Woodrow Wilson was the first Democratic president since Grover Cleveland, and the first Southern president since Andrew Johnson. But his victory was a result of Theodore Roosevelt’s split with the Republican Party. Could Wilson hold onto power while keeping the US out of Europe’s Great War?
The Last Four Years
Sticking to his progressive campaign platform, President Wilson aggressively enacted his “New Freedom.” His main domestic concerns were environmental conservation, banking reform, tariff reform, and regulation of trusts.
Following the Panic of 1907, the National Monetary Commission was formed to find a solution to America’s frequent economic downturns. Their recommendation was a central banking system. The idea of a national bank had been a source of controversy since the founding of the country. It was one of the major divisions between Hamilton’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. As president, Andrew Jackson infamously destroyed the Second National Bank in the 1830s. Consequently, the US had no control over the economic depressions of the nineteenth century. The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 found common ground between conservatives and progressives. It created a system of twelve regional federal reserve banks, each privately owned by member banks, but regulated by a board of directors appointed by the president and given significant freedom to set policy. It also established a new currency, federal reserve notes, that could be issued to control currency demand. Andrew Jackson rolled in his grave at the thought that a fellow Democrat was responsible for re-establishing the national bank.
Tariff rates had been high since Reconstruction thanks to the Republican dominance of the presidency. Even Cleveland, who had made economics a priority of his campaigns, failed to significantly reduce rates. Farmers, particularly in the South, had long been angry at the expense of imported goods, meant to protect Northeastern manufacturing. Finally, Wilson made it happen. He reduced the average tariff rate from 41% to 27%! But that didn’t mean the government didn’t need to collect money. The 16th Amendment was passed during Wilson’s first term, which legalized the federal income tax. In regards to anti-trust legislation, Wilson enacted two major bills. The Federal Trade Commission Act created a five-member board to investigate business practices and prevent illegal actives, while the Clayton Antitrust Act outlawed price fixing, stock ownership in competing companies, and directors overseeing multiple competing companies. It also provided an exemption for unions as a form of protection. Ironically, these plans were closer to the regulation proposed by Teddy Roosevelt’s New Nationalism, than to Wilson’s campaign promise to breakup trusts.
Despite Wilson’s mostly progressive agenda, his Southern roots were exposed on issues of race. The most infamous example was the screening of DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, the first ever film to be watched inside the White House. The film tells the story of two families during the Civil War and Reconstruction. While Lincoln is portrayed positively, Griffith uses racist depictions of African Americans and presents the Ku Klux Klan as heroes. Title cards borrow quotes from an American history book written by Wilson during his time as a professor, the only such quotes in the movie. Wilson’s motivation for the screening, however, was as a favor for his college friend, Thomas Dixon Jr, who wrote the book that the movie was based on. Wilson claimed to be unaware of the controversial nature of the movie, although that is difficult to believe given that it sparked protests, even at the time. The title card quotes are somewhat misleading, as Wilson’s books were ultimately critical of the Klan. A more direct example of Wilson’s racism was his approval of segregation by his cabinet officials. While this wasn’t the first time segregation was introduced to the federal government, the Wilson years clearly set the stage for a resurgence of the KKK in the 1920s.
When it came to foreign policy, Wilson adhered to the traditional Democratic views of anti-intervention and isolationism in his first term. He granted more autonomy to the US territories of Puerto Rico and The Philippines. The Jones Act of 1916 officially declared America’s intention to work towards Philippine independence. He and Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan also promoted friendlier ties to Latin American countries, signing treaties of political cooperation with 30 nations. With Mexico, however, the situation was more complicated. America’s southern neighbors were in the middle of a civil war. The country was under the control of General Victoriano Huerta’s military dictatorship. Wilson instead backed Huerta’s opponents, the Constitutionalists. In April 1914, Wilson sent the US Navy to Veracruz to prevent a German munition shipment from landing. The two countries came close to war, but the situation was diffused through diplomatic intervention by South American countries. In August, the Constitutionalists took control of the capitol in Mexico City. Wilson recognized the new government, which prompted one of Huera’s men, Francisco “Pancho” Villa, to invade the US state of New Mexico. Wilson sent General John Pershing to push Villa back into Mexico, though he ended up fighting deep into Mexican territory.
Meanwhile, the powder-keg of European conflict erupted in the summer of 1914. The crisis escalated following the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary. Soon, the continent was at war. Wilson, maintaining his isolationist beliefs, declared neutrality, but hoped to protect American trade rights. His administration attempted to negotiate peace as well as a guarantee of rights for nonbelligerent countries, but had no luck. In May 1915, German submarines sank the British passenger ship, the Lusitania, off the coast of Ireland. 124 Americans were killed. Though Wilson still declared that the US was “too proud to fight,” he committed to “preparedness” by expanding the US military, just in case. He chose not to criticize Britain for failing to blockade the German ports. Concluding that Wilson was no longer truly neutral, William Jennings Bryan resigned his position as secretary of state.
My final note about Wilson’s first term is a tragic one. On August 6, 1914, the president’s first wife, Ellen, died of kidney disease. Surprisingly, Wilson remarried to Edith Bolling Galt, the widow of a jeweler, less than a year and a half later. Remember her for the next post!
Goodbye domestic issues, hello foreign policy! Although Wilson enacted lots of progressive domestic legislation, the American public was focused on maintaining isolation from Europe’s war. That being said, many of Wilson’s opponents, like the always out-spoken Teddy Roosevelt, saw Wilson as weak and ineffective. To them, the US should have joined the Great War right away, and especially after the sinking of the Lusitania.
Party Watch & The Candidates
The Democrats continued to focus on their anti-war position. At their convention, former New York Governor Martin H. Glynn gave the keynote speech. Mention of Wilson’s successes on domestic issues bored the crowd, but his neutrality received huge applause. Delegates shouted, “Go on! Go on!” Glynn discarded the rest of his speech and improvised about foreign policy. As he gave examples of isolationism, the audience asked, “What did we do?” Glynn replied, “We didn’t go to war!” Woodrow Wilson and Vice President Thomas Marshall were re-nominated on the first ballot.
On the Republican side, Teddy Roosevelt wanted the nomination badly, but he had burned all of his bridges by breaking from the party four years earlier. The Republican convention instead chose Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, of New York, as their nominee after three rounds of voting. It is the only time a Supreme Court justice has been selected as a presidential candidate. Hughes was a moderate and had not discussed his political views in the six years since he joined the court, allowing him to fit whatever mold was needed to win. For his running mate, the party chose Charles W. Fairbanks, who served as Teddy Roosevelt’s vice president in his second term. The Republican platform focused on criticizing Wilson’s weak foreign policy.
Despite Teddy Roosevelt’s defeat in 1912, the Progressive, or Bull-Moose, Party, still held a convention in 1916. They nominated, you guessed it, Teddy Roosevelt. To their dismay, Roosevelt subsequently telegraphed the convention to turn down the offer and announce that he was endorsing the Republican ticket. The delegates were heartbroken by the rejection of their great leader and the convention collapsed into chaos. Although some alternative names were purposed, like William Jennings Bryan and Henry Ford, the party effectively disbanded.
Lastly, the Socialist Party broke their streak and did not nominate Eugene Debs as their candidate. He was too busy running for Congress in Indiana (he lost). Instead, they ran Allan L. Benson, a newspaper editor from Michigan.
As the sitting president, Wilson did less campaigning than Hughes. He ran a front porch campaign from his summer home in New Jersey, named Shadow Lawn. He wanted to focus his campaign on “Americanism,” or loyalty to America regardless of one’s ethnic background, brought on by progressive prosperity. He did not want to prioritize foreign policy, but he had no choice. Democrats emphasized his efforts to stay neutral without surrendering shipping rights with the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” They linked Hughes to war-crazy Republicans like Roosevelt. Pamphlets were mailed to mothers, saying that Wilson saved their sons and husbands from the battlefields. One full-page ad read, “You are working – not fighting! Alive and happy – not cannon fodder! Wilson with peace and honor? Or Hughes and Roosevelt and war?”
Hughes faced a tough choice. If he backed Roosevelt’s claim that Wilson was not aggressive enough, he risked alienating the large number of voters who did not want war. If he said Wilson was not neutral enough, he would received backlash from the progressives and face pro-German accusations. Hughes continued to struggle when Wilson successfully convinced the Germans to agree to (temporarily) suspend their unrestricted submarine campaign in May 1916. Hughes attempted to attack Wilson’s domestic policy, but that only pushed laborers more towards the Democrats. Wilson chose not to respond to Hughes’ criticism, joking that he would follow the advice “never to murder a man who is committing suicide slowly but surely.” Despite Wilson’s hubris, the Republican Party was still strong everywhere outside of the South. Plus, war-hungry or not, Roosevelt’s endorsement still carried a lot of weight for Hughes.
Hughes’ biggest misstep, however, came in California. He visited the state in August, but avoided meeting with the divisive local progressive leaders. Former Governor Hiram Johnson, who had been Roosevelt’s running mate in 1912, was now running for Senate. Hughes and Johnson were actually at the same hotel in Long Beach on the same day, but did not meet. The missed opportunity was referred to as “the forgotten handshake.” Hughes sent a letter of apology to Johnson, but it was too late. While Johnson officially backed Hughes, he did not campaign for him and progressives vowed to split their ballots for Wilson and Johnson.
With a strong showing in the East and Midwest, it seemed like Hughes was sure to win. Late editions of newspapers even declared a Hughes victory. Both candidates went to bed thinking that would be the final result. Wilson even formed a plan to appoint Hughes as his secretary of state and resign along with his vice president, allowing Hughes to take power sooner to handle the war crisis.
What the candidates didn’t know was that Wilson would go on to nearly sweep the West. The Republican stronghold of California was the deciding factor. Wilson won the Golden State by 3800 votes out of the one million cast. As New York Congressman John W. Dwight put it, the Republicans could have won California by spending a single dollar. All they needed was for someone to have brought Hughes and Johnson together in that Long Beach hotel, spend 75 cents on whisky and 25 cents on a tip for the waiter, and get them to see eye-to-eye. With Johnson’s help, Hughes could have won California, and thus, the presidency.
A reporter supposedly called Hughes’ hotel room the night of the election. The valet told him, “The president has retired.” The reporter replied, “When he wakes up, tell him he is no longer president.”
Woodrow Wilson won a second term! The electoral college result was 277-254, a gap that could have been reversed with California’s 13 electors. Wilson successfully increased his popular vote from the last election, too. He received 9.1 million votes, winning by about 600,000. He was the first incumbent Democrat to win re-election since the first, Andrew Jackson.
What Did It Say About America?
Wilson’s victory was seen as a referendum for peace. Although Americans had been eager to bully Spain two decades earlier, they wanted nothing to do with war across the Atlantic.
Some New York Democrats (who had supported Hughes) wrote Teddy Roosevelt, “You contributed more than any other person in America… Wilson ought to give you a cabinet position, as you elected him, beyond doubt… You made Wilson a million votes.”
Was It The Right Decision?
Wilson had lots of successful domestic policies and seemed to be doing exactly what the majority of Americans wanted on foreign policy. Hughes was not an exciting candidate and I’m surprised he didn’t lose by more. In that sense, Wilson seems like the right pick. Unfortunately, he doesn’t earn my full endorsement due to his undeniable racism. Oddly, Hughes would go on to succeed the last Republican candidate, William Taft, yet again as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1930.
Germany resumed its aggressive submarine campaign shortly after the election. In January 1917, Germany’s Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman sent a telegram to Mexico suggesting an alliance to fight the US. The message was intercepted by British intelligence and passed to Wilson, who released it to the press. The Zimmerman Telegram was interpreted as an act of war. Wilson took his second oath of office in March. The US declared war in April.