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The presidency of Woodrow Wilson

AP.USH:
KC‑7.3.II.A (KC)
,
Unit 7: Learning Objective F
,
WOR (Theme)
Wilson campaigned for a second term on the slogan "He kept us out of war." But that wouldn't be true for long. 

Overview

  • 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.
Photograph of Woodrow Wilson.
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.start superscript, 1, end superscript

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.squared
Still from the film Birth of a Nation, quoting Wilson as saying "The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation . . . . until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country."
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.cubed

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.start superscript, 4, end superscript
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.start superscript, 5, end superscript 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.start superscript, 6, end superscript
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.start superscript, 7, end superscript

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?

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user Jalonda Kennedy
    why would they elect him president when he had dealings with the Ku Klux Klan??
    (11 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user 19llewellt
    Why would he be elected president for a second term if he had some kind of relations with the KKK?
    (6 votes)
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  • leafers tree style avatar for user Lucci
    Why did it take two years after the Lusitania attack to declare war?
    (6 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Leo quesada
    How old would Woodrow Wilson be today?
    (3 votes)
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  • duskpin seed style avatar for user Bre
    Why did Wilson show a screening of a film? Was this one of the ways he responded to the KKK
    (5 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user rmenefee
    The text reads, "he aligned himself symbolically" with the KKK, which is not the same as 'joining' the KKK. Neither is better. Still, isn't it important to get the wording right so that the conversation on his association with the KKK isn't built on a false premise?
    (4 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Tovonn Smith
    Did Woodrow Wilson choose to be racist just against the now, African Americans?
    (3 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user A. D. Pedersen
    So, how come when Wilson aligned himself with the KKK, the people didn't push him out of office? I mean, it said that tons of people didn't like Wilson's decision to join the KKK. Were there enough people that he could have been pushed out?
    (2 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Katy
      Wilson did not join the KKK. He aligned himself with the KKK. He was a racist. He implemented segregation practices in the government that were more extreme than previous presidencies, but he did not join the KKK.
      There were a lot of people who did support Wilson's position with the KKK, mainly white southerners. There were also a lot of people who were more interested in Wilson's beliefs about other more imminent policies at the time, such as maintaining isolationism and progressive reform for whites, than his position on segregation. It was a very different time than now. Many Americans were worried about job security and felt threatened by immigrants and African Americans who might take their job if they go on strike for better working conditions.
      (4 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user quintell henderson
    Was Wilson’s Progressivism at odds with his attitudes toward race?
    (1 vote)
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    • hopper cool style avatar for user kvandusen
      Many progressives were not concerned with race, many were choosing to ignore the issue because the government had just dedicated a lot of time to Reconstruction. That's why movements of the Harlem Renaissance popped up.
      (2 votes)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user I am who I am
    Was Wilson a member of the Klan
    (1 vote)
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