Miller Center

Presidential Key Events

Woodrow Wilson


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Woodrow Wilson - 09/04/1919: Against the advice of his doctors and advisors, Pr…
Against the advice of his doctors and advisors, President Wilson opens his nation-wide speaking tour to promote the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations in Columbus, Ohio. September 04, 1919

Woodrow Wilson - 09/09/1919: Police in Boston walk out on s…
Police in Boston walk out on strike. September 09, 1919

Woodrow Wilson - 10/02/1919: President Wilson suffers a serious stroke in Wichi…
President Wilson suffers a serious stroke in Wichita, Kansas, in the middle of his national speaking tour and returns to Washington, DC. October 02, 1919

Woodrow Wilson - 10/28/1919: Congress passes the Volstead Act over President Wi…
Congress passes the Volstead Act over President Wilson's veto to provide enforcement power to the Eighteenth Amendment. October 28, 1919

Woodrow Wilson - 11/19/1919: After a lengthy national debate, the Treaty of Ver…
After a lengthy national debate, the Treaty of Versailles fails to achieve ratification in the Senate by a vote of 53 to 38. November 19, 1919

Woodrow Wilson - 12/22/1919: Foreign-born radicals arrested by the Department o…
Foreign-born radicals arrested by the Department of Justice in the “Red Scare” raids of 1919 are deported, leaving from New York harbor on the U.S. transport Buford, popularly referred to as the “Soviet Ark,” bound for the U.S.S.R. December 22, 1919

Woodrow Wilson - 01/02/1920: Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer stages the mos…
Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer stages the most extensive series of raids of the entire “Red Scare,” arresting nearly 2,700 people in 33 cities. January 02, 1920

Woodrow Wilson - 03/19/1920: The Senate defeats a resubmitted version of the Tr…
The Senate defeats a resubmitted version of the Treaty of Versailles with reservations added by Foreign Relations Committee chairman Henry Cabot Lodge. March 19, 1920

Woodrow Wilson - 04/01/1920: U.S. forces cease their operations in support of c…
U.S. forces cease their operations in support of counter-revolutionary forces in Siberia and are withdrawn. April 01, 1920

Woodrow Wilson - 04/15/1920: Shoe factory employees Frank Parmenter and Alexand…
Shoe factory employees Frank Parmenter and Alexander Berardelli are murdered in a robbery in South Braintree, Massachusetts. Immigrant laborers Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti are arrested three weeks later for the crimes in what becomes one of the most politically charged murder cases of the early twentieth century. April 15, 1920

Woodrow Wilson - 05/20/1920: Congress passes a joint resolution declaring an en…
Congress passes a joint resolution declaring an end to the war with Germany. President Wilson vetoes the resolution. May 20, 1920

Woodrow Wilson - 06/08/1920: Republicans gather in Chicago to select candidates…
Republicans gather in Chicago to select candidates for the presidential and vice presidential elections. After party leaders break the convention deadlock in what one attendee calls a behind-the-scenes deal “in a smoke-filled room,” Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding is nominated for the presidency. Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge receives the vice-presidential nomination. June 08, 1920 - June 12, 1920

Woodrow Wilson - 06/28/1920: Ohio governor James M. Cox and Franklin Delano Roo…
Ohio governor James M. Cox and Franklin Delano Roosevelt of New York receive the nominations for President and vice president at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. June 28, 1920

Woodrow Wilson - 08/26/1920: The Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the right…
The Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the right to vote, officially becomes law. August 26, 1920

Woodrow Wilson - 08/28/1920: In a speech given from his front porch in Marion, …
In a speech given from his front porch in Marion, Ohio, Harding denounces the League of Nations. August 28, 1920

Woodrow Wilson - 11/02/1920: Warren G. Harding is elected the twenty-ninth Pres…
Warren G. Harding is elected the twenty-ninth President of the United States with an overwhelming 404 electoral votes (60.3 percent of the popular vote to Democratic rival James Cox's 127 electoral votes (only 34.1 percent of the popular vote). Eugene V. Debs garners nearly one million popular votes for the Socialist Party despite his imprisonment for violating the Espionage Act the previous year. The election splits the North and South, with Cox winning all states (except for Tennessee) below the Mason-Dixon line and Harding winning the rest. November 02, 1920

Woodrow Wilson - 11/20/1920: Woodrow Wilson wins the Nobel Peace Prize for his …
Woodrow Wilson wins the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to secure a lasting peace after the Great War. November 20, 1920

Woodrow Wilson - 01/13/1921: The U.S. Census Bureau reports that for the first …
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that for the first time in American history, 51 percent of Americans live in cities and towns of more than 2500 people. January 13, 1921

Woodrow Wilson - 01/13/1921: The U.S. Census Bureau reports that for the first …

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that for the first time in American history, 51 percent of Americans live in cities and towns of more than 2500 people.

January 13, 1921

Woodrow Wilson - The Fourteen Points

On January 8, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson gave a speech to Congress in which he presented his Fourteen Points that outlined his program of peace to end World War I. The first five points called for an end to secret treaties, freedom of the seas, free trade, reduction of arms, and adjustment of colonial claims, taking into account the wishes of the colonial population. Wilson's sixth point called for Germany to withdraw from Russian territory and for Russian self-determination of its own government. The President then called for the restoration of Belgian, Italian, and French borders, the establishment of a Polish state, and autonomy for the ethnic peoples of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Wilson's final and, in his mind, most important point was the establishment of a “general association of nations” that would foster international cooperation, freedom, and peace.

Wilson had drafted the Fourteen Points as a series of war aims he hoped would reinvigorate the Allied cause after Russia withdrew from the war following the November 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The war aims were based on the principle of “peace without victory” that Wilson had proposed in 1916 as a solution to the European stalemate. Along with his adviser, Colonel Edward House, Wilson had come up with his Fourteen Points after more than a year of discussions with other progressive thinkers, especially journalist Walter Lippmann, on what the United States should hope to accomplish through its intervention in the war.

Wilson intended his speech to rally support in the Allied governments to the idea of a league of nations and a more transparent international system. He hoped these war aims would entice the Russian people back into the war by giving them something worthy for which to fight. Wilson also hoped the democratic ideas of the proposal, especially self-determination, would breed unrest in Germany and Austria-Hungary.

The Fourteen Points speech, as the New York Herald dubbed it, became the basis for Allied armistice plans. As Germany neared military defeat in the fall of 1918, the German government approached Wilson first in response to his Fourteen Points plan. The plan's territorial provisions and call for the establishment of a league of nations became the basis for a portion of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the war in 1919. However, Wilson was unable to convince Britain, France, and Italy to pursue “peace without victory,” and he was forced to compromise on many points.

Still, as a work of international relations policy, Wilson's Fourteen Points represent one of the most remarkable efforts of an American President. Wilson's embrace of anti-imperialism and national self-determination made a lasting impact in international relations through the rest of the 20th century.

January 08, 1918

Woodrow Wilson - United States Declares War on Germany

On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. Although President Woodrow Wilson had campaigned for reelection in 1916 emphasizing how he had kept the United States out of the war, he soon realized that the United States could not stand by and remain neutral in the Great War.

At the end of January 1917, German U-Boats resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, attacking ships in the Atlantic Ocean. Shortly afterwards, the British released the Zimmermann telegram to the American government. The telegram revealed a German plot to try to entice Mexico into joining against the United States. President Wilson told the nation at his second inaugural on March 5 that he felt the United States had no control over its neutral status and that outside pressures “have drawn us more and more irresistibly into their current and influence.”

Nevertheless, Wilson remained locked in a remarkable struggle between conflicting principles in his own ideology over the decision whether to go to war. Congress and the public were divided enough on the issue of intervention that the decision to enter the Great War fell on Wilson alone. He remained hopeful in early 1917 for a “peace without victory” that would secure a balance of power and equality of rights for all sides. But he feared that war would undo the progressive reforms he sought domestically and exacerbate the social divisions already present in the country. Nevertheless, Wilson believed that German behavior stood out of bounds of the civilized world and that a German victory would have disastrous consequences for Western civilization.

After the American press published the Zimmermann telegram, Wilson could count on support for a declaration of war if he asked for one from Congress. On April 2, 1917, the President decided to address a joint session of Congress that night. Wilson's speech asked for a declaration of war not as a crusade for justice, but as a somber and terrible act to “make the world safe for democracy.” In the speech, the President asked for increased taxation, a compulsory draft, and government repression of dissent to support the war cause. The Senate debated a war declaration first, passing it on April 4, and the House passed it on April 6. American troops did not enter combat until more than a year later.

To read the full proclamation from April 6, 1917, declaring a state of war between the United States and Germany, click here.

April 06, 1917

Woodrow Wilson - Lusitania Sinks

On May 7, 1915, the German submarine U-20 torpedoed the British luxury liner Lusitania within sight of the Irish coast. The largest passenger ship in wartime transatlantic service at the time, the Lusitania was struck by a single torpedo and sank in twenty minutes after a second internal explosion. Of the more than 1,900 people on board, nearly 1,200 died, including 128 Americans.

After the outbreak of World War I in Europe in the summer of 1914, Britain laid a blockade upon German ports. In response, Germany deployed experimental attack submarines, called U-boats, in the Atlantic Ocean. The German government declared the waters around the British Isles a war zone in February 1915 and cautioned that its U-boats would sink any ship entering the zone without warning. Germany justified the action of unrestricted submarine warfare by claiming that Britain had violated its own freedom of the seas with the blockade. The German government also argued, correctly, that the British used neutral and civilian ships to transport munitions.

With the outbreak of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson led the United States in its declaration of neutrality. However, this stance began to be tested when Germany began unrestricted submarine warfare. Shortly afterwards, four American citizens were killed in three U-boat attacks. Wilson debated a proper response to German violations of American neutrality with advisor Robert Lansing and Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan. While Wilson and his advisers debated, the Germans torpedoed the Lusitania.

The scale of the disaster shocked and enraged the American public and moved Wilson to take a defensive stand against Germany's violation of American neutrality rights at sea. The President issued a note to the German government demanding that it stop its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare and pay reparations for the deaths of those Americans lost on the Lusitania. The German Imperial Government defended itself by reminding Wilson that the ship had been illegally carrying contraband munitions. It claimed it was the explosion of such munitions that so rapidly sank the ship.

Wilson found Germany's reply unconvincing and drafted a second note over Bryan's objections that urged Germany again to respect civilian and neutrals' “rights of humanity” and warned of his will to defend his own citizens. Bryan resigned rather than sign the second note because he felt that Wilson was not balancing both British and German violations of American neutrality. He was also concerned that the President was taking too hard a stance towards Germany that would leave the United States no alternative except to enter the war. After Bryan's resignation, Wilson promoted Lansing to secretary of state and issued a third note to Berlin warning that the United States would regard another sinking of a passenger liner as a “deliberately unfriendly” act.

Germany never accepted culpability for the loss of the Lusitania. While the German government maintained its position that it sank the ship within the conventions of war, it wanted to keep the United States from entering the war and issued secret orders to its submarine captains to stop sinking large passenger liners. Nevertheless, the Lusitania issue remained a lingering sore spot in American-German relations as the two nations drifted closer to war.

May 07, 1915

Woodrow Wilson - Panama Canal Opens

On August 15, 1914, the Panama Canal opened to trans-oceanic traffic. Due to the outbreak of World War I earlier in the month, however, there was only modest commemoration and no official visit from President Woodrow Wilson. Only a few ships a day passed through the forty miles of locks in canal in its first few years of operation; after the World War I was over, this number increased to five thousand annually.

In 1903, the United States signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty with Panama, which gave the United States perpetual control of the canal for a price of $10 million and an annual payment of $250,000. Work on the Panama Canal began in 1904. The building of the canal was originally under the direction of John Stevens. However, President Theodore Roosevelt found Stevens lacking as the head of the project and replaced him with George Goethels, who led construction to its completion. Goethels undertook a “lock-and-lake” plan for the canal route, excavating land on either side of Gatun Lake and constructing massive locks to regulate water levels rather than dig across Panama at sea level.

Workers cleared 50 miles of land between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. Using primarily the labor of blacks from the Caribbean, the American construction team excavated more than 232 million tons to create the canal path. The canal's three poured-concrete locks measured 1,000 feet long and took four years to complete. Although completed six months ahead of schedule, the project was incredibly costly in dollars and lives. The United States spent almost $400 million on construction. Nearly 30,000 workers labored ten-hour days for ten years. They toiled in dangerous conditions and beset with swarms of mosquitoes bearing malaria and yellow fever. More than 5,500 workers died during construction, including 4,500 black laborers.

Initial plans for a grand armada procession through the Panama Canal upon its opening in August 1914 were cancelled when war broke out in Europe on August 3. That day the cement boat Cristobal became the first ship to pass through the canal. But it was not opened to trans-oceanic traffic until the 15th. Once operational, it shortened the voyage from San Francisco to New York by more than 8,000 miles. The process of building the canal generated advances in U.S. technology and engineering skills. This project also converted the Panama Canal Zone into a major staging area for American military forces, making the United States the dominant military power in Central America.

August 15, 1914

Woodrow Wilson - Nineteenth Amendment Ratified

On August 18, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was ratified. The amendment gave women the right to vote.

Women activists in the United States had agitated for equal political rights since the mid-nineteenth century. Reformers in the Progressive Era succeeded in making suffrage a significant political issue, and four western states granted women the right to vote in state constitutions. However, business groups and conservative women's organizations opposed women's suffrage and blocked federal efforts.

During World War I, women contributed greatly to the war effort through their labor and volunteer efforts. Women activists capitalized on women's newfound economic prominence during the war to agitate further for suffrage. Activist organizations such as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), which had pursued women's suffrage since 1890, connected the issue of a lasting peace with the extension of voting rights to women. As NAWSA campaigned through established political channels, the National Woman's Party (NWP) engaged in acts of civil disobedience in Washington, DC. The NWP staged hunger strikes and daily protests in front of the White House throughout 1917. Activists from NWP called President Woodrow Wilson's fight for democracy in Europe hypocritical while he denied women their voting rights in the United States. The well-publicized protests of the NWP embarrassed Wilson throughout the year.

By 1917, the political wind for suffrage had shifted. Thirteen additional states had passed women's voting measures, and pressure was mounting on Congress to consider a national women's suffrage amendment. President Wilson came around to the idea of a constitutional amendment for women's suffrage in 1916 when he decided that women could form a crucial voting block that would support his progressive agenda. Britain granted women the vote in 1917, adding international pressure for congressional action. When the special session of Congress sat in April 1917, activists added voting rights to the legislative docket. After the measure bypassed the House Judiciary Committee, the women's suffrage amendment passed the House on January 10, 1918. President Wilson appeared in the Senate as the body debated a bill to advocate the passage of the amendment. The suffrage amendment fell two votes short of ratification in an October 1918 vote. Congress revisited the issue in a special session in May 1919. The amenndment passed the House on May 21 and the Senate on June 14, 1919.

After congressional approval, the suffrage amendment entered into a tenaciously contested battle for ratification in state legislatures. The amendment faced its greatest opposition in the South, where conservative Protestants of both genders resisted women's voting rights as a challenge to traditional values and the institution of white supremacy. States in the North and West provided the bulk of support for the amendment, but Southern support in a few states was still needed for ratification. After the thirty-fifth state ratified the amendment in early 1920, President Wilson leaned heavily on Tennessee governor Albert Roberts to call a special session of the state legislature that summer. With heavy local and national pressure bearing down on the legislature, the Tennessee legislature passed the amendment by two votes on August 18, 1920, securing its ratification as the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution.

August 18, 1920

Woodrow Wilson - Wilson Embarks on League of Nations Tour

On September 3, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson boarded a train to begin a transcontinental speaking tour to try to build support for the League of Nations and the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I. He gave his first speech in Columbus, Ohio, on September 4.

President Wilson had traveled to Europe in December 1918 to attend the Paris Peace Conference with representatives from Britain, France, and Italy. Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, and Wilson returned to the United States on July 8. Two days later, he submitted the Treaty of Versailles to the Senate for ratification. Senatorial approval of the treaty faced an uphill battle. A number of senators remained skeptical of the League of Nations Covenant contained with the treaty. To make matters more difficult for the President, Republicans had regained control of both houses of Congress in 1918.

Senate resistance to the treaty came from a variety of sources. So-called “irreconcilable” progressive senators like Idaho's William Borah and California's Hiram Johnson rejected the treaty as a mechanism to preserve the British Empire through the League of Nations. Midwestern progressives like George Norris and Robert LaFollette, with large German constituencies, recoiled against the treaty's punitive measures. Senator James Reed of Missouri complained that the equal representation that all nations enjoyed in the League's assembly placed control of the body in the hands of the racially unfit.

The most damning opposition to the treaty, however, came from Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Lodge despised Wilson's idealism and attacked Article 10 of the League of Nations Covenant. Article 10 held members to a collective security agreement, and Lodge believed it was an indefensible infringement of American sovereignty. Lodge argued that the Senate should only ratify the treaty if it were modified to operate within the checks and balances system of the Constitution of the United States. He also insisted that implementing the collective security clause of the League Covenant required congressional approval as did declarations of war.

President Wilson headed out on his speaking tour against his doctors' wishes and the advice of some of his political advisers to try to win public support for the treaty and thus pressure senators to approve it. Over a period of three weeks, Wilson made forty addresses on the importance of the League of Nations, traveling to more than twenty-nine cities and covering a distance of almost 10,000 miles. The President rightly believed that the majority of the country supported both the peace treaty and the League of Nations but his speaking tour was unable to build any political momentum for ratification. Exhausted and worn out from his arduous journey, the President collapsed in Pueblo, Colorado, on September 25. He cut his tour short and headed back to Washington. Wilson suffered a serious stroke on Oct 2.

Wilson's Herculean efforts were not enough to make a dent in the considerable coalition of critics in the Senate. On November 19, the Senate rejected the treaty 38 to 53. Wilson's stroke prevented him from participating in a compromise treaty, and the Senate approved a separate peace treaty with Germany in July 1921. By not ratifying the Treaty of Versailles and rejecting the League of Nations Covenant, the Senate illustrated the strong feeling of isolationism that existed in the United States after World War I.

September 03, 1919

Woodrow Wilson - Federal Reserve Act Signed

On December 23, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act into law. The act created a Federal Reserve System, comprised of a Federal Reserve Board, twelve regional reserve banks, and the underpinnings of a smooth central banking system. It was the most comprehensive overhaul of the nation's banking system since the Civil War and represented one of the crowning achievements of President Wilson's New Freedom program. It helped to safeguard America's financial institutions, the American economy, and the supply of U.S. currency, and it created a new system that allowed a level of governmental control of the monetary supply that was unprecedented in American history. The Federal Reserve Act still provides the framework for regulating the nation's banks, credit, and money supply even today.

Wilson began to craft his monetary system soon after his election in 1912. He met with House Banking Committee Chairman E.C. Glass in December to discuss a variety of banking system plans emerging in Congress. Glass, a conservative Democrat from Virginia, favored a decentralized private system. Wilson remained wary of such a proposal and convinced Glass to consider drafting a plan that included privately controlled regional reserve banks that answered to a central government board with a minority representation for private bankers. Glass's plan contrasted with a competing Senate bill, drafted by progressive Oklahoma senator Robert Owen, which erected a system of reserve banks under direct governmental control. Progressives rallied to Owen's proposal and recoiled from Glass's privatization scheme as a system that would leave Americans at the mercy of Wall Street.

Wilson conferred with Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo and adviser Louis Brandeis on the proposals making their way through Congress. In a meeting on June 11, 1913, Brandeis pushed the President to support governmental control of the banking and currency systpem of the nation as progressives had proposed. He also convinced the President to leave private bankers off the proposed Federal Reserve Board. After his meeting with Brandeis, Wilson urged Glass to revise his bill. The President addressed Congress on June 22 to push forward banking reform, which he claimed must remain a government responsibility. After a bruising six-month debate in Congress, the progressives' version of the Federal Reserve Act passed Congress on December 19, and Wilson signed it December 23, 1913.

The Federal Reserve Act established a system of twelve districts that each housed a Reserve bank. It also required national banks to join the federal system and contribute six percent of their capital to the system. State banks and trust companies could also join the system. Federal Reserve banks issued notes to member banks with the amount of currency issued regulated by a central Federal Reserve Board in Washington, DC. This board was comprised of the secretary of the treasury, the comptroller of currency, and six other presidential appointees. The act allowed a more flexible system of currency distribution that could respond to economic conditions unique to a given region or that impacted the entire nation. The flexibility of the system benefited both farm and business interests.

December 23, 1913

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