Knowing the Presidents: Thomas Woodrow Wilson

Thomas Woodrow Wilson

Twenty-Eighth President, 1913–1921


A Southerner and a Democrat, Woodrow Wilson rode the Progressive Movement into the White House in 1912.

For his second term campaign in 1916, he promised to keep the USA neutral and not to enter WWI.

For the majority of his presidency, Wilson excluded both women and African Americans from gaining full citizenship rights.

He promoted self-government, with direct nomination of candidates and honest elections; as a result, 1914 was the first year in which senators were directly elected.


The revolution in Mexico caused Woodrow Wilson more difficulty than any other foreign policy issue in the Western Hemisphere.

Wilson attempted to keep the United States out of World War I until Germany’s U-boats wreaked havoc on American ships and Germany attempted to persuade Mexico to attack the U.S.

Wilson created the League of Nations, yet his career ended when he was unable to get Congress to approve it. His rigidity had something to do with his failure; he refused to appoint a bipartisan delegation to the peace conference to represent American interests.

Major Acts

Woodrow Wilson famously elaborated his Fourteen Points in January 1918, sketching out a new world order with a new open diplomacy, free trade, disarmament, and a general association of countries: the League of Nations.

Wilson established the Federal Reserve and the Federal Trade Commission—the first advocated a regional banking system with government control of the nation’s currency; the second reduced import tariffs.

Wilson furthered antitrust reform by sharpening the distinction between legitimate and illegal corporate practices. He also partially exempted labor unions from injunctions.

In 1917, Wilson signed the Jones-Shaffroth Act giving Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship but excluded those on the island from voting in presidential elections.


Woodrow Wilson introduced Pan-Americanism, or political and commercial cooperation with Latin America. But using military force to assert American interests in Latin America resulted in a legacy of distrust with Mexico. He also opened the Panama Canal in 1914 and consolidated U.S. hegemony in the Caribbean.

Wilson could not compromise and refused to include Republicans in his plans. This rigidity cost him support for the League of Nations, and his lack of bipartisanship would be a lesson to learn from.