On the night of March 18, 1917, several hundred Republican leaders gathered in the Union League Club in New York City. With German U-boats engaging in unrestricted warfare and sinking American ships on the high seas despite United States neutrality in World War I, the Republicans demanded that President Woodrow Wilson declare war against Kaiser Wilhelm II’s belligerent empire, infuse fresh warriors into the stagnant European war, and prove that the U.S. was a truly international power that was only getting stronger in the midst of the American Century.
After the meeting, three of the nation’s most influential and powerful Republicans sat down to dinner in a nearby cafe. Charles Evans Hughes was a former New York Governor, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, and had narrowly lost the 1916 Presidential election to President Wilson four months earlier in one of the closest elections in American history. Theodore Roosevelt was also a former New York Governor, had served as President from 1901-1909, and his third party challenge for the Presidency in 1912 had split the GOP, sabotaged the re-election chances of his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, and ensured Wilson’s first Presidential election victory. Elihu Root, 72, had stepped away from the Senate two years earlier, had previously served as Roosevelt’s Secretary of War and then Secretary of State, and was frequently mentioned as a potential Presidential contender.
As they discussed the crisis at hand and envisioned American entry into the war, Roosevelt — a vicious critic of President Wilson, who disliked TR just as strongly — passionately spoke of his hope to lead American soldiers into battle in Europe much like he had done nearly 20 years earlier with the Rough Riders in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. At 58 years old, Roosevelt was overweight, nearly deaf, blind in one eye, and had never fully recovered from a near-fatal bought of malaria that he contracted during a seven-month-long expedition in unexplored jungles of Brazil a couple of years earlier. Partly due to his age, but mostly due to their contentious relationship, it was unlikely that President Wilson would grant Roosevelt his wish. But with tears welling in his eyes and his voice breaking, the former President told Hughes and Root how badly he hoped to serve his country one last time. ”I must go,” said Roosevelt, “but I will not come back.”
Roosevelt’s emotional declaration dramatically silenced his fellow Republican statesmen at the table. Hughes, who would later become Secretary of State and then Chief Justice of the United States, solemnly looked at Roosevelt (who had once said that the sober, reticent Hughes was a “bearded iceberg”) without saying anything. It was Root, who had served in Roosevelt’s Cabinet throughout almost all of TR’s Presidency, who finally spoke up.
“Theodore, if you can make Wilson believe that you will not come back, he will let you go!”
On August 27, 1858, Daniel Marshall brought his young son, Tommy, into Freeport, Illinois, near the Wisconsin border, where nearly 15,000 people had gathered in a downtown square for the second of seven debates between Senator Stephen A. Douglas and his Republican challenger Abraham Lincoln. Marshall was a solid Democrat who had moved his family to Illinois from Indiana a year earlier and supported the incumbent Senator Douglas.
In Freeport, under the debating rules set by the candidates, Lincoln spoke first for 60 minutes, Douglas spoke next for 90 minutes, and Lincoln finished with a 30-minute-long rebuttal. The population of Freeport tripled on the day of the debate and the proceedings took place in unseasonably cool, cloudy weather for late-August.
As Lincoln and Douglas engaged in perhaps the most newsworthy debate of their historic series, 4-year-old Tommy Marshall found himself the best seat in the house. While Lincoln spoke, Tommy sat in the lap of Stephen A. Douglas. When Senator Douglas responded, Tommy sat in the lap of Abraham Lincoln.
Decades later, after little Tommy Marshall had grown into Thomas Riley Marshall and became Vice President of the United States under Woodrow Wilson, sitting in the laps of history at the second Lincoln/Douglas debate remained one of his fondest memories.t
28th President of the United States (1913-1921)
Full Name: Thomas Woodrow Wilson
Born: December 29, 1856, Staunton, Virginia
Term: March 4, 1913-March 4, 1921
Political Party: Democratic
Vice President: Thomas Riley Marshall
Died: February 3, 1924, Woodrow Wilson House, 2340 S Street NW, Washington, D.C.
Buried: Washington National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.
I often feel like I’m fighting a losing battle at pointing out how overrated Woodrow Wilson is. With comparisons that some historians, including myself, are making with Wilson’s version of “idealism” and George W. Bush’s version of “idealism”, I feel like we’re making some ground at showing who Woodrow Wilson was and how maybe his worldview wasn’t nearly as progressive or as perfect as many used to believe. I think it’s important for people to realize the type of leader he was — stubborn, paranoid, uncompromising, and, in the last 18 months of his Presidency, a crippled, gravely-ill, mentally-handicapped man who clinged to the Presidency with the help of his wife, a few doctors, and several aides. Is that a good President? I don’t think so.
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine: 4 of 29
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine: 4 of 31
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine: 7 of 38
1990: Siena Institute: 6 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine: 7 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 6 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll: 13 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership: 11 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 9 of 42
2010: Siena Institute: 8 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre: 6 of 40
As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve watched PBS’s new, four-hour-long documentary of Bill Clinton twice in the past week. Because it was so good, it reminded how good the other PBS American Experience documentaries about Presidents are, so I started watching some of the other editions that I have on DVD, thanks to the awesome The Presidents Collection boxed set.
The Presidents Collection is a boxed set of feature-length documentaries on some of the most influential 20th Century Presidents from PBS’s American Experience. It contains 15 DVDs and over 35 hours of documentary goodness on Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, The Kennedys, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush.
I spent most of the evening watching the Woodrow Wilson documentary (2 discs/165 minutes long) and almost halfway into the 194-minute-long documentary on George H.W. Bush. I’ve watched these before, but I always forget how good they are. They are detailed and definitive, rich with historic video footage and photographs, and accompanied by commentary from our finest historians and historic figures. Even the reenactments aren’t cheesy like reenactments can so frequently be.
I highly recommend checking out The Presidents Collection, and the boxed set of 5 DVDs from the 2000 series, The American President, which features shorter documentaries on every single President up to Bill Clinton.
(By the way, do you know what is a really amazing piece of historic footage? The grainy video of the U.S. Navy submarine Finback pulling a 20-year-old George H.W. Bush from the Pacific Ocean a few hours after he was forced to parachute into the water from his crippled plane when it was shot down by the Japanese. It’s unbelievable that was caught on film. Oh, and that’s another reason why I include George H.W. Bush near the top of the list when people ask me which Presidents were badasses.)
Well, if I wanted to be mean, I’d take on Woodrow Wilson because I despise him and it would just be ugly. I wouldn’t even use my boxing; I’d just torture him with my very average jiujitsu.
If I wanted some real competition, I’d face Theodore Roosevelt — our only President who actually was a legitimate mixed martial artist. TR did a lot of boxing and wrestling (even as President), and was a practitioner of jiujitsu (the traditional, Japanese form of the discipline). If I’m not mistaken, I believe TR had some judo training, as well. I’d love to see TR vs. Vladimir Putin in a judo contest.
Probably not. Taft HATED being President. The only reason that Taft got fired up enough to campaign so much in 1912 was because TR’s candidacy (and comments about Taft) motivated him to go after his old buddy Roosevelt.
Taft was not very popular and his term probably differed in just a few places from what a third term by Theodore Roosevelt would have looked like from 1909-1913. The break between them really came from Taft’s uninspiring leadership (he wasn’t an activist President like TR) and the fact that they had different viewpoints on the role of the judiciary.
As for the second part of your question, I don’t know. Like I said, Taft had no love for the Presidency. His dream was to be a Supreme Court justice (a dream that eventually came true), and if he was uninspired in 1911 and 1912, I can’t imagine how he would have been in 1914 or 1915. The strange thing, though, is that Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson really weren’t that far apart on what they believed. It was how they acted and decided where their differences came forward. To be sure, there were differences, but on the surface, they weren’t dramatic ones. I don’t think a second term from Taft would have looked that different from Wilson first term.
As Election Day 1916 approached, former New York Governor and Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes appeared to be heavily favored to defeat incumbent President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was so certain of his impending defeat that he decided that he would resign after Hughes won the election.
President Wilson — who held a doctorate in government — felt that the transition period from Election Day (in November) until Inauguration Day (in March) was too long to have a lame duck President, particularly while World War I was getting underway in Europe. In what would have been an unprecedented act, Wilson had decided that, in the event of a Hughes victory, he would appoint Hughes as Secretary of State. Then Wilson would resign the Presidency and Vice President Thomas R. Marshall would also resign so that Hughes could immediately assume the Presidency.
On Election night, it appeared that was exactly what would happen. Early returns showed a solid lead for Hughes and some outlets called the election for the man Theodore Roosevelt called “the bearded iceberg”. As the night dragged on, though, and it became clear that California would go for President Wilson, the extraordinary plan that Wilson had hatched to prevent a lame duck President was relegated to the what-could-have-been pile.
When a reporter called the Hughes campaign’s headquarters to get a reaction to the rapidly changing circumstances, an aide to Hughes said that candidate had gone to sleep and somewhat presumptuously added, “The President cannot be disturbed”. The reporter said, “Well, when he wakes up, tell the President he isn’t President anymore”.
By the next morning, Wilson had won re-election with a narrow victory in the popular vote and the Electoral College.
Well, I think Wilson is tremendously overrated. I think his idealism was essentially an early-20th Century version of George W. Bush’s idealism. Wilson set forth that idea that American knows best, Americans always do right, and the American way is the best way for everyone. It’s presumptuous, paternalistic, and offensive to people from other countries, as it should be.
I think that the punitive expedition of General Pershing that Wilson launched into Mexico after Pancho Villa’s cross-border attack in New Mexico was half-assed and misguided. I think that Wilson waited too long to get Americans ready for World War I when American entry into the war earlier probably could have saved a lot more lives in Europe. When the U.S. finally entered the war, it took longer than it should have for the American forces to get ready to be shipped overseas. The U.S. should have had its soldiers ready, as many American leaders were urging the Wilson Administration to do even before his reelection. On top of that, his selection of William Jennings Bryan as Secretary of State was the wrong choice for that tumultuous period.
What did he do that was good? Well, we’re seeing the disadvantages of the Federal Reserve, but it was a good thing to control the flow of money and calming economic conditions. There were some good things done with anti-trust and child labor laws, and the Adamson Act helped pave the way for an 8-hour workday in the United States.
I’m not the guy to sing Wilson’s praises, however. I think he is a vastly overrated American leader. I think he was a stubborn politician. I think he was a bad person. And, I think he put the country in a lot of danger with the way he tried to dominate the post-war treaty negotiations, the way he tried to sell of the League of Nations as something that Americans should accept because it was a Wilson-supported idea, and the way he hung on to power after a stroke that left him an incapacitated shell who was an emotional, physical, and mental wreck.
Apart from John Tyler, Woodrow Wilson is the only President to have been married to two different women during his actual Presidency.
President Wilson moved into the White House in 1913 with his first wife, Ellen Louise Axson, whom he had married in Savannah, Georgia in 1885. Ellen Wilson was a free spirit — far ahead of her time with her independent streak. An accomplished artist, Ellen set up a painting studio on the third floor of the White House and sold paintings so that she could donate the revenue to her favorite charitable causes. As a young woman growing up in Georgia, Ellen was a bit of a tomboy, loved to hunt and was such a firearm aficionado that, as an adult, she always kept a loaded revolver under her pillow while she slept.
Ellen was also a proponent of equal rights for women and blacks, which was in direct opposition to her husband’s position on the matter. Ellen Wilson also worked hard to take care of her family. She planned the White House weddings of two of her daughters and kept a close watch on President Wilson’s health, which was precarious at best throughout his life and aggravated by the constant stress of the Presidency.
Nearly a year-and-a-half after the Wilsons moved into the White House, however, it was Ellen’s health which suffered. In the summer of 1914, Ellen found herself unable to work as hard as she used to or take care of her husband as well as she wished. Crippled by lethargy, Ellen was finally diagnosed by doctors as having Bright’s Disease — an illness that was almost always fatal in her time. Just 54 years old, the First Lady died on August 6, 1914 in the White House.
Woodrow Wilson was devastated and inconsolable following Ellen’s death. His own health took a downward path and to many aides, he talked of resigning. To his closest aide, Colonel Edward M. House, Wilson went further, exclaiming that he hoped someone would assassinate him.
Yet a few short months later, Wilson met Edith Bolling Galt — a fellow widower fifteen years younger than the President who also happened to be a great-great-great-great-great-great-great granddaughter of Pocahontas. Edith and Wilson had met when Wilson’s cousin (a friend of Edith’s and the acting White House Hostess in the wake of Ellen’s death) invited Edith to the White House for tea and the President joined the two women. Edith captivated President Wilson, who had been mired in depression in the six months since Ellen’s death. Smart, funny, and completely uninterested in politics, Wilson was humored by the fact that Edith hadn’t even known his name when he ran for President two years earlier.
Wilson’s friends, aides, and daughters were pleased that the President seemed to be happy once more and encouraged the relationship with Edith, who was reluctant to proceed considering the fact that the Ellen Wilson’s tombstone had literally not been erected over her grave by the time Edith was being pursued by Woodrow. Wilson, however, was madly in love. In May 1915, less than two months after meeting Edith — and just 10 months since Ellen’s death — the President proposed to Edith.
Some people close to Wilson — including Edith — felt that the President was moving too quickly and that the public might be turned off by Wilson’s vigorous courtship. As rumors flew about their relationship, Wilson and Edith were virtually inseparable despite his schedule and workaholic tendencies. Those who worried about the perception of the whirlwind romance had good reason. President Wilson was criticized for disrespecting the legacy of his deceased wife, Edith was lambasted as a homewrecker, the couple was accused of beginning their affair during Ellen Wilson’s terminal illness, and it was even suggested that the President and Edith murdered Ellen.
Then there was the typo.
Newspapers had already been somewhat cruel and crude about the relationship. One joke which ran in a Washington paper asked, “What did Mrs. Galt do when the President asked her to marry him?” The answer: “She fell out of bed”. After a date night at the theater, President Wilson opened up the morning edition of the Washington Post and found an appalling typographical error that set tongues wagging and led to the Post frantically trying to reclaim newspapers from newsstands before they were sold and read. A report in the Post mentioned the President’s attendance at the theater and noted, “Rather than paying attention to the play, the President spent the evening entering Mrs. Galt.” The Post, meaning to write that the President “spent the evening entertaining Mrs. Galt” desperately apologized to both Edith and the President, but it certainly didn’t help with the nasty rumors about the budding relationship.
With Wilson facing a re-election campaign in 1916, many urged him to hold off on announcing any engagement or planning a wedding until after the election. Wilson could not wait, though. Edith had secretly accepted his proposal in June 1915, it was announced to the public in October, and they were married on December 18, 1915 at Edith’s home in Washington, D.C. Following the wedding, many of the criticisms disappeared when it was clear how devoted the Wilsons were to one another. In 1916, Wilson was re-elected after a narrow victory over Charles Evans Hughes, the former New York Governor who resigned from the Supreme Court to run for President.
Edith Wilson proved to be every bit as charitable as her immediate predecessor as First Lady and Woodrow’s wife. World War I was raging across Europe and the United States attempted to remain neutral, but eventually was forced to enter the war and give a fresh infusion of battle energy and fighting power to the Allied forces. Edith worked hard to set examples for regular Americans on how to ration meat, gas, wheat and other materials important to the war effort. Edith also bought sheep that grazed the White House lawn and sold their wool to raise money for the Red Cross.
Much like Ellen, Edith also tried to look after President Wilson’s health, limit his long hours, and encourage (and sometimes demand) that he relax or find some sort of recreation outside of work. The war ended with a truce in November 1918 and the President and Edith traveled to Paris the next month so that Wilson could personally negotiate the peace treaty. Treated like a conquering hero, Wilson also began experiencing the symptoms that had previously led to a stroke. Wilson returned to the United States in 1919 and embarked with Edith upon a cross-country whistlestop tour to gain support for the peace treaty and for U.S. entry into the League of Nations.
Finally, in the midst of fighting a losing battle for the League of Nations, Wilson’s body reached its limit and he suffered a physical collapse in Pueblo, Colorado that necessitated his immediate return to the White House. Several days later the President suffered a massive stroke which paralyzed his left side and left him incapacitated for the rest of his life. Edith Wilson not only was there to nurse him back to help, but she basically ran the Executive branch of the U.S. Government since there was no Constitutional precedent or exercise to relieve a disabled President.
As President Wilson slowly recovered some abilities (he would never be the same as he was before the stroke), Edith controlled access to Wilson. Nobody saw him or visited his sickbed without permission from Edith and Wilson didn’t see any official papers or attend to business without Edith’s permission. She carefully screened every document submitted to the President for his signature. Wilson’s condition was so unknown to everyone besides Edith that some government leaders thought the President was actually dead.
For many, Edith Wilson seemed to be the acting President during Woodrow Wilson’s convalescence and wielded more Executive Power than any other individual in the last two years of Wilson’s Administration. Edith said that she never made key decisions, only decisions about what to give the President or who to allow to see him. “I studied every paper sent from the different Secretaries or Senators,” Edith wrote in her autobiography, “and tried to digest and present in tabloid form the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the President. I, myself, never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband.” Edith Wilson called her role a “stewardship”, but at the time, she was widely considered the executive in charge of what many called a “regency”.
Due to her role during President Wilson’s incapacitation, Edith Wilson may have been the most powerful woman in American History. In just five years, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson had come a long way from having the President spending the evening entering…oops, I mean, “entertaining” her at the theater. After leaving the White House in 1921, the Wilsons moved to a home on S Street in Washington, D.C. where Edith continued to nurse the President through illness until he died on February 3, 1924. Edith Wilson lived for 37 more years, attended John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, and died on Woodrow Wilson’s 105th birthday, December 28, 1961.
Woodrow Wilson governed in the same manner as George W. Bush. Wilson’s beliefs were so intractable that not only was he convinced that he was always correct, but he was determined to prove that anyone who didn’t agree with him was worse than wrong. Wilson felt that all of his opponents were enemies who stood on the wrong side of history, providence, and national survival. Throughout his life and career, Woodrow Wilson believed that God ordained his success, placed him in a position of power, and intended for Wilson to zealously and tirelessly pursue his policies, ignore his supporters and colleagues, and stubbornly force his views on everyone else.
Andrew Jackson had his faults and failures and it is a personal requirement that I always note his reprehensible policy towards Native Americans when I talk about Jackson. However, Jackson was a better politician than Woodrow Wilson. There was a definite stubborn streak inside of Jackson, but he understood people and that’s not something that Wilson could do or probably even wanted to do. I feel like Jackson was a better President and a better person than Woodrow Wilson, and that is enough to make Jackson preferable to Wilson in my opinion.
I could be wrong, but I don’t think Wilson instituted segregation in the military. I think it was already there, probably from the time of the Spanish-American War, if not earlier. Wilson, however, certainly ensured that segregation continued and/or was strengthened, not only in the military, but specifically in the federal government.
I’ll be the first to admit that I am a member of the minority among historians. Most historians would list Wilson — even with the failure to gain ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and U.S. entrance in the League of Nations — as one of the greatest Presidents in American History.
I see Wilson differently. In fact, I think Wilson and George W. Bush are eerily similar, from their personalities to the influence of religious faith in their political and personal decisions to their stubborn idealism. I think Wilson and Bush both took international perception of the U.S. from high points of support and appreciation to low points of resentment and mistrust in their respective eight-year tenures in the White House.
With that said, I understand and appreciate any dissent with my viewpoints. History is based in fact but understood through opinion. No historian is 100% correct and no historian ever will get everything right. I think a historian without opinions is no better than an encyclopedia and a reader who doesn’t form his/her own conclusions isn’t getting anything for themselves out of the history they read. I will always appreciate dissenting opinions just as much as I appreciate your support of the site, and will do my best to give both sides of the argument when the opportunities present themselves. I strongly attempt to apply Sir Karl Popper’s quote about science to my history: “There is no authority beyond the reach of criticism.”
After helping to win the first World War and sending the United States into the forefront of the world’s leading powers, Woodrow Wilson had been touring his country, attempting to fight his way into the League of Nations despite the opposition of Republican leaders. President Wilson was strong-willed and felt that God had placed him in the White House and destined him to lead the country. When he received the Democratic nomination for President at the Democratic Convention held in Baltimore, Wilson declared, “I am a Presbyterian and believe in predestination and election. It was Providence that did the work in Baltimore.” And, shortly after his election in 1912 after less than one term as Governor of New Jersey, Wilson told the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, “I wish it to be clearly understood that I owe you nothing. Remember that God ordained that I should be the next President of the United States. Neither you or any other mortal could have prevented that.”
This was the man that led the United States into World War I and went to Paris in 1919 to negotiate the treaty that resulted in peace. Wilson never felt differently about what his fate was. He felt that he was doing God’s work. He felt that he was right and everyone else was wrong. Even King George V of Great Britain said that Wilson was, “An entirely cold academic professor — an odious man…I could not bear him.”
On the morning of October 2, 1919, God’s will had led Woodrow Wilson to an entirely different place. For that morning, the most powerful man in the world, the 28th President of the United States, was lying on the floor of a bathroom in the White House. Unconscious, paralyzed, and bleeding from cuts on his nose and his temple, the President was incapacitated and would be for the remainder of his Presidency.
And that’s when the cover-up began.
Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born in the final days of 1856 in Staunton, Virginia — the eighth and most recent President born in Virginia. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to Augusta, Georgia and throughout his childhood and teenage years, the Wilsons moved several more times, but remained in the South until Wilson graduated from Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University in 1886 with a Ph.D. in political science. Despite living and working in the North for most of his adult life, Wilson always considered himself a Southerner, and was clearly in posession of a late-19th/early-20th century Southern mindset. Not unlike many Southerners his age, Wilson’s first memories were of the Civil War’s devastation in the South and the humilation of Reconstruction left a lasting impression on the future President. Wilson believed that the South’s secession from the Union was justified and he was a virulent white supremacist. In fact, Wilson’s closest aide during his Presidency, Colonel Edward M. House, who was the equivalent of what is today considered the President’s Chief-of-Staff, freely admitted that “The President is the most prejudiced man I ever knew and likes but few people.”
After graduation from Princeton in 1879, Wilson studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1882, practicing law briefly in Atlanta before enrolling at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and becoming the only President to earn a doctorate. In 1885, the 28-year-old Wilson married his first wife, Ellen Louise Axson, 25, in Savannah, Georgia. That same year, Wilson took a position teaching at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, followed by a stint as professor of history at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut where, oddly enough for a man considered the most academic of Presidents, he also coached the football team.
In 1890, the Wilsons moved to New Jersey where Woodrow Wilson finally settled into a professorship at his alma mater, Princeton University. For the next 12 years, Wilson taught jurisprudence and political economy and began to make a name for himself on the national stage after authoring several books including a biography on George Washington, collections of political essays, and the five-volume, A History of the American People. In 1902, Princeton’s trustees elevated Professor Wilson to university president. As Princeton’s leader, Wilson reorganized departments, redesigned curriculum and standards, expanded the faculty by adding many more high-quality instructors, while also raising the quality of instruction itself. Towards the end of the 20th century’s first decade, Wilson began clashing with university trustees and his eyes began wandering towards the political career he had considered prior to entering academics. In 1909, Wilson pushed for the integration of graduates and undergraduates in the same buildings but had his idea rejected by trustees who favored continuing with Princeton’s traditional separation of those two levels of study. As it became clear that he had lost the confidence and support of a majority of the university’s trustees, Wilson accepted the support of New Jersey’s Democratic party machinery and accepted the Democratic nomination for Governor in 1910.
Elected by a comfortable margin in 1910, Wilson was already seen as a likely candidate for the Presidency in 1912 even before winning the New Jersey Gubernatorial race. Though he relied on their support originally in order to win his party’s nomination and the election itself, Wilson almost immediately turned on the Democratic bosses who ran the party’s statewide machine following his inauguration in January 1911. Wilson achieved this by establishing state primary elections, which neutered the efforts of the party bosses to control the electoral process, especially when it came to Presidential elections. During his brief term, Governor Wilson also enacted New Jersey’s first workmen’s compensation law, strict campaign finance reform, and created a more efficient and transparent public utilities commission. After a speaking tour of Western states in 1911, it was clear to everyone that Governor Wilson was positioning himself for a run at the White House. The June 1912 Democratic Convention, however, was divided between progressive Democrats and conservative Democrats, particularly those from the South. Progressives were splitting their support between Wilson and Speaker of the House Champ Clark from Missouri while the conservatives were divided in their support for Congressman Oscar Underwood of Alabama and Ohio Governor Judson Harmon. From the beginning of the convention’s balloting, Speaker Clark held a small but stable lead over Wilson until three-time Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska endorsed Wilson on the 14th ballot and delegates began flocking to Wilson. Still, no candidate could reach the 726 votes necessary to clinch the nomination until Wilson finally did so, winning the nomination on the 55th ballot of the convention and accepting the convention’s choice of Thomas Riley Marshall as Vice President.
Despite facing the incumbent, President William Howard Taft, Wilson found himself in a perfect position as former President Theodore Roosevelt challenged his former friend and handpicked successor, Taft, for the Republican nomination. When President Taft won the Republican nomination, Roosevelt bolted from the Republican party and joined with Progressive Republicans to run as a third-party candidate under the Progressive or Bull Moose banner. Still wildly popular with Americans, Roosevelt’s third-party candidacy all but guaranteed a split among Republican voters and an easy Democratic victory. Though the probable outcome of the election was known well in advance of the election, Wilson and Roosevelt campaigned hard while President Taft basically gave up on the campaign and stayed in the White House. As Election Day got closer, Wilson was actually able to focus more on helping to elect a Democratic Congress than on campaigning for himself. As expected, Wilson coasted to victory on Election Day, winning 435 electoral votes and 40 of the nation’s 48 states. Theodore Roosevelt came in a distant second with 88 electoral votes and 6 states, and President Taft finished an even more distant third with only 8 electoral votes and victories in just 2 states.
On August 6, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson’s first wife, Ellen Louise Axson Wilson, died in the White House of complications from Bright’s disease and the devastated President considered resignation while also telling advisor Colonel House that he wished someone would assassinate him. However, just a few months later, Wilson was introduced to Edith Boling Galt at a White House reception by Wilson’s cousin who had acted as official White House hostess since Ellen Wilson’s death. A great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandaughter of Pocahontas, Edith Galt was also a widow, though younger than the President by 15 years. Impressed by her intelligence and captivated by her beauty, Wilson immediately hit it off with Edith and proposed to her just two months after meeting her, in May 1915. Keeping their engagement quiet in nosy Washington was difficult and the President finally announced their wedding plans in October 1915. On December 18, 1915, Wilson became just the third President to marry while in office when he and Edith tied the knot in a private home in Washington, D.C. before a small, exclusive group of guests.
Shortly before the death of President Wilson’s first wife, war had broken out in Europe, which quickly turned into the first World War. At first, Wilson pushed Americans to observe neutrality in the conflict, but neutrality was difficult considering America’s ties to the British and Germany’s tactic of unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic Ocean, which claimed thousands of lives, including the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915, which killed over 1,200 people, more than 10% of whom were Americans. Sticking to neutrality and promoting American efforts to keep at peace, Wilson ran for re-election in 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of war” against former New York Governor and Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes. Showing just how devastating the Republican split in 1912 was, the Republicans fully supported Hughes in 1916 and most believed that Hughes would certainly win the election. He didn’t, but just barely. Wilson’s 277-254 electoral victory wasn’t clear until early the next morning and Hughes received over two million more popular votes in 1916 than the victorious Wilson had won in 1912.
Wilson took the oath of office for his second term as President on March 4, 1917, and did so in the midst of more provocative attempts by the Germans to attack American ships and American interests. An intercepted message from the German foreign minister to his minister in Mexico finally pushed Americans towards war. The message contained plans for an alliance between Germany and Mexico in the case of American entry into the World War. German’s pledged financial support for a Mexican invasion of the southwestern United States, which would allow Mexico to regain former Mexican territory in what was now Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. More so than even the unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic, this proposed alliance between Germany and Mexico prompted the man who “kept us out of war” to ask Congress to declare war on Germany. It did so on April 4, 1917, exactly one month after Wilson’s second inauguration.
The infusion of fresh American forces into a war which had become a stalemate and war of attrition in Europe was the jumpstart that Alied forces needed in order to take the war to the next level. Engaged in brutal trench warfare in France, the Allied forces pushed the Germans back in the first conflict primarily fought through mechanized warfare and featured tanks, air raids, and chemical weapon attacks. Though the American participation in World War I was brief, American casualties were high. It was also the turning point in the war and led to the Allied victory after a cease fire was signed on November 11, 1918.
President Wilson took charge of negotiations of a peace treaty by personally heading to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and working closely with Prime Minsters David Lloyd George of England, Georges Clemenceau of France, and Vittorio Orlando of Italy. Germany was not allowed to participate in the negotiations and forced to accept humiliating peace terms which placed the blame and the cost of war on the Germans, demilitarized Germany, and stripped Germany of all of its colonial possesions while carving away various regions of pre-war Germany and awarding lands to Germany’s neighbors. The Treaty of Versailles, signed in June 1919, called for the establishment of a League of Nations and upon returning to the United States, Wilson submitted the Treaty to the United States Senate for ratification. Now controlled by Republicans after the 1918 mid-term elections, Senate Republicans, led by Henry Cabot Lodge, would not ratify the Treaty of Versailles due to some opposition to the League of Nations, but also because President Wilson refused to allow Republicans to participate in the Paris Peace Conference and also refused to consider any proposed changes to the Treaty by Senate Republicans.
With the Treaty and his hopes for U.S. entry into the League of Nations at a stalemate in the Senate, President Wilson decided to take his argument to the people. On September 3, 1919, President Wilson, First Lady Edith Wilson, and a score of Presidential aides, secretaries, Secret Service agents, friends, and reporters left Washington, D.C.’s Union Station to embark on a nearly 10,000-mile-long whirlwind rail tour of the country in order to sell the League and American participation in the League to the American people. Wilson was willing to throw everything he had into the effort to win Senate ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and felt strongly that American participation in the League of Nations was necessary in order to prevent a similar World War II in the future. Woodrow Wilson was ready to do anything necessary and give everything possible to get a ratified Treaty on his terms. He hoped that this exhausting speaking tour would change everything and it did.
In less than a month, Woodrow Wilson would never be the same man again.
Blessed with vast intellectual gifts and able to easily and effectively outline his thoughts and actions while pursuing the goals of his idealism, Woodrow Wilson’s supreme confidence in his impressive cerebral skills often bordered on arrogance and frequently bothered even his most loyal supporters. Wilson, however, was less concerned about the feelings of others and more focused on acheiving everything that he set out to accomplish. For Wilson — and most Americans, especially in a time of crisis — the people skills of our President were far from being anywhere close to as important as his mental acuity and President Wilson’s accomplishments in the academic world left no room for doubt. Wilson was one of the most-learned men of his time and, to this day, remains the only President to obtain a doctorate and perhaps the best-educated President in our history.
In sharp contrast to his mental faculties, though, was a lifelong struggle with poor health. Considered by some to be a hypochondriac, Wilson battled severe indigestion throughout his life, beginning in childhood, and as President he often needed to use a stomach pump on himself for relief. Pushing himself relentlessly at every career level, Wilson was a workaholic and his non-stop work habits frequently plagued him with intense headaches and left him brutally fatigued. During his 20 years at Princeton as professor and university president, Wilson suffered what is believed to be a retinal hemorrhage, which left him virtually blind in his right eye, and chronic hypertension led to the development of the cerebrovascular disorders which would eventually cripple and kill him. While Wilson biographers and medical historians are unable to pinpoint the exact number, it is believed that Woodrow Wilson suffered from at least three and perhaps as many as five or six strokes before he was even elected Governor of New Jersey in 1910. Commonly described at the time as “nervous exhaustion”, it is almost universally agreed that Wilson suffered his first stroke at the age of 39, an illness which disturbed his normal writing ability for almost a year afterwards. In the years following his first stroke and prior to his Presidency, Wilson suffered several more neurological ailments, many of which involved temporary blindness, transitory weakness and limited paralysis of limbs or fingers, mostly concentrated on the right side of his body.
It is not clear how much of the information on Wilson’s poor health was known to the public before his campaigns for Governor of New Jersey or President of the United States. What is obvious, though, is that in today’s political climate, Wilson’s health problems would have severely handicapped any attempt to run for President. Reporters today sift through medical records released by candidates during campaigns and any of the incidents recounted in the previous paragraph would have raised red flags and been dissected by everybody covering the campaign. This, however, is true of many of the Presidents elected before the 1970’s or 1980’s. During his lifetime, the media did not report that Franklin D. Roosevelt was paralyzed from the waist down from polio and required the use of a wheelchair. Most Americans were oblivious to that fact. Despite being the youngest President ever elected, an examination of John F. Kennedy’s medical records would have shown a much younger man who suffered from even more severe health problems than Woodrow Wilson. Kennedy’s various ailments left him near-death on several occasions and he was actually given the last rites of the Catholic church at least twice before his 40th birthday. So, although Wilson’s poor health would likely have disqualified him as a serious candidate for the Presidency today, it was only a private obstacle to overcome in the days of a far less aggressive, more discreet (and perhaps more respectful) press corps.
Six months in Paris would probably be considered an amazing vacation for most Americans, particularly when you are welcomed as the heroic savior who rescued France and vanquished the German menace that had threatened the French almost constantly during nearly 300 years of hostility. From the moment President Wilson arrived in Paris, he was greeted by joyous, jubilant, and eternally thankful crowds desperately hoping to catch a glimpse of the American Commander-in-Chief so that they could lavish him with appreciation. The armistice, however, was simply the first block on the foundation for the ambitious framework for peace championed by Wilson. Thus, rather than a vacation or soaking in the adoration of those attempting to celebrate his successes, Woodrow Wilson’s six months in Paris were spent working on inserting his rigid terms into the treaty being negotiated at the Paris Peace Conference, completely shutting Republicans (and Germans) out of the process, alienating his Allied counterparts and exasperating even his own staff. Wilson was insufferable, Wilson was annoying, Wilson was relentless, Wilson wouldn’t budge from any of his positions, Wilson frustrated everyone he came into contact with, and ultimately, Wilson got everything he wanted. When the President returned to Washington in July 1919, it was with the Treaty of Versailles he pushed for, but his return to the United States didn’t elicit the same response from Americans that he had received from the French in Paris. Even worse, when Wilson submitted the treaty to the Senate for ratification, he ran into the brick wall of opposition from Henry Cabot Lodge and Republican leaders kept in the dark by the President throughout the treaty negotiations in Paris. Besides their anger at Wilson’s lack of cooperation and absence of transparency, the Senate was adamantly opposed to the model for the League of Nations, which many Senate leaders felt would require the United States to send troops to every conflict that was triggered anywhere in the world. It is one of America’s historical ironies that Woodrow Wilson — the professor and constitutional law scholar — ignored the United States Senate’s power to advise and consent. Negotiating the treaty in Paris, Wilson refused to seek the Senate’s advice, and upon returning to the U.S. to win ratification, the Senate in turn refused to consent. This put the President and the Senate on a collision course and Wilson wasn’t about to budge. He never did. This was the same man who said, “I am sorry for those who disagree with me because I know they are wrong.” The best educated of the Presidents didn’t know what it meant to compromise.
Stubborn as always, and certain that his path was the only path, it was at this time that Wilson decided to take his case to the people of the United States. Yet, he had been ill even before he left Washington on his whistlestop tour. In fact, Wilson may have actually suffered a mild stroke in April while negotiating the treaty in Paris. At the beginning of April, Secret Service agent Edmund Starling, who accompanied the Presidential party to Europe, was called by Mrs. Wilson to attend to the President. The other Allied leaders were told that Wilson was suffering from a touch of the flu and would be resting for a period of several days to recuperate. What they weren’t aware of was how ill Wilson truly was. Starling was asked to move Wilson’s bed to different areas of the room to change the scenery while the President was bedridden, yet Wilson never woke up while being moved. Starling thought that Wilson, pale and motionless, was “a dead man”. After a few days, the President began to recover, but he was weak, tired, and temperamental —- even more so than usual. When he wasn’t negotiating, writing about the negotiations, or thinking about the negotiations, Wilson played solitaire for hours on end, exploded in fits of anger at the other Americans in his party, and on several occasions inexplicably demanded that the furniture in his temporary residence be moved to different places or changed completely because he was bothered by the way light was shining on it. Starling and Mrs. Wilson weren’t the only people to notice Wilson’s deterioration, however. One day, during deliberations, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George noticed President Wilson accidentally leave his briefcase full of classified information in the conference room. A few hours later, the exceedingly cautious Wilson made the exact same mistake, and the Prime Minister gave Agent Starling “something between a knowing look and a wink.” Something clearly wasn’t right and those close to the President were relieved when the treaty was signed and the Americans were able to sail back home.
The clash brewing between the President and his idea for the League of Nations and the Republican leadership of the Senate led by Senator Lodge was sure to be a violent one. Wilson made it clear that he would accept none of Lodge’s reservations to the Treaty of Versailles and told Virginia Senator Thomas S. Martin that “Anyone who opposes me…I’ll crush!”; Lodge accused Wilson of attempting to seize almost dictatorial powers. As the President’s special blue train, the Mayflower, left Washington’s Union Station on September 3, 1919, Wilson’s fiery rhetoric was ready to blaze a trail across the country and back. Over the next twenty-seven days in twenty-six major cities and hundreds of smaller towns, Woodrow Wilson planned to take the fight to Senator Lodge by taking his argument to the people of the United States with about ten speeches given per day from his train’s rear platform. There would be no sightseeing for the President’s party. This was a business trip, not a pleasure cruise with time set aside for rest and relaxation. More than anything else, this is what worried aide Joseph Tumulty, Agent Starling, and Dr. Cary Grayson.
Columbus, Ohio…Indianapolis, Indiana….St. Louis, Missouri…Kansas City…Des Moines, Iowa…Omaha, Nebraska…Sioux Falls, South Dakota…Bismarck, North Dakota…Billings, Montana…Seattle, Washington. In these cities and many smaller whistle stops in between, Wilson gave speeches pushing for the ratification of his treaty and denouncing his opponents who were battling him both on the Senate floor and in other towns across the country, some dispatched by Senator Lodge to follow the Presidential train and respond to Wilson’s remarks after he had visited certain cities. Wilson had been holding up better than expected, especially since his only day of rest was Sunday and then only because he customarily refused to work on the Sabbath. While crossing the Great Plains, the warm weather and dry air began to agitate Wilson’s asthma. At times, he had difficulty breathing which led to difficulty in speaking and also left him unable to sleep very well. Insomnia resulted in exhaustion and the lack of any real exercise due to constantly being on the train also had an adverse effect on Wilson’s rapidly deteriorating health. The President’s headaches — frequently described by almost all contemporaries, aides, family members, and historians as “blinding” — advanced from being chronic to constant. In Seattle, Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels felt that Wilson may have exerted the last of his strength and joined others in the party in urging the President to rest. He didn’t. In fact, he even broke his rule of resting on the Sabbath by meeting with a small group of labor leaders who walked away from the meeting startled at the President’s appearance. During the brief meeting, Wilson’s voice trembled, his hand shook so violently that he held on to his own lapel to steady it, his face was pale, and he was unable to make eye contact with any of the men he met. Still, he continued.
Heading south from Seattle, the Presidential party stopped in Portland, San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego where he said that the huge crowds clamoring for handshakes and a moment with their President “mean so well — but they are killing me”. The train chugged through California and finally began heading east, over the Sierras, back towards Washington, D.C. The high altitude of the Sierra Nevada worsened Wilson’s asthma and his headache — normally located in the back of his head felt as if it had settled in the center of his brain. By the time they reached Reno, Nevada, Wilson’s sleeping problems grew more troublesome; instead of sleeping irregularly the President couldn’t sleep at all. In Salt Lake City, over 15,000 people packed the Mormon Tabernacle to hear President Wilson speak. Inside the building it was so hot that even the healthy First Lady felt nauseous and faint. The President needed to soak a handkerchief with ammonia to keep himself conscious while on the dais. Following the speech, Wilson was so thoroughly soaked with sweat that Mrs. Wilson and Dr. Grayson helped him change into dry clothes. Five minutes after that, he had perspired through that suit, as well. After sleepless, sweat-soaked nights in Salt Lake City, Utah and Cheyenne, Wyoming, Wilson and his party arrived in Pueblo, Colorado where he was angry at the program scheduled for Pueblo which called for him to speak at the fairgrounds. Snapping at Tumulty, Wilson demanded to know who approved the “idiotic” schedule for Pueblo. Tumulty showed him the schedule and the President sighed in a combination of exhaustion, frustration, disbelief and resignation — it was signed by Woodrow Wilson himself and he complained, “Any damned fool who was stupid enough to approve such a program has no business in the White House.”
For three weeks, Woodrow Wilson had been fighting for the League of Nations, fighting Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and the Senate Republicans opposed to the League, fighting to stay healthy enough to get through one more speech, one more town, one more day, and he was losing on all fronts. When Wilson arrived to make his speech in Pueblo, Edmund Starling, the Secret Service agent, had to lift the weakened President up the single step from the floor to the stage. Starling had accompanied Wilson to Paris for the negotiation of the Treaty of Versailles and back, then on the grueling whistlestop tour to the West Coast and back. Starling had scheduled a furlough to begin when the train reached St. Louis on its return to the nation’s capital. Prior to Pueblo, Wilson had refused any physical assistance from anyone lest he appear vulnerable to the crowds that came out to hear him speak. On September 25, 1919, President Wilson was in no condition to refuse Starling’s help. Wilson was also in no condition to speak, but he prepared to give the once-passionate defense of the League of Nations that had significantly decreased in intensity with each stop, each wave from the rear platform of the Mayflower, and each minute that he spent somewhere other than a bed. More than 1,700 miles away from the White House that afternoon, Wilson began to speak to over 10,000 people assembled in Pueblo and, for the first time, stumbled over a sentence in the speech he had given nearly 200 times in the past 22 days. First Lady Edith Galt Wilson was startled by the hesitation. Agent Starling moved closer to the President, worried that he may collapse. Looking at his notes, searching for the words he had not previously lost, Wilson finally found what he was trying to say after a few moments but his weak voice barely carried past the stage. Recalling the graves of American soldiers buried in France, Wilson moved the audience by invoking their memory and, like Lincoln at Gettysburg, urging that their sacrifice not be made in vain. Once again, the President stopped speaking. This time — whether it was related to his rapidly declining health or a natural reaction to the thought of young, dead American boys that he sent into battle — Wilson was overcome by emotion and 10,000 people in Pueblo witnessed their President crying. Tears streaming down his face, he quickly, weakly, finished his remarks, turned around and was embraced by the First Lady, who was also crying.
Once the Mayflower traveled a few miles outside of Pueblo, Dr. Cary Grayson asked President Wilson if he wanted to stop the train and get some fresh air. Wilson agreed. The train stopped for a little over an hour. Wilson, his wife and Dr. Grayson took a long walk while the reporters, Secret Service agents and other members of the party rested in the grass near the train. The walk seemed to do Wilson some good and he was even joking with reporters when he, Edith and Grayson returned to the Mayflower, which started moving east towards Washington, D.C. once again. A few hours later on the night of September 25th, Edith was in her room on the train, located directly next to President Wilson’s private compartment when she heard a faint knock and weak voice call out, “I am terribly sick” before asking for Dr. Grayson. Edith summoned the doctor and attended to the President while waiting for Grayson’s arrival. Wilson was unable to sleep once again and complained that his headache pain was worse than ever before. Grayson arrived and the President requested to be moved to a different room as he was feeling claustrophobic in his small sleeping compartment. Grayson and the First Lady helped move Wilson to the room he had been using as a study, and about six hours later, Wilson finally fell asleep as Edith sat near his makeshift bed and quietly observed her ailing husband.
It wasn’t long before the President woke up once again. When he got up, Wilson told his wife that he needed to shave in order to be ready for their first stop of September 26th — Wichita, Kansas. Dr. Grayson came to check on Wilson and worriedly woke Joseph Tumulty to fill him in on the President’s condition. Grayson vehemently urged Tumulty that Wilson was seriously ill and that they needed to return to Washington immediately. Tumulty, Grayson and Edith joined together and when Wilson finished shaving and getting dressed the three implored the President to cancel the rest of the trip. Wilson refused to give up his fight for the League of Nations and against Senator Lodge and his Republican counterparts. He had come all this way and he intended to finish the trip. Whether he was tired or not, Wilson intended to continue as long as there were Americans gathered to hear him speak. The problem, though, was worse than Wilson realized. Even if he had the strength to stand at the rear platform of the Mayflower and give his speech, it was useless if nobody could understand him. As he was talking to Grayson, the left side of Wilson’s face began drooping, saliva dripped from the corner of his mouth on to his suit and his voice was practically unintelligible. With a modern public address system, people still wouldn’t have been able to understand President Wilson. Grayson and Tumulty continued to insist that the Mayflower return to Washington, D.C. at once. Wilson continued to refuse, stating that he just needed a day’s rest and would then be able to pick up where he left off, speak in Wichita and keep going. “If we cancel this trip, Senator Lodge and his friends will say I am a quitter, that the trip was a failure,” said Wilson. Grayson and Tumulty tried to convince him that nobody thought of him as quitter and that nothing could be done if he died in the process of attempting to pass the treaty. The President, in order to give comfort to the worried trio, tried to move closer to them as they sat nearby and tried to convince him to go home. But he couldn’t move closer. In fact, he couldn’t move anything on the left side of his body at all. Still, he intended on continuing the trip and speaking in Wichita that day. It was Edith who finally told Woodrow Wilson that he had to go home. The people could not see their President that way — half of his body paralyzed, unable to speak clearly enough to be understood even by people right next to him, drooling uncontrollably from the immobile side of his pale, stricken, weary face. It was that argument that finally swayed the President and, as he realized that his fight for the League was over, he realized that the hope for the League had passed. As Dr. Grayson and Joseph Tumulty left his private compartment to notify the reporters that the Mayflower was heading directly back to Washington, Woodrow Wilson buried his face in the one hand that he could use and began crying once again. Not only had he lost the fight, but he had nearly killed himself while losing it.