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The presidency of Woodrow Wilson

Wilson campaigned for a second term on the slogan "He kept us out of war." But that wouldn't be true for long. 


  • Woodrow Wilson was the 28th president of the United States. He served two terms in office, from 1913 to 1921.
  • Wilson was a Progressive Democrat who believed in the power of the federal government to expose corruption, regulate the economy, eliminate unethical business practices, and improve the general condition of society.
  • During Wilson’s years in office, the US federal government was segregated and the Ku Klux Klan experienced a major revival.
  • Wilson’s second term in office was dominated by the First World War. Though Wilson campaigned on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” escalating German aggression ultimately made it impossible for the United States to stay out of the conflict.

Woodrow Wilson’s rise to power

Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia in 1856 to a very religious family. His father was one of the founders of the Southern Presbyterian Church and Wilson’s religious upbringing shaped his political views and outlook on the world. He grew up in Georgia and South Carolina and was the first Southerner to become president since James Polk in 1848.
Woodrow Wilson. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Wilson ran on the Democratic ticket in the 1912 presidential election and triumphed. Wilson campaigned on a “New Freedom” platform, which promised banking, tariff, and business reform while pledging to respect individual freedoms and private industry.1

Woodrow Wilson's first term in office

Once in office, Wilson pursued this agenda, lowering tariffs, creating the Federal Reserve System, championing antitrust legislation, improving protections for workers, and establishing the Federal Trade Commission to crack down on monopolistic business practices. These policies reflected Wilson’s faith in the Progressive movement, which sought to harness the power of the federal government to regulate the economy, expose corruption, and improve society by ameliorating the negative effects of industrialization.2
Still from the film Birth of a Nation, quoting Woodrow Wilson's belief that the Ku Klux Klan was a positive organization. Wilson segregated the federal government during his time in office. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
On the civil rights front, the Wilson administration pursued regressive policies, working with Southern Democrats to segregate the federal government. After years of African American advances in the civil service, this represented a huge step backwards for civil rights. During these years, the Ku Klux Klan experienced a major revival. President Wilson aligned himself symbolically with the KKK by ordering a private screening of D.W. Griffith’s notoriously racist film Birth of a Nation, which portrayed African Americans as savage criminals and the KKK as heroic enforcers of a just and humane racial order. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and numerous religious groups, both black and white, stepped forward to condemn Wilson’s segregationist racial agenda.3

Woodrow Wilson’s second term and the First World War

Wilson ran unopposed in the Democratic primaries for the 1916 presidential election, on a platform emphasizing Progressive goals such as better protections for female workers, the elimination of child labor, and the establishment of a minimum wage. The campaign was conducted amidst the war in Europe and the Mexican Revolution, and Wilson ran on the slogan “He kept us out of war.” This would prove to be ironic indeed, as in his second term in office, the United States entered World War I. Wilson triumphed over his Republican rival in the 1916 presidential election by a slender margin.4
Wilson’s second term in office was dominated by the First World War. Wilson embraced a policy of neutrality in the European conflict, believing that the war resulted from the corrupt nature of European power politics, but German aggression ultimately made it impossible for the United States to remain on the sidelines. In May 1915, the Germans sunk the British ocean liner Lusitania, which had many Americans on board.5 Early in 1917, the Germans adopted a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, a decision that was almost immediately followed by the revelation of the Zimmermann Telegram. The telegram pledged German support for Mexican recovery of the territories of New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona from the United States.6
The United States declared war on Germany in April 1917. In January 1918, Wilson issued his famous Fourteen Points, which laid out the long-term objectives of US involvement in the war. Wilson envisioned a postwar world in which all nations enjoyed mutual cooperation and respect, and belonged to a League of Nations that would peacefully resolve all international disputes. Due to the opposition of isolationists in Congress, the United States never joined the League of Nations. Wilson died in 1924, with his dreams for the postwar world unrealized. However, many of Wilson’s ideas and principles would be embodied in the Charter of the United Nations, which was founded after the Second World War.7

What do you think?

How would you characterize Wilson’s approach to civil rights?
Was Wilson’s Progressivism at odds with his attitudes toward race?
Why was Wilson ultimately unable to keep the United States out of the First World War?
How would you rate Wilson as a president?

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