Monday, December 28, 2009

Woodrow Wilson's birthday

I recently had a bit of a dialogue in this post, and the related comments, about the academic discipline of political science. And now, today is the 153rd birthday of the only academic political scientist to become president of the United States: Woodrow Wilson.

He was born Thomas Woodrow Wilson, in Staunton, Virginia, on December 28, 1856. Wilson received his bachelor's degree from Princeton, and a PhD from Johns Hopkins.

After teaching at other eastern schools, Wilson found his way on to the Princeton faculty, in 1890. His best-known published work was the book Congressional Government, written during a period when the legislative branch of the federal government had a stronger position as against the executive branch, than is currently the case. Later, Wilson himself had a lot to do with accelerating the 20th-century trend toward assertion of a greater role for the presidency.

In 1902, Wilson turned toward an administrative career, when he became president of Princeton. That helped him establish a political base in New Jersey, where he was elected governor, as a Democrat, in 1910.

I wrote here about the circumstances under which Wilson was elected president, in 1912. He took advantage of a split in the Republican Party, to become the only Democratic president during the period from 1897 to 1933.

As was the case with the next Democratic president, Franklin Roosevelt, Wilson came into office with a largely domestic agenda, but later took the country into war. He had kept the U.S. out of the World War, which had begun in Europe in 1914, and had won reelection in 1916, largely on the basis of that achievement. But, shortly after his second inauguration, in 1917, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war. German attacks on American ships in the Atlantic eventually made neutrality impossible to sustain.

Shortly after American involvement began in earnest, in 1918, Germany was defeated. I wrote here about Wilson's involvement in the subsequent Versailles peace conference, when the victors re-drew world maps, following the collapse of German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires.

Up to that time, American foreign policy was largely based on isolationism, an avoidance of European alliances and disputes. That ended, during and after World War II, but, in Wilson's time, the U.S. was unwilling to take on a permanent world leadership role.

Wilson advocated an American international role, including membership in the League of Nations, forerunner to the UN. In 1919, he suffered a stroke during a speaking tour that he undertook in order to defend his position. His convalescence is best known as the period of the U.S.'s only female presidency. That notion is based on the controversial story that Wilson's wife, Edith, in effect acted as president, while trying to conceal the extent of his incapacitation from the outside world.

The U.S. Senate rejected American membership in the League of Nations.

By 1920, Wilson had partially recovered, and wanted to run for a third term. But tentative feelers that he put out to that effect revealed a lack of support.

Wilson's Republican successor Warren Harding advocated a return to normality. But he changed the English language by calling it "normalcy". Harding negotiated peace with Germany, on terms that were more in line with traditional American isolationism, than the Versailles Treaty had been.

Wilson was the only president to choose Washington, DC, as his retirement home. He died there, in 1924. Ironically, Harding, who had presented such a robust contrast to the ailing Wilson in 1920, had predeceased Wilson, dying in 1923.

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