Thomas Woodrow Wilson: 28th Retrospective
“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” – Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
The election of 1912 may have been the greatest election we’ve ever had. William Howard Taft was the sitting president being primaried hard by former President Theodore Roosevelt who thought Taft had abandoned many of his progressive measures. Governor of New Jersey and former President of Princeton University Woodrow Wilson represented the Democratic Party.
Roosevelt lost the Republican nomination to Taft but did not bow out. Instead, he ran under the Progressive Party and capsized Taft’s reelection bid. The split of the Republican vote allowed Wilson to win the White House.
Wilson was a southerner and an academic. He is the only president with a doctorate: a PhD in the History of Government from Johns Hopkins.
Wilson was the first President to deliver the State Of The Union in person to Congress since John Adams. Wilson tried to bring the ivory tower to the oval office. He was a collegial leader acting as a first among equals in cabinet meetings where free discussion reigned.
This was Wilson’s progressive vision that attacked what he called the Triple Wall Of Privilege — the tariff, the banks, and the trusts. Wilson would achieve his domestic agenda through Congress passing legislation.
Riding Roosevelt’s Bull Moose (Progressive)
The platform’s main theme was reversing the domination of politics by business interests, which allegedly controlled the Republican and Democratic parties, alike. The platform called for strict limits and disclosure requirements on political campaign contributions, registration of lobbyists, recording and publication of Congressional committee proceedings.
In the social sphere, the platform called for a National Health Service to include all existing government medical agencies; social insurance, to provide for the elderly, the unemployed and the disabled; limited injunctions in strikes; a minimum wage law for women; an eight-hour workday; a federal securities commission; farm relief; workers’ compensation for work-related injuries; an inheritance tax; and a Constitutional amendment to allow a Federal income tax.
The political reforms proposed included women’s suffrage, direct election of Senators, primary elections for state and federal nominations. The platform also urged states to adopt measures for “direct democracy” including the recall election (citizens may remove an elected official before the end of his term), the referendum (citizens may decide on a law by popular vote), the initiative (citizens may propose a law by petition and enact it by popular vote), and judicial recall (when a court declares a law unconstitutional, the citizens may override that ruling by popular vote).
Besides these measures, the platform called for reductions in the tariff, limitations on naval armaments by international agreement and improvements to inland waterways. The biggest controversy was over the platform section dealing with trusts and monopolies such as Standard Oil. The convention approved a strong “trust-busting” plank, but Roosevelt had it replaced with language that spoke only of “strong National regulation” and “permanent active [Federal] supervision” of major corporations. This retreat shocked reformers resulting in a deep split in the new party that was never resolved.
Roosevelt also favored a vigorous foreign policy, including strong military power. Though the platform called for limiting naval armaments, it also recommended the construction of two new battleships per year, much to the distress of outright pacifists. Wilson responded in kind.
Wilson And The Constitution
Following Wilson’s election in 1912, the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th amendments were ratified. Three would be transformational, but one would be infamous.
Article I, Section 2 and Section 9 create the “rule of apportionment,” which required Congress to tax each state based on the state’s population rather than taxing individuals based on personal wealth or property. For example, if the people of Delaware were four percent of the U.S. population, they would pay four percent of the total federal tax. In 1895, the U.S. Supreme Court in Pollock v. Farmer’s Loan & Trust Co. declared that a federal income tax (imposed on property owned by individuals) was unconstitutional because it violated this “rule of apportionment.”
Although a direct income tax had previously been imposed during the Civil War, the Court’s ruling in Pollock spurred Congress to pass and send to the states Amendment XVI. This provision gives Congress the power to impose a uniform, direct income tax without being subject to the apportionment rule. It has become the basis for all subsequent federal income tax legislation and has greatly expanded the scope of federal taxing and spending in the years since its passage. The Sixteenth Amendment was ratified by the states in 1913.
Under Article I, Section 3, two senators from each state were elected by the legislature of each state. Under this scheme senators represented the states to the federal Union, and members of the House represented the local voters in their district.
But a series of scandalous elections and widespread political infighting in state legislatures led Progressives to call for the election of senators by voters of each state. Ratified by the states in 1913, the Seventeenth Amendment provides that senators be elected by the people directly.
Ratified on January 16, 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment prohibited the making, transporting and selling of alcoholic beverages. Adopted at the urging of a national temperance movement, proponents believed that the use of alcohol was reckless and destructive and that prohibition would reduce crime and corruption, solve social problems, decrease the need for welfare and prisons, and improve the health of all Americans. During prohibition, it is estimated that alcohol consumption and alcohol related deaths declined dramatically.
But prohibition had other, more negative consequences. The amendment drove the lucrative alcohol business underground, giving rise to a large and pervasive black market. In addition, prohibition encouraged disrespect for the law and strengthened organized crime. Prohibition came to an end with the ratification of Amendment XXI on December 5, 1933.
For much of American history, certain groups of people, including African Americans and women, did not have the right to vote. The struggle for women’s voting rights — also known as the women’s suffrage movement — lasted through much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Although some states permitted women to vote and to hold office prior to the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment, the ratification of Amendment XIX on August 18, 1920, extended voting rights to all women. Since ratification, women’s right to vote has become commonly accepted by Americans.
Wilson’s First Term
After his election, Wilson told the chairman of the Democratic Party: “Remember that God ordained that I should be the next president of the United States.” Wilson later said that the United States had been created by God “to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.” During his first term, he initiated a long list of major domestic reforms. These included:
The Underwood-Simmons Tariff Act of 1913 was the first successful downward revision of the tariff since the Civil War. It enacted an across-the-board reduction in tariffs, making manufacturers more efficient and providing consumers with competitive pricing. To compensate for lost revenue, a rider to the act created a small, graduated income tax made permissible by the recently passed 16th amendment.
The 1913 Federal Reserve Act created the current Federal Reserve System. It intended to establish a form of economic stability through the introduction of the Central Bank, which would be in charge of monetary policy.
Prior to 1913, panics were common occurrences, as investors were unsure about the safety of their deposits. The Federal Reserve Act gave the 12 Federal Reserve banks the ability to print money in order to ensure economic stability. In addition to this task, the Fed had the power to adjust the discount rate/the fed funds rate and buy & sell U.S. treasuries.
Federal Trade Commission
The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1895 outlaws “every contract, combination, or conspiracy in restraint of trade,” and any “monopolization, attempted monopolization, or conspiracy or combination to monopolize.” Long ago, the Supreme Court decided that the Sherman Act does not prohibit every restraint of trade, only those that are unreasonable. For instance, in some sense an agreement between two individuals to form a partnership restrains trade, but may not do so unreasonably, and thus may be lawful under the antitrust laws. On the other hand, certain acts are considered so harmful to competition that they are almost always illegal. These include plain arrangements among competing individuals or businesses to fix prices, divide markets, or rig bids. These acts are “per se” violations of the Sherman Act; in other words, no defense or justification is allowed.
Passed in 1914, the Federal Trade Commission Act bans “unfair methods of competition” and “unfair or deceptive acts or practices.” The Supreme Court has said that all violations of the Sherman Act also violate the FTC Act. Thus, although the FTC does not technically enforce the Sherman Act, it can bring cases under the FTC Act against the same kinds of activities that violate the Sherman Act. The FTC Act also reaches other practices that harm competition, but that may not fit neatly into categories of conduct formally prohibited by the Sherman Act. Only the FTC brings cases under the FTC Act.
Clayton Antitrust Act
The Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 addresses specific practices that the Sherman Act does not clearly prohibit, such as mergers and interlocking directorates (that is, the same person making business decisions for competing companies). Section 7 of the Clayton Act prohibits mergers and acquisitions where the effect “may be substantially to lessen competition, or to tend to create a monopoly.” As amended by the Robinson-Patman Act of 1936, the Clayton Act also bans certain discriminatory prices, services and allowances in dealings between merchants. The Clayton Act was amended again in 1976 by the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act to require companies planning large mergers or acquisitions to notify the government of their plans in advance. The Clayton Act also authorizes private parties to sue for triple damages when they have been harmed by conduct that violates either the Sherman or Clayton Act and to obtain a court order prohibiting the anticompetitive practice in the future.
Unlike Roosevelt, who believed that big business could be successfully regulated by government, Woodrow Wilson believed that the federal government should break up big businesses in order to restore as much competition as possible. Other social legislation enacted during Wilson’s first term included:
The Seamen Act of 1915
The law provided the merchant marine with rights similar to those gained by factory workers. This law had been prompted by the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, a disaster that had clearly illustrated the lack of planning and concern exhibited by the major shipping companies. The Seamen’s Act was regarded as the “Magna Charta of the seas” and mandated limited working hours to 56 per week (9-hour days); guaranteed minimum standards of cleanliness and safety; guaranteed the ability of seamen to sue for damages against negligent ship owners; established the right of crews to draw half pay while in port; and recognized the right of seamen to organize.
The Adamson Act
In fall 1915, railroad brotherhoods adopted a resolution to demand an 8 hour work day and time and a half for overtime. In March of 1916, they submitted a proposal for 8 hour work day to the railroads. In the summer of 1916, railroad companies rejected the railroad brotherhoods proposals. The railroad brotherhoods set a strike deadline of September 4, 1916.
In August of 1916, Woodrow Wilson, wanting to avoid a railroad strike that would affect war preparedness, tried to mediate a compromise. Failing to reach an amicable resolution for both sides, Wilson requested Congress pass legislation granting an 8-hour workday for railroad workers on August 28, 1916. Congress passed the Adamson Act establishing an 8-hour workday for interstate railroad workers and time and a half for overtime on September 3, 1916.
In January 1917, the Supreme Court hears arguments in Wilson v. New, the case the railroad companies brought challenging the constitutionality of the Adamson Act. On March 19, 1917, railroads agree to provisions of the Adamson Act to avoid a nationwide strike. The Supreme Court rules on Wilson v. New 5 to 4 declaring the Adamson Act constitutional.
Keating-Owen Child Labor Act
Passed in 1916, this act limited the working hours of children and forbade the interstate sale of goods produced by child labor. It was the first child labor bill, based on Senator Albert J. Beveridge’s proposal from 1906. It used the government’s ability to regulate interstate commerce to regulate child labor. The act banned the sale of products from any factory, shop, or cannery that employed children under the age of 14, from any mine that employed children under the age of 16, and from any facility that had children under the age of 16 work at night or for more than 8 hours during the day. Although the Keating-Owen Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional in 1918 because it overstepped the purpose of the government’s powers to regulate interstate commerce.
Workmen’s Compensation Act
The Federal Employees’ Compensation Act (FECA), is a United States federal law, enacted on September 7, 1916. Sponsored by Sen. John W. Kern (D) of Indiana and Rep. Daniel J. McGillicuddy (D) of Maine, it established compensation to federal civil service employees for wages lost due to job-related injuries. This act became the precedent for “disability insurance” across the country and the precursor to broad-coverage health insurance.
Riding the Bull Moose To Reelection
The Bull Moose platform expressed Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism”: a strong government to regulate industry, protect the middle and working classes, and carry on great national projects. This New Nationalism was paternalistic, in direct contrast to Wilson’s individualistic philosophy of “New Freedom”.
When Wilson’s first term expired, the nation was on the brink of entering the bloodiest conflict in human history. He had definite ideas about how the postwar peace should look, but he would have to survive reelection first. As an appeal to the Roosevelt Progressives, he signed many legislative measures suggested by the Bull Moose Campaign and became the first Democratic presidential candidate to earn a second term since Andrew Jackson in 1832.
Americans were very much opposed to entering the Great War when it began in 1914. That lasted into 1915 though it would change.
The Lusitania carried a healthy complement of American passengers when she departed New York for Liverpool on May 1, 1915, despite a published warning from the German authorities that appeared in U.S. newspapers the morning of her departure. By this time a number of British merchant ships had been sunk by German subs, but the famous liner’s speed still seemed the best guarantee of safety. Certainly her captain and crew should have been on high alert.
As the Lusitania neared the end of her crossing, a German U-boat sank three British ships in the waters south of Ireland through which she was about to sail, and he received repeated warnings that U-boats were active on his intended course. Yet on May 7, as the Lusitania entered the most dangerous part of her passage, Captain William Turner actually slowed down, apparently worried by patchy fog.
In fact, Turner was ignoring or at least bending every one of the Admiralty’s directives for evading German submarines. He was steaming too close to shore, where U-boats loved to lurk, instead of in the relative safety of the open channel. He was sailing at less than top speed, and he wasn’t zigzagging (later he claimed to believe that zigzagging was a tactic to be adopted only after a U-boat was sighted). In his defense, it must be stated that Turner was steering the Lusitania farther from shore than had the ship’s previous commander on several wartime crossings. And his many years as a merchant captain undoubtedly inclined him to trust his own instincts over bureaucratic directives he didn’t fully understand. It can also be argued that so important a ship merited a destroyer escort for the most perilous part of its voyage.
Whether or not Turner’s behavior can be justified, it doomed his ship. When U-20 under the command of Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger found a huge four-stacker in its sights just south of Queenstown, Ireland, it was able to kill her with a single torpedo, penetrating the hull just below the waterline. The initial explosion set off a violent secondary blast. The ship sank in 18 minutes, with a lost of 1,195 of the 1,959 on board, including 123 Americans. Captain Turner was washed clear of the bridge as the ship sank, and survived after spending more than three hours in the water.
The torpedo likely ripped open the ship at one of the starboard coal bunkers, nearly empty at the end of the transatlantic crossing. The violent impact kicked up clouds of coal dust, which when mixed with oxygen and touched by fire becomes an explosive combination. The resulting blast, the reported second explosion, ripped open the starboard side of the hull and doomed the ship.
The lost of the Lusitania provoked great outrage in the United States and helped create the climate of public opinion that would later allow America to join the war. It also marked the end of any delusions that the “civilized” manners of 19th century warfare could survive into the 20th.
World War I
In early 1917, neutrality became more difficult as Germany declared American shipping would not be free from submarine warfare. On April 2nd, 2017, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany. Wilson’s “The world must be made safe for democracy” then would become an enduring theme of American foreign policy. He would end the very same speech stating:
“I shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.”
Wilson was focused on his vision of peace, the League of Nations, which became his great and sole obsession. As far as the war was concerned, he kept his hands off letting General John Joseph “Blackjack” Pershing take care of the details. Wilson apparently only gave him one order, which was to maintain a separate American army. The reasons that brought us into the war late were very different than our other allied powers and a separate army maintained that. Wilson ignored and acquiesced to suspension of fundamental civil liberties upon our entrance into the war.
Espionage and Sedition Acts
Under Wilson, we had our first forays since 1798 into federal regulation of First Amendment rights. Criminalizing certain forms of expression, belief, and association resulted in the prosecution of over 2,000 cases, but in reaction they also produced a movement to protect the civil liberties of all Americans.
The Espionage Act of 1917 was enacted quickly by Congress following the U.S. declaration of war on Germany, authorizing federal officials to make summary arrests of people whose opinions “threatened national security.” The measure prohibited willfully making false reports with intent to interfere with the success of the military or naval forces, inciting insubordination, disloyalty, or mutiny in the military, and obstructing recruitment or the enlistment service of the United States. Further sections authorized the Postmaster General to ban from the mails material advocating resistance to any law of the United States. This gave Post Office officials in the Wilson administration virtual dictatorial control over circulation of the nation’s subsidiary press.
Realizing that the vagueness of the Espionage Act opened up opportunities for broad repression by government officials, as well as for mob violence and vigilante action, Congress augmented it with the Sedition Act of 1918. This set forth eight new criminal offenses, including uttering, printing, writing, or publishing any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language intended to cause contempt, scorn, contumely, or disrespect for the U.S. government or the Constitution.
Before its repeal in 1921, the Sedition Act led to numerous arrests, particularly of dissident radicals, but also of important figures such as the socialist leader Eugene V. Debs. The Espionage Act remained on the books to be invoked in the post–World War II period to charge certain controversial figures such as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, accused of atomic espionage, with being a threat to the United States in the Cold War.
The American army’s entrance into World War 1 was decisive, and 19 months after we declared war on Germany we would come to final terms at conference in Paris. Wilson would become the first sitting president to conference in Europe. He would go to Europe looking to secure, “peace for the world that will last for all time.”
Wilson was greeted tremendously in Europe. He was viewed as a fresh new force that brought horrible conflict to an end. In Paris, London and Rome, children threw roses at his feet. He was a hero. The savior from the west.
The “Fourteen Points”
In January 1918, some ten months before the end of World War I, Wilson had written a list of proposed war aims which he called the “Fourteen Points.” Eight of these points dealt specifically with territorial and political settlements associated with the victory of the Entente Powers, including the idea of national self-determination for ethnic populations in Europe. The remainder of the principles focused on preventing war in the future, the last proposing a League of Nations to arbitrate international disputes. Wilson hoped his proposal would bring about a just and lasting peace: a “peace without victory.”
When German leaders signed the Armistice of Compiegne November 11, 1918, many of them believed that the Fourteen Points would form the basis of the future peace treaty, but when the heads of the governments of the United States, Great Britain, France, and Italy met in Paris to discuss treaty terms, the European contingent of the “Big Four” rejected this approach.
League of Nations
He enumerated his war aims in his famous Fourteen Points speech, with the last point calling for the creation of a League of Nations. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, he fought hard, but was not able to incorporate his Fourteen Points in the treaty. He did, however, make sure the League of Nations was an inextricable part of the final agreement. He hoped that once the League was established, it could rectify the treaty’s many shortcomings.
Of the treaty’s 440 articles, the first twenty-six comprise the Covenant of the League of Nations. This covenant describes the operational workings of the League. Article Ten obliges signatories to guarantee the political independence and territorial integrity of all member nations against outside aggression, and to consult together to oppose aggression when it occurs. This became the critical point, and the one that ultimately prevented the treaty’s ratification by the Senate.
Treaty of Versailles
Germany lost 13 percent of its territory, including 10 percent of its population. The Treaty of Versailles was presented to the German delegation for signature on May 7, 1919 forcing Germany to:
- concede Eupen-Malmédy to Belgium
- concede the Hultschin district to Czechoslovakia
- concede Poznan, West Prussia, and Upper Silesia to Poland
- return Alsace and Lorraine, annexed in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian War, to France.
The treaty called for:
- demilitarization and occupation of the Rhineland
- special status for the Saarland under French control
- referendums to determine the future of areas in northern Schleswig on the Danish-German frontier and parts of Upper Silesia on the border with Poland.
Further, all German overseas colonies were taken away from Germany and became League of Nation Mandates. The city of Danzig (today Gdansk), with its large ethnically German population, became a Free City.
Perhaps the most humiliating portion of the treaty for defeated Germany was Article 231, commonly known as the “War Guilt Clause.” This clause forced the German nation to accept complete responsibility for starting World War I. As such, Germany was to be held liable for all material damages.
France’s premier, Georges Clemenceau, in particular, insisted on imposing enormous reparation payments. While aware that Germany would probably not be able to pay such a towering debt, Clemenceau and the French still greatly feared rapid German recovery and a new war against France.
The French sought to limit Germany’s potential to regain its economic superiority and also to rearm. The German army was to be limited to 100,000 men. Conscription was forbidden. The treaty restricted the Navy to vessels under 10,000 tons, with a ban on the acquisition or maintenance of a submarine fleet. Germany was forbidden to maintain an air force.
Finally, Germany was required to conduct war crimes proceedings against the Kaiser and other leaders for waging aggressive war. The subsequent Leipzig Trials, without the Kaiser or other significant national leaders in the dock, resulted largely in acquittals. They were widely perceived as a sham, even in Germany.
The treaty signed at Versaille allowed for a provision for the league of nations, but Wilson needed approval by a GOP controlled Senate. This meant vehement opposition by Henry Cabot Lodge, the powerful Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Wilson, instead of negotiating with Congress, decided to rally public opinion on his side by embarking on a physically demanding cross country speaking tour.
Wilson physically collapsed in Pueblo, Colorado making him curtail his speaking tour. He returned to Washington where he’d suffer a severe stroke. For the last 18 months of Wilson’s term, the country did not have much of president. Mrs. Wilson was fiercely protective of her husband, covering up the severity of his condition and keeping visitors away. She relayed important matters of state to Wilson and reported back to cabinet what he was thinking. While Mrs. Wilson was acting as executive, she could not stop political gridlock spreading over the capital with the League of Nations and Treaty of Versaille. When the treaty and league met final defeat in the senate, Wilson exclaimed “they have shamed us in the eyes of the world”
Wilson The Unabashed Racist
Randy Dotinga recounts, in a 1902 book about American history, how Wilson exposed his bigotry on the page in a passage about immigrants. These words came back to haunt Wilson. He apologized and praised immigrants to the leaders of Polish, Hungarian, and Italian organizations. He even rewrote a new edition of the book, according to Chace’s account of the 1912 election. But this reversal didn’t persuade Wilson to push to remove the ban on blacks at Princeton.
Wilson suffered from “genteel racism,” a prejudice that couldn’t stomach the idea of racial equality or inappropriate behavior in the pursuit of white supremacy. As for relations between the races, he was appalled that the French army allowed blacks to serve next to whites, and he worried about Communism creeping into the US among black veterans returning from World War I. Actually, while Wilson worked with diverse world leaders to spread American values, he was reluctant to enter World War I for fear of further depleting the white race.
Wilson also allowed Jim Crow laws to be put into place in Washington D.C. and allowed the secretary of the treasury and the postmaster general to segregate their departments. Wilson got “sucker punched” when an African-American leader named William Monroe Trotter met with him and launched into an attack: “only two years ago, you were heralded as perhaps the second Lincoln, and now the Afro-American leaders who supported you are hounded as false leaders and traitors to the race. What a change segregation has wrought!”
Trotter asked if there was a “new freedom” for whites and “a new slavery” for blacks, and he implied that blacks would defect from the president’s Democratic Party. Wilson lost his temper: “Your tone, sir, offends me…. You have spoiled the whole cause for which you came.”
For Wilson, bringing up the existence of racism meant that you were hurting the eradication or alienation of it. That’s part and parcel of the bitching we see today.
Wilson was a giant of a President and radically changed our country. Wilson was so transformational, that he should actually be looked at as a source of bitching. Income taxes, direct election of Senators and women’s suffrage happened under his administration as well as the extremely unpopular Prohibition.
Workmen’s compensation, child labor laws, the 8 hour workday and overtime, rights for sailors, strengthened anti-trust laws, the federal trade commission, the Federal Reserve and reducing protectionism are also hallmarks of his administration. people bitch today about abuse of Workmen’s compensation laws, but that’s due to the growth of the federal government advocated by both parties now. This would also coincide with the growing strength of unions and decreasing influence of bankers and corporate financiers thanks to the Fed and trade policy that encouraged it by reducing tariffs which consequently lowered prices here as foreign competition was introduced into the market. Are we starting to understand why the policies of Trump and Sanders make little sense now? They are 20th century solutions for 21st century problems.
Wilson’s failure to compromise with Congress had far reaching implications. Without the U.S.support, the League of Nations proved ineffective setting the stage for another generation with another world war. If Wilson gives enough ground so Senate would have had to pass the Treaty of Versaille, the U.S. joins the League of Nations, and the course of the next 20 years and indeed world history are different.
Wilson laid the cornerstone of a new relationship between America and the world grappling with the problem and the idea of what America’s role should be in the world. This progressive icon – a legendary advocate for expanding all sorts of rights and an inspiration to the world after the Great War – was backwards and bigoted when it came to race.
He also addressed the needs of the common and working man extending the platform of TR. Legislation was passed domestically with the public and specifically labor in mind. His foreign policy agenda was largely thwarted by our denial of admission into the League of Nations.
William Howard Taft preceded him
Warren Harding would follow him.
It all started with George Washington.