Woodrow WilsonThomas Woodrow Wilson, twenty-eighth president of the United States, might have suffered from dyslexia. He never could read easily, but developed a strong power of concentration and a near-photographic memory. The outbreak of World War I coincided with the death of Wilson’s first wife Ellen Axson, who he was passionately devoted to. Seven months after her death his friends introduced him to Edith Bolling Galt, a descendant of the Indian princess Pocahontas, they were married nine months later. By 1912 times were good for most Americans. Farmers were enjoying their most prosperous period in living memory, the cost of living rose slightly, unemployment was lower than it had been for several years, and working conditions were improving. By 1913 when Wilson was inaugurated, American industries were in a flood of consumer goods, including automobiles, telephones, and movies. However, Wilson almost did not appear on the presidential ballot, the leading contender for the Democratic nomination was House Speaker Champ Clark. It took 46 ballots before the delegates swung to Wilson. In the election, the Republicans were split between Taft and Roosevelt, almost guaranteeing a Democratic, and Wilson victory. He sought ways to build patriotism and to reshape the federal government to govern the nation more effectively. Wilson was a conservative, in his books and articles, he often displayed hostility to reformers and rebels. Although Woodrow Wilson is mostly remembered for his success in foreign affairs, his domestic reform and leadership abilities are notable as well. Commemorated by the public mainly for his success in guiding the nation during it’s first great modern war, World War I, for getting out of the Mexico/Philippine muddle inherited from ex-president Taft, and for his dream of ending the threat of future wars through the League of Nations, Wilson is also admired for his domestic successes, which represented the Progressive Era of reform. Diplomatically, as well as domestically these events illustrate Wilsons competent leadership skill.
Woodrow Wilsons nomination was strongly opposed by the progressives but he eventually passed much of their domestic reforming legislation. The progressive movement backed by Wilson called for some government control of industry and for regulation of railroad and public utilities. Among its other goals were the adoption of primary elections and the direct election of United States senators. Wilson called Congress into special session to consider a new tariff bill, he personally delivered his legislative request to Congress. Moved by Wilson’s aggressive leadership, the House swiftly passed the first important reform measure, the Underwood Tariff Bill of 1913, which significantly reduced the tariff for the first time in many years and reflected a new awareness that American businesses were now powerful enough to compete in the markets of the world. In the end the Underwood Tariff had nothing to do with trade but the importance was the income tax provision (later the 16th amendment) which would replace the revenue lost when duties were reduced. It also showed that America was powerful enough to compete without protection from the government.
As Congress debated the tariff bill, Wilson presented his program for reform of the banking and currency laws. The nations banking system was outdated, unmanageable, and chaotic. To fix this Wilson favored the establishment of a Federal Reserve Board with presidentally appointed financial experts. The Board would set national interest rates and manage a network of twelve major banks across the country. These banks, which would issue currency, would in turn work with local banks. Congress passed the Federal Reserve act basically in the form the President had recommended. Amendments also provided for exclusive governmental control of the Federal Reserve Board and for short term agricultural credit through the reserve banks. This was one of the most notable domestic achievements of the Wilson administration which modernized the nations banking and currency systems, laying the basis for federal management of the economy and providing the legal basis for an effective national banking system. The final major item on Wilsons domestic agenda was the reform of big business. Big businesses worked against the public by fixing prices and restraining competition. Business and politics worked together, and Wilson sought to stop that. Determined to accept big business as an inevitable, but to control its abuses and to maintain an open door of opportunity for the genius which springs up from the ranks of unknown men,1 Wilsons hoped to curb big business. He thought that government should intervene in the regulation of business, and that it was essential to control corporate behavior to prevent corporations from stifling opportunities for creative and ambitious people. Business consolidation was inevitable and might be beneficial, yet he insisted that great corporations behave in the public interest: These were the balances Wilson sought to achieve and maintain. Our laws are still meant for business done, by individuals that have not been satisfactorily adjusted to business done by great combinations and we have got to adjust them,2in that big business was unjust and somebody needed to watch out for the people, and Wilson was just the man to do that. First, the Federal Trade commission, authorized to order companies to cease and desist3 from engaging in unfair competition. Later came the Clayton Anti-trust Act which outlawed a number of widely practiced business tactics.
Wilsons’ New Freedom domestic policies produced what turned out to be four constitutional amendments. The 16th amendment assembled a graduated income tax beginning on incomes over $3,000. The 17th, achieved direct election of senators by the people. The 18th, was prohibition (of the sales or manufacturing) of alcoholic liquors, and the 19th amendment, gave women the right to vote. Some of his Progressive reforms include the Workingmen’s Compensation Act, which granted assistance to federal civil service employees during periods of disabilities; The Adamson Act established the eight hour day for all employees on trains in interstate commerce, with extra pay for overtime, and The Federal Farm Loan Act, made credit available to farmers at low interest rates. Wilsons’ administration produced major legislation on tariffs, banks, business, and labor. It had been responsible for laws that restricted child-labor, promoted the welfare of seamen, and created a credit system for farmers. Although the administration demonstrated a new sensitivity to labor’s interests, it did not generally win management over to its position. Businesses made larger gains than labor as a result of the relaxation of the anti-trust laws, the growth of trade associations, and the businessmen of an effective and publicly accepted union-busting technique. Foreign affairs also demanded much of the presidents’ attention. He persuaded Congress to repeal the Panama Tolls Act, which had allowed American ships to use the Panama Canal toll-free when sailing between U.S. coastal ports. Wilson believed that this new law violated a treaty with Great Britain. The President also refused to approve a bankers’ loan to China, and put himself on record against dollar diplomacy. Wilson insisted that his party live up to its campaign promises of preparing the Philippines for independence. In 1916, Congress passed the Jones Bill, which greatly increased Philippine self-government and made many reforms in the administration of the islands. Convinced that freedom and democracy were universal aspirations, Wilson was determined that the United States would work to advance them. In Asia the United States lacked strength to do much, but in the Western hemisphere it had the power to act; and so in Mexico, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and elsewhere around the Caribbean basin it did. Wilson was not materialistic and assumed that American assistance would be welcomed, when he realized this was not true he tried to minimize American involvement. Wilson dismissed traditional American political isolationism, making America a world power, citizens of the world.4 Most people did agree that the nations increasing economic and military power obligated and permitted it to play a larger political role in the world. Wilson struggled constantly between isolationist sentiments and the necessity for American involvement in world affairs.
Determined to avoid entering World War I, he rigorously pursued neutrality. At first Wilson merely proclaimed neutrality, even when German U-boats (submarines) sank a US tanker. Then he tried Peace without victory because he realized that the only lasting peace was one in which the conquered nations were not left poverty-stricken, embittered and biding their time for revenge. Neither the Allies nor the Central powers responded. Keeping America out of the war proved to be an extremely difficult, and eventually impossible, job. Wilson’s greatest problems concerned shipping. Britain had a blockade against Germany, seizing any cargoes bound for Germany. The British paid for the goods confiscated but the United States thought the interference in its sea trade was a violation of both freedom of the seas and neutral rights. The United States’ problems with Britain were serious, but its troubles with Germany were worse. The Germans continued to sink ships with Americans on board. After the Sussex, a French channel streamer was sunk, killing 80 civilians, some American, Wilson declared that if these attacks did not stop the United States would have no choice but to sever diplomatic relations5 with Germany. In the end not even Woodrow Wilson could keep the United States out of World War I. When the Germans declared unlimited submarine warfare, Wilson knew the United States would have to get involved. Still he hesitated, hoping for some event that would make an American declaration of war unnecessary. Instead two events occurred destroying all hopes of neutrality. The first was the Zimmerman telegram. This was a message intercepted by Britain proposing a secret alliance between Germany and Mexico. The next event that pushed the US into the war was the Russian Revolution, in which Russia withdrew from the war, this meant the Allies lost a major part of their team, and without the United States, Germany would have surely won. In April 1917 Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. He appointed able men to mobilize the economy and to command the armed forces, never interfering with either. By September 1918 Germanys army was in retreat, its civilians hungry and exhausted.
Wilsons’ real heart was in peace. He insisted on going to the Paris Peace conference himself, where he was greeted by European crowds cheering wildly. He and three other men, known as the Big Four, including Premier Vittorio Orlando of Italy, Prime Minister David Lloyd George of Britain, and Premier Georges Clemenceau of France drew up the Treaty of Versailles, based on Wilsons Fourteen Point address. Aspirations of world order were represented in his Fourteen Points: Open diplomacy, freedom of the seas, the removal of economic barriers among nations, reductions of armaments, the ending of imperialism, self-determination for national groups, the inclusion of Russia in the world community, and, most important to Wilson, the creation of an association of nations to assume collective responsibility for maintaining peace (the League of Nations). Wilson passionately wanted his Fourteen Points implemented, he wanted a treaty that would be fair to fallen enemy as well as to the victors. After many compromises, the Treaty of Versailles was signed, including Wilsons League of Nations. Wilson formally got approval for his League of Nations, but when he returned home with the treaty, he found resistance to him and it. A group of senators refused to accept the treaty as a package, as Wilson demanded. Frustrated, Wilson decided to appeal over the senators heads to the country. He set out on a tour that took him through 30 cities in 24 days, this grueling schedule caused him to he suffer two strokes, the second one leaving his left side paralyzed. For the next few weeks Wilson was near death, nobody was allowed to see him except for his wife who would carry messages to his bedroom and then emerge with an answer. When his mind finally cleared he was presented with Senator Lodge’s proposed fourteen reservations to his fourteen points. The treaty was rejected because neither Wilson nor Lodge was willing to compromise. Although Wilson was partially paralyzed by the stroke and suffering from other disabilities, he wanted the honor of a third nomination. If he had received it, he may have ran again, so great was his devotion to the League of Nations, which was created without the participation of the United States. The League never took off without the support of the United States behind it.
Wilsons political leadership experience was limited to his two year stint as governor of New Jersey. Nevertheless, he had no doubts about his ability to lead the nation, as he said in his inaugural address, I summon all honest men, all patriotic, all forward looking men to my side God helping me I will not fail them, if they will but counsel and sustain me!6 Part of his effective leadership ability, was that Wilson knew how to dramatize issues and to capture public attention. He did not think average citizens were qualified to lead. The leaders task was partly to sense the wishes of the people, but it was also to shape their ideas and to act where they would not naturally act. The Presidents leadership of his party gave him more influence over Congress, but more importantly his standing as the interpreter of the countries instinctive wishes and desires made him a unique national figure. He was the first president since Thomas Jefferson to address Congress personally, which he did several times. The president, in Wilsons view, thus had extraordinary potential powers attained from his role as political leader and interpreter of the wishes of all people. In contrast to what the people had expected when they chose Wilson as the democratic nominee, he had proved that he could be a leader and that state government could meet the challenges facing it. His academic work had shown that he was not a profound thinker, but he had a rare ability to see the essentials of issues and to delegate authority to others to handle details. While considering issues he was open-minded and eager for practical suggestions about how to achieve a goal, and once he had made up his mind he was firm and consistent.
Wilson adopted an approach to Congress that proved remarkably effective. He outlined the main objectives he wanted to achieve and left legislatures to draft special bills. He made use of public opinion to influence the legislative process by going personally to the capitol to address Congress and by making other public speeches. The significance of the Underwood tariff is debatable but the skill and flexibility Wilson showed in getting it through Congress were not. If one of his reforms stalled in Congress, he would generate pressure on the lawmakers to act by calling public attention to the delay. Through Wilsons aggressive leadership, his administration was responsible for four constitutional amendments. The eighteenth amendment, prohibiting the sales of alcoholic beverages, was controversial because many leading brewers were German, and this made the drive against alcohol all the more popular. However, the main cause was to conserve the food supplies for the war effort. One of his greatest strengths as a leader was his ability to focus on a single issue, identifying its essential points and dealing with it quickly and efficiently. Although the eighteenth amendment was eventually repealed by the twenty-first amendment it was what the country need at the time and was effective in that sense.
Wilson thought that it was the presidents’ job to understand the hopes and dreams of America, which he believed were centered on a peaceful, secure world. Establishing his Fourteen Points, and the League of Nations in particular, was Wilsons method of keeping world peace. In his address, point number fourteen, was an international organization that Wilson hoped would provide a system of collective security.7 Wilson earnestly wanted this to guarantee the political independence of all countries, big or small. During the first year of peace, Wilson focused on the treaty fight. Wilsons diplomatic leadership was strong, keeping the United States out of the Great War and helping in the peace effort afterwards, and he stuck with it, trying to pass legislation that would not only benefit the United States, but the whole world as well.
Wilson, far more than any other world leader of his generation raised issues that needed to be confronted and set an agenda for future domestic and international policies. The Underwood Tariff shows successful domestic policy because it inacted a favorable low tariff, in which the United States was open to compete. It also showed mastery in leadership in the course that he used pushing it through Congress. Although his administration is often associated with World War I, Wilson sought world peace with his League of Nations. Faced with decisions and appointments and foreign conflicts, Wilson was admittedly ill-prepared. Because of his concentration on world peace he did not recognize hostility when it was aimed toward the US Wilson, with a high sense of duty and destiny, administered a heady dose of domestic reform, in his New Freedom progressive legislation; and foreign intervention, in the League of Nations. Through his strong leadership, both domestically and diplomatically, the nation came out stronger than it was before. Wilson tried to apply his own moral standards to international politics, he was convinced that the president should be the people’s leader, not merely the nations’ chief executive.
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