Woodrow Wilson: The American Franchise

Woodrow Wilson: The American Franchise

The population of the United States grew by nearly 15 percent during the Wilson presidency, reaching 105.7 million in 1920. Nearly 6 million of these Americans were recent immigrants who had arrived in America after 1910. And for the first time, by 1920, more people lived in towns and cities than on farms—51.2 percent compared to 48.8 percent. The average life expectancy for white males reached fifty-five years in 1920, and white women lived one year longer than men on the average. In contrast, nonwhites could expect to live only to age forty-five.

In 1913, just as Wilson was entering office, the states approved the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments to the Constitution, authorizing the collection of a federal income tax and the direct election of senators. At the end of his second term, in 1920, enough states ratified the Nineteenth Amendment to give American women the right to vote and thus enable millions of new women voters to cast ballots in the presidential election. The majority voted for Republican Warren Harding. Wilson, although originally opposed to female suffrage, accepted a plank in the 1916 Democratic platform endorsing it and became a strong supporter by 1918. He reluctantly supported the Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibited the manufacture and consumption of alcohol, but vetoed, on technical grounds, the Volstead Act passed by Congress to enforce it. Congress later passed the measure over his veto.

Unions and the “Red Scare”

The war years witnessed dramatic changes in the American workplace as the nation achieved nearly full employment. Thousands of workers joined unions, bolstered by Wilson's support for collective bargaining. Still, unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the American Federation of Labor (AFL) expressed their discontent with inflation and low wages by mounting more than 6,000 wartime strikes. In 1919, at the end of the war, 3,300 strikes involving 4 million workers rocked the nation. On May 1, traditionally a day of celebration for workers around the world, the United States Postal Service intercepted dozens of bombs addressed to American bankers and industrialists. When the Boston city police struck in September, some thought a Bolshevik conspiracy was at work. The conservative governor of Massachusetts, Calvin Coolidge, who would become the thirtieth president of the United States, brought in the state's National Guard to break the strike, making his national reputation.

In reaction to the labor unrest and rumors of a pending Communist uprising, Americans flocked to support the American Legion, a veterans' group that preached antiradicalism and anti-immigration. By 1920, the Legion had 843,000 members. Wilson's attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, created the General Intelligence Division of the Bureau of Investigation and appointed J. Edgar Hoover to run it. Hoover began compiling data on American radicals and arrested numerous IWW members (known as “Wobblies”). Palmer deported 249 alien radicals to Soviet Russia during 1919. Patriotic groups around the country assaulted labor members, and several “Wobblies” were killed by mob action. This so-called “Red Scare” peaked in 1920 after Palmer's house and Wall Street were bombed. Justice Department agents broke into meeting halls and homes without search warrants, arresting 4,000 people and holding them without counsel or charges filed. Of those arrested, nearly 600 aliens were deported. Historians today believe that Palmer overreacted, punishing many people without due process of law in response to a wave of public hysteria.

Labor and Migration

With 16 percent of the male workforce off to war and with the drop in immigration from 1918 to 1920, thousands of women and blacks found jobs in war-related industries. The big story was not that more women were working but that they shifted to jobs previously dominated by men: from domestic work to service industries, from department store clerks to stenographers and typists, from textile mills to manufacturing. Black women then took over the jobs abandoned by the white women. For the first time, department stores employed black women—usually those with light skin color—as elevator operators and cafeteria waitresses.

The war also triggered a massive movement—called the Great Migration—of 500,000 African Americans out of the rural South to Northern and Midwestern cities. For example, the black population in Cleveland, Ohio, soared by more than 300 percent; Detroit's grew by 600 percent; Chicago's by 150 percent. And it was not only the opportunity for war industry jobs that attracted Southern blacks to Northern cities. Many young black males left, enraged at the brutality of Southern racism—especially the lynchings that regularly occurred. Political disfranchisement, debt peonage, prison chain gangs, and the boll weevil—insects that destroy cotton plants—left Southern blacks with little hope for a decent life after 1916.

For most migrating blacks, the North offered a refuge where African Americans did not have to humble themselves before whites simply because no whites lived in black parts of the residentially segregated northern cities. Still, many Northern whites greatly resented the “Negro invasion.” For example, in East St. Louis, Illinois, whites assaulted a black neighborhood, killing forty blacks, in July 1917. During the sweltering “Red Summer” of 1919, two dozen cities exploded in race riots. In Chicago alone, thirty-eight people died, twenty-three blacks and fifteen whites. Wilson, himself a Southerner reared under racial segregation, denounced lynching but nevertheless did little to protect African Americans. He oversaw the introduction of segregation into the federal civil service, and the steep decline in the number of federal jobs held by African Americans.