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Woodrow Wilson, nicknamed the "schoolmaster in politics," is chiefly remembered for his high-minded idealism, which appeared both in his leadership on the faculty and in the presidency of Princeton University, and in his national and world statesmanship during and after World War I.
Wilson was born in 1856 in Staunton, Virginia (and named Thomas Woodrow Wilson). He grew up in Georgia and South Carolina during the suffering of the Civil War and its aftermath. He was also deeply influenced by the Presbyterianism of his father, a minister and sometime college teacher.
Wilson first went to Davidson (N.C.) College, but withdrew shortly because of ill health. He ultimately graduated from the College of New Jersey (later to become Princeton University) in 1879. Determined to become a statesman, he studied law for a year at the University of Virginia in 1879-80 and was admitted to the Georgia bar in 1882, but his law practice did not prosper.
Wilson went to Johns Hopkins University in 1883, studying government and history. At Johns Hopkins, he wrote Congressional Government, which was published in 1885. That book, still admired today as a study of lawmaking in the national U.S. government, was accepted as his dissertation, and he received the Ph.D. degree in political science from Johns Hopkins the following year. Wilson is the only U.S. president to hold a Ph.D.
Wilson taught at Bryn Mawr (Pa.) College, then at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. In 1890 he became professor of jurisprudence and political economy at Princeton University. He wrote nine books and became an accomplished essayist. The trustees of Princeton University named him president of the institution in 1902.
As president of Princeton, Wilson strove to institutionalize intellectual contacts between students and teachers. He resisted in some ways Princeton's reshaping of the time as it became a university focused more on graduate studies and less on the moral and intellectual upbringing of undergraduates.
In 1910 Wilson accepted the Democratic nomination for governor of New Jersey. He won the election in a landslide. His ambitious and successful Progressive agenda, centered around protecting the public from exploitation by trusts, earned him national recognition, and in 1912 he won the Democratic nomination for president. Wilson's "New Freedom" platform, focused on revitalization of the American economy, won him the presidency with 435 electoral votes out of 531 and a Democratic Congress.
As president, Wilson's domestic agenda continued his campaign against corrupt trusts. In 1913, the Underwood Act and the Federal Reserve Bill were passed, the former creating honest tariff reform by greatly reducing rates (for the first time since the Civil War) and instituting income tax; the latter creating new currency and establishing the twelve Federal Reserve banks and their board of governors to perform central banking functions. The Federal Trade Commission was established in 1914 to restrict "unfair" trade practices.
Despite provocation and pressure to enter the widening war in Europe that had begun in 1914, Woodrow Wilson maintained American neutrality for two years. He ran for reelection in 1916 with the slogan, "he kept us out of war." But rapid escalation of submarine warfare by Germany to include unlimited war on neutrals as well as belligerents left Wilson with no alternative but to ask Congress for a declaration of war in April 1917.
The world would look to America and Wilson's leadership to resolve the First World War. Wilson's Fourteen Points Address of 1918 called for a peace of reconciliation, based on democracy, self-determination, without annexations and indemnities, and a postwar League of Nations. The Paris Peace Conference in 1919 concluded with the signing of the Versailles Treaty with Germany, but a new Republican Congress at home was not in agreement with the peace negotiated under Wilson, particularly with the League of Nations and collective security aspects. Ultimately, a separate peace was negotiated between the United States and Germany. Wilson was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize, and heralded in Europe as a savior of peace.
Exhausted from his vigorous efforts toward ratification of the Versailles Treaty, traveling 8,000 miles by rail around the country, Wilson fell ill and would never fully recover. Wilson was unable to campaign for the presidency, whichWarren G. Harding would win in 1920 defeating Democratic candidate James M. Cox. Wilson retired to Washington, D.C., where he passed away in 1924.
Wilson's idealism and status as a great world leader led to the creation of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as the U.S. memorial to him. The Center is not an institution for the study of Woodrow Wilson, but aims to embody Wilson's ideals by putting scholarship at the service of the world's public life.
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Quotations Featured in the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Hallway of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
There is a spirit that rules us....I believe that men are emancipated in proportion as they lift themselves to the conception of providence and of divine destiny, and therefore I cannot be deprived of the hope that is in me -- in the hope not only that concerns myself, but the confident hope that concerns the nation -- that we are chosen and prominently chosen to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.
---Campaign Address in Jersey City, NJ, May 25, 1912
We know our task to be no mere task of politics but a task which shall search us through and through...
This is not a day of triumph: It is a day of dedication. Here, muster, not the forces of party, but the forces of humanity. Men's hearts wait upon us, men's lives hang in the balance; men's hopes call upon us to say what we will do. Who shall live up to the great trust? Who dares fail to try?
---First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1913
It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war...but the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts, -- for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments...for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.
---Address to a Joint Session of Congress, April 2, 1917
The arrangements of justice do not stand of themselves, my fellow citizens...
There is one thing that the American people always rise to and extend their hand to, and that is the truth of justice and of liberty and of peace. We have accepted that truth, and we are going to be led by it, and it is going to lead us, and through us, the world, out into pastures of quietness and peace such as the world never dreamed of before.
---An Address in the City Auditorium in Pueblo, Colorado, September 25, 1919
The man who has the time, the discrimination, and the sagacity to collect and comprehend the principal facts and the man who must act upon them must draw near to one another and feel they are engaged in a common enterprise.
---Address to American Political Science Association, December 27, 1910
The sum of the whole matter is this, that our civilization cannot survive materially unless it be redeemed spiritually.
---"The Road Away from Revolution," Atlantic Monthly, August, 1923.
Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition, whilst Congress in its committee rooms is Congress at work.
---Congressional Government, A Study in American Politics (1885).
We live in an age disturbed, confused, bewildered, afraid of its own forces, in search not merely of its road but even of its direction. There are many voices of counsel, but few voices of vision; there is much excitement and feverish activity, but little concert of thoughtful purpose. We are distressed by our own ungoverned, undirected energies and do many things, but nothing long. It is our duty to find ourselves.
---Baccalaureate address as President of Princeton University, June 9, 1907.
Government should not be made an end in itself; it is a means only -- a means to be freely adapted to advance the best interests of the social organism. The state exists for the sake of society, not society for the sake of the state.
---The State; Elements of Historical and Practical Politics (1911)
Sometimes people call me an idealist. Well, that is the way I know I am an American. America, my fellow citizens -- I do not say it in disparagement of any other great people -- America is the only idealistic nation in the world.
---Address supporting the League of Nations, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, September 8, 1919.
One cool judgment is worth a thousand hasty counsels. The thing to be supplied is light, not heat.
---Address on preparedness, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, January 29, 1916.
The history of liberty is a history of resistance. The history of liberty is a history of the limitation of governmental power, not the increase of it.
---Address to New York Press Club, September 9, 1912.
I would rather belong to a poor nation that was free than to a rich nation that had ceased to be in love with liberty. But we shall not be poor if we love liberty, because the nation that loves liberty truly sets every man free to do his best and be his best, and that means the release of all the splendid energies of a great people who think for themselves. A nation of employees cannot be free any more than a nation of employers can be.
---Address on Latin American policy, Fifth Annual Convention, Southern Commercial Congress, Mobile, Alabama, October 27, 1913.
The program of the world's peace, therefore, is our program; and that program, the only possible program, as we see it, is this: 1. Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.
---"Fourteen Points" Address to Joint Session of Congress, January 8, 1918.
Only a peace between equals can last. Only a peace the very principle of which is equality and a common participation in a common benefit.
---Address to the United States Senate on essential terms of peace in Europe, January 22, 1917.
When I resist, therefore, when I as a Democrat resist the concentration of power, I am resisting the processes of death, because the concentration of power is what always precedes the destruction of human initiative, and, therefore of human energy.
---Address, New York City, September 4, 1912.
There is no cause half so sacred as the cause of a people. There is no idea so uplifting as the idea of the service of humanity.
---Address, Madison Square Garden, New York City, October 31, 1912.
Responsibility of People
In the last analysis, my fellow countrymen, as we in America would be the first to claim, a people are responsible for the acts of their government.
---Address, Columbus, Ohio, September 4, 1919.
World War I
The world must be made safe for democracy.
---Address to Joint Session of Congress, asking for a declaration of war, April 2, 1917.
It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts, for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free. To such a task we dedicate our lives and our fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have, with the pride of those who know that the day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured. God helping her, she can do no other.
---Address to Joint Session of Congress, asking for a declaration of war, April 2, 1917.
For further information:
The White House page on Woodrow Wilson
From the Internet Public Library. Many facts and figures. Includes links to texts of speeches by Wilson and sound recordings of his voice.
Webcast about Woodrow Wilson's Papers from the Library of Congress
From Grolier Online. An article from the Encyclopedia Americana by Arthur S. Link, the preeminent scholar on Woodrow Wilson and editor of Wilson's papers
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John Milton Cooper, Jr., ed., Reconsidering Woodrow Wilson (Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2008)
Ray Stannard Baker, Life and Letters, 8 vols. 1927-1939
Kendrick A. Clements, The Presidency of Woodrow Wilson. 1992
Kendrick A. Clements, Woodrow Wilson, World Statesman. 1987
August Heckscher, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography. 1991
Thomas J. Knock, To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order. 1992
Arthur Walworth, Woodrow Wilson. 1978
Arthur Walworth, Woodrow Wilson and His Peacemakers: American Diplomacy at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919. 1986
Selected Works of Woodrow Wilson
Congressional Government. 1885, reprint 1981.
Constitutional Government in the United States. 1908, reprint 1961.
The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, edited by Arthur S. Link, 69 vols. 1966-1994.
Cary T. Grayson, Woodrow Wilson, an Intimate Memoir, 2d ed. 1977.
Herbert Hoover, The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson. 1958, reprint 1992.
Edith Bolling Wilson, My Memoir. 1939, reprint 1960.
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Other Institutions Dedicated to Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson House, Washington, D.C.
The home Wilson lived in after his presidency, containing his furniture, clothing, and personal effects, is a museum for the general public.
Woodrow Wilson Birthplace and Museum, Staunton, Virginia
Woodrow Wilson Boyhood Home, Columbia, South Carolina. There is another boyhood home of Wilson in Augusta, Georgia.
The Library of Congress maintains Woodrow Wilson's papers.
The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the official national memorial to Woodrow Wilson, is an institute for advanced study in Washington, D.C.
The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, in Princeton, New Jersey, is dedicated to the encouragement of excellence in education through the identification of critical needs and the development of effective programs to address them.