed the United States as an emerging power and had significantly expanded American influence abroad with the establishment of colonies and protectorates in the Caribbean and Pacific. Wilson did not share their imperial outlook, yet in 1913 he refused to recognize the revolutionary government in Mexico, and he intervened with force repeatedly there and in Central America. With the outbreak of World War I in Europe, Wilson sought to abide by a policy of neutrality, a policy evermore dif-ficult to uphold as American public sentiment sided increasingly with the Entente powers. After Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917, Wilson took the United States to war on the Allied side, yet with the goal above all to “make the world safe for democracy.” What Wilson sought at the Paris Conference after the war, however, was to make the postwar world unsafe for European imperialism. His Fourteen Points became the foundation of the conference and amounted, taken as whole, to a proposal for the reconstitution of international relations on principles wholly different from those animating European diplomacy between 1800 and 1914. In this he only partly succeeded, even though the application of his doctrine of the self- determination of peoples in effect dismembered the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires.
   Wilson offered not only the most compelling critique of imperialism but also the most thoughtful alternative—a liberal internationalism that served the United States well in the second half of the twentieth century. His belief in international cooperation through an association of nations led to the creation of the League of Nations, an institution hobbled from the outset by the refusal of the Senate to have the United States join it. For his efforts in this direction, he was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize. Wilson died on February 3, 1924, and was buried in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
    Ambrosius, Lloyd . Woodrow Wilson and the American Diplomatic Tradition: The Treaty Fight in Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990;
    Auchincloss, Louis. Woodrow Wilson: A Penguin Life. New York: Viking Press, 2000;
    Cooper, John, Breaking the Heart of the World: Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the League of Nations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001; Daniels, Josephus. The Life of Woodrow Wilson. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1971;
    Gilderhus, Mark. Pan American Visions: Woodrow Wilson and the Western Hemisphere, 1913-1921. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1986.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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