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Thomas Woodrow Wilson
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Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1856 - 1924), a Democrat, was elected as the 28th President of the United States of America, and reelected in 1916, serving from 1913 to 1921. A Princeton president who became an intellectual leader of the Progressive Movement, Wilson demonstrated his mastery over Congress by creating the Federal Reserve System, lowering the tariff, and revising the antitrust laws in a way that ended most of the "trust-busting" and drew clear lines on what was allowed. In general these policies would be in line with conservative recommendations in 2009. He supported liberal policies such as raising wages of railroad workers when they threatened a nationwide strike in 1916. Trying repeatedly and failing to broker peace during the Great War, Wilson in 1917 led the United States into the war. He set up a draft and trained millions of soldiers, sending the American Expeditionary Forces to France under the command of General John J. Pershing. Woodrow Wilson was also notoriously anti-Catholic, and was known for his racist policies promoting segregation, and promoted eugenics based off of Darwinian theory.

Wilson played a dominant role in ending the war with his Fourteen Points and played the central role at the Versailles Conference that set the peace terms in 1919. He was the idealist who envisioned Wilson advocated a new international order founded on self-determination, unfettered international trade, the end of militarism, and a worldwide organization of states - the League of Nations. He failed to obtain Senate approval for the Versailles treaty because it required American entry into the League of Nations and a possible loss of control over the war-making power. Wilson refused to involve the Republicans in the peace-making, even though they controlled Congress, and refused the GOP compromise that would have allowed American entry into the League without giving up sovereignty.

Wilson was a very complex man filled with paradox. He was a southern conservative--an elitist with a profound distrust of radical ideas and such left-wing populists as William Jennings Bryan, but became the Democratic Party's most effective advocate of advanced progressivism. He rejected the doctrine of the Founders of the Republic in the preface to the Declaration of Independence that people are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights" and asserted the Hegelian principle that the citizen should "marry his interests to the state". Ironically, Woodrow Wilson laid the foundations for a state that has no use for God and uses “every means. . .by which society may be perfected.”

He was a war president who largely ignored military affairs and focused on very complex diplomatic issues. He won his war, reshaped the world at the peace conference, and saw his nation reject his idealist League of Nations because he refused to work with Republicans on its mechanics.

A rigid, self-exacting personality, whose uncompromising adherence to principles barred agreement on some of his most important political goals, he was a brilliant opportunist who won stunning electoral victories and led controversial laws through Congress. He understood diplomacy and domestic affairs in depth, and was the first to recognize a solution that could satisfy most of the needs of the interested parties. He was willing to negotiate endlessly, usually getting his way in the end, especially when his powerful rhetoric energized his backers. A devout Presbyterian who studied the Bible every day, he elevated a religious style of idealism to the central place in American diplomacy. A lonely intellectual, he had few friends, and broke one-by-one with his closest advisers, until in his last two years in office he was an invalid controlled in large part by his wife.

Wilson's idealistic foreign policy, called "Wilsonianism" sought to end militarism as a force in world affairs, vigorously promote national self determination, create international bodies to head off serious disputes, and use American resources to promote democracy. Wilsonianism (and "idealism" generally) is opposed to "realism" in foreign policy, which stresses a concern for American self-interest, especially in economic and military terms.


Joseph Ruggles Wilson

Joseph Ruggles Wilson, father of Woodrow Wilson.

Wilson's father Joseph Ruggles Wilson (1822-1903), born in Ohio, was a Presbyterian minister of Scotch Irish descent. Woodrow's mother Jesse was born in Carlisle, England, to a Scottish-born Presbyterian minister; her family moved to Canada in 1835 and to Ohio in 1837. Woodrow's parents moved South in 1851, owned house slaves, and identified themselves with the culture and political values of the South. Joseph Wilson was a theologian, defended slavery, and soon emerged as a leader of the Southern Presbyterian Church and an avid supporter of the Confederacy.

Wilson's grandfather (Joseph Wilson's father) was James Wilson, who immigrated to the United States from northern Ireland in 1807 and was first an editor of the Jeffersonian Republican newspaper the Aurora in Philadelphia, and later published Whig newspapers in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Since his father had been ostracized by the northern relatives, Woodrow had no contact with his grandfather or uncles, who were active in antislavery Republican politics in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Woodrow grew up in the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction his father was a chaplain for the Confederate army. Woodrow saw the humiliation, economic ruin and shame that the loser of a war experiences and the hatred that grows from this, as well as the rampant corruption during Reconstruction in Columbia, South Carolina. A victim of childhood dyslexia, he became an avid reader. His father imparted a love of literature and politics to his son; much family activity revolved around Bible readings, daily prayers, and worship services at the father's church.

In 1885, Wilson married Ellen Louise Axson (1860 – 1914), the daughter of a Presbyterian minister in Savannah, Georgia. She was an accomplished painter and a successful hostess; they had three daughters.



Wilson, circa 1970.

Woodrow studied at Davidson College in North Carolina in 1873-1874 and at Princeton University from 1875 to 1879. He proved a exceptional student, primarily interested in debate and politics. His father always wanted him to be a minister; Wilson greatly admired the British Prime Minister William E. Gladstone, a Christian in politics, and decided to emulate him. Wilson saw politics as a divine vocation--to be a statesman was an expression of Christian service, he believed, a use of power for the sake of principles or moral goals. Wilson saw the "key to success in politics" as "the pursuit of Perfection through hard work and the fulfillment of ideals." Politics would allow him to spread spiritual enlightenment to the American people.

He was an editor of the Princetonian and wrote his senior thesis on "Cabinet Government in the United States;" it was later published. The essay stressed the superior qualities of the British cabinet system and said it ought to be tried in the United States. After graduation in 1879, he studied law at the University of Virginia; he was admitted to the bar and practiced in Atlanta, in 1882. It was too boring for him. Wilson's scholarship led him in 1883 to enter the new Johns Hopkins University graduate school where he studied government and history, taking a PhD in 1885. Wilson is the only president to have earned a PhD.

Academic Leader

In 1885, Wilson was appointed as a history instructor at Bryn Mawr College, an elite Quaker school for women near Philadelphia, at a salary of $1,500 a year (which was enough to hire a servant). In 1888 he moved to Wesleyan University, a Methodist college in Connecticut. His reputation as an outstanding leader in political science brought him a professorship of jurisprudence and political economy at Princeton University in 1890. For the next twelve years he taught at Princeton, popular alike with students and faculty; he became the president of the school in 1902.

Wilson soon emerged as the nation's foremost academic, in heavy demand in elite circle for his brilliant speeches.

Wilson subscribed to the Social Darwinist view that survival was for the fittest races, and he supported the Eugenics movement. He believed there are “progressive races” such as Anglos and Aryans, who had superior and enlightened governments, and “stagnant nationalities” – Eastern and Southern Europeans – who needed authoritarian governments to control them.

President Wilson of Princeton

Wilson, as President of Princeton University.

At Princeton, he created academic departments but otherwise downplayed the Germanic model of the PhD-oriented research university in favor of the "Oxbridge" (Oxford and Cambridge) model of intense small group discussions and one-one-one tutorials. He hired 50 young professors, called preceptors, to meet with students in small conferences, grilling them about their reading. Complaining that Princeton was dominated by "eating clubs" in which students ate with each other and ignored the professors, he sought to build Oxford-style colleges where students and faculty would eat and talk together. He failed--the eating clubs are still there.

Wilson promoted the leadership model, whereby the college focused on training a small cadre of undergraduates for national leadership, "the minority who plan, who conceive, who superintend," as he called them in his inaugural address as the university's president. "The college is no less democratic because it is for those who play a special part." He confronted the dean of the graduate school, who had the German research model in mind and outmaneuvered Wilson by obtaining outside funding for a graduate complex for serious scholarship that was well separated from the fun-loving undergraduates.

Political Theory

Political Science

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A 1913 portrait of Wilson.

Wilson made significant contributions to political science. In 1885, he published his influential treatise Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics, based on his PhD dissertation. It set a new standard in analyzing the actual workings of the federal government with striking clarity and thoroughness. The citizen must “marry his interests to the state.” Wilson, therefore, dismissed the Declaration’s assertion that rights are endowed by our Creator. Wilson lectured that, “If you want to understand the real Declaration of Independence, do not repeat the preface.” “The rhetorical introduction,” he declared, “is the least part of it.”

Although Wilson had never visited Congress, his emphasis on the centrality of committees in Congress was a major contribution to the study of political science. Noting how the Constitution's separation of powers had been eroded since the Civil War by the increasing power of Congress, he suggested a remedy for this in a cabinet-style government of the variety proposed by Walter Bagehot in Britain. By criticizing the Constitutionalist and Federalist traditions that had characterized American politics for a century, and showing their faults, Wilson sought to open a serious debate on the political changes in the United States in the intervening century and whether the Constitution remained an adequate regulator of these. By the time he wrote Constitutional Government in the United States (1908), Wilson was advocating the need for constitutional reform that would make Congress and president more representative and, above all, the need for a strong president who could influence Congress rather than submit to it.

Wilson originated the notion that political parties, besides running campaigns, need to be responsible for clearly designed public policies, which they present to the electorate for approval. The key to responsibility was the presidency. Hegelian conceptions of monarchy strongly influenced Wilson, and his view of public opinion contrasted sharply with the Madisonian view of factionalism. Consequently Wilson viewed parties as primarily the machinery through which strong leaders interpret and pursue the public will

Public administration

Wilson was a founder of the study of public administration by political scientists. Wilson believed in a strong, active role for the central government and as president succeeded in establishing legislation that significantly enlarged its regulatory powers. With the publication of Congressional Government in 1885, Wilson established himself as a leader of the political reform movement of the day. The book was the first of its kind to analyze policymaking by the central government and to provide recommendations for changing the process. Wilson was one of the three most prominent public administrationists of the 1880s and 1890s. As an academician, he promoted a separate department for the study of public administration and wrote 'The Study of Administration' (1887), the first published essay by a university scholar on the subject, established Wilson as the leading authority in the field. During the next year he inaugurated a course in public administration at Johns Hopkins University, providing three 6-week lecture series arranged in a 3-year cycle. In 1889, Wilson published a textbook, The State, and, in 1891, he began at Hopkins a new 3-year course which was a further significant step in the development of the study of administration. He was one of the first scholars to realize fully that all government was ultimately to be administration.