While researching articles on the general opinion concerning Woodrow Wilson and whether or not he was a good president, I came across a lot of satirical stories. “Woodrow Wilson: The Worst Great President,” one video title read. “Woodrow Wilson Was One of Our Most Tragic Presidents,” said another. And then a third read, “Woodrow Wilson Achieved a Lot. So Why Is He So Scorned?” With so much opposing information on the internet, was Woodrow Wilson a good president?
While it’s true that Wilson is known for some significant accomplishments in advancing the nation, he also had a lot of drawbacks during his presidency. Though he initially tried to keep America out of World War I, he ended up sending unprepared troops into battle. He was racist and wanted to keep America segregated and even endorsed a controversial movie called The Birth of a Nation about the Ku Klux Klan, saying the movie was historically accurate. And he turned a blind eye to lynchings that were happening to African Americans all across America.
Woodrow Wilson was born a preacher’s son, grew up in the south and rose from being president of Princeton University to the governor of New Jersey to a United States President in just two years. Let’s take a look at what made Wilson a good president.
- What Made Woodrow Wilson a Good President?
- What Made Woodrow Wilson a Bad President?
- Was Woodrow Wilson a Good President?
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What Made Woodrow Wilson a Good President?
The Creation of the Federal Reserve System
The Federal Reserve System, otherwise known as the central banking authority of the United States, is considered one of the most important financial institutions in the world. Before the Federal Reserve, the United States was unstable financially, with many cash crunches and bank failures.
When the Federal Reserve Act was signed into law by Wilson, this gave the 12 Federal Reserve banks the ability to print money to ensure economic stability. Basically, the Federal Reserve was given power over the money supply.
Prominent in Getting Women the Right to vote
When Wilson entered office, he didn’t seem to pay much attention to the suffrage movement. Yet things changed one day when picketers were picketing outside the White House, demanding that Wilson follow through with his promised support.
Some picketers were arrested when the police had had enough of the altercations that ensued from onlookers protesting the picketers. When Wilson heard that the police were force-feeding women on a hunger strike, he was outraged and finally stepped in, even joining his daughter, leading suffragist Jessie Woodrow Wilson Sayre.
He made good on his word and, in a speech before Congress, publicly endorsed women’s right to vote. At first, he did not get enough votes from the Senate for the Amendment to pass, but he continued to campaign for women until enough Senate members voted it through to be ratified by the states.
Finally, on June 4, 1919, the 19th Amendment passed through the Senate and went to the states for ratification. Upon its ratification, Wilson said, “I deem it one of the greatest honors of my life that this great event, so stoutly fought for, for so many years, should have occurred during the period of my administration.”
The Creation of the Federal Trade Commission
The Federal Trade Commission Act was established for business reform. It was meant to:
- Prevent unfair methods of competition and deceptive practices affecting commerce;
- Help obtain monetary compensation for injurious conduct toward consumers;
- Prescribe specific trade regulation rules that define acts or practices that were unfair or deceptive, and establish requirements that would prevent such acts;
- Organize investigations related to business and management of entities in commerce, and
- Make reports and legislative recommendations to congress.
He Kept America Out of War During His First Term
Despite his wife, Ellen Axson’s death as World War I exploded, Wilson was able to push his grief aside and keep America out of the war for about three years. He entered his second term promising to keep America out of the war but was not able to follow through with his promise this time.
Went Into World War I With Hopes of Initiating a Peace Treaty
Feeling like there was no alternative, Wilson asked Congress to declare war. Yet despite this needed effort, he was still a proponent for peace, and in January 1918, he proclaimed the Fourteen Points, which were designed to bring peace to the world.
In a speech he made to Congress outlining these points, he had hopes of rebuilding the postwar world with ideas that included freedom of the seas, free trade, and the concept of national self-determination through the dismantling of European empires, replacing them with the creation of new states.
Summary of His Fourteen Points
- Open diplomacy without secret treaties
- Economic free trade on the seas during war and peace
- Equal trade conditions
- Decrease armaments among all nations
- Adjust colonial claims
- Evacuation of all Central Powers from Russia and allow it to define its own independence
- Belgium to be evacuated and restored
- Return of the Alsace-Lorraine region and all French territories
- Readjust Italian borders
- Austria-Hungary to be provided an opportunity for self-determination
- Redraw the borders of the Balkan region, creating Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro
- Creation of a Turkish state with guaranteed free trade in the Dardanelles
- Creation of an independent Polish state
- Creations of the League of Nations
Point number 14, what Wilson is most known for, involved the creation of the League of Nations, which was to be an international organization that would dedicate itself to keeping peace in the world. This League of Nations is known today as the United Nations.
What Made Woodrow Wilson a Bad President?
He Was a Known Racist and Pro Segregation
In 1913, a Cabinet meeting was held with Postmaster General Albert Burleson, who wanted the Railway Mail Service to be segregated. He was disgruntled about having to share glasses, towels, and washrooms with African Americans. Wilson’s response, he “wished the matter adjusted in a way to make the least friction.”
Burleson and the Treasury Secretary William McAdoo took that to mean he authorized segregation. As a result, the Department of Treasury and Post Office Department fabricated screened-off workspaces, separate lunchrooms, and bathrooms.
Civil Rights Activist, W.E.B. Dubois, who had initially supported Wilson, became very discouraged. In a letter he wrote to the President, he told of a black clerk who worked at a place where he could not be segregated due to the type of work he did. So people built a cage around him to separate him from his white coworkers.
Helped Squelch a Proposal For Racial Equality Recognition
At the Versailles Convention in 1919, Wilson tore down a proposal by Japan that urged the treaty to recognize the principle of racial equality. He declared the Amendment defeated because the vote to move forward with this policy was not unanimous. Eleven of the 17 members were in favor of the Amendment.
Instead, it appears that Wilson did not want to recognize racial equality. What he wanted was to make the British Empire happy. They were for subjugating African and South Asian people.
A descendant of Confederate soldiers, Wilson appears sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan. In his book, A History of the American People, Wilson writes:
“The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation… until at least there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.”
This quote ended up in the movie, The Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith, which portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as saviors of the South and African Americans as savages. Wilson ordered a private screening of the movie and praised it for being historically accurate.
Toward the End of His Term, His Wife Ran the Country
Wilson was somewhat sickly and overworked and suffered a series of strokes that left him partially impaired and paralyzed. Yet he kept this a secret for as long as he could, and given that there was no set law in place stating that the vice president takes over the duties of the president in his absence, things went on as usual without him. But it was his second wife, Edith, who took on the prominent role in his affairs. She acted as his special assistant until the end of his presidency in March 1921. Three years later, he died.
Was Woodrow Wilson a Good President?
Though there are many ways Wilson advanced our country, including giving women the right to vote, it seems through public opinion – at least public that is for equality, whether black or white – in order for Wilson to be deemed a good president, he would need to be seen that way by all. And with the racist bias he possessed, this is not the case.
In 2020, Princeton University finally responded to the people’s outcry and removed Wilson’s name from the University’s School of Public and International Affairs. Princeton’s trustees said that they had to consider whether it was right for the University’s school of public affairs to contain the name of a racist who segregated the country’s civil service after it had been integrated for decades.
Though Wilson is seen as a progressive internationalist statesman, his reputation as a racist and the policies he enforced are marred. A “good” president needs to be seen as “good” by a representation of all the citizens of the country he serves.
This is not how Wilson was viewed by African Americans and those who supported equality for all.
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Alexandra Christensen is a freelance writer and editor. When she is not working on an assignment, she can be found hanging around with other writers on Medium.com/@alexandra_creates where she writes mostly about raising foster and adopted kids and those with invisible disabilities.