The twenty-seventh President of the United States was born in 1856 in Virginia, son of a Presbyterian minister. The family were slave-owners. Thirty-four years later Woodrow was made a professor at Princeton, one of the ‘Ivy League’ American universities of great prestige. He taught History and Political Science and in 1902 became president of the university.
Soon he was elected Governor of New Jersey, where he easily gained the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, promising a ‘New Freedom’ by destroying the trusts, decreasing taxes and tariffs, and beginning a severe revision of the financial system which was the life blood of ‘The American Way of Life’. He was the first Southerner to become President since A. Johnson, and the first Democrat.
Things were made less complicated for Wilson as President partly because his Republican opponents Taft and Theodore Roosevelt’s mutual mistrust was splitting the party. He was however determined to be a strong President, and insisted on addressing Congress in person, not a habit of presidents since it was dropped by Thomas Jefferson. He persuaded Congress to pass a series of progressive measures such as suffrage, municipal reform, improvement of working conditions and the abolition (or at least some regulation) of child labour.
Loss of revenue from reduction of taxes and tariffs was made up for by the introduction of income tax. In 1913 Federal Reserve Banks were introduced to control money supply and provide credit. The vanguard of his attack on the trusts was the Clayton Act of 1914, outlawing exclusive sales contracts, connective directorates and rebates. If the practice of price-cutting was aimed at cutting competition, it was also outlawed.
He ordained that the peaceful strikes and picketing by trade unions were legal. But many of Wilson’s attempts to reduce labour problems were made meaningless in the 20s by over-conservative judges. Still determined to be strong, he provided workmen’s compensation (for federal employees) and helped the safe passage of the first child labour Law, limiting children’s work in factories. He was foremost among the reforming presidents of the Unites States.
Above all Woodrow Wilson disliked Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘Big Stick’ policies abroad, and Taft’s ‘Dollar Diplomacy’, both self-explanatory, but then encouraged dislike by intervening more than either Taft or Roosevelt had done. In Central America he controlled Nicaragua’s finances and maintained US forces there. He sent soldiers to control Haiti in 1915, and in the following year did the same in the Dominican Republic. But . . . when the Great War erupted in 1914 Wilson had loudly proclaimed US neutrality. The Democratic Part fought and won the 1916 presidential election using the slogans ‘He kept us out of the War!’ and ‘There will be no War!’ Two centuries or so before, Walpole had said ‘Let sleeping dogs lie’, but Wilson’s attitude to Europeans fighting each other to the death in trenches was ‘Let sleeping curs fight!’.
In January 1917 Wilson was still demanding American neutrality, mostly because his party was gleeful, watching the ghastliness across the Atlantic, with what might perhaps (by some) be seen as a greedy eye for the future. The French, British and Austrian/German Empires were self-destructing, Japan was observing from a safe distance too. In May 1915 Lusitania sailing from New York to Liverpool with more than one hundred US citizens aboard had been sunk by German submarines, but even then Wilson had not broken her neutrality. However, on January 31, Germany told the US government that unrestricted submarine warfare would include US shipping from that moment on. This changed Wilson’s mind: He announced, ‘the world must be made safe for democracy!’ The world had been made extraordinarily unsafe for democracy since August 1914, but now, three years later, with almost bankrupt British, French and German governments battling to the last bullet, the American Bear leapt across the Atlantic and announced ‘Here I am!’
More than a million young, fresh, well-fed, clothed and armed Americans took over. The Great War was over by November 1918 and the victorious American president came up with ‘Fourteen Points’ which would follow it, one being the formation of a League of Nations (which was sadly ill-fated). At home, Wilson’s fellow Americans upset him by installing a Republican Congress and Senate, though he remained as President. He spent six months at the Paris Peace Conference, but the Peace of Versailles was very far from his ‘peace without victors’, as Germany/Austria lost everything and were made to pay the costs of the War without the industrial ability to make it possible to pay. Never mind, because Woodrow Wilson received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919. The Treaty of Versailles was probably the most direct cause of the Second War only 20 years later.
Back in the States again, Wilson presented the Treaty to the Senate for ratification but there was too much opposition from Monrovian isolationists and Republicans. Still refusing to allow any modifications to the Treaty, almost all of which was his work, fuelled by his burning desire to see an end of British imperialism, French obstinacy and Teutonic militarism, he suffered a major stroke. There he lay in the White House, like Brer Rabbit sayin’ nuttn’, but in the presidential elections of 1920 the Republican Warren Harding, a cipher, gained one the greatest political victories in history. It is ironic that Harding was to campaign the hardest against US membership of the League of Nations.