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Woodrow Wilson

Wilson, Woodrow (1856–1924), 28th president of the United States. Wilson's high intellectual qualifications and idealistic fervor made him a forceful leader. Wilson is considered one of the most successful U.S. presidents. His triumphs as a war leader during World War I and his eloquence in the cause of freedom made him the idol of millions around the world. His successes form a sharp contrast to his failure to achieve a League of Nations—one of the deepest personal tragedies in U.S. politics.

Early life

Thomas Woodrow Wilson (he later dropped the first name) was born Dec. 29, 1856, in Staunton, Va. He attended Davidson College in North Carolina, then Princeton University, from which he graduated in 1879. After law school and a brief, unsuccessful law practice, he attended graduate school at Johns Hopkins University. In 1885 Wilson married Ellen Louise Axson; they had three children. Mrs. Wilson died in Aug. 1914. In 1915 Wilson married Edith Bolling Galt, a widow.

From education to politics

Wilson taught at Bryn Mawr (1885–88), Wesleyan University (1888–90), and Princeton (1890–1910), and was elected president of Princeton University in 1902. In 1910 he was elected governor of New Jersey (1911–13). In 1912 Wilson won the Democratic Party's nomination and presidential election, aided by the Republicans' split between William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt.


In the first years of his presidency, Wilson enjoyed the support of a Democratic-controlled Congress, which led to a remarkable succession of legislative achievements, including the Underwood Tariff Act, which made significant reductions in customs duties; a graduated income tax; and the Federal Reserve Act, which overhauled the nation's banking and credit system and placed it under public control. The Clayton Antitrust Act strengthened the government's power against monopolies and exempted unions from the antitrust law; the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was established to control “unfair business practices”; and the Adamson Act established an eight-hour work day for railroad employees, while the Child-Labor Act limited children's work hours.

In foreign affairs the United States under Wilson took control of Nicaragua's financial and foreign affairs, and U.S. troops intervened in Mexico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. After World War I broke out in 1914, Wilson declared the United States neutral. In 1916 he was reelected by a narrow margin with the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” But after Germany sank four U.S. ships, Wilson asked Congress to declare war in Apr. 1917.

Still, Wilson pushed for peace. On Jan. 8, 1918, he proposed a basis for peace negotiations—his famous “Fourteen Points.” Germany finally agreed to them and, on Nov. 11, 1918, the armistice ending the war was signed.

In 1919 Wilson attended the Versailles Peace Conference. He believed that the only hope for a lasting peace lay in a League of Nations. Back home, he campaigned hard for its establishment.

In Oct. 1919 Wilson was permanently invalided by a stroke. Yet, aided by his wife and cabinet members, he retained executive powers.

The Senate rejected the treaty that would have established the League of Nations—a bitter failure for Wilson. He did not run for reelection in 1920.


Wilson left the presidency a sick and saddened man; winning the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize was little consolation to him. He died in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 3, 1924.


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