Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924)



Life

Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born in Virginia. His father was a Presbyterian minister of Irish ancestry, who owned slaves and supported the Confederacy during the Civil War. Wilson completed a degree at Princeton University before working briefly as a lawyer. In 1883 he resumed his academic studies, earning a PhD in Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. His thesis, on “Congressional Government,” was warmly received and he won his first teaching post in 1885. Five years later he returned to Princeton as Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Economy. In 1902 he became president of the university.

However, Wilson had always been interested in a political career within the Democratic Party. In 1910 he won the governorship of New Jersey, using the office to attack political corruption and introduce welfare reforms. Two years later he ran for the US presidency after winning a closely fought contest for the Democratic nomination. Thanks to divisions within the Republican camp, he was opposed by two former presidents (Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft). This allowed him to secure a convincing victory in the electoral college, despite receiving only 42 per cent of the popular vote.

On the domestic front, Wilson’s presidency is notable for the institution of America’s central bank, the Federal Reserve. However, his time in the White House (1913–21) was dominated by the First World War. Initially Wilson struggled to maintain US neutrality; indeed, his campaign for re-election in 1916 was based on the slogan “He kept us out of the war.” But the German strategy of submarine warfare, and attempts to lure Mexico into the conflict, provoked Wilson into declaring war in 1917. Having opposed intervention for so long, he now clothed America’s actions in moral terms, describing the struggle against Germany and its allies as “the war to end all wars.”

After the war, Wilson’s energies were devoted to the establishment of a League of Nations, in line with the war aims he had set out in his famous “Fourteen Points” (see below). His peace-making efforts won him the Nobel Prize in 1919, but in the same year he was incapacitated by a serious stroke. Ultimately he failed to persuade Congress to endorse US membership of the League, and his last years in office were also tarnished by his failure to plan properly for post-war economic reconstruction. He never regained his health and died three years after retiring from the White House.



Works

Wilson was the only academic to serve as US president and wrote several notable works including a published version of his PhD thesis on congressional government (1885). In the book he criticized the operation of the constitutional “separation of powers”; in particular, he believed that congressional committees encouraged corruption. He also wrote a five-volume History of the American People (1902) and Constitutional Government in the United States (1908).

However, Wilson’s fame mainly rests on his Fourteen Points (for details, see page 488, Chapter 19). Issued in a speech to congress of January 1918, these included an attack on secret diplomacy; advocacy of disarmament, freedom of the seas, free trade and national self-determination; and, finally the establishment of the League of Nations. These war aims were central to a “liberal” approach to International Relations (for discussion, see pages 300–302, Chapter 15), and contrasted sharply with the attitude of his European allies who regarded Wilson as an impractical idealist. However, some of the Fourteen Points were incorporated in the Treaty of Versailles, in recognition of America’s global power as much as Wilson’s advocacy. Wilson’s desire to “make the world safe for democracy” has resonated in American foreign policy ever since. The first Chair in the emergent discipline of IR—the Woodrow Wilson Chair of International Politics at University College Wales, Aberystwyth—was established in 1919, also honouring his commitment to a peaceful international order.

While Wilson can be seen as a hero to liberals in his views on International Relations, in other respects his ideas have not worn so well. As president of Princeton he sought to exclude black applicants, and when he reached the White House he allowed the imposition of racial segregation in federal government offices. Like many intellectuals of the time, he also believed in eugenics, supporting the idea that certain individuals should be sterilized for the good of society.



Further Reading

Thomas Knock. To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order, Princeton University Press, 1995.