Woodrow Wilson, America’s 28th president – A Man Of Many Contradictions

Thomas Woodrow Wilson, America’s 28th president, was a man of many contradictions. He wanted to keep America neutral during WWI, yet he also declared war against Germany. He took a dim view of European empires, yet intensified America’s involvement in Latin American affairs. He took measures to mitigate unfair labor practices and help the poor, yet he also increased the scope of racial segregation.

Here are some more things you need to know.

1) His family were Confederates

His parents, Joseph and Jessie, owned slaves who helped raise the future president. Although Joseph believed in slavery and was a fierce supporter of the Confederacy, he also believed in educating his slaves and had even set up a school for them.

Wilson claims that his earliest memory was at the age of three when he heard that Abraham Lincoln was the new president and that war would break out. He also claimed to have memories of meeting General Robert Edward Lee (who led the Confederate forces), and to still recall the man’s face.

2) He had a PhD

Wilson is the only president to have a PhD, so far. He started out as a lawyer but quickly grew bored with it, so he quit to pursue his doctorate. He later taught at Cornell, Wesleyan, and Princeton where he became its president.

The most educated of all the US presidents, Wilson was known as the “schoolmaster” and some of his books became required study in schools. Yet he only learned to read at 10. While some believe he suffered from dyslexia, others suggest his education was delayed because of the devastation wrought by the American Civil War.

3) He didn’t like the US government

Wilson accepts the Democratic Party nomination, 1916.
Wilson accepts the Democratic Party nomination, 1916.

Wilson thought that the US Constitution was too complicated and was therefore susceptible to abuse. Neither did he like the way the government was run, believing that the British parliamentary system was superior and better suited for America.

He also thought that the country’s system of checks and balances was unhealthy because it was too cumbersome and prevented effective leadership. He was even critical of the House of Representatives, believing them to be incompetent. Wilson therefore ratified the Seventeenth Amendment, allowing the direct election of senators instead leaving it to state legislatures.

4) He initiated fiscal reform

A 1914 cartoon showing Wilson improving the pump of the American economy with his New Freedom
A 1914 cartoon showing Wilson improving the pump of the American economy with his New Freedom.

Wilson was unhappy with the laissez-faire attitude of businesses, banks, and many employers. He therefore initiated the reforms known as the New Freedom, which lowered tariffs, created the Federal Reserve System, and set up anti-trust legislation which eventually led to the Federal Trade Commission.

During his first term, programs to help farmers with subsidies began with the Smith-Lever Act of 1914. This eventually led to the Federal Farm Loan Act which still exists today. He also championed the cause of limited federal government, granting each state a greater say in its internal affairs.

5) Wilson tried to mitigate child labor

Taken in 1910, the picture shows 10-year-old Addie Card, who worked in a cotton mill in Vermont
Taken in 1910, the picture shows 10-year-old Addie Card, who worked in a cotton mill in Vermont.

People think that child labor was something that ended in the 1800s, but it continued till the early 20th century. In the US, children under 14 could work in mines for well over eight hours. Wilson campaigned vigorously to put an end to it, or to at least regulate the industry to prevent abuses.

Although he managed to pass the Keating-Owen Act which would have shortened working hours for children and ensure compliance with surprise inspections of businesses, Congress deemed it unconstitutional. It was only in the 1930s that child labor was finally banned in the US.

6) Wilson sent troops to Mexico

Pancho Villa
Pancho Villa.

In 1914, Francisco “Pancho” Villa and Venustiano Carranza ousted Mexican president Victoriano Huerta. The following year, Villa and Carranza had a falling out, and Villa lost. Wilson recognized Carranza’s government, so Villa retaliated on 9 March 1916 by attacking the town of Columbus, New Mexico and killing 17 Americans.

Wilson retaliated by ordering 6,000 troops into Mexico to find Villa and his men. Carranza accused the Americans of using Villa as an excuse to invade Mexico and retaliated, resulting in a skirmish that almost devolved into war before the Americans withdrew 11 months later.

7) Wilson increased segregation

One of Wilson's quotes from the movie, "Birth of a Nation," which expresses his racist sentiments
One of Wilson’s quotes from the movie, “Birth of a Nation,” which expresses his racist sentiments.

Although segregation existed before Wilson, it was under his administration that it became more widespread. Wilson was urged by Southern Democrats to apply the practice in all government workplaces and he agreed. This included using screens to separate African-Americans from whites in offices, cafeterias, and even toilets. Many protested this, but Wilson defended his policy in the belief that it would reduce racial tensions.

When California proposed banning Japanese from owning land, he defended the proposal by citing state rights and limited federal government. Japan protested, and there was talk of war which was averted.

8) He opposed women’s suffrage

Suffragettes in 1917 protesting against Wilson's stance on women's votes The sign on the right reads: "Mr. President How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty"
Suffragettes in 1917 protesting against Wilson’s stance on women’s votes The sign on the right reads: “Mr. President How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty”.

Although he had taught at the Evelyn College for Women, had a wife, and three daughters, Wilson was very old school when it came to giving women the vote. Arkansas had already given women the vote, but it was the only southern state to do so, making the issue an extremely divisive factor among the Democrats.

Wilson managed to sidestep the issue as he did with Japanese ownership of land in California – by deferring to state’s rights. Despite claiming to be sympathetic with suffragettes, he refused to make the necessary constitutional amendment which would have made it a nationwide policy.

9) “He kept us out of war”

Woodrow Wilson and his cabinet in the Cabinet Room.
Woodrow Wilson and his cabinet in the Cabinet Room.

Although German submarines had sunk several US ships, as well as many European ones carrying American civilians, Wilson was anti-war. Even the Zimmerman Telegram (a German message urging Mexico to attack the US) failed to sway Wilson. He was therefore able to win a second term on the slogan that he had kept the country out of conflict.

In 1917, however, the Germans sank even more American ships, turning the tide of public opinion – they wanted revenge. Both parties agreed, most of the country was for it, so Congress agreed to declare war on Germany.

10) He curtailed freedom of expression

Geroge Bellows' anti-war cartoon, entitled "Blessed are the Peacemakers," published in "The Masses" on 1 July 1917 protesting the Espionage and Sedition acts
Geroge Bellows’ anti-war cartoon, entitled “Blessed are the Peacemakers,” published in “The Masses” on 1 July 1917 protesting the Espionage and Sedition acts

Having gotten the country into war, Wilson issued the draft which wasn’t very popular. To prevent anyone interfering with it, he passed the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. Anyone who opposed the draft or the war, who expressed anti-British sentiments or pro-German ones, were considered guilty of sedition, and censorship became the order of the day. Foreigners deemed guilty of sedition could even be deported.

As the 1918 congressional elections approached, he even urged the public to vote for Democrats. The attempt backfired, though both acts did push through.

Shahan Russell

Shahan Russell is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE