Reviewing the legacy of a 'good, but unfortunate' president

May 4, 2015

In February we observed Presidents’ Day and there was a great deal of information presented about our two greatest presidents – George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Yet 44 men have served in that role in our history. That fact got me to wonder how much we really know about the Chief Executives of the greatest country in history.

I asked some folks who was the president just a century ago in 1915. Only a few knew that it was Woodrow Wilson. I thought it might be interesting to take a quick look at President Wilson’s life and both his achievements and failures.

He was a progressive on most issues and worked for the rights of the common man. President Wilson served during a very difficult time. There were many challenging domestic issues coupled with the equally daunting problem of keeping the United States neutral during World War I while dealing with personal grief.

He was born on Dec. 28, 1856. Wilson was very well educated and as far as I can find is the only U.S. president who had a PhD. He earned his doctorate in political science and was an educator and a college president before getting involved in politics. At the time of his nomination for the presidency he was the governor of New Jersey.

In many ways, his election as president could be termed an accident. In 1908 Theodore Roosevelt declined to seek a third term and his friend William Howard Taft was elected. Four years later, Theodore was unhappy with the Taft administration and sought to wrest the Republican nomination away from Taft. When he failed he formed what became known as the “Bull Moose Party.” This split the vote and allowed Woodrow Wilson in 1912 to be the first Democrat president to be elected in a couple of decades.

Certainly his years in the White House were filled with challenges that no previous president had faced. In addition there was the death of his first wife Ellen Axson Wilson in 1914. Wilson wasn’t a widower long, he married Edith Boling Galt in 1915 making him one of the few presidents who married while in office.

He certainly was a progressive president and strongly supported the direct election of U. S. Senators, the Federal Trade Act and the Federal Reserve System.

His biggest challenge was international affairs. A man who truly believed in peace, he was forced to send 6,000 U.S. troops into Mexico to counter attacks on American territory by Pancho Villa in 1916. When he sought re-election in 1916 he pledged to keep the U.S. out of the World War I. That was a promise he could not keep. Unrestricted German submarine attacks on U.S. ships plus efforts by Germany to get Mexico to enter the conflict by attacking the United States forced Wilson’s hand. He asked and received a declaration of war against Germany.

His finest efforts came after the Allies’ victory. President Wilson worked tirelessly to bring about a just peace which was rejected by the European power. He was instrumental in forming the League of Nations. While many European powers embraced the plan it was rejected by the U. S. Senate in a display of politics much like we have seen in recent years.

Possibly the strain led to Wilson becoming Ill and most believed he suffered a stroke. For the final months of his term his wife Edith was his spokesperson and probably the “acting” president.

He died on Feb. 3, 1924 leaving history with the question of what might have been had his peace proposals been accepted. In my opinion he was a good, but unfortunate president.

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