My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Woodrow Wilson, the twenty-eighth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was, once again, twofold. First, I read The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made by Patricia O’Toole. I grabbed it from the library on a whim because I couldn’t find one of the most recommended biographies. This much more recent biography (published in 2018) was a fascinating look at Wilson. I had already put in a request for Woodrow Wilson by John Milton Cooper, Jr. at the library, and read that one as well. It was another great biography that helped illuminate periods and decisions that the first biography I read did not.
Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.
Woodrow Wilson was a principled man who, unfortunately, compromised on some of the most important principles. Patricia O’Toole’s biography especially emphasized Wilson’s moral leadership, which he himself emphasized at key moments throughout his life. John Milton Cooper, Jr.’s biography was instead a more traditional whole-life biography.
Wilson distinguished himself in academia before becoming President. A celebrated scholar of political theory, he would be the President of Princeton University. There, he engaged in a lengthy battle with the trustees over various reforms of the university–both the ones he wanted to pass and those that he didn’t. For example, he opposed admitting African Americans to the university. On the flip side, he also nominated the first Jew and the first Roman Catholic to the faculty. Wilson’s white supremacy would guide him throughout his life in decision making, as he inconsistently talked about equality for all while continually compromising equality for people of color in favor of elevating others. Wilson’s own Presbyterian faith would also guide his decisions, and he apparently saw no discord between his white supremacy and the teachings of a Jewish man of color named Jesus who commanded that people treat others as they would be treated.
Wilson had a progressive agenda as President of the United States. Confronting the notions of tariffs, trusts, banks, and monopolies, Wilson argued that “We naturally ask ourselves, how did these gentlemen get control of these things? Who handed our economic laws over to them? …The high cost of living is arranged by private understanding” (54). Wilson saw clearly the collusion in moneyed interests to keep power and wealth in the hands of the few, and he had the moral leanings to fight against it. He agreed that the United States was extremely prosperous. But he asked, “Prosperity? Yes, if by prosperity you mean vast wealth no matter how distributed” (51). This comment is a direct allusion to income disparity and Wilson thought this was a huge problem for the country. He actively fought for destruction of monopolies, and he was influenced in the direction of free market economies regulated by the government. This helped him differentiate from Roosevelt and Taft, his competition in the election for President.
As President, Wilson immediately worked to free the market up by easing up on crippling tariffs that favored huge monopolies and businesses that dominated the wealth of the nation. The way that he managed to get his economically progressive laws passed, however, was by making racial concessions to Southern and racist interests. Specifically, he bought votes for his Federal Reserve Act, which brought great strides in cutting down class barriers, by agreeing to segregate public services. In essence, he traded some economic equality for whites for even more inequality for people of color. This would be a theme during his Presidency, as he failed to stand up to segregation in military services in World War I, a decision which had no small negative impact on the war effort by relegating people to certain jobs (eg. a cook) purely based on race. Wilson’s legacy includes the legacy of segregation at the federal level, and no discussion of his successes can be complete without noting this blight on his record. However, his policies that created less income disparity for whites in his lifetime would ultimately benefit all Americans as time wore on. This adds another layer of complexity to his legacy that makes him difficult to fully judge.
Wilson’s foreign policy is clearly most important related to World War I, but also involved no small amount of conflict with Mexico and Japan. treating the latter first, California’s white leadership continued to pass racist laws based entirely on prejudice. For example, alleging that, in California Japanese-descended farmers were a threat to white American farmers, the state passed laws that excluded Japanese people from passing ownership of land through inheritance or from buying new farmland. These were laws explicitly targeting Japanese people, and the Japanese government responded with outrage, even to the point of contemplating war, which at this point would have been disastrous because the United States had no effective navy in the Pacific and would have had to go around Cape Horn to fight against Japan (the Panama Canal wasn’t complete yet). Wilson essentially let the crisis play itself out, but the bad faith the United States had shown to Japan would fester and lead to clear wider consequences later. Regarding Mexico, Wilson failed to act with policy consistent with previous Presidents regarding recognition of new governments. He therefore set a precedent for the President to become an even more powerful, unilateral force in international affairs. The later fight with Pancho Villa and Wilson’s punitive–and possibly illegal?–raids in Mexico exacerbated poor U.S.-Mexico relations.
World War I is the obvious major event in Wilson’s Presidency, and his leadership during the pre-war period for the United States was defined by his efforts to avoid war. Wilson could not bring himself to support armed conflict, especially when the United States was not directly at risk from enemy attack. Though he was clearly not a thoroughgoing pacifist–as evidenced by the resignation of his Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan (yes, that William Jennings Bryan) once it became clear Wilson was favoring the United Kingdom, in particular–he vastly preferred peaceful negotiation to any kind of conflict. He was inconsistent in this application, as he continued to favor the British more and more as the war dragged on, but he would not have joined the war if he hadn’t been convinced that “the world must be made safe for democracy.” The passive voice, as noted by John Milton Cooper, Jr. in his biography of Wilson, expresses quite a bit. Wilson did not wish to impose democracy on the world, but rather wanted to ensure its survival in an era of increasingly hostile and totalitarian nation states.
Once the United States entered the War, Wilson and those he appointed managed feats that others had deemed impossible, such as raising a huge army and deploying it in Europe in a swift enough manner to turn the tide of war. Wilson’s quiet but powerful speeches stirred people across the States and Europe. Once the war was over, Wilson’s dream of the League of Nations was almost successful, but an increasingly embattled congress rejected entry into the League. This and other actions while building the League would undermine Wilson’s powerful vision for an organization that could help usher in world peace.
Woodrow Wilson was a flawed President with lofty aspirations that he compromised for the sake of some policy successes. Like too many Presidents before and after him, he did this to favor white people over any others. The reforms that he got through, however, did lay groundwork for additional reforms. One might argue that Wilson’s Presidency was a “one step back, two steps forward” success. There’s no question that many of his ideas and policies have positive impacts to this day, but his legacy of racial injustice also continues to fracture and divide.
Woodrow Wilson (28th President – Original Ranking #7)- There is no question that Wilson’s impact on the United States outlived the man himself, even into today. This impact is both for good and ill. Wilson’s willingness to compromise on racial integration helped underline systems that continue to this day to exclude others. However, his willingness to do so also was probably the only way he was able to pass legislation that would help many Americans stay on their feet through financial hardship. His legislative legacy also helped break up monopolies and usher in a more beneficial–and regulated–free trade in the United States that would ultimately benefit all Americans. Wilson’s legacy is incredibly complex due to the long term intended and unintended consequences of his decisions. Nevertheless, he almost must rank highly because he, unlike many, many previous Presidents, actually made some strides against inequality while also benefiting the United States directly. These strides weren’t intended to help all Americans, but they do now. His legacy is one that should lead us today to wonder: how do we judge figures of the past?
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