Introduction and Early Life
Since Grover Cleveland, there had been no Democratic president. Now, Woodrow Wilson became president as a Democrat (mainly because of a divided Republican Party) and he would be stuck in one of the most devastating wars in world history. A war in which he would hope set an ideal for Democracy and unite the world together. Wilson was born on December 28, 1856 in Staunton, Virginia. On his fifth birthday his home state seceded from Virginia. Wilson's first memories would be of the effects and horrors of war. His upbringing in the south has led to questions on his morality. At the age of 16 he went to Davidson College in North Carolina, but illness made him leave. A strongly moral person, Wilson started to question his calling from God, even considering joining a ship crew. He eventually enrolled into the College the New Jersey (later renamed Princeton) and started his interest into politics. He studied a law and after graduating qualified as a lawyer in Georgia. It was a wrong choice and within a year he returned to college get a doctoral degree. In 1902 Professor Woodrow Wilson became the now Princeton University's president. He is the only president to have a Ph.D. He entered state politics and became New Jersey's first Democrat governor. He then ran for president.
The 1912 Presidential Election
The Republican Party was divided. Former President Theodore Roosevelt was upset at President William Howard Taft's policies. Taft divided the Republicans between conservatives and progressives. In the race for nomination, T.R. ran against the incumbent. Roosevelt won nine out of twelve state primaries and he had the party's support. However, the Republican state conventions picked pro-Taft delegates and he won the nomination. Angered at this, Roosevelt and progressive wing of the Republican Party formed a third party; the Progressive Party (nicknamed the "Bull Moose Party"). The Democrats were just as divided as the Republicans. At their convention, they had to go through 46 ballots before uniting behind Woodrow Wilson. Adding more political conflict was the Socialist Party candidate's Eugene V. Debs.
During the election, T.R. was shot in Milwaukee, Wisconsin while leaving a hotel. Rather than leave for the hospital he decided to first give over an hour long speech. Roosevelt's third party divided the Republican Party and gave Wilson the presidency. Wilson had 435 electoral votes and 41.8% of the popular vote. Roosevelt had 88 electoral votes and 27.4% of the popular vote (the strongest showing ever of a third party in the electoral college and the only time one took second place) and Taft had 8 electoral votes and 23.2% of the popular vote. Debs had 0 electoral votes and 6.0% of the popular vote, the strongest showing of a Socialist candidate ever percentage wise. Had T.R. not ran then the Republicans would not be divided and Taft would have won the election.
Wilson's Radical Reforms
On April 8, 1913, just a month into his presidency, Wilson spoke his intentions to a joint session of Congress (no president had done that since John Quincy Adams). Wilson's main subject was tariffs. Despite major criticism, Wilson passed a bill through Congress reducing tariffs by 25%. He then went on to regulating banks. Wilson hoped to create the Federal Reserve System. The Federal Reserve would handle the country's monetary system and would have enourmous power over the economy. At first, Wall Street was against it, but eventually the banks did support it in hope that they could take it over. It did not take long for criticism to arrive that the new Federal Reserve supported big banks. The Federal Reserve Board started doing questionable acts (such as raising interest rates sharply in the Depression of 1921) and it seemed that the banks had been able to take it over. Today, a strong debate exists on if the Federal Reserve should be audited or not.
Questions have risen today that Wilson also may have been a moral hypocrite during his presidency. Wilson insisted that morality demanded equality, but he segregated federal departments. He argued against war, but at the same time sent troops to handle issues in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Cuba during his first term. Wilson was becoming unpopular. He also had personal issues when his wife, Ellen Wilson, died. Wilson was progressive, but there were many ways that he was not. Some people were concerned if Wilson was the correct man to hold the office.
The Temperance Movement
Alcohol had long been affiliated with the United States. During the American Revolution, George Washington made sure that the Continental Army was rationed with alcoholic beverages to raise health and morale (alcohol could be beneficial in small doses). As president he enjoyed everything from champagne to hard cider. When Congress raised taxes on alcoholic beverages there was a rebellion, but this was stopped by the American troops. In the election between Martin Van Buren and William Henry Harrison, champagne and hard cider somewhat became an issue again. According to Harrison's campaign, "Tippecanoe" preferred the hard cider of the common man while Van Buren like to have the aristocrat's champagne.
The Temperance movement rose in the 1830s when several small societies were organized against the consumption of alcohol. By the 1880s, both sides had grew larger. Brewers opened thousands of saloons to sell alcoholic beverages and they usually received many customers, particularly workers. The Temperance movement gained many female activists like Carrie Nation, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The Temperance movement was on the rise.
A Democratic senator from Texas became one of the first proponents of making an amendment to prohibit alcohol. This was Senator Morris Sheppard, who was known for making charismatic speeches against alcohol. Now Sheppard wanted to try to ban alcohol to stop crime and protect children from the perils of consuming a shot of whiskey or a pint of beer. President Wilson was against alcohol prohibition, but he knew that he would soon be unable to ignore it.
The 1916 Presidential Election
In the 1916 presidential election, the Republicans nominated Former New York Governor and Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes. The race was close and when election day came, Hughes had won most of the nothern states which held the most electoral votes. Wilson took the south and west which put both candidates without an electoral majority. It came down to California's 13 electoral votes that went to Wilson. Wilson gained his second term with 277 electoral votes to 254 electoral votes. In the popular vote, Wilson had 49.2% and Hughes had 46.1%. The Socialist Party ran Allan L. Benson who won 3.2% of the popular vote and no electoral votes.
There was another victory. The Anti-Saloon League looked at every election and celebrated. While both Wilson and Hughes were against the prohibition of alcohol, there was now a majority of pro-prohibition politicians in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Pro-prohibition politicians also had dominant power in most state legislatures. Now a constitutional amendment could be passed to prohibit alcohol.
World War 1
In the 1916 election, Wilson ran under the banner that he was keeping the United States out of war. Most Americans supported neutrality from World War 1 which was mainly being fought in Europe. World War 1 was started when the archduke of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire was shot in Serbia. However, there were many issues before that which helped sparked the war including a series of entangling alliances and a naval arms race between Germany and Britain. In the war, the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire) were battling the Allies (Britain, France, Russia, and Italy). The war was a disaster as all countries lost a lot of men. Wilson supported neutrality, but that was getting increasingly problematic as ships often carrying Americans were sunk by German U-boats. In one case, the British luxury liner RMS Lusitania was sunk by a U-boat in May 1915. Over 100 Americans were killed in the disaster, but it apparently carried American weapons and ammunition for the British Army. Germany paid reparations and sent an apology and most Americans were still generally supporting neutrality.
Tensions continued to rise when the infamous Zimmerman Telegram was found out. Germany sent a telegram to Mexico stating that if Mexico supported Germany in the war, Germany would support Mexico in a war to relciam all territory lost during the Mexican-American War of the 1840s. Americans were outraged. In February 1917, Germany continued to attack supply ships carrying civilians including many Americans. In March, German U-boats sank five American merchant vessels. The U.S. was forced into war and Wilson signed the declaration of war on April 6, 1917. Under the command of General John "Black Jack" Pership, the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) was sent to France. The entrance of the U.S. proved decisive and Germany was the last of the Central Powers to surrender. Domestically, Wilson crackeddown on war dissenters. His opponent in the 1912 election, Eugene Debs, was thrown in jail. Communists and socialists were targeted (the U.S. was in hysteria because Russia was in revolution and the monarchy was turned into a communist government). Under the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1918, young men suspected of tax evasion were detained and immigrants suspected of being unpatriotic were deported. Attorney General A. Mitchell Plamer launched raids on anyone suspected of being enemies of the United States. Wilson claimed to praise civil liberties, but in the U.S. that looked incredibly unlikely.
The Fight over the League of Nations
Wilson made a list of fourteen principles for lasting peace in the world. At the time, World War 1 was called the "War to End All Wars" and he prepared an organization that would create world peace. It was called the League of Nations. Peace for World War 1 was signed on June 18, 1919 at the French palace of Versailles. Many European leaders had their own agendas as they discussed terms and they did agree on the League of Nations. While Wilson was at Versailles, a french colonial subject from Vietnam by the name of Ho Chi Minh asked Wilson to help Vietnam become an independent nation. Ho Chi Minh was inspired by Wilson's rhetoric of democratic idealism, but the president refused. Many decades later, Vietnam would demand a little more attention from the United States.
With Europe generally accepting the League of Nations, Wilson headed home where he had to deal with one last problem before his presidency ended. He had to get the U.S. into the League of Nations, but the Republican controlled Congress did not support it. Wilson decided to go on a national speaking tour to convince the public. Despite his doctor requesting him to go easy, Wilson campaigned hard. It looked like his plan would work, but then he had a stroke and was forced to Washington D.C. to rest. Wilson's second wife, Edith, was extremely protective of her husband. She managed his administration and spoke on his behalf. It could be said that she was somewhat of a president in the last months of the Wilson presidency.
Congress, led by powerful Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, rejected the League of Nations. The U.S. would not be in it. Neither would Germany (humiliated from the war) and the Soviet Union (the new communist country that was once the imperial Russian Empire). Wilson still felt that he must do something to try to get the U.S. in the League of Nations. He was losing his grip on reality. He wanted a third term despite his condition. He went as far as to state that he wanted to sabotage his opponents' campaigns. Eventually, he regained reality and decided no to run. Wilson suffered another defeat before leaving office. The Eighteenth Amendment, which would prohibit alcohol, was passed and put into effect the Volstead Act. This new amendment was spearheaded by Senator Sheppard.
Legacy and Later Life
Wilson's legacy is somewhat balanced. Many seem him as a champion of spreading world peace and democracy, but he also supported very controversial policies that hindered democracy in the United States. After he left the White House, his ideas of liberal progressivism (unlike more Republican progressivism supported by Theodore Roosevelt) led to significant economic and social reforms, however it did lead to an unitended consequence. Wilson was against prohibition, but it was still passed as a Constiutional ammendement (which was actually signed into law during his last year in office). He would die on February 3, 1924.