43g. Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom
Progressives did not come only in the Republican flavor. Thomas Woodrow Wilson also saw the need for change.
Born in Staunton, Virginia, Wilson served as president of Princeton University and governor of New Jersey. He combined a southern background with northern sensibilities.
Attacking the Triple Wall of Privilege
His 1912 platform for change was called the New Freedom. Wilson was an admirer of Thomas Jefferson. The agrarian utopia of small, educated farmers envisioned by Jefferson struck a chord with Wilson. Of course, the advent of industry could not be denied, but a nation of small farmers and small businesspeople seemed totally possible. The New Freedom sought to achieve this vision by attacking what Wilson called the Triple Wall of Privilege — the tariff, the banks, and the trusts.
Tariffs protected the large industrialists at the expense of small farmers. Wilson signed the Underwood-Simmons Act into law in 1913, which reduced tariff rates. The banking system also pinched small farmers and entrepreneurs. The gold standard still made currency too tight, and loans were too expensive for the average American. Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act, which made the nation's currency more flexible.
Unlike Roosevelt, Wilson did not distinguish between "good" trusts and "bad" trusts. Any trust by virtue of its large size was bad in Wilson's eyes. The Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 clarified the Sherman Act by specifically naming certain business tactics illegal. This same act also exempted labor unions from antitrust suits, and declared strikes, boycotts, and peaceful picketing perfectly legal.
In two years, he successfully attacked each "wall of privilege." Now his eyes turned to greater concerns, particularly the outbreak of the First World War in Europe.
Appeasing the Bull Moose
When Wilson's first term expired, he felt he had to do more. The nation was on the brink of entering the bloodiest conflict in human history, and Wilson had definite ideas about how the postwar peace should look. But he would have to survive reelection first.
As an appeal to the Roosevelt progressives, he began to sign many legislative measures suggested by the Bull Moose Campaign. He approved of the creation of a federal trade commission to act as a watchdog over business. A child labor bill and a workers' compensation act became law. Wilson agreed to limit the workday of interstate railroad workers to 8 hours. He signed a federal farm loan act to ease the pains of life on the farm.
Progressive Republicans in the Congress were pleased by Wilson's conversion to their brand of progressivism, and the American people showed their approval by electing him to a second term.
This lengthy essay, which begins with a discussion of populism, includes several paragraphs relating to President Wilson's reforms, under the heading "Taft and Wilson."
Report broken link
President Wilson created the Federal Trade Commission. What does the agency do today? Among other things, the FTC enforces a variety of federal antitrust and consumer protection laws. "The Commission seeks to ensure that the nation's markets function competitively, and are vigorous, efficient, and free of undue restrictions." Check out your tax dollars at work her.
Report broken link
This biographical sketch of Woodrow Wilson looks at his days as president of Princeton University and innovations he brought to higher education, as well as his days as U.S. President. From the Library of Congress.
Report broken link
The official White House biography of President Wilson, includes mention of the New Freedom program, links to his inaugural addresses and a trivia tidbit.
Report broken link
If you like our content, please share it on social media!
How do we determine the worth of a man? Do we use his personal beliefs as a factor? Where do his actions fit in? Can one be blamed for having good intentions yet poor follow through? In order to determine the worth of Woodrow Wilson, one must examine his iron-strong idealism, his cold and uncompromising personality, his strong faith in both God and people, and his attempts to make the world a better place. Woodrow Wilson is not a man who can be taken at face value at any sense of the phrase, as one must look past his persona as president to begin to understand the person behind the mask. Woodrow Wilson was one of the most intelligent, idealistic, diligent, and contradictory characters ever to fill the roll of United States President, and it is definitely a challenge to assess his success.
Woodrow Wilson’s intelligence is admirable to say the least. As a child of Staunton, VA, young Thomas Woodrow Wilson was taught to make every word uttered to mean precisely what he imagined. Through this practice, Wilson was able to connect with others, as he was unable to emotionally connect with others as presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt could. Although a Ph.D. does not necessarily prove that a man is intelligent, the fact that he was the only president ever to be a doctor along with the fact that he was president of Princeton University says a lot. While analyzing Wilson’s intelligence, one quickly realizes that while Wilson was undoubtedly mentally intelligent, he was socially inept. This contradiction would definitely be a challenge to a president of the United States, but it is one which Wilson faced head on. So how does his intelligence determine his worth? In reality, intelligence does nothing to provide an answer to this question, but it serves as context to his actions. Each of his speeches to the American public or Congress would be well thought out and executed, making him at least a strong authoritative figure.
Perhaps most notable about Wilson is his idealism. One cannot get past a single book, writing, or post about Woodrow Wilson without stumbling across the word. In short, idealism is when a person has a precise and beautified view of how the world should be. Generally, an idealistic person works hard to produce the world he or she envisioned. This proved to be a great quality for Wilson to possess in several situations. Wilson’s idealism promoted his progressivism which earned him the job of president (along with the rift in the Republican Party). In America, his well conceived notion of what his nation should look like brought about great change in the issues plaguing America, most notable among those being the issues involving trusts. Abroad, Wilson’s steadfast idealism promoted the novel idea of an international council, the League of Nations, which would serve as a mediator for global conflicts. Although that council failed, the United Nations, with a very similar purpose, continues to aid the nations of the world today. Unfortunately, idealism does come at the price of an inability to compromise. Wilson could not concede any section of his beloved League until the entire thing crumbled. Because his idealistic view of America made Wilson believe that America should remain isolated, several people in ships, such as the Lusitania, perished before Wilson finally sent America into war. The only way Wilson could internally justify going to war was to make it a grand cause, and World War I became “the war to end war” and “the war to promote democracy.” So what do we conclude about his idealism? It overall benefited the nation more than it harmed it. It may have failed him occasionally, but he should generally be respected for his strong beliefs.
Diligence is a very impressive attribute of Woodrow Wilson. Woodrow Wilson was a lot like James K. Polk. Both came into the White House with a goal, Polk trying to settle territories and economic issues and Wilson trying to conquer the triple walls of privilege, and more importantly both had a plan to conquer the issues. Wilson would look at each issue plaguing America and concoct a solution. The tariff was solved by a lower tariff, the Underwood Tariff, money became more accessible through the Federal Reserve, and trusts were reduced through the Clayton Anti-Trust Act. Rather than sitting still during the Great War, Wilson thought up the famed Fourteen Points, most notable among those being his League of Nations. Wilson proceeded to tirelessly push for this international entity to the European powers as well as those in Congress and the American public. Wilson worked so hard to get his dream reached that he actually had a stroke. Just like James K. Polk, Wilson barely outlived his presidency and died just a few short years after his term ended, both falling to overworking. Wilson’s dedication was commendable, to say the least. Although it proved to be his downfall, one cannot help but admire the president for his efforts. He may not have succeeded in all of his goals, such as the failed League of Nations, but no one can deny he tried.
A final thought about Wilson, which is more an interesting point rather than a selling point on his character, was his contradictions. Just like Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson contradicted himself in several areas of his life. Wilson was a Southern segregationist, yet he respected his black servants enough to clean his own shoes. Wilson was cold and harsh in public, yet genial and polite to close friends. Wilson seemed to hate and disrespect individuals, yet he loved the human race as a whole. Indeed, Wilson was no doubt a man of great contradictions.
So what do I conclude about Wilson based on all of this information? There is no question in my mind that Wilson should be respected and admired for his actions. His idealism and diligence greatly benefited America in an era in which a book-smart president was definitely the way to go. True, he messed up along the way with his racism and his inability to compromise, but no man is perfect, and I believe it is the thought that counts. Because of his strong efforts, we should approve of Wilson’s role in the White House and respect him as a man with concrete beliefs.