Digital History

The Progressive Era

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Digital History ID 3146



The split in the Republican ranks in 1912 enabled Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win the presidency. Despite receiving only 42 percent of the popular vote, Wilson steered through Congress the creation of the Federal Reserve System, the Federal Trade Commission, tariff reduction, anti-trust legislation, and a graduated income tax.

Wilson began as something of an isolationist in foreign policy. He apologized to Colombia for the U.S. role in Panama's independence; and he appointed the pacifistic William Jennings Bryan as secretary of state. But he would later vow to teach Latin Americans lessons in democracy.

Only a week after taking office in 1913, Wilson called upon Mexico's president, Victoriano Huerta, who had seized power after the constitutional president was murdered, to step aside when elections were held. When Huerta refused, Wilson used minor incidents--including the arrest of some American sailors in Tampico and the arrival of a German merchant ship carrying supplies for Huerta--as a pretext for occupying the Mexico port of Veracruz. Within weeks, Huerta was forced to leave his country.

During the conflict, the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa had made a number of raids into U.S. territory near the Mexican border. Wilson responded by ordering Gen. John J. (Black Jack) Pershing to cross into Mexico.

As president, Wilson also sent American troops to occupy Haiti in 1915 and the Dominican Republic in 1916. A year later, the United States bought the Virgin Islands, thereby gaining control of every major Caribbean island except British Jamaica. He engaged in more military interventions abroad than any other American president.

Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born in Virginia but grew up in Augusta, Georgia, where his father was an official of the Southern Presbyterian church. After briefly practicing as a lawyer (he only had two clients, one of whom was his mother), he attended graduate school at Johns Hopkins and taught history and political science at Bryn Mawr, Wesleyan, and Princeton--his alma mater. He wrote several highly acclaimed books, including Congressional Government, which decried the weakening of presidential authority in the United States, and The State, a call for increased government activism.

As Princeton's president, he developed a reputation as a reformer for trying to eliminate the school's elitist system of teaching clubs. Professional politicians in New Jersey, wrongly thinking that they could manipulate the politically inexperienced Wilson, helped make him the state's governor, and then, arranged his nomination as president in 1912. The nomination was a way to block another bid by William Jennings Bryan, whose prairie populism had been rejected three times by voters. Before he launched his campaign, Wilson described himself with these words:

I am a vague, conjectural personality, more made up of opinions and academic prepossessions than of human traits and red corpuscles. We shall see what will happen!

With the Republican vote split between Taft and Roosevelt, Wilson became the first Southerner to be elected president since the Civil War. He carried 40 states, but only 42 percent of the vote. After his election, the moralistic, self-righteous 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:

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:

Following Wilson's election in 1912, four constitutional amendments were ratified:

Wilson's second term was dominated by American involvement in World War I. At the end of September 1919, Wilson suffered a mild stroke. Then in early October, he had a major stroke that almost totally incapacitated him.

More than most presidents, Wilson's historical reputation had swung up and down. During the 1920s, he was viewed as a priggish and an anti-business president, an impractical visionary and fuzzy idealist who embroiled the United States in a needless war. During the 1940s, in sharp contrast, he was depicted in the Hollywood film, Wilson (1944), as an idealistic leader struggling to create a new world order based on international law.

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