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There are plenty of surprises behind the unimpeachably nerdy glasses of America's Dad-liest prez: Woodrow Wilson followed a super-unlikely path to becoming an icon to Progressives.
And we mean really unlikely. For starters, Wilson was the son of a slaveowner. He later demonstrated his admiration for the Confederacy by honoring Confederate war memorials. (Source)
Though he was born a Southern boy, Wilson ended up going pretty far north when it came to his education, transferring from Davidson College (North Carolina) to Princeton (New Jersey) as a freshman. And, as it turned out, this 577-mile journey was to be one of the biggest decisions he ever made.
Regardless of his down-home origins in the old South, Wilson was a mega-nerd. Though he struggled with dyslexia in his early years (source) he pursued books like few other presidents. He was a part of the debating society at Princeton, and wrote for the school's literary review. After undergrad and graduate school at Johns Hopkins, he pursued his true calling: academia.
Wilson taught Greek and Roman history, Constitutional history, and political science. (Yeah: all of 'em.) He eventually became president of Princeton and gained fame by taking on the school's elitist "eating clubs," which we think sounds like a pretty amazing club. He was instrumental in turning the school from a hangout for country club kids into an academic powerhouse (which it still is today). Along the way, he wrote a few history books—you know, in his spare time.
Nowadays, it's pretty unlikely that a history professor would be considered a viable political candidate for anything besides faculty senate. But back then, Wilson was such a respected public figure that Democratic party leaders actually recruited him to be a candidate for the Presidency (source). To gain credentials, he first ran for governor of New Jersey and won, despite his lack of political experience. He ran for president just two years after that.
You could say Wilson blew up faster than anything except Europe in 1914. (Too soon?)
Wilson did some pretty important things on the home front as president: for example, he agreed to pass an amendment to the Constitution giving women the right to vote (source). He also established the Federal Reserve, sort of making him the founder of our national banking system.
But let's be honest…we all want to talk about that World War I thing.
When it came to "The Great War," Wilson rode the train of public opinion. When he took office in 1912, Americans preferred to stay out of international affairs. By the time Europe exploded in 1914, that hadn't changed.
Older Americans—and Wilson himself—could remember the misery of the Civil War, which destroyed large swathes of the South and killed innumerable Americans. In 1914, there were still plenty who balked at the idea of another large-scale conflict. Though Wilson had reservations about German imperialism, and Americans felt an affinity for the British, we weren't about to sail across the ocean and poke our machine guns into the mud.
That all changed when Germany tickled the sleeping dragon. Midway through the war, German submarines began attacking merchant ships on sight, and sunk the Lusitania, which had American passengers on board. Everything escalated when British spies discovered the "Zimmerman telegram," in which Germany proposed a military alliance with America's southern neighbor, Mexico.
Bad call, Deutschland.
Despite the fact that he campaigned for a second term on the slogan "he kept us out of the war," Wilson figured enough was enough, and America entered the ring. Sometimes you have to roll with the punches…especially when the times punch first.
With American peoplepower on board, everyone figured that the Allies would eventually win the war. So President Wilson began planning for peace.
In typical professorial fashion, Wilson established "The Inquiry," a massive government project to research world affairs and prepare a peace arrangement. He enlisted scores of academics and statesmen to produce reports, draw maps, and compile data on the rest of the world.
It was one of the greatest nerd alliances the world had ever seen—right up there with the guys who made Google.
During this time, Wilson and his advisers came up with the "Fourteen Points," in which he laid out a vision for stabilizing the earth. Wilson presented the points to Congress and also sent out copies of the text to European leaders.
The most important conclusion: Wilson thought the world needed an international watchdog, a kind of parliament of nations. Once a supporter of American isolation, he became the spearhead for creating an international body: what became the League of Nations.
From South to North, and from all-American to all-world—you can't say Wilson didn't know how to change.
You know what they say about the best-laid plans? Sometimes you have a stroke. We're pretty sure that's it, anyway…
Wilson struggled with poor health throughout his life (source). The end of World War I was no exception. He spent months abroad negotiating at the Paris Peace Conference, but not all his plans went through: European leaders decided to put the smackdown on Germany instead of being lenient.
After the United States Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, keeping the U.S. out of the League of Nations, Wilson embarked on a cross-country tour to try to drum up support. Without American leadership, he thought, the League would collapse and another World War would follow. He asked:
"Dare we break the heart of the world?" (Source)
It was during his cross-country tour that he suffered a debilitating stroke. Never fully recovering, he died a few years after the end of his term, in 1924.
Despite petering out at the end, Wilson is consistently ranked as one of the best presidents ever (source). His name is basically synonymous with the phrase "international relations." But his legacy also has an evil streak.
In recent years, Wilson's racism has come under closer scrutiny (source). Unfortunately, he took a little too much pride in his Southern heritage. A committed segregationist, he de-integrated many federal agencies, barring African-Americans from serving in government. He also expressed support for the Ku Klux Klan. He even admired the Klan-glorifying movie The Birth of a Nation (source).
Wilson's reputation has taken such a hit that, in 2015 and 2016, Princeton University removed an image of him from a campus building. People don't even want to use the "everyone thought that way back then" argument: historians say that Wilson's segregationist streak was significant even for its time (source).
Lesson learned: even when it comes to great presidents, don't get too comfortable with your history.