28th President of the United States (1913-1921)
Full Name: Thomas Woodrow Wilson
Born: December 29, 1856, Staunton, Virginia
Political Party: Democratic
State Represented: New Jersey
Term: March 4, 1913-March 4, 1921
Age at Inauguration: 56 years, 65 days
Administration: 32nd and 33rd
Congresses: 63rd, 64th, 65th, and 66th
Vice President: Thomas Riley Marshall (1913-1921)
Died: February 3, 1924, 2340 S Street NW, Washington, D.C.
Buried: Washington National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.
2012 Dead Presidents Ranking: 20 of 43 [↔]
I often feel like I’m fighting a losing battle at pointing out how overrated Woodrow Wilson is, but I’m a warrior for what I believe and this will always be a hill that I’m willing to die on. 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 clung 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. It’s also worth noting that Wilson campaigned for reelection by promising to keep Americans out of the first World War, nearly lost the 1916 election to Charles Evans Hughes anyway, and declared war on Germany less than a month after his second inauguration. On top of that, when the United States finally entered the war, it took far longer to get our troops ready and into the action than it would have had Wilson listened to advice from all over to at least have our military ready as a contingency plan since, you know, most of the rest of the world — including our closest allies — was in the midst of the biggest, bloodiest, and most brutal war in human history. Instead of hitting the ground running and bringing relief to our allies who had been staggering through the stalemate of trench warfare, most of our military was barely even trained, hit the ground crawling instead of running, and did bring an infusion of fresh troops into the war, but could have done so much earlier if President Wilson had at least increased the readiness of our military even as he attempted to protect American neutrality. The delays probably cost hundreds of thousands more lives in the war than would have been lost had the United States been prepared, as it clearly needed to be but wasn’t until 1917 — delays that led Theodore Roosevelt to call Wilson, among other things, “shameful”, “contemptible”,”ignoble”, and “the very worst man we have ever had in his position” , as well as flat-out calling Wilson a “coward”. And, of course, once the war ended, Wilson personally went to Europe to claim his share of the glory from winning the war and be seen as the man who shaped the peace. That “peace” — in the form of the Treaty of Versailles — ended up being so harsh towards Germany that their humiliated population followed Hitler into darkness a decade later and resulted in an even worse world war, not to mention the fact that the Japanese delegations in Versailles were treated so dismissively that they also began planning their next moves. If that wasn’t bad enough, when Wilson returned to the United States and demanded that the Senate ratify the Treaty of Versailles and allow the United States to join the League of Nations, he was so inflexible and unreasonable (as he was in France when he personally negotiated the treaty without allowing input from those Americans who would actually be ratifying it), his obstinance finally went too far. The Senate refused to ratify the treaty, denied American participation in the League of Nations, and gave the President who had earned a doctorate while writing a book on Congressional government a harsh lesson on the balance of power in the United States. I have an endless amount of respect for fellow Presidential historians, but I cannot understand why so many scholars consider Wilson one of the better Presidents in American history. I have him ranked 20th of 43 and even that feels wrong. I don’t think he was a good politician, I don’t think he was a good executive, I don’t think he was a good Commander-in-Chief, I don’t think he was a good man, and I don’t think Woodrow Wilson was good for this country or this world, and I think that was proven by the aftermath of World War I and the build-up to World War II.
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
None of those Presidents were actively involved with the Ku Klux Klan and the only one who could even be vaguely connected with the Klan is Truman. I know that there are allegations, but I don’t know where those who claim that these Presidents were in the KKK found their information. Most of the claims don’t even make a sliver of sense and some of the people specifically known to have made the KKK allegations had such questionable credibility that they shouldn’t have been believed if they had claimed that water was wet.
I can actually understand why Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman might be linked with the KKK — both men were white supremacists. Truman wasn’t as racist as Wilson, but he wasn’t exactly a paragon of progressive racial viewpoints. Some of Truman’s early letters to his wife, Bess, are shockingly insensitive and downright racist. Yet, he also desegregated the armed forces, was close friends and business partners when he was younger with a Jew, recognized the creation of the State of Israel, and is remembered well by Liberals. Maybe Truman’s views on race evolved as he got older, maybe he didn’t let his personal racism affect his professional work — I don’t know. But Truman undoubtedly was a white supremacist. So was Wilson, who also happened to be one of the most vicious racists to ever serve in the White House, possibly surpassed only by Andrew Johnson. However, Wilson’s vehement racism didn’t automatically make him a member of the KKK, and there is no evidence that he was ever involved with them.
McKinley, Harding, and Coolidge don’t belong in the same conversation as Wilson and Truman when it comes to racism or white supremacy, and they certainly weren’t members of the KKK. Harding was actually the first President in American history to call for anti-lynching laws and was one of the more progressive Presidents between Lincoln and LBJ when it came to civil rights. McKinley, Harding, and Coolidge were all northerners and while that didn’t guarantee enlightened racial beliefs, neither of those three Presidents had a reputation of ignorance or opposition to civil rights.
So, that brings us back to Harry Truman, the one President who can be somewhat linked by evidence to the Ku Klux Klan. In the 1920s, Tom Pendergast, the powerful boss of the Kansas City political machine, encouraged Truman to run for his first political position — judge of Jackson County, Missouri. Although the title was “judge”, it wasn’t a judicial position; instead, it was an administrative job, similar to a county executive or city manager. Since the KKK was a powerful political interest group in that area of Missouri, Truman was encouraged to join the Klan to win their support (or at least avoid their opposition). Truman wasn’t wild about the idea, but he most likely paid a membership fee. There are differing opinions on how involved Truman was with the KKK, but he probably did nothing more than pay the $10 membership fee. There isn’t any credible evidence to indicate that Truman was inducted into the Klan or ever active. In fact, it’s likely that he quickly realized that he had made a major mistake. Truman’s political patron, Tom Pendergast, was a Catholic and, as mentioned earlier, Truman’s close friend and former business partner, Eddie Jacobson, was Jewish. Jacobson and Truman not only opened and operated a haberdashery in Kansas City together, but they served together in the military. Truman may not have had progressive racial views, but he was unfailingly loyal to his friends and the KKK was just as anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic as it was racist. That, more than anything, probably resulted in Truman quickly distancing himself from the Klan.
Later in life, Truman would claim that he demanded his $10 membership fee back and that he went to a Klan meeting to confront the KKK after they threatened to kill him. That’s almost certainly not true. It’s also likely not true that Truman wasn’t aware of the extent of the Klan’s activities. Perhaps he didn’t realize the KKK’s strict intolerance of anyone who wasn’t Protestant, but Truman had lived in Missouri all of his life and couldn’t possibly have been ignorant about what the Klan represented. It can’t even be blamed on youth because Truman was 40 years old at the time that he supposedly submitted his $10 membership fee. No matter how one looks at it, it’s a stain on Truman’s life and legacy, even with the positive accomplishments of his Presidency.
Yes. If that happened today, the 25th Amendment would have been invoked and the President would have been declared incapacitated. Unfortunately, we were still about 7 amendments away from the 25th being ratified at the time of Wilson’s major stroke.
Five Presidents have married the daughters of ministers.
The wife of John Adams, Abigail, was John’s third cousin and the daughter of Reverend William Smith, a Congregational minister in Weymouth, Massachusetts.
Millard Fillmore married another Abigail — Abigail Powers — in 1826. Millard’s Abigail was the daughter of a Baptist minister from Moravia, New York.
Fillmore’s immediate successor, Franklin Pierce, was married to Jane Means Appleton, whose father was a Congregational minister in New England, much like Abigail Adams’s father.
Benjamin Harrison and Woodrow Wilson also married the daughters of preachers and in both cases, they were the daughters of Presbyterian ministers. Harrison’s first wife, Caroline Lavinia Scott, was the daughter of an influential and well-educated minister who introduced his daughter to the future President when Harrison was a student at the college he taught at. The Harrison wedding was even officiated by Reverend Scott.
Marrying the daughter of a Presbyterian minister wasn’t tough for Woodrow Wilson. He himself was the child of a minister of that faith and his marriage to Ellen Louise Axson in 1885 was performed by Wilson’s father and Ellen’s grandfather (another Presbyterian minister!) due to her father’s failing health.
Plus, as I wrote in my ranking of Wilson in 2012:
"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."
In an answer to another reader’s question a while back, I expanded on my thoughts about Wilson (and included some previous things that I have written about him — opinions that I still strongly support):
"Woodrow Wilson was a lot of things, but he certainly wasn’t a good man. I disagree with your teacher regarding the First World War not concerning the United States. We played an important role in the war and it really expanded and solidified the U.S.’s position as a superpower. One of the problems with Wilson (and it’s just one of MANY problems with Wilson) is that he probably waited too long to get the U.S. involved in the war. Wilson probably should have gotten the American military ready much sooner.
I definitely agree with your teacher that Wilson’s intentions were not exactly pure. To get deeper into the subject, I’ll just copy and paste some past comments I’ve made about Wilson and his “idealism”, which was largely an effort to remake the world in the manner that he genuinely thought God put him on Earth and in the Presidency to see fit. I’ve written before that Wilson’s idealism is similar to George W. Bush’s:
I can’t speak for you, but there are many reasons I dislike Wilson. First of all, he was a virulent racist and vicious about it. Some Presidents had antiquated racial views, but Wilson just flat-out didn’t like people who weren’t white Christians. So, as a person, Wilson was garbage.
Then, politically, his “idealism” was no different than George W. Bush’s idealism. In fact, I’ve said it many times before: I think that Wilson and Bush were VERY similar Presidents. Here are two past things that I’ve written about my dislike for Wilson:
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.
and, this, from when I was asked if Wilson would have approved of the Iraq War:
Woodrow Wilson is partly responsible for the Iraq War.
George W. Bush’s belief that it is America’s role to spread democracy and fight tyranny around the world is rooted in Wilsonian thinking. Bush was emulating Wilson. He felt that Iraq was a place where democracy could take hold if Saddam Hussein were out of the picture. Bush would argue that the Iraq War was not imperialistic, and I believe Woodrow Wilson would support that viewpoint.
Wilsonian idealism consisted of many things, but one of the main points was this belief that what is good for us in the United States is just as good for the rest of the world. Wilson felt that we basically knew what was best for everyone else and if you’re looking for someone who mirrored that thinking, you’d find him in President Bush.
Bush and Wilson came from different places and different parties and their wars were waged for different reasons. Our entry into World War I was for a very good reason while the Iraq War was despicable. The goal of both Wilson and Bush, however, was to export American-style democracy — either to ensure peace or to create a system where American leadership and military might was required to sustain a growing capitalist society.
I could get a lot of heat for comparing Wilson and Bush, but people need to dig deeper and really understand that they thought the same way, they acted the same way, and they were both stubborn Presidents who wanted things done a certain way (THEIR way) or else they were fine with seeing everything crumble.
Wilson wouldn’t frown because the Iraq War was imperialistic. He would have frowned because he didn’t think of it before Bush did.”
I think Andrew Johnson was probably the most racist President for his time or anyone else’s time. And Woodrow Wilson would probably be in second place.
It was the most colossal misfortune of the century that in this great crisis…our President should be an absolutely selfish, cold-blooded and unpatriotic rhetorician.
Wilson has a great deal of ability of the most sinister type…above all in appealing to whatever is evil or foolish in the average man…
Theodore Roosevelt, on Woodrow Wilson’s leadership during World War I, letter to Arthur Lee, August 17, 1917
"The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile.
To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or anyone else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about anyone else.
— Theodore Roosevelt, Kansas City Star, May 7, 1918.
TR, the 26th President of the United States (1901-1909), died exactly 95 years ago today (January 6, 1919) at his beloved home, Sagamore Hill, in Oyster Bay, on the North Shore of New York’s Long Island.
Roosevelt was just 60 years when he died in 1919, and with a wide-open Presidential election just a year away, TR was heavily-favored to finally return to the White House. After pledging to serve just one term in office when he was elected in his own right in 1904, Roosevelt turned the Presidency over to his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, in 1908.
Almost immediately, Roosevelt began to regret giving up the Presidency. Even worse, he felt that President Taft was a poor choice to carry the torch for TR’s legacy. The once-close relationship between Roosevelt and Taft broke out into a vicious war of words, escalated by TR’s decision to challenge the incumbent President Taft for the 1912 Republican nomination.
When Taft was victorious in the battle for the Republican nomination, things got even uglier. Roosevelt and his supporters bolted from the GOP Convention, formed a third-party — the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party — and nominated TR for President under that banner.
Neither Taft or Roosevelt had a chance to win in 1912. The split in the GOP meant that Taft and TR siphoned votes from each other in an election where the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson, was already drawing interest from a number of Progressive Republicans. Taft and Roosevelt focused on attacking each other and Wilson was so confident of victory he didn’t even have to campaign for himself near the end. In the final days of the campaign, Wilson hit the trail in support of a strong Democratic majority in Congress.
The wounds of the 1912 election took time to heal (one of those wounds was a gunshot wound to the chest that Roosevelt suffered during an assassination attempt in Milwaukee in the closing days of the campaign). TR’s break from the GOP angered many Republican leaders who had supported and defended Roosevelt for years. Taft was especially hurt from some of the mean-spirited comments Roosevelt made about him because he considered TR one of his closest friends.
Roosevelt’s actions in 1912 likely cost him the Presidency in 1916. Despite his comfortable victory over Roosevelt and Taft four years earlier, President Wilson was vulnerable as he sought reelection. Despite Wilson’s vulnerability, Roosevelt recognized that he still had to make amends and that 1916 was out of the question for him. The GOP nominated Charles Evans Hughes and Roosevelt healed more wounds several days later when he turned down a Presidential nomination from the party he formed four years earlier, the Progressives, and signaled his support for Hughes, who narrowly lost to Wilson.
Although he frequently denied it, friends and foes alike were convinced that Theodore Roosevelt had his sights set on the 1920 Presidential election. TR had healed most of the wounds caused by his break with the GOP, including the biggest and most personal — he reconciled with William Howard Taft. TR had also been an even more outspoken and vehement critic of Woodrow Wilson than he usually was of political opponent.
When World War I broke out, Roosevelt attacked Wilson for not offering assistance to American allies in Europe. As the U.S. drifted closer to war, TR criticized Wilson for not putting American soldiers on a war footing. And once Americans started fighting and dying, Roosevelt slammed Wilson for not having our soldiers better prepared.
Roosevelt may have been getting ready to run for President when he died. He was certainly seen as the frontrunner and considering the eventual nominees in 1920 (Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox), it’s difficult to imagine him losing a nomination or general election to either man.
But TR was also in terrible health despite being relatively young and living a famously active lifestyle. In fact, that lifestyle may have been the cause of his troubles. While exploring a tributary of the Amazon in 1914, TR was stricken with malaria and almost died in South America.
What Roosevelt really wanted was to reprise his military glory with the Rough Riders regiment that had served so well during the Spanish-American War. When Roosevelt offered his services to President Wilson and requested a commission in Europe, the President quickly turned him down.</p>
Roosevelt felt that Wilson took glee in rejecting TR’s request for a military commission, and he very well might have. The two men shared a mutual dislike and distrust of each other at that point.
But in fairness to Wilson, Roosevelt had barely survived a bout with malaria, was shot in the chest at close range on the campaign trail in 1912, was overweight, suffered from crippling rheumatism, and happened to be blind in one eye and deaf in one ear. Had he lived, these may or may not have been issues on the campaign trail, but they were definitely liabilities on the battlefield.
Theodore Roosevelt never
made it to the 1920 Presidential campaign that most Americans expected him to easily win. It’s a wonder that the former President made it through 1918 at all. TR kept his name in the news through regular editorial columns, but his health was failing. Early in 1918, he spent a month hospitalized for a relapse of malaria and a debilitating ear infection. Late in 1918, as his political friends began planning his next campaign, Roosevelt’s closest friends worried as he spent another six weeks in the New York hospital named after his philanthropist father.
Friends who visited TR in late 1918 noticed a marked change. His physical condition had been weakening, of course, but the bigger concern was a dimming of the radiant optimism that had long been a Roosevelt trademark. The reason why that light wasn’t shining as brightly was no secret, however. His assorted physical ailments were difficult for even his doctors to keep track of. But everyone knew why Theodore Roosevelt’s heart was broken in 1918.
While President Wilson promptly shut down any chance of the old Rough Rider joining one last fight, TR had four healthy sons of fighting age during World War I and none of them were about to miss out on a chance to make their father proud. TR’s second oldest son, Kermit, was so anxious to take up arms that he actually joined the British Army and fought in the Middle East while awaiting U.S. entry into the war.
TR had great pride in his sons and was personally fearless in his own wartime experience. But there is no sense of fearlessness when four of your children are fighting on the frontlines of what had become the deadliest war in human history up to that time. Instead, TR felt helpless.
First came word that Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. — “Ted” — who would later be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during World War II’s Normandy Invasion, had been wounded in France. Over 200 of Ted’s fellow soldiers were killed, but Ted refused to surrender, even after the Germans used chemical weapons to gas Ted and temporarily blind him. The elder Theodore Roosevelt was relieved to hear that Ted was recovering and would be rewarded a Croix de Guerre from the French and a Silver Star, Purple Heart, Distinguished Service Medal, and Distinguished Service Cross from Uncle Sam.
While Kermit was made artillery captain under General John J. Pershing (after being awarded the British Military Cross in recognition for his service with the Allies), the third Roosevelt son, Archibald Bulloch Roosevelt — “Archie” — also earned France’s prestigious Croix de Guerre, and it didn’t come easily. An initial telegram from the War Department said that Archie had been “slightly wounded”. In fact, Archie had been seriously wounded — a compound fracture of his left arm also severed his arm’s main nerve. Even worse, shrapnel had blasted into Archie’s left leg, splintering his kneecap and leaving it in such bad shape that his French doctors decided that amputation was the best bet. Fortunately for Archie, one of the other patients convinced the doctors otherwise — that helpful patient was Archie’s older brother Ted. While he kept his leg, Archie was classified as “disabled” and discharged. A quarter of a century later, Archie was once again nearly killed by shrapnel in another World War, classified as “disabled” and discharged.
In another French hospital, TR’s youngest son, 20-year-old Quentin, was recovering from a broken arm suffered in a rough landing. While his brothers were old-school soldiers, Quentin was one of the early American combat pilots. Quentin was also impatient, hoping to end up a war hero like his father and brothers. But as the war continued, Theodore Roosevelt’s fears lengthened. His boys had faced enough close calls. He was ready for them to return home. When he heard that Quentin had started flying missions in German territory, he had an uneasy feeling. When he heard that Quentin recorded his first kill in action of an enemy pilot, TR was proud, but cryptically wrote to his youngest daughter, “Whatever now befalls Quentin, he has had his crowded hour, and his day of honor and triumph.”
It was a cable directly from General Pershing that notified Roosevelt that his youngest son was missing in action, and a reporter from the Associated Press the next morning who confirmed that Quentin was dead. Roosevelt, devastated, wondered aloud how he was going to break the news to his wife.
Quentin had been shot down in a dogfight with a German fighter. When his plane crashed, German troops on the ground checked his identification and recognized that the young man was the son of the former American President. They gathered his belongings to send to President Roosevelt and buried Quentin with full military honors.
Theodore Roosevelt’s health had been failing, but Quentin’s death broke his heart and seemed to accelerate the end. When TR saw his sister Corinne for the first time after Quentin was killed, she worriedly asked if he was ill. “No,” the former President said, “but I am not what I was.”
In the six months he had left to live following Quentin’s death, the spark — the urge to fight one last battle appeared from time-to-time, particularly when Woodrow Wilson was mentioned. And there were times when Wilson wasn’t mentioned at all where TR brought up his hatred rival to seemingly fire himself up. Back in the hospital as the Holidays approached in December 1918, TR’s longtime friend Margaret Chanler mentioned her concern for him. “I am pretty low now,” he confessed before stoking his fire for Wilson again, “but I shall get better. I cannot go without having done something to that old gray skunk in the White House.”
On the night of January 5, 1919, Roosevelt was having so much trouble sleeping that one of the nurses who had been helping monitor the former President’s health since his return home from the hospital shortly before Christmas gave him a shot of morphine. James Amos, a former valet of TR’s who was also helping out as Roosevelt recovered, helped the former President into bed. As his eyes finally grew heavy, Roosevelt asked, “James, will you please put out the light?”
Archie Roosevelt notified his siblings of their father’s death with a simple telegram: “The old lion is dead.”
Woodrow Wilson learned of his rival’s death while on a train traveling through France. Reporters on the train noted that Wilson’s expression changed from being surprised to being satisfied or triumphant.
Roosevelt’s former rival, William Howard Taft, was neither satisfied or triumphant — he was devastated, but felt fortunate that he and TR had reconciled and once again become friends. When Archie Roosevelt noticed former President Taft in the back of the church at TR’s funeral, Archie urged Taft to sit up front with the Roosevelt family. Following the graveside service on the hill where Roosevelt was to be buried, Taft lingered long after other mourners had left, crying near his old friend’s casket.
President Wilson’s official representative at Roosevelt’s funeral was the always quotable Vice President, Thomas Riley Marshall, who didn’t disappoint. Vice President Marshall also didn’t miss the irony in the notoriously feisty Roosevelt dying peacefully in his sleep:
"Death had to take him sleeping, for if Roosevelt had been awake, there would have been a fight."
An absolutely selfish, cold-blooded and unpatriotic rhetorician.