Woodrow Wilson is a man and President whose policies and beliefs leave him with a troubled legacy. He fits into the category of a former President who did some great things and he also did some terrible things. Uncomfortable conversations and discussing the full picture of historical figures is essential. I think it is safe to say that his early life and upbringing helped to shape his ideals and beliefs which of course, when he became President of the United States, shaped his policies (Both domestic and foreign).
Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born on Dec. 28, 1856 in Virginia. His father, Joseph, was a Presbyterian Minister and a founder of the Southern Presbyterian church. When he was 2, his family moved from Virginia to Augusta, Georgia. Woodrow Wilson grew up with enslaved persons working in his home. The Wilson’s didn’t own slaves; they were instead leased by the church where his father was Pastor. Now please don’t mistake me mentioning the fact of them leasing slaves as opposed to owning slaves as somehow being better. This is a family that is still utilizing enslaved labor. His father defended slavery because it existed in the bible. That argument in support of slavery was a common one. During the Civil War, both of his parents sided with The Confederacy. His father’s church was used to care for wounded soldiers and he was a Chaplain for The Confederacy. During the Civil War, Augusta, GA was a manufacturing hub. The city produced cotton, food and gunpowder. When people think of Georgia and the Civil War, they think of Sherman‘s march to the sea. The city of Augusta prepared fortifications but Gen. Sherman never marched through the town. Wilson spent 13 years living in Augusta. He was 5 when the Civil War began, and 9 when it ended. He witnessed Confederate President Jefferson Davis being marched through the streets of Georgia after his capture in route to Fort Monroe where he was held until his trial began but that was a trail that would never come. If you listened to our podcast on The Civil War, we discussed that. So you can imagine the extent through which living in the South through the Civil War and Reconstruction had on Woodrow Wilson, especially during such formative years. The Wilson’s moved often. In 1870, they moved to Columbia, South Carolina and his former home is now a Museum dedicated to the Reconstruction Era. The family then moved to North Carolina 4 years later. Woodrow Wilson is the only one of our Presidents to have a PhD. His education didn’t always come easy. It is believed he was dyslexic and didn’t learn to read until the age of 10. At the age of 16, he started at Davidson College a Presbyterian liberal arts college in North Carolina. After his Freshman year, he became sick and had to take a year off.
He wouldn’t return to Davidson, instead he would enroll in The College of New Jersey which would eventually be renamed Princeton University, after the town it is located in. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree and briefly went on to study Law at The University of Virginia. He disliked it and left. Instead, he enrolled in Johns Hopkins University and received his PhD in Political Science. While there, he also wrote a book called Congressional Government where he analyzed the American Political System. It was the writing of that book that earned him his PhD. He would author a number of books, including a biography of George Washington and many of his speeches and even love letters to his second wife have been printed into books. I’ll get into another one of his books a little later on when we talk about Wilson and his views on race.
He then went on to teach at Bryn Mawr College for Women. He taught history and politics for 3 years. He was not a supporter of education for women and in a letter he wrote about teaching there he said “Lecturing to young women of the present generation on the history and principles of politics is about as appropriate and profitable as would be lecturing to stone-masons on the evolution of fashion in dress.” His next teaching job was at Wesleyan University (which at the time was an all male university) Then, he goes to Princeton which most people know him for.
He started teaching at Princeton and he was one of the most popular professors there. He was made President of Princeton in 1902 and quickly set out to improve the school. Woodrow Wilson was President of Princeton University from 1902-1910. He instituted more rigorous standards. Many of the changes he made at Princeton helped to elevate the school to one of the most elite universities in the United States. It is also important to note that unlike its rivals (Harvard and Yale) Princeton, under Wilson’s helm, did not accept any Black Students.
“When a black student from Virginia wrote directly to Wilson himself, he replied that “it is altogether inadvisable for a colored man to enter Princeton.”
His long tenure at Princeton and his reputation as a reformer made him a bit of a local celebrity. Leaders of the Democratic Party in NJ looked at him as a solid candidate for Governor. Even though he had no prior political experience. Democratic Political machine Party bosses helped Wilson get elected but he would not be their puppet. New Jersey was incredibly corrupt, just as New York and many other major cities throughout the country were corrupt, which we talked about during the Gilded Age and in the Progressive Era podcasts
As Gov. of NJ he cleaned up the corruption. Laws were passed that required primary elections and significantly reduced the power and clout political machines had in the state. After just two years as Governor, he started to get attention in the world of politics on a national scale and people began eyeing him as a Presidential Candidate. He ticked a number of important boxes for the Democrats. A reputation as a reformer, an Academic, a great speaker, a Southerner, a Southerner who has lived in the North for some time now. It took a number of ballots for him to get the Democratic nomination, but he got it.
“The former president wrote a five-volume history textbook, A History of The American People, praising the Confederacy, and called the Klu Klux Klan an 'Invisible Empire of the South'” Quotes from the textbook were used in the controversial film “Birth of a Nation”. The film, which was based on the book, The Clansman, was written by a friend and former classmate of Wilson’s. Wilson held a private screening of the film at the White House.
The Election of 1912 was the first Presidential Election to use Primaries. Wilson is the 1st Southerner elected President since 1848. No Democrat had been President since Grover Cleveland. The election saw 4 candidates run for President. Incumbent President William Howard Taft (who by all accounts hated being president) agrees to run for re-election mainly because he sees a non-consecutive third term for Teddy Roosevelt and even the potential election of Wilson and obviously the very long shot win by Eugene V. Debs as a threat to the Constitution. So he runs not because he really wants to, but because he feels he has to, in order to protect the Constitution. For Americans who want Progressive reform, they see Taft as a steward of the old guard. Eugene V. Debs is a socialist, and believes that it is the working class that should be running the country. In the middle, but still reformers you have former President Teddy Roosevelt who after being denied the Republican party’s nomination, he and his supporters start their own political party called the Progressive Party but that party is also commonly referred to as the Bull Moose Party. Roosevelt campaigned hard, he wanted to return to The White House. An assassination attempt where he was shot and bleeding couldn’t even stop him from first going to make his scheduled speech, naturally opening his jacket to show his bloody shirt to the stunned crowd – ever the showman! With Republicans Taft and Roosevelt both running, they split the Republican Party. While Woodrow Wilson doesn’t win an overwhelming majority of votes, he wins more than the other 3 candidates and is elected President.
During the campaign (and these are quotes from his speeches, he had promised to deal “fairly and justly” with the Negro, to provide “not mere grudging justice but justice executed with liberality and cordial good feeling”—which earned the endorsement of prominent black leaders, including Niagara Movement founder W.E. B. DuBois and Boston journalist William Monroe Trotter.
Wilson believed in Predestination, the notion that life was predestined by God. After being elected President, he stated the following with the head of the DNC “I wish it to be clearly understood that I owe you nothing. Remember that God ordained that I should be the next President of the United States. Neither you or any other mortal could have prevented that.” So take that head of the DNC, you can also understand why he felt it ok to go after the party bosses in NJ when he became Gov.
Woodrow Wilson’s Inauguration
The day before the inauguration, the first major National March for Suffrage took place on March 3, 1913. The capitol was a buzz with people planning to attend the inauguration. When Woodrow Wilson and his wife Ellen arrived in the nation’s capital he sort of remarked well where is everybody? Thinking there would be more people to greet him. Well many were looking at this parade. 5,000 suffragettes marched along Pennsylvania Avenue. The procession was meticulously planned and was full of symbolism. Women were organized into different state delegations or they marched based on their professions or wearing school colors. Many of the spectators began to attack the women participating in the march. It got so violent that US Army troops had to intervene so that the march could continue. Over 100 women had to be hospitalized for their injuries.
The next day in his Inaugural Address, Wilson stated “Our duty is to cleanse, to reconsider, to restore, to correct the evil without impairing the good, to purify and humanize every process of our common life without weakening or sentimentalizing it. There has been something crude and heartless and unfeeling in our haste to succeed and be great.” He talks of the working class and industrialization and the need to improve the working conditions and lives of the working class. There’s talk of the tariff and the economy. So there is this desire to improve or the words he uses to restore American Society.p>
Wilson gets right to work. There were no Inaugural Balls as they traditionally had and still have, he felt them inappropriate. Every party has a pooper that’s why we invited Wilson… Now, again Hindsight is always 20/20…. We know what is coming down the pipe for Wilson. He didn’t. Domestically, there is a ton happening during his Presidency. In our progressive era podcasts we talked about a number of them. We are going to talk about some of the major things that occurred during his Presidency. Globally, Foreign Policy wise, the world is a powder keg. Mexican Revolution, WWI, Russian Revolution all will steer his Presidency in directions he could not have imagined it going in.
Wilson quickly set up his Cabinet (or group of advisors) to lead the various Federal Depts. William Jennings Bryan was his Sec. of State. Yes, that William Jennings Bryan who ran for President 3 times, but the two men would come to odds with each other over the practice of unrestricted Submarine warfare and Bryan would end up resigning in 1915. His first Sec of War would also resign over differences between him and the President over military preparedness and the US policy of Neutrality. His 3rd Attorney General was a man by the name of A. Mitchel Palmer and when we talk about the Palmer Raids, we will talk about him a bit more. Segregation of Federal Departments was also practiced during his Presidency.
Postmaster General Albert Burleson requested to segregate the Railway Mail Service at a Cabinet meeting. He called out the sharing of glasses, bathrooms and towels as being problematic. In addition, the Department of Treasury and Post Office Department installed screens to separate workspaces, lunchrooms, and had separate bathrooms. When Wilson allowed for this to happen, other Federal agencies began adopting similar practices. Those first two agencies had the highest number of employees of color than other Federal agencies. These changes drastically altered the integration within Federal agencies since the Reconstruction era. There is also an addition of a photograph requirement with federal job applications. When leaders of the Black Community spoke out against these segregationist policies, Wilson stated "Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen."
His views on race were evident if you look at many of his writings.
“In the matter of Chinese and Japanese coolie immigration, I stand for the national policy of exclusion. We cannot make a homogenous population out of people who do not blend with the Caucasian race… Oriental Coolieism will give us another race problem to solve and surely we have had our lesson.”
We are joined by Emily Kilgore and Andrew Philips from the Woodrow Wilson Presidential museum and library.
Federal Reserve Act
After two separate financial panics where the Federal Government either had to turn to wealthy financiers or Wall Street to prevent an Economic Collapse, discussion over the creation of a Central Bank began. A National Monetary Commission had been created years earlier and studied the current system, evaluated banking laws and currency, traveled to a number of European cities to see what they were doing, and held hearings. Ultimately, the Commission called for the creation of a National Reserve Association. The Committees in the legislative branch would get involved and make changes to the proposed plan. The Central Bank would be different from the First and Second National Banks in that the Government would not have a stake, but Wilson felt strongly about there being Government oversight, so The Federal Reserve Board was also created which would be made up of Presidential appointees. Bankers also needed a voice, so a Federal Advisory Council was created. This council would be a 12 person council and members would be appointed by regional banks. They would meet with the Federal Reserve Board.
The Act created the Federal Reserve System. You might hear it sometimes being referred to as The Fed or simply The Federal Reserve. It consists of 12 Regional Federal Reserve Banks, one for each district, you can easily google a map of the districts and see how it is broken up.
Woodrow Wilson also set out to reform Big Business.
The Clayton AntiTrust Act was passed to work against trusts and monopolies more than the Sherman AntiTrust Act was able to. The Clayton Act prevented mergers or acquisitions that caused unfair business practices. This time they went a step further and created the FTC as well.
Federal Trade Commission
The Federal Trade Commission was created on September 26, 1914 to act as a watchdog for big business. They would investigate and prevent unfair business practices. The FTC's mission is to protect consumers and promote competition. The need for the FTC grew out of holes in previous laws such as the Sherman Antitrust Act and the Clayton Act. The FTC set very specific terms for what could and what could not be done. The FTC protects consumers, investors and businesses from things like monopolies, mergers of companies that would create monopolies, price-fixing, deceptive advertising and bid-rigging (oftentimes when there is a major construction project of when awarding government contracts, companies will make a bid for the project. They will submit a price of what they will charge to complete the project. Companies who work together to ensure they get the bid or the contract, purposefully submitting a higher bid, sometimes, the winner would be selected beforehand. With bid rigging, the average taxpayer is hurt because they end up footing the bill and perhaps even overpaying for a construction project.
What does the FTC do today:
They insure Antitrust laws are being enforced. In 2011 when AT&T wanted to purchase T Mobile for 39 Billion, that merger was nixed by the FTC. The merger of the two biggest phone and internet providers could have created a monopoly over the industry and potentially have hurt the average consumer. We hear about all of these different scams – either through email or by phone “You’re the winner of a sweepstakes” companies asking for personal information or a bank account number, or just pay the taxes and this money is yours free and clear, this can and should be reported to the FTC, The FTC also polices the internet. Always remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is! The FTC also works to make sure children under the age of 13 are safe online. There are privacy rules that must be adhered to with different websites or Apps. Often times, they require a parent or guardian’s permission or to be notified what information is being collected and how it is being used. This is done through something called COPPA – Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. What do most children do online? They’re on different Apps, they are gaming, they are on Tik Tok, SnapChat, YouTube. There are hearings in Congress about these platforms and whether or not they are adhering to COPPA guidelines. There are discussions about if the current laws need to be amended or changed to further protect Children online. These are great discussion points for your students or young children. Be careful of what you post online. This goes for adults to. I cringe sometimes at the information people give. Stop answering questions, like what was your first job, your pet's name or your favorite teacher…. Unless I was your favorite teacher and then go ahead and talk me up all you want….just don’t make me one of your passwords.
The Revenue Act of 1913
The Revenue Act of 1913 lowered average tariff rates from 40 percent to 26 percent. An individual’s income was taxed at a rate of 1% for people who earned more than $3,000 per year. It didn’t affect many American citizens. Only about 3% of the population fell into that category when it was first passed. Overtime, more and more people would pay income taxes. A separate provision established a corporate tax of one percent, superseding the previous tax we discussed in an earlier podcast that had only applied to corporations with net incomes greater than $5,000 per year.
The Bureau of Internal Revenue
The Office of the Commissioner of Internal Revenue was created in 1862 when taxes were needed to help fund the Civil War. With the passage of the 16th Amendment in 1913, came the need for a Personal Income Tax Division and Correspondence Unit under the Bureau of Internal Revenue. This agency is responsible for collecting most of the revenue needed to fund the federal government. There is a need for the government to collect funds in order to operate and there is a need for someone to figure out who owes what and to collect it. Just to give you an idea of the roles this agency has taken on over the years, during WWI they helped to educate the public about the new tax and to promote paying taxes as being patriotic. During Prohibition it was the Bureau of Internal Revenue that enforced prohibition laws. The Bureau would get a complete overhaul in 1953 by President Truman and become known as the Internal Revenue Service otherwise known as the IRS.
Child Labor Act
By 1900 you had roughly 2 million children in the workforce. Many of whom worked in factories or mines in terrible and dangerous working conditions. These children needed to work in order to help their families make ends meet. During the Progressive Era, child labor was one of the many issues activists sought to change. The 1916 Keating-Owen Act was the first step to help bring an end to Child Labor. The law banned the sale of any product made by children below a certain age (14 for factories and 16 for mines were the minimum age). The law lacked the power to outright ban child labor but they did have the power to regulate interstate trade. The law also stipulated that children couldn’t work at night or for more than 8 hours during the day. The Supreme Court found the law Unconstitutional in 1918 but reversed its decision in 1941. Child Labor laws weren’t passed easily.
Another important labor law passed during his presidency was the Adamson Act. In 1916, railroad workers' strike of almost 400,000 workers led to this act being passed. Workers wanted an 8-hour work day and better and fair wages. Railroad owners refused and the Federal Government feared a nationwide railroad strike. The law established an 8-hour work day and overtime pay for railroad workers. Railroad companies fought the law but the Supreme Court upheld it and owners had to adhere to its stipulations.
Woodrow Wilson also Helped Farmers.
Smith – Lever Act (1914) provided access to education for farmers on new agricultural techniques. Farm advocacy groups pushed for this for a while. Without access to these new techniques, how could farmers across the nation continue to sustain food production – especially with the growing demand for American products overseas. This will become especially important with the outbreak of WWI in Europe.
The Federal Farm Loan Act (1916) created a Federal Farm Loan Board. The purpose was to increase the amount of loans available to farmers. The need for this law came from a study started by President Theodore Roosevelt. The study concluded that one of the biggest challenges farming families faced was access to credit. This law helped to alleviate that.
When it comes to Woodrow Wilson, there is a lot of information. We touted a number of pieces of legislation passed during his presidency that by all accounts helped many people and the country. We also discussed some aspects of Wilson’s Presidency and his own beliefs on race and the education of women that paint a very different picture of him. Woodrow Wilson’s likeness was even considered for Mount Rushmore. When he left office he was incredibly popular. We will discuss his foreign policy and the events that occurred globally that influenced history and his Presidency. Join us for our next episode when we continue our discussion of Woodrow Wilson.