Wilson at 150

By Hamilton, Lee H. | The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Wilson at 150


Hamilton, Lee H., The Wilson Quarterly


ONE WAY TO GAIN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE on a president is to look at his relevance to the current debate. As we celebrated the 150th anniversary of Woodrow Wilson's birth with discussions and an exhibit here at the Wilson Center, it was clear that the man who gave his name to both the Center and the WQ ranks high in the richness and durability of his legacy among the 18 individuals who served the United States as chief executive in the 20th century.

Wilson's domestic agenda continues to have an impact on the way the American government and economy functions. Three pillars of the American system--the Federal Reserve, the federal income tax, and the Federal Trade Commission--are products of the Wilson presidency. Wilson also signed legislation outlawing child labor, instituting an eight-hour workday; and setting clear antitrust guidelines. Taken as a whole, the Wilson agenda implemented a vision of capitalism that curbed abuses, provided a more equitable distribution of wealth, and spelled out new modes of interaction among government, business, and labor.

Of course, Wilson is known primarily for his leadership during World War I. By bringing the United States into that European war, and by declaring that America would "make the world safe for democracy," he dramatically expanded the role of the United States in the world. Wilson launched a century of American interventionism, American leadership in European affairs, and ultimately the ascendance of America as a superpower.

Wilson's impact owes as much to his efforts to make peace as it does to his entry into world war. The Wilsonian vision of the world was spelled out in the Fourteen Points, which he advanced at the war's conclusion. These objectives prominently included arguments on behalf of free trade, self-determination for peoples that had previously been under Austin-Hungarian or Ottoman rule, and the formation of an international "League of Nations" to resolve disputes peacefully.

In Wilson's day, the goals articulated in the Fourteen Points went largely unmet Congress rejected U.S. entry into the League of Nations. Many of the peoples singled out for full independence did not achieve it. …

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