Champion for Democracy? – Woodrow Wilson I WHO DID WHAT IN WW1?

Debate about Woodrow Wilson has raged since
the war and still does today. Who was he? A brilliant statesman? Just another racist? Both? Neither? It’s been said that anyone who followed
Wilson down a political path was almost certain to meet him coming in the opposite direction,
so let’s take a look at Woodrow Wilson. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to our Great War
bio series of specials “Who did what in World War One?” today featuring Woodrow
Wilson. Wilson’s biographer wrote, “Everything
about Woodrow Wilson is arguable, starting with the date of his birth”. He was born between 11 PM and 1 AM, the night
of the 27th and 28th of December, 1856, in Staunton, Virginia. His father was a Presbyterian Minister and
his mother was actually British. Woodrow would be a lifelong Anglophile. He greatly admired his father, who, though
known as one of the more liberal southern religious figures, did not denounce slavery
because it wasn’t forbidden in the scriptures, and “man could not forbid what God could
not”. The Civil War and the Reconstruction were
the defining events of Woodrow’s childhood, and seeing scenes like Jefferson Davis marched
through town in chains very much influenced his handling of defeated nations later in
life. Obviously, the enormous racial issues in Virginia
then had an impact on young Wilson, though it seems from his writing that he held a rather
generic southern view of race relations at He attended Davidson College, but left for
the College of New Jersey, which would later be known as Princeton. After Princeton, he went to the University
of Virginia Law School, but dropped out. He then moved to Atlanta where he worked and
studied law independently and passed the BAR. However, he found actually practicing law
boring and he eventually enrolled at Johns Hopkins in 1883, where he got his PhD in history
and political science. Around this time, Wilson met and became engaged
to Ellen Louise Axson, and they were married in 1885. They would have three daughters over the next
few years. After his PhD, Wilson took a teaching position
at the brand new Bryn Mawr College for women, though at the time he was personally disdainful
of female scholars. He next became a professor at my Alma Mater,
Wesleyan University, and I actually lived in the house on 200 High Street there where
he once lived. During this time, he was extremely productive
in writing articles and books, writing over two dozen articles for the Atlantic and publishing
9 books, the first of which came out in 1885 and was called “Congressional Government”. Wilson grew more and more interested in government
administration and his writings argued for remodeling the government more like a British
parliamentary system, fusing the executive and legislative branches. He questioned the basic principles of the
American government, feeling that the power and prestige of the president had declined
over time, and that the legislative branch now had all the power. A major milestone in his life came when he
was hired to teach political economy at Princeton in 1890. Princeton at that time did not have the reputation
for excellence it enjoys today, and was more of a playground for the wealthy. Wilson wanted to reform it and make it into
a modern research university. He outlined a program for liberal arts that
would combine the study of sciences with humanities. He reorganized the academic structure along
German lines, and his transformative work was a big success, turning Princeton into
a serious academic institution. In 1902, he became President of the university. Now, not everything he did worked as well
as his academic changes, certainly his attempts to democratize Princeton went far less well,
and in 1906 he came into open conflict with alumni when he wanted to eliminate socially
exclusive clubs and residences. There were also big racial issues there; Princeton,
though in New Jersey, was known as “the northernmost southern school”. At one point, the Princeton football team
all left the dining hall in protest when Harvard’s, with one black player, entered. Wilson did actively discourage black people
from applying for admission, but his rationale was to keep peace among white students and
alumni. This era, immediately following the Spanish-American
War of 1898, is often seen as the era of American Imperialism, right? Wilson was not an imperialist. He believed that America’s role for its
colonies was to help them take care of themselves, and as the first decade of the 20th century
rolled on, his opinions began to really matter. Princeton had made him visible on the political
scene, and his compelling skills as a lecturer had led to people seeing him as a possible
candidate for office. In fact, following a speech at a New York
club in 1906, people began suggesting him as a Democratic candidate for president. But remember, at this time only one Democrat,
Grover Cleveland, had been president since before the Civil War and that had begun nearly
50 years ago. In 1910, the Democratic Committee of New Jersey
asked Wilson to run for Governor of the state. He accepted but insisted on a free hand in
policy issues. The party leaders had imagined that he would
be their tool; he was anything but that, and even on the campaign trail, disavowed parts
of the party’s platform. He came out as thoroughly progressive and
won the election by a landslide. New Jersey at that time was fairly corrupt,
though. The law allowed corporations to own stock
in other corporations, and they created trusts between railroads and other businesses, and
they wielded enormous political power. Wilson immediately took on the state’s political
machine and initiated reforms of political parties. He introduced standards for financial disclosure
and outlawed corporate contributions to political campaigns. He reformed the public utilities, provided
for workman’s compensation, and passed a corrupt practices act. In fact, when he became governor he was pretty much immediately seen as Presidential material
with a progressive agenda. Saying that leads me to say a few words about
progressivism. This was a movement at this time across party
lines that believed the federal government needed a larger role in issues that were too
big for the individual or that crossed states lines, like railroads and interstate commerce. It was a response to the excesses of the Gilded
Age Robber Barons, and there was a widespread belief that the current economic and social
conditions called for a re-thinking of the constitution and the state itself. There was a growing awareness of the women’s
and labor movements, and acts like the Food and Drug Act and the Federal Reserve Act were
progressive actions. Wilson had firm ideas about government and
business. “…Government must regulate business because
that is the foundation of every other relationship.” So… 1912. The Democratic Convention that year was the
first one to use primaries to select the candidate. That candidate was Woodrow Wilson and the
Presidential election was a multi-candidate race, with Wilson coming out on top of Roosevelt,
current President Taft, and Eugene Debs. The public had been swayed, according to Franklin
Roosevelt, by Wilson’s “profound social and moral convictions”, but it wasn’t
an easy election despite divided opposition. Wilson and Roosevelt’s platforms were pretty
similar, actually. But Wilson won and became the first southerner
to be President since 1848. He brought in Edward House as a full-time
unpaid political advisor, who was completely trusted and accountable to nobody and major
political player William Jennings Bryan – an isolationist – became Secretary of State. Wilson himself wasn’t interested in foreign
policy and once said, “It would be the irony of my fate if my administration had to deal
chiefly with foreign affairs”. The major reforms of his presidency were instituting
the federal income tax, establishing the Federal Reserve and the Federal Trade Commission,
the National Park Service Act, and the 8-hour work day, but of course he’s remembered
now as being the President during the war. On August 4th, 1914, just days after the war
broke out, America declared its neutrality, and two days later, First Lady Ellen Wilson
died of Bright’s disease. Woodrow would later marry Edith Galt in December
1915. Now, we’ve covered both Wilson and the situation
in America during the war in our America special, so I won’t go into it here, but neutrality
became more and more difficult to maintain, and indeed in January 1916 the preparedness
campaign opened paramilitary training camps in the US, and the war was the main theme
of the 1916 election. By this time, Robert Lansing was Secretary
of State, and knowing of Wilson’s disdain for him, he used the State Department to undermine
Wilson’s neutrality stance. Wilson did say, though, that if re-election
depended on him getting the country into the war, then he didn’t want it. The incredibly close race between Wilson and
Republican Charles Evans Hughes came down to 4,000 votes in California that gave Wilson
a second term. The Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels,
said, “no campaign in the history of this country has been so marked by viciousness,
bitterness, and invective”. Peace proposals, the Zimmerman telegram, the
Yarrowdale affair, and unrestricted submarine warfare – all of which we did cover in regular
episodes – and all of which brought the US down the path to war soon followed, and once
war was declared there were big issues even getting the country behind the war. And the war continued, and the war ended. Wilson had famously issued his 14 points,
which got a lukewarm reaction in Europe; French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau said, “God
was satisfied with Ten Commandments, Wilson gives us 14”. At the Versailles Conference in 1919, the
League of Nations was formed. Wilson’s efforts to establish and promote
it earned him the Nobel Peace Prize that year, but the United States did not join the League
– that all will also be covered on this channel when we reach the end of the war and even
though Wilson was important for the post war order, he was by far not the only player. Anyhow, post war and post Presidency, Woodrow
Wilson did not live very long; he died February 3rd, 1924. His legacy as President and especially as
a progressive is pretty strong, but what of his racial legacy? Several historians have pointed out fairly
consistent examples of Wilson’s racist policies and political appointments, and some say that
Wilson’s opposition to slavery was on economic, not moral grounds, though I can’t confirm
or deny that myself. As President, his War Department drafted black
men and paid them the same as whites, sure, but organized them into segregated units with
white commanders. Wilson told those who complained, “segregation
is not a humiliation, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen. Civil Rights activist W.E.B. DuBois had campaigned for Wilson in 1912,
but by 1916 opposed him, charging that his first term was “the worst attempt at Jim
Crow legislation and discrimination in civil service that blacks had experienced since
the Civil War.” But was he a great statesman and visionary
who made the world safe for democracy in spite of all that? That’s such a loaded question that just
trying to answer it would make a whole special episode of its own. I’m very curious what your thoughts are
about one of the most controversial figures from that whole era of American history. Please keep it civil. We want to thank Madeleine Johnson for the
research on this episode. If you like to learn more about the US before
joining World War 1, check out our special episode right here. If you want to learn more about that era in
the US, you can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram. See you next time.

Maurice Vega

100 Responses

  1. I believe Wilson was a shallow, racist, vindictive, individual. He acted against what he knew was right about staying out of the war. I believe like Historian Howard Zinn, Warren Harding (usually considered(unfairly) the worst American President) was a better man.

  2. Wilson remains one of the WORST President's the U.S. has ever had.
    Much about him is NOT taught in school.
    The more I learned about him in my own studies, the less I liked him.
    Even if you ignore his views on race, which SADLY were common around the world at that time, Wilson's policies were NOT all they are portrayed as being.
    In my opinion, only Jimmy Carter & Barak Obama were worse than Wilson.

  3. Woodrow Wilsen killed more then 100.000.000 people by ordering the fabrication of the spanish flu and then letting it spread through out the world during WW1. It was all part of the american tactic to win the war

  4. Woodrow Wilson was a rabid racist, a Democrat, a Progressive, and could very well be held accountable for the foundation of the Second World War.

  5. He was a racist. Standard in his time period. He was a prezident, who want to change things. Successfully. He don´t want a war, but circumstances forced him. He want to help Europe and the World for no more wars. Unfortunatelly, this was…nesuccessfull. And help to our nation, former Czechoslovakia, to creation our FREE country. What followed, is not important. We had a free state.

  6. He was a despicable citizen.
    He was a despicable president.

    If you reject the system created to embrace individual liberty and resistance of tyranny the Founders created, have the common decency to move to Europe where you belong.

    ”If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen.”
    – Samuel Adams

  7. I'm no fan of Woodrow Wilson's, and especially not of the way that Congress operated during his terms, especially because they passed the Sedition Act of 1918. Eugene Debs, mentioned in this video, was actually arrested because of that act of Congress. There's a joke that goes, "If pro is the opposite of con, what's the opposite of progress?", and I think that's quite fitting here.

  8. Woodrow Wilson is in my opinion the worst President in American history. His bungling in the peace has caused so many of the problems we face today.

  9. The problem is. People of today see things differently then they did a hundred years ago. He had obligations at the time, that due to the times, he needed to abide by. Its the whole hind-sight is 20/20. Its easier to judge someone from the outside, especially when the lived a hundred years ago.

  10. The Espionage Act of 1917 is the original Patriot Act in my opinion and a gross use of power. Makes it hard to like him.

  11. As a constitutionalist… some one who wants us to follow the constitution and the original intent; for me Woodrow Wilson is our worst American president of all. I am a firm believer that if we had been following those principles of the constitution and "friendly relations with all nations, tangling alliances with none" the twentieth century would have turned out much differently. Europe would have continued to fight much longer, yes, but would have arrived at more equitable terms for all sides and avoided WWII. The Soviet Union would have collapsed in the first year and been replaced, sparing the world 75 years of the Cold War. — Keep up the excellent work. You are the history teacher I always loved and wished everyone had in high school 🙂

  12. And like all other historical individuals we have the advantage of hindsight and are therefore handicapped in seeing him in the context of the moment in which he struggled with moral decisions and decisions of command that shaped the country's future.

  13. Wilson the sellout. Sold the entire future of an entire nation out to the banksters. This man is almost as despicable a President as LBJ.

  14. Some hard research about Wilson.

  15. A note about Wilson and the film "Birth of a Nation":
    Many people use it as proof he was racist (and indeed, he was, even by his time) but him arranging as private screening is by and large twisted out of proportion. While it was the first film screened in the white house, its important to remember that "Birth of A Nation" was the biggest film ever made up to that point. It was basically at the level a Marvel film is to our day. It could easily be argued it was the first "modern" film in its use of storytelling and film techniques.
    But, on to the content. Yes, it was a very pro-KKK/white supremacy film, and did indeed help the KKK in its recruitment process, and arguably kickstarted the second-generation of the KKK. However, at the time most people had no idea what the story or content of the film was beyond what might have been shown on a poster. Now, for Wilson, the private screening was arrange due to the fact author Thomas Dixon Jr, whose novel was the basis for the film, knew Wilson from school together and essentially used the President as a PR opportunity. According to Wilson's aide, Joseph Tumulty, Wilson never uttered his famous "It's like writing history with lightening" quote; this was likely made up by Dixon Jr. In fact, Wilson later called it an "unfortunate production", with Tumulty stating that "the President was entirely unaware of the nature of the play before it was presented and at no time has expressed his approbation of it."

  16. "Wilson was not an Imperialist, he believed that Americas role for its colonies was to help them take care of themselves" is that not generally what all Imperialists and Empires view themselves as doing?

  17. Had WWI not happened, what would Wilson's Presidency be defined by? Do you think he would try to push for an amendment or something to turn the US from a presidential republic into a parliamentary one?

  18. Whatever his domestic policy legacy is, as a Polish citizen I always appreciate his role in WWI and foreign policy. Point XIII of his 14 points was, of course, as follows: "An independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea, and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant" ♥

  19. Wilson loved big ideas but didn't like getting into details. Self determination – he never defined what that meant! What if a village wanted self-rule? What happened to self-rule in the Middle East? He completely ignored China in the peace process and their desire for basic human rights. He let himself get caught-up in the food fight that was England versus France carving up the world rather than following his own ideals and his own advisers. Germany felt betrayed as they surrendered based on his 14 points only to see him never follow them during the negotiations (Germany lost over 25% of their territory). He could come up with a brilliant argument for most of his bad decisions. He ultimately failed at the peace conference, and Congress saw it immediately and refused to ratify it.

  20. For a campaign contribution of $ 10,000 from Wall Street bankers we got the Federal Reserve System and the IRS. Contrary to what you mentioned the belief of Wilson was, business has owned the government since. 20+trillion dollars of debt to get our country into the many quagmires it's in around the world and a formerly homogenious society as much at odds with it's self as this one is makes Wilson the worst stooge ever put in office.

  21. Wilson was a visionary. And, he was a bold innovator. And an idealist. His progressive policies are much attacked today by self-interested billionaires and small government extremists. But, could we really survive without a Federal Reserve or an IRS? And, could we be isolationists now? His great blind spot was race relations, but there were few politicians who were much better, TR perhaps. Overall Wilson deserves more admiration and far less opprobrium than he receives.

  22. Woodrow Wilson was America's worst president ever. If you look at most of America's ills today, they can be traced back to the policies of Wilson's administration.

  23. He brought back the KKK. After him it was not in just a few states. It came to more than 20. He reintroduced segregation in federal hiring. He locked up people who exercised their free speech rights. Along with Roosevelt, Johnson, and Obama, one of the worst presidents in American history. That is keeping it civil.

  24. Wilson was an anti-liberal Hegelian statist. He openly opposed traditional Lockeian liberalism and espoused an open disbelief in the notion of inalienable personal rights. He promoted the Hegelian notion that the fundamental unit of humanity is not the individual, but the collective. He compared humans to a bee-hive where the collective itself is the organism and the individual members have no independent existence. He re-segregated the Federal government and jailed more than 10,000 political dissidents. He was the least American President in American history.

  25. Someone has probably already said this, but the first film watched in the White House was the pro-kkk film The Birth of a Nation, and it was in Wilson's​ administration. I'm pretty sure he complemented it but I can't remember his exact words. But yeah, he was definitely a racist.

  26. I've started watching more and more content on mr Wilson, relative to other history channels, this seems very polite. civil enough?

  27. Teddy Roosevelt would have done a better job in WW1

    Also Teddy de-segregated the federal government only to have the racist Wilson re-segregate it but that's a piece of history the DNC doesn't want you to know

  28. Interesting story. One of the courses I took in college was American History 1914-1945. When we got around to Wilson, the professor told us a story how in the 70s when was a young campaign worker for a Democratic candidate, he went door to door talking to people. One of these people was an old black lady and she told him how she never votes Democrat because her father lost his job at the White House thanks to Wilson. This was like 60 years later. Just something I found Very interesting.

  29. #1) Income tax sucks..#2) the Federal Reserve is un-Constitutional and parasitic..#3) "make the world safe for Democracy"..the USA is not a Democracy..our form of government is a Constitutional Republic.."He kept us out of war"..just another empty campaign promise like every other president, before and after..if Wilson had permitted WW I to continue to it's natural conclusion, there may have not been a WW II…THANKS WOODY…

  30. Wilson segragated the Navy, fired blacks at the State Department and The Postial Service. He created the Federal Reserve and the American people lost transparency in banking. Wilson did little about boarder security, in spite of a civil war in Mexico, he didn't see Poncho Villa as a threat, in spite of repeated attacks on Americans before the raid on New Mexico. After the raid, he pursued Villa, but never caught up with him. He did manage to clash with Villa's enemies, the Mexican Army. He pushed prohibition of alcohol (we know how that worked). Wilson introduced the income tax, but only for "rich people", today I'm paying 21% and I work in a factory. He promised to keep us out of war, oh wait he didn't. Maybe he meant keep us from preparing for war, because we weren't. He put academics in charge of small arms production, by seizing Remington and Winchester, without compensating stockholders. Rifle production plummeted till he was pressured to resend control. He was a fanboy of the British, and didn't pick up that they were tapping American telegraphic cables and decrypting everything we sent our diplomats. He let the Germans use our diplomatic cable, inspite of their attacks on our ships before the US entered the war, that's where the Zimmerman telegram came from. After the war, he pushed loans to Germany to pay the allies off, we haven't got much of that back. He failed to address Japanese Agression against China, or build a lasting peace in Europe.

  31. Woodrow Wilson premiered Birth Of a Nation at the White House and called refer to it as "It's like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

  32. I'm pretty sure Andrew Johnson (17th President; 1865-1869) was a southerner and a Democrat, him being from Tennessee and all…

    That makes Wilson the first southerner since 1869 and the third Democratic president since before or after the Civil War (Buchanan's term ended in 1861).

  33. Woodrow Wilson cast the die that became the mold of the 20th C Democrat party presidency.
    Today we are watching that die crack into dust.

  34. Perhaps the first US President to begin US policy of sticking their noses in other people's business, whilst ignoring that same message on their own domestic front?

  35. He promised peace during his campaign and declared war the moment he was reelected, he also talked a lot about democracy in the central powers but nothing for the Allie's colonies. Champion of democracy? More like champion of deception

  36. My elementary school was Woodrow Wilson Elementary in Kannapolis, NC. Any chance he attended school in the area? I know Davidson college is in the general area

  37. FRB👎👎👎👎👎👎👎👎👎👎👎👎👎👎👎👎👎👎👎👎👎👎👎👎👎👎👎👎

  38. So, do you not understand the implications of the Fed Reserves. Also, Wilson was a Zionist which is Anglo-supremacist imperialism, which is why Woodrow got the US into the war for the birth of the racist nation: Israel. The whole making the world safe for democracy (or “Wilsonism”) is why we have the false flags and lies today. You know you’re compromised when you use third-party research and try to offset the horrendous acts of Wilson, who undid many civil rights and showed, endorsed and approved of the movie, “Birth of a Nation”, which is using the Bible to justify their greed, murder and theft in the name of peace and “democracy”. Way too compromised

  39. In Bulgaria Wilson is known to defend the teritorial integrity of Eastren Trache and Dobruga (that did not hapen ,but we are still greatful) and even we have streets named after him.

  40. If not for his 14 points, Lithuania wouldn't emerge as an independent state in 1918. None of the Baltic states, in fact (well, Lithuanians otherwise would be in union with Poles but not the rest, so it goes). So for us, yes, he's a great man, indeed, and, unfortunately, underrated.

  41. I find Wilson a truly odious character.

    My great uncles fought in segregated units attached to the French army, only to find themselves embroiled in the Chicago race riot of 1919, wherein the Chicago Police Department abandoned the Black community to rioters and arsonists. They broke into the National Guard armories to arm themselves in defense of themselves, their families and their community.

    Unfortunately, today's Democrat party is returning to his ethos.

  42. Shd be W E B DuBOIZ…retroactively Frenchifying the pronunciation of his last name is strictly from ignorance…I notice that it's catching on but it is not the pronunciation he himself used

  43. I know it's super late to the party, but its pronounced, "Stan-ton," not, "stoun-ton," even if it looks like that (@0:52)

  44. Wilson was a walking disaster. While I pity him for the personal tragedy's that befell him, including the stroke that ultimately killed him, I have never believed he should be considered even a mediocre President. He was AWFUL.

    In fact, many of his policy's were out-right UnAmerican! Anti-free speech, the 16th amendment, the "federal reserve" (it's neither "federal" nor a "reserve". Just a front for the Rothschild Bank.)

    What began with THE ACT OF 1871 (please read this for yourself!) Wilson completed. That being the perpetual Debt Slavery of ALL American's.

    If the Founding Father's could step across time, & see what this country has become, they would lead another revolution to restore the Constitution of 1787. Which has been IGNORED by everyone for 30+ year's. The Deep State Cabal, & the Oligarchs that own them must be eliminated if we're to ever restore true Freedom to all American's.

  45. I think he was a president that was trying to play both party lines.

    Like he tried to appease the issolations by trying to stay out of the league of nations yet still involved enough in global affairs to establish it.

    He allowed blacks to serve yet under white command. Allowing the racist politicians to be happy that the whites are still in control. Yet at the same time they made the same wages as their white counterparts, yet being a racist himself.

    It just seems to me like he was just playing both party lines at the time.

    I'd like to here all of your opinions.

  46. If his League of Nations had the teeth to match its high ideals, it may have delayed the outbreak of the Second World War slightly, but the lingering tensions post war in 1919 and the refusal to join the League by the US, meant that it was a compromised peace

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