How Woodrow Wilson Came to Power and Lead America into World War One

On 5 November 1912 Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) became the 28th President of the United States after winning a decisive electoral victory.

Born Thomas Woodrow Wilson in Virginia, the future president was the third of four children to Presbyterian minister Joseph Ruggles Wilson and Jessie Janet Woodrow. After graduating from Princeton and the University of Virginia Law School, Wilson received his doctorate from John Hopkins University.

He returned to Princeton as a professor of political science where his reputation began to attract the attention of conservative Democrats.

Woodrow Wilson as Governor of New Jersey, 1911. Credit: Commons.

Wilson’s rise to power

After serving as Governor of New Jersey, Wilson was nominated for the Presidency at the 1912 Democratic Convention. In the subsequent election he stood against former president Theodore Roosevelt for the Progressive Party, and the current Republican President William Howard Taft.

His campaign focused on progressive ideas. He called for banking and currency reform, an end to monopolies, and limitations on the power of corporate wealth. He won 42 percent of the public vote but in the Electoral College he won in forty states, equating to 435 votes – a landslide victory.

Wilson’s first reform focused on tariffs. Wilson believed that the high tariffs on imported foreign goods protected American companies from international competition and kept prices too high.

He took his arguments to Congress, which passed the Underwood Act (or Revenue Act or Tariff Act) in October 1913.

This was followed by the Federal Reserve Act that allowed for better supervision of the country’s finances. In 1914 the Federal Trade Commission was established to prevent unfair business practices and to protect consumers.

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World War One

During his first term in office, Wilson kept the United States out of the First World War. In 1916 he was nominated to run for a second term in office. He campaigned on the slogan “He kept us out of war” but never openly promised not to take his country into the conflict.

On the contrary, he made speeches decrying Germany’s aggression in the Atlantic and warning that submarine attacks resulting in American deaths would not go unchallenged. The election was close but Wilson won by a narrow margin.

By 1917 it was becoming increasingly difficult for Wilson to maintain America’s neutrality. Germany reintroduced unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic, threatening American vessels, and the Zimmerman Telegram revealed a proposed military alliance between Germany and Mexico.

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On 2 April, Wilson asked Congress to approve the declaration of war against Germany. They did so on 4 April and the country began to mobilise. By August 1918 one million Americans had arrived in France and together the Allies began to gain the upper hand.

Wilson’s brainchild: The League of Nations

In January 1918 Wilson presented his Fourteen Points, America’s long term war aims, to Congress. They included the establishment of a League of Nations.

With the Armistice signed, Wilson travelled to Paris to participate in the Peace Conference. He thereby became the first President to travel to Europe whilst in office.

In Paris, Wilson worked with a grim determination to win support for his League of Nations and was pleased to see the charter incorporated into the eventual Treaty of Versailles. For his efforts, in 1919, Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Woodrow Wilson (far right) at Versailles. He stands alongside British Prime Minister David Lloyd George (far left), French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau (centre right) and Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando (centre left). Credit: Edward N. Jackson (US Army Signal Corps) / Commons.

But back at home, Congressional elections in 1918 had swung the majority in favour of the Republicans.

Wilson embarked on a national tour to try to build support for the Treaty of Versailles but a series of debilitating, near fatal, strokes forced him to cut his trip short. The Treaty of Versailles fell short of the necessary support by seven votes in the Senate.

Having expended such energy in ensuring the establishment of the League of Nations, Wilson was forced to watch as, in 1920, it came into being without the participation of his own country.

Wilson never fully recovered from his stroke. His second term of office came to an end in 1921 and he passed away on 3rd February 1924.