Woodrow Wilson, America’s Intellectual President

     Thomas Woodrow Wilson was a relative political novice having only been Governor of New Jersey from 1911 to 1913 before becoming President of the United States in 1913.  The President of Princeton University from 1902 to 1910 and a leader in the Progressive Movement, Wilson was more at home in the class room than the political arena.


Woodrow Wilson in 1919

     Wilson was the rare intellectual who stepped out of the classroom and oversaw the implementation of his ideas.  Wilson’s ideas of government regulation of business and a League of Nations (later the United Nations) are still felt in America today.

     I originally wrote Woodrow Wilson, America’s Intellectual President for Amazon Kindle.  Since it is pretty short, I decided to release it here also.  I hope you enjoy it.

     Thomas Woodrow Wilson occupies a unique place in American Intellectual History.  Wilson is the rare American intellectual, who was able to put some of his ideas into practice in his position as President of the United States.  When Woodrow Wilson gave his first inaugural address on March 4, 1913 as President of the United States, he stood at the pinnacle of his new profession. Elected Governor of New Jersey in 1910, Wilson was a veritable newcomer to politics.  However, Wilson observed, criticized and maintained his interest in politics through his teaching positions at Byrn Mawr College, Wesleyan University and Princeton University.  Wilson had a fully developed set of ideas to help him govern, when he ascended to the presidency.  How much did these ideas affect his policy making as President?

     To answer this question, we look at Wilson’s ideas before being elected and how they affected his decision making during his first term.  Most presidents desire to be elected to a second term, so they will normally work hardest at enacting their agenda and gaining favorable publicity in the first term.  Wilson did take several actions based on his ideas but he also made the compromises necessary to successfully enact some of his agenda and maintain control of his party.


Woodrow Wilson and his associates at the State Department on June 14, 1914.

     Wilson’s first opportunity to enact some of his ideas was the selection of his political appointments.  Wilson wrote an article for the June 1887 edition of Political Science Quarterly entitled “The Study of Administration”. (p. 197) Wilson studied the functioning of the administrative branch of the federal government and made suggestions for improving the efficiency of their operations.  Since Wilson would later become chief executive, this article provides a rich source of Wilson’s ideas and how he would approach those ideas as President.

     Wilson spoke of the need not only to improve the personnel of the executive branch through civil service reform but to also improve the organization and methods of the executive branch. (p.197)

     Prior to the first Grover Cleveland administration, the spoils system staffed the executive bureaucracies.  When a new President was elected, he would appoint heads of departments, who would then fill the jobs with political cronies.  Whether the bureaucrats were competent to administer the duties of the various departments was a secondary consideration.

     Grover Cleveland initiated the first federal civil service law based on a law that he oversaw while Governor of New York.  The federal legislation created a civil service commission to begin professional skills testing for certain bureaucratic positions.  The commission had limited authority and spent most of its time fighting with party professionals. (Cooper, p. 36) Eventually, civil service reforms would supplant the spoils system as the way in which federal bureaucratic positions are staffed.  Today, only the highest level administrative positions are presidential appointments.

     Wilson supported civil service in principle and upon his election he intended to appoint men to office based only on their merit.  However, A. S. Burleson, Wilson’s Postmaster General and a professional politician, convinced him to improve his relations with Congress by rewarding their associates with minor appointments. (Hughes-Jones, p. 121) Wilson would use the good will from these appointments to pass tariff revision, banking reform and antitrust regulation within the first eighteen months of his presidency. (Cooper, pp. 232-235)

     While this contradiction would seem to smack of hypocrisy, his actions were consistent with the strategy that he deemed necessary for the success of his presidency.  Wilson decided that he must not only be President but the Democratic Party Leader.


Presidential Portrait taken on December 2, 1912

     “Wilson wrote in a public statement a month before his inauguration, ‘to be the leader of his party as well as the chief executive officer of the government, and the country will take no excuses from him.  He must play the part and play it successfully, or lose the country’s confidence.  He must be the prime minister, as much concerned with the guidance of legislation as with the just and orderly execution of law.'” (Hughes-Jones, p. 121)

     Wilson’s public statement forecast his strategy of using the Democratic Leadership in the House and Senate to introduce legislation that he intended to pass.  Prior presidents did not often attempt this strategy because Congress, both then and now, jealously guards their legislative prerogatives.  For at least the first eighteen months of his administration, he successfully courted their support and passed major legislative initiatives.  His actions were a necessary compromise for the success of his agenda.

     Wilson’s ideas and actions did meld into his legislative agenda.  Wilson consistently took an assertive role in passing legislation, which was at odds with the state’s rights position of Democratic Party stalwarts such as William Jennings Bryan. (Cooper, p. 231)  Southern Democrats strongly supported state’s rights because they felt it was their only defense against the politics of the North, which they saw as being embodied in the Republican Party.

     Wilson initially supported the limited view of government but his views evolved into a more activist view.  Wilson intended “to break the Democratic Party out of its mold of sectionalism and laissez faire and to recast it as a national party making use of federal power for the benefit of the nation as a whole.”” (Kendrick, p. 10) Wilson intended to strengthen protections for the average citizen by federal legislation.

     Wilson first turned his attention to the regulation of big business. During a 1912 speech in Richmond, Virginia, Wilson pointed out what he felt was the first problem of his presidency.  “Our laws are still meant for business conducted by individuals,” he said; “they have not been satisfactorily adjusted to business done by great combinations, and we have got to adjust them.” (Kendrick, p. 31)

     Wilson had spoken of lowering the tariff during the election of 1912.  He turned his attention to this issue after his inauguration.  The fight for tariff reduction would be difficult because Theodore Roosevelt was the only Republican, who had considered lowering the tariff.  He gave up on the issue early in his administration because of the united Republican opposition.


President Wilson throwing out the first pitch on Opening Day 1916

     Wilson’s initial assessment was correct.  The bill flew through the House, where the Democrats enjoyed a strong majority but lagged in the Senate.  Speaker Champ Clark shepherded the bill through the approval process with nearly unanimous Democratic support.  The Democrats did not enjoy such a numerical advantage in the Senate nor were the Democratic Senators united like they were in the House.  Both Democratic and Republican Senators, who tended to be wealthy, benefited financially from the tariff. (Kendrick, p. 37)

     Wilson threatened to make the information about their wealth known to the public, if they did not agree to some compromise over the tariff.  The Senators did not agree, so Wilson did make the information public.  The Democratic Senators quickly united to prevent any more embarrassing information from being made public.  The final vote of the Democratic caucus was forty-seven Senators for and two against. (Kendrick, p. 37) The bill reduced the tariff from 42 to 27 cents on average.  It also applied to 900 articles. (Hughes-Jones, p. 124) Tariff reduction generally benefits the consumer because prices will be lowered when the seller does not have to make back the duties paid on the imported item.

    Wilson next attempted to reform the banking and currency system.  While Wilson supported the idea of bank reform, he did not want to create a central bank.  Wilson wanted “central supervisory control”. (Cooper, p. 233)

     The New York banks held most of the power under the current system because they were the most organized, while other banking concerns were more narrowly focused. (Clements, p. 40)  The New York banks were able to cut off loans and cause financial crisis to their benefit. (Hughes-Jones, p. 126)  This system caused problems for both business and individual borrowers.  (We must remember that consumer borrowing was not wide spread at this point.)  To prevent recessions like the ones that occurred in 1873 and 1893, the banking system needed to be reformed.

     Even though Wilson had taught political economy at Princeton, he did not consider himself particularly well versed in banking policy.  Wilson listened to several people including Louis Brandeis. (Cooper, p. 233)  Brandeis favored strong government control, which probably swayed Wilson to give up on his idea of fifteen regional reserve banks dispersed through the county with no centralized body.)

     Wilson settled on a plan, which divided the country into twelve Federal Reserve Boards with a “central board consisting of the Secretary of the Treasury, the Comptroller of the Currency and five members nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate”, who controlled the flow of reserve notes and currency. (Hughes-Jones, pp. 127-128)  The bill did not allow bankers to be on the board.  The bill allowed for money to flow through the system to both big and small banks but kept big investment bankers from controlling the system.  The reforms protected business and the individual investor.

     Wilson’s chose antitrust legislation as his third major reform.  In this instance, Wilson pirated Theodore Roosevelt’s idea on how to enforce antitrust legislation.  Wilson initially dismissed Roosevelt’s idea for creating a commission to advise business on how to comply with antitrust legislation. (Clements, p. 46)  Wilson dismissed the idea “as the consummation of the partnership between monopoly and government.”  Wilson felt that business would dominate any commission.  After the 1912 election, Wilson adopted Roosevelt’s idea.

     Wilson initial position was that a five-member board would be created to advise business on compliance matters.  After Louis Brandeis and others advised him that such a method would be ineffective, Wilson decided that the board should have broad investigative powers and the authority to order business to cease unfair trade practices.  The House and Senate passed a bill creating this Federal Trade Commission (FTC). (Clements, pp. 49-50)  The House and Senate agreed to the much tougher Senate bill after the Senate agreed to include a provision, which allowed the courts to set aside FTC rulings.  The Federal Trade Commissions protected small investors and small companies from unfair trade practices.

     Wilson used the power of the federal government to extend protections to individual Americans.  Wilson’s actions were consistent with his desire to make the playing field even for individual Americans through the power of the national government.  However, he did not direct his activities to making the playing field equal for everyone.

     Wilson led African-American voters to believe that he was sympathetic to equal treatment issues during the 1912 election but reneged on these overtures after he was elected.

     W.E.B. DuBois wrote an unpublished manuscript about the 1912 election and his impression of Wilson.  His sister discovered the manuscript after his death in 1963.  She allowed the manuscript to be published in the Journal of Negro History. (DuBois, pp. 453-459)

     DuBois expressed his frustration with the Republican Party prior to the 1912 election.  DuBois felt that the Republican Party (the party of Lincoln) took the African-American vote for granted but he had a hard time convincing African-American voters to vote for anyone else.  In 1912, DuBois attempted to have a “colored plank”” adopted into the Bull Moose Party platform but Roosevelt refused the offer because he did not trust DuBois and he was courting the South’s votes. (Dubois, p. 453)

     Ironically, Wilson, the candidate of the state’s rights segregationist party, would court DuBois support.  Wilson sent a handwritten note to DuBois’ friend, Bishop Alexander Walters expressing his support for any effort to improve the condition of “the colored people of the United States”. (DuBois, pp.454)

    In 1912, a greater proportion of African-American voters voted for the Democratic candidate than had done so previously.  DuBois attributed to the votes to the hope Wilson had given voters.  Wilson soon dashed these hopes.  DuBois and his friends attempted to persuade Wilson to appoint a commission on the problems of colored people.  Wilson did not respond to the request.  DuBois attributed the cold shoulder to an onslaught of Southern Democratic Senators, who did not want the issue of race considered. (DuBois, p. 455)

     While Wilson did leave the African-American leaders high and dry, it was not completely due to Southern Democratic Senators, although the political realities did play into his decision. (Clements, p. 45)  (Wilson told Oswald Garrison Villard, a DuBois associate who requested the race commission, he could not act on it because of delicate legislation in the Senate.)

     Wilson had paternalistic and elitist attitudes about non-English speaking people in general and people of color in particular.  Wilson wrote in “Ideals of America” that the Filipinos would achieve independence, when Americans had properly trained them for it. (Wilson, p. 125)  The Wilson Administration was responsible for continuing the trend of reducing Native American lands from 138 million acres in 1887 to 47 million acres in 1934. (Clements, p. 46)  In Wilson’s defense, his beliefs were common among even university professors.  DuBois also stated that Wilson was fairer to African-Americans than any other early Twentieth-Century American political leader.

     Woodrow Wilson did attempt to enact some of his ideas as President.  In fact, Wilson based his domestic initiatives on his ideas about using the federal government to protect individual liberties.  However, Wilson also made the compromises necessary to pass his legislative agenda and be reelected.  In this respect, Wilson was no different than past or future presidents.  Wilson’s intellectualism did not blind him to the realities of politics.

    You can leave a comment or ask a question about this or any post on my Facebook pageTwitter profile and Google+ page.


Clements, Kendrick A. The Presidency of Woodrow Wilson.  University Press of Kansas: Lawrence, 1992.

Cooper, John Milton, Jr. The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1983.

DuBois, W.E.B. “My Impression of Woodrow Wilson” Journal of Negro History, Volume 58, Issue 4 (October 1973), pp. 453-459.

Hugh-Jones, E.M. Woodrow Wilson and American Liberalism.  Collier Books: New York, 1947.

Wilson, Woodrow. “The Study of Administration” Political Science Quarterly, Volume 2, Issue 2 (June 1887), pp. 197-222.

Wilson, Woodrow. “The Ideals of America” The American Intellectual Tradition. Oxford University Press: New York, 2001.

Pin It