The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Wilson, Woodrow
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WILSON, Woodrow (christened Thomas), 28th President of the United States: b. Staunton, Va., 28 Dec. 1856. He is the son of Scotch-Irish parents, who had lived in Pennsylvania, Canada and Ohio. James Wilson, his paternal grandfather, emigrated from Ireland in 1807. When young Wilson was about a year old the father, Rev. Joseph Ruggles Wilson, became the pastor of the Presbyterian church in Augusta, Ga., where the family remained till 1870 when Dr. Wilson removed to Columbia, S. C., where he was a professor in the Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Woodrow experienced some of the terrors of the Civil War when the people of the town of Augusta daily expected a visit from Sherman's army, and again in Columbia where a large part of the city remained a burnt-over area till the Wilson's moved away to Wilmington, N. C, in 1875. Woodrow's early training was received in private schools in Augusta and Columbia, and from his father and grandfather, Dr. Thomas Woodrow, of Columbus, Ohio, the latter being a devotee of the ancient classics and frequently in the Wilson home. From this Presbyterian home, Woodrow went to Davidson College, North Carolina, a staunch Presbyterian college, in the autumn of 1874, where he remained a year. But in the autumn of 1875 he went to Princeton where the father had studied theology and where the great Presbyterian leaders of the country were wont to live and teach.
At Princeton, Wilson took rank as a leader among his fellows, attained a fair standing in his class, but made it plain to all that wide reading and close study of public affairs were his chief interests. He and his family were already close observers of British politics, Gladstone being a hero in their circle. Wilson showed this interest in a remarkable article published, while he was still an undergraduate, in the International Review, in which the germ of his first book was uncovered. He was graduated in 1879 and the next year went to the University of Virginia to study law. There he took a law degree in 1881 and early in 1882 settled in Atlanta to practise his profession. There he probably did not make his mark as a lawyer; but he continued his study of government and politics, as illustrated in the workings of Congress. True to his bent, he abandoned the law and entered Johns Hopkins University in 1883 where he wrote his first book, ‘Congressional Government,’ published in 1885. The same autumn he began teaching history and political economy in Bryn Mawr College and the next year, somewhat against his wishes, he took his examinations at Johns Hopkins and was awarded the degree of doctor of philosophy, then so highly prized among college teachers everywhere. In 1888 he went to Wesleyan University, Middletown, Conn., as professor of history and political economy. There he gained a grip upon student life and opinion that marked all his later educational career. But the popularity of ‘Congressional Government’ and the importance of its criticism of American governmental practices were making him a national and even international reputation. At Wesleyan he wrote a review of Bryce's ‘American Commonwealth,’ which brought him into close friendly relations with that eminent Englishman. In this review one sees the reflection of a keen historical mind and independent thinker.
In 1890 Wilson was called to Princeton as professor of jurisprudence and political economy, which position he held till 1910 when he ceased his connection with the university to become governor of New Jersey. As professor at Princeton, he practically founded the department of political science, as it is now taught in all American universities. His power over students, his activity as a leader in the rapid development of the college into a university, his many articles in periodicals, his lectures in various parts of the country and his books raised him to the foremost position in the faculty and when President Patton resigned in 1902, he was chosen to head the university. He at once set about far-reaching reforms. American college and university students, reflecting the growing riches of their parents, had already become loiterers at their work. Wilson endeavored to compel them to study. Instead of increasing the number of students at Princeton, he pressed so closely his requirements that scores, even hundreds, of young men were sent away each year because they failed in their examinations. Some witty undergraduate is reported to have said that if Dr. Wilson kept on he would make Princeton an educational institution. But the necessity of passing the examinations was not all. Wilson introduced what has been called the preceptorial system at Princeton. By this method every student was brought into close relations with a teacher who made it his business to lead a small group of young men in their work and introduce them to the world of books. The new system cost a great deal of money and Wilson endeavored to collect it. His activity in that direction brought him into closer touch with Princeton men all over the country and he became very popular. His next reform was of a similar nature. There had grown up at Princeton an elaborate club system which was more important to most of the undergraduates than the passing of examinations. To become a member of one of the clubs was the first ambition of most students. Moreover the social life of the students was absorbed by these clubs. Wilson proposed in 1907 that as soon as suitable dormitories could be provided, all students should live together and have their rooms assigned to them by lot; that they should eat together, the rich and the poor, in dining-places on or near the quadrangle; and that the unmarried tutors should live with the students in the dormitories. This reform was aimed at making student life democratic and helpful to all alike. This, too, would cost large sums of money and require several years to become effective. It was, however, too much for the students. Some professors also found the new pace a little too swift and the alumni encouraged resistance.
But before the resistance became effective, a gift to the proposed graduate school, which all held as necessary to the very existence of the university, introduced a new subject of discussion. Dean Andrew West, a close friend of the president, desired the graduate school to be set up at a distance from the quadrangle which Wilson would make the centre of college life. Wilson objected gently. The matter remained in abeyance till in 1909 a conditional gift of something like a million dollars to the graduate school compelled a decision. The gift was to be applied according to the wishes of Dean West. Wilson refused to accept it on those conditions. The segregation of the graduate students seemed to him to thwart the democratic purposes of his whole reform program. The trustees sided with Wilson and the gift was formally declined, but not before the subject had become a national one, for the newspapers of the country discussed the issue. In May 1910, Isaac Wyman of Boston died and left a reported to be several millions, to the graduate school. Dean West was to be one of the executors of the will and he was to use the new millions to carry out his ideals in the new school. Wilson could not refuse these millions. And, before this time, the opposition to his quadrangle reforms had assumed formidable proportions. Dean West's influence and that of the students and professors who opposed the president were united. The Wilson reforms, popular as they were in educational circles throughout the country, were halted. It was commonly rumored that Wilson would resign at commencement 1910.
This work at Princeton had made Wilson widely known in the United States as an educator. Before it took its final turn in 1910, Col. George Harvey, representing the conservative wing of the Democratic party and editor of Harper's Weekly, inaugurated a movement to bring about Wilson's nomination for President by the Democratic party in 1912. Harvey enlisted newspaper editors and political party leaders of the type of James Smith, Jr., of New Jersey in the cause. The country was growing restless at the conduct of the Republican party. Wilson was a progressive Democrat; Harvey and his friends were reactionary Democrats. The presidential election was then two years off and the situation in the Democratic party was one of great uncertainty. The efforts of Wilson's friends, however, had resulted in making him a prominent political figure and there arose a popular demand in his home State for his nomination as a candidate for governor. His nomination followed in September 1910, and in October the presidency of Princeton was given up. The campaign that Wilson conducted that autumn in a stalwart Republican State attracted the attention of the country. The election of Wilson by a majority of 49,000 made him a real candidate for the Presidency which his administration as governor further advanced. He could not fulfil the hopes of the conservative Democrats as governor and broke with Smith. Later he broke with Harvey. When the conservatives abandoned him and endeavored to give all their influence to other candidates for the Democratic Presidential nomination, the more progressive elements of the Democratic party turned to Wilson. Of greater moment was the break-up of the Republican party in June 1912. Colonel Roosevelt endeavored to prevent the renomination of his former friend, Taft, and, failing to do so, led a revolt from the convention. It was plain that a new convention, composed of the Roosevelt men, already announced in Chicago, would nominate the colonel. These events focussed the national attention upon the Democratic party when it assembled in convention at Baltimore 25 June 1912. No such convention had ever been held in American political history. It lasted until 2 July and was marked from the beginning by intense bitterness between the conservative and progressive elements of the party. In addition to Mr. Wilson the leading candidates were Speaker Champ Clark of Missouri, Judson Harmon of Ohio and Oscar W. Underwood of Alabama. Mr. Wilson won on the 46th ballot, largely through the support thrown to him by William Jennings Bryan.
Wilson made an active campaign and was elected by a vote of 435 in the electoral colleges against 88 for Colonel Roosevelt and eight for Mr. Taft, the regular Republican candidate. The popular vote for Wilson, however, totaled only 6,293,019 as against 7,604,463 votes cast for Roosevelt and Taft. But the Democrats won large majorities in both houses of Congress and Wilson entered the Presidency in March 1913, with every branch of the government at his command. He summoned Congress in extra session in April. All the great committees were headed by Democrats, if not by his friends. He urged at once some of the greatest reforms that have ever been effected in the history of the country. Acting on his recommendations Congress reduced the tariff from a general level of 45 to 25 per cent and greatly enlarged the free list. Many economists alleged that for the first time in half a century the tariff was written in the interest of the masses and not in that of the manufacturers. Of even greater importance was the reform of the national currency system in the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, by which the control of the money of the country was taken from private hands and placed in the Treasury Department. The country was divided into 12 banking districts and the reserves of those districts were placed in certain reserve cities in order that the needs of the country as a whole might the better be served and what had been called financial panics, produced by the nervous financial state of mind of New York, the reserve centre under the old system, might be averted. This measure was immediately successful. These reforms of 1913 were followed by the Clayton Anti-trust and the Federal Income Tax laws of 1914, the former of which definitely settled an old issue, while the latter subjected the incomes of the country to a graduated tax that quickly proved to be of revolutionary character.
Although the Democratic party was not in entire accord with Wilson, and the Republicans as a whole resisted him with all their might, he held Congress in session almost continuously till the great European War brought another series of problems before the country. But already the Wilson foreign policy was shown in his refusal to allow the army and navy to be used on behalf of money lenders or investors in Mexico and South America. He even went so far as to say at Mobile, in October 1913, that the United States would never again annex a foot of land against the will of those most concerned. This attitude bewildered European diplomats and it angered important elements in the United States. Wilson had an excellent opportunity to illustrate his foreign policy in Mexico where General Huerta rose to the presidency through the assassination of Madero early in 1913. Huerta was favorably disposed toward American investors in Mexico. Wilson refused to recognize Huerta and by his attitude compelled the overthrow of that leader, only to find that the two Mexican generals who had together fought Diaz and Huerta now fell to fighting each other. Wilson gave his support to Carranza, but the months and years that passed did not suffice to pacify the distracted country; and in 1916 Wilson was compelled to send expeditions into the country to compel respect for American law and international rights. The Mexican difficulty, however, soon paled into insignificance in comparison with the difficulties produced by the European War which began on 1 Aug. 1914. While the President was preparing for his first taking of the sense of the country on the policies he had put into practice, this great upheaval set men's thoughts upon other subjects. The election of 1914 resulted in a return to Congress of a majority of Democrats, most of whom were pledged to support the administration.
Meanwhile, on 18 August, Wilson declared in a proclamation to the country that all men must maintain a strict neutrality as between the warring powers. Leading public men and newspapers, regardless of party alignments, gave him hearty support; but as the war continued and cast its shadow over the whole world, the different elements of the composite country took sides. A particular source of irritation was occasioned by German propandists who did their utmost to break the country's neutrality; others of the same group tried to affect the course of the war by attempting the destruction of bridges and canals and by inciting strikes in munition plants from which the Allies derived a considerable portion of their supplies. Wilson took every possible occasion to press upon the country the necessity of national unity, of devotion to the ideals for which the United States had been established and of refraining from deeds that might commit the Country to either side. He went so far even as to say that “there was such a thing as being too proud to fight.” He endeavored to bring about peace in Europe by the offer of his services as a mediator. On 7 May 1915, a German submarine commander deliberately sunk the great British liner, the Lusitania, sending 1,154 persons to their death, of whom 114 were American citizens. The country was intensely excited; but Wilson felt that he could not then go to war. He demanded apology and reparation and gave Germany solemn warning. Other ships were sunk during the year and other American lives were lost; but confronted with a national election in 1916, neither Wilson nor the Republican national convention of that year proposed war as a remedy. Nor did the Progressive convention, which Colonel Roosevelt dominated, suggest war. The leaders did not know what the people thought. The Republicans finally nominated Mr. Justice Hughes as their candidate and the Progressives confirmed him as their choice. The platforms dealt with domestic problems insisting on foreign affairs only in the commercial rights of the country.
Wilson was renominated. The Democratic platform simply approved the Wilson policies and asked that he be returned to office on the ground that as President he had kept the country out of war. Wilson was re-elected, his plurality reaching 581,941 votes. Yet so close was the contest in the Electoral College that a reversal of 2,000 votes in California would have made Mr. Hughes President. During the campaign Wilson had said that the rôle of neutrality had been about played out. The President's attitude at this time toward the struggle in Europe is best gathered from his address at Omaha on 5 Oct 1916, in which he said: “It will take the long enquiry of history to explain this war, but Europe ought not to misunderstand us. We are holding off not because we do not feel concerned, but because when we exert the force of this nation we want to know what we are exerting it for. . . . We want to know whenever we act what the purpose is — what the ultimate goal is.” In the request for the passage of the so-called Adamson law, of the preceding September, he had asked for the extension of the United States eight-hour law to include workers in the railroad trains service. A great strike was averted. He was about to make one more effort to bring the European war to an end, when Germany on 12 December asked for a conference of the warring powers for the purpose of securing peace. Germany did not disclose her conditions. Wilson submitted the German proposal to the Allied powers. The reply was a quick refusal. On 22 Jan. 1917, Wilson spoke to the Senate in what was at once called a remarkable address. The principal ideas that later became famous in the fourteen points were now suggested to Europe as a basis of peace. He even said that a lasting peace could only be secured by a “peace without victory.” He meant that the bitterness of a war to the “last man” ought to be avoided.
His effort failed. On the last day of January the German Ambassador in Washington handed the government a note in which the German government announced its intention to declare a submarine blockade about England France and Italy and warned all nations to beware on penalty of having their ships and their people sunk without notice. Wilson's reply was to dismiss the German Ambassador and request Congress to declare the country in a state of armed neutrality. Congress failed to grant the request and Wilson set about preparing for American entrance into the conflict. When the regular session of that Congress came to an end, he promptly summoned the new Congress in extra session for 2 April “to receive a communication concerning grave matters of national policy.” On 2 April he addressed Congress in a great speech recommending that Congress declare “the recent course of the Imperial German government to be in fact nothing less than war against the government and people of the United States.” On 6 April war was declared by large majorities. But Wilson took pains to insist to the country and all the world that the United States did not go to war for any material interests or any imperialistic purposes of any of the powers concerned. It was to be a war to “make the world safe for democracy.” He endeavored to convince the people of the United States that annexations and commercial exploitation were the natural causes of war; and he sought to impress Europe with the idea that democracy was the only safe rule for governments and that absolute equality among all peoples, great and small, was the only safe rule of national conduct. From 2 April 1917 to 11 Nov. 1918, Wilson's career is in great part world history; he swayed the whole world as no other statesman had ever swayed it. An English Liberal has said that “it was like the voice of God talking over our heads to the continent and to the nations of the world.” The sum of it all was expressed on 8 Jan. 1918, in the marvelous address in which the Fourteen Points, now so well known to the world, were laid down. He wished to commit all men to the freedom of the seas, the self-determination of peoples, open diplomacy, the freest possible trade among nations, access of inland nations to harbors, disarmament everywhere and a League of Nations that should lead and guide mankind into better ways. Upon such a basis would the United States conclude peace. From public statements of European leaders and from the avowals of responsible diplomats, these points were accepted, although thoughtful men everywhere doubted whether, at the end, the greater European powers would actually abide by such a program of self-denial.
There was a strenuous protest in the industrial centres of the United States against the possibility of free trade. Colonel Roosevelt denied in a vigorous campaign in the autumn of 1917 that the United States fought to make the world safe for democracy. In January 1918 he and many other prominent leaders, both Democratic and Republican, tried to press through Congress a bill which would have set up a war cabinet to assist the President. Wilson opposed the movement and it failed. But the fight upon the President and his war platform was continued till the Congressional election of 1918. Wilson asked the country in a formal statement to return Democrats to Congress in order that he might the better carry the war to a conclusion. It was a close election in which the Republicans won a majority in the Senate by two votes and in the House by a larger margin. Much money was spent in the campaign and one of the senators was still defending himself in court, late in 1919, against the charge of corrupt use of money. It was the first time that Wilson was confronted with the prospect of a hostile Congress, a fact which appeared the more significant as the near approach of a breakdown of Germany and her allies became known. When an armistice was proposed by Germany, the Allied governments agreed that Wilson should be the common spokesman; but Colonel Roosevelt and Senator Lodge gave out a statement of Republican conditions of peace which were supposed to be more hostile to Germany than Wilson's Fourteen Points. The Republicans announced that they were unwilling to allow Wilson to represent the country in the peace conference.
In his annual message of December 1918, Wilson announced that he would go in person to Paris to aid in the negotiation of a world peace. The leaders of the Senate warned him against this course and many of the greatest papers in the North took the view that it was inexpedient if not improper and unconstitutional for the President to attend the peace conference in person. A former senator and a former attorney-general of the United States gave it as their matured opinions that Wilson would cease to be President the moment his ship passed beyond the boundary of the country. Nevertheless Wilson sailed for Europe on 4 December, and arrived in Paris on the 14th. He received an ovation that surpassed anything witnessed in France since the days of Napoleon I. In London a similar demonstration was made when he arrived there just after Christmas. Early in January he visited Rome where he was counted as a sort of messiah, come to save Europe from the terrors of future wars. These visits were made at the request of the governments concerned and during the delays incident to the gathering of the peace conference. Still, he was not unaware of the risks of his position. He had remarked to a friend in September preceding that he almost dreaded to think of the end of the war, for then every nation of Europe and every group of interests in the United States would begin to think of selfish ends.
When the peace conference opened, it was promptly discovered that the first of the Fourteen Points, open covenants openly arrived at, could not be realized. Men simply would not discuss in public the graver issues involved, lest the very ends they sought should be jeopardized. The conference decided to sit behind closed doors. Then it was found that the conference was too large for rapid work and a council of five, including Wilson, Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Orlando of Italy and Makino of Japan took its place. This was later changed to a council of four, the Japanese representative simply absenting himself. Wilson labored a month to induce his colleagues to accept the Fourteen Points, including the proposed league of nations, the most important of all. The other representatives endeavored for a month to arrange the preliminaries of a peace without applying the Wilson principles and without accepting the league idea. But unable to agree, the whole conference met on the 14th of February and accepted the idea of a league as a part of the treaty. Wilson returned to America and in public addresses warned his opponents that the covenant of the League of Nations would be so interwoven with the Treaty of Peace that the rejection of the former would involve the rejection of the latter. How little this statement availed its author was revealed in the months that followed.
Returning to Paris about the middle of March 1919, Wilson found the conference had abandoned the League of Nations idea and had set about a peace of indemnities, annexations and reprisals. For a month Wilson fought almost single-handed for a peace which he could call democratic. He won to the extent that France abandoned her demand for a Rhine frontier and agreed to self-determination in Poland and other European submerged nationalities; and the League of Nations was made a part of the treaty. But the concessions greatly weakened the President, while the opposition to him on substantially imperialistic grounds gained constantly in the United States. Wilson returned with the Treaty and, calling Congress together, laid it before the Senate on 10 July 1919. Immediately the bitterest opposition was manifest. Wilson fought for his work at Paris. He recognized that the essentials of his whole career in the White House were under attack. He made a tour of the country on behalf of the adoption of the Treaty and the League of Nations. He spoke at Columbus, Ohio, at Saint Louis, at many other points in the Middle West and on the Pacific Coast. Everywhere he urged acceptance of the Treaty and at many places received extraordinary ovations. But he was taken ill at Wichita, Kans., and was hurried home to Washington, where he was kept in bed for several months. The judgment of history upon his contribution to the progress of “all men everywhere,” as the American ideal runs, cannot now be made up, although none may doubt that he will be counted among the greatest of American Presidents.
The sources of information about Wilson are many. Woodrow Wilson, ‘Congressional Government’ (1885), ‘The New Freedom’ (1913), and the volumes of his ‘Addresses and Messages,’ published from time to time by Harper's, form the chief sources for his ideas and recommendations. The “Congressional Record” and the newspapers of the day from 1913 to 1920 give his addresses to Congress and show how much of his work has passed into law. Consult also Hale, William Bayard, ‘Woodrow Wilson: His Story’ (1912); Harris, H. W., ‘Life of Woodrow Wilson’ (1917); Low, A. Maurice, ‘Woodrow Wilson: An Interpretation’ (1918); Robinson and West, ‘The Foreign Policy of Woodrow Wilson’ (1917).