The Centennial Of Woodrow Wilson’s Presidency: A Time For Debate Over His Legacy

A century ago day, Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated as the 28th President of the United States,and helped to transform the Presidency in massive ways, some good and some bad.

Wilson has been under attack in the present climate of conservative attacks on reform oriented Presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Barack Obama.

The facts are that Wilson, FDR, and LBJ were the three most accomplished Presidents in domestic affairs, but with plenty of criticism about their handling of wars and the domestic relationship to those wars.

Wilson accomplished the most domestic reform of any President before him, taking on parts of Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism agenda on the Progressive Party line in 1912, adding it to his own New Freedom legislative ideas.

So Wilson’s time saw the following:

Underwood Simmons Tariff

Federal Reserve Act

Clayton Anti Trust Act

Federal Trade Commission

Keating-Owen Child Labor Act

La Follette Seamen’s Act

Adamson Act (eight hour work day in interstate transportation)

Federal Farm Loan Act

Some of this did not work out well long term, and additionally, Wilson had major negative policies dealing with:

Woman Suffrage—opposing an amendment (although it came about despite him in 1920, via the 19th Amendment).

Race Relations—clearly racist policy of imposing Jim Crow segregation in Washington, DC; unfair treatment and recognition of African American sacrifices in the World War I effort; and endorsement of an openly racist film, D W Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION, which portrayed the Southern view of Reconstruction, a myth of long standing, which finally was proved inaccurate in the past half century of historical research and writing.

Civil Liberties Violations— including arrest and imprisonment of Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs for opposition to the draft and American involvement in World War I; the Espionage and Sedition Acts; and the Palmer Raids after the war.

In foreign policy, Wilson engaged in “Missionary Diplomacy” including interventions in Haiti, and more significantly in Mexico, attempting to pursue Pancho Villa for a raid across the border into Columbus, New Mexico, the worst incursion in American territory since the War of 1812. And of course, the controversy over Wilson and our entrance into World War I continues even today, and the whole debate and divisiveness over the Versailles Treaty and League of Nations in 1919-1920.

Additionally, being incapacitated by a stroke, but being unwilling to hand over temporary power to Vice President Thomas Marshall, and allowing his wife to run cabinet meetings, is another major issue in assessing Wilson’s Presidency.

So Wilson is a “very mixed bag” as a President, but usually is ranked in the bottom of the top ten of our Presidents, specifically because of his long range influence on America, rare among Presidents, for good or for bad, and there is clearly plenty of both!