The stakes in this year's presidential campaign are high. But that's nothing new. There have been many other pivotal presidential elections in our history, some that set an entirely new course for the United States and a few that were crucial to the very survival of the republic. To put the current campaign in perspective, U.S. News's White House Correspondent Kenneth T. Walsh, author of four books on the presidency, examines the 10 most consequential elections in American history—the races that produced the biggest change and had the most lasting impact. An installment of this 10-part series will run on the U.S. News website each Wednesday through September. This is the seventh in the series.
Woodrow Wilson was one of the most brilliant and cerebral of America's presidents. He was also one of the most inflexible, which in the end kept him from achieving his most ambitious goal—the creation of the League of Nations.
Wilson, like Theodore Roosevelt before him, considered himself the public's chief tribune in Washington. "No one but the president seems to be expected...to look out for the general interests of the country," he once said. The former president of Princeton University and the Democratic governor of New Jersey, he was elected president of the United States in 1912 with only 42 percent of the popular vote in a three-way contest in which the Republicans were badly divided between former President Roosevelt and incumbent President William Howard Taft. Wilson's taking office marked a resumption of the presidential activism pioneered by TR from 1901 to 1909. And in his first address to Congress, which he delivered in person (the first time a president had done so in a century), Wilson said, "We must abolish everything that bears even the semblance of privilege or any kind of artificial advantage."
Wilson had declared himself as an advocate of states' rights, but he governed as a progressive. "Although Republican and Democratic progressives might not have realized it at the time, in Wilson they gained a president who, if not temperamentally suited to support progressivism, was at least politically wise enough to sense the turning of the tide in favor of national reform," writes historian Thomas Connelly. "In his first term he compiled a truly impressive record of support for measures for which Roosevelt had argued in favor during the campaign." Wilson won congressional passage of measures to create a graduated federal income tax, set up the Federal Reserve to better control the money supply, and establish the Federal Trade Commission to curtail unfair business practices. He also won passage in 1916 for a law prohibiting child labor and restricting railroad workers to an eight-hour day.
His legislative record proved popular among many everyday Americans. Just as important to his public standing was Wilson's insistence that the United States remain at peace despite the growing and horrendous conflagration of World War I. His slogan—"he kept us out of war"—had considerable resonance, and he won re-election in 1916.
But shortly thereafter, Wilson reversed course and ended America's neutrality after Germany sank several American ships, among other provocations. In April 1917, he asked for and received from Congress a declaration of war on Germany. Wilson called it a crusade to make the world "safe for democracy."
America's participation led to victory for the anti-German allies, and Wilson proceeded to overreach in an effort to dominate the peace talks. He believed America had attained a new level of power in world politics. And he announced an international agenda called the 14 Points in January 1918—a wide array of arrangements for a postwar world that included the creation of what became known as a League of Nations offering mutual guarantees of independence and territorial integrity "to great and small states alike."
It was a noble effort, but Wilson's stubbornness made it very difficult for him to win support. He met with stiff resistance all around, especially from European leaders who wanted to punish Germany and impose draconian penalties on the war's biggest loser. Wilson, undeterred, went to Paris to lobby for the agreement and later presented to the U.S. Senate the Versailles Treaty containing the League of Nations covenant. He asked, "Dare we reject it and break the heart of the world?" Meanwhile, the Republicans, riding a public desire for normalcy, made a comeback in the midterm elections of 1918 and took control of Congress. Wilson, in failing health, made a national tour to stir up support for the treaty. He suffered a stroke and nearly died, and the pact was never approved.
"For a time, Wilson fantasized that voters would regard the 1920 election as a referendum on the League and therefore provide the Democrats with a substantial victory," writes historian Alvin Felzenberg. But Republican Warren Harding, pledging a return to "business as usual" and an end to Wilsonian crusades, won a huge landslide in the presidential election over Democrat James Cox, crushing the ailing Wilson's hopes. Historians generally see Wilson as a noble-minded idealist whose refusal to compromise doomed him to fail in pursuing the biggest objective of his presidency and as a leader whose high-minded exertions defined the limits of altruism in American politics.
More from our Most Consequential Elections series:
George Washington and the Election of 1788
Thomas Jefferson and the Election of 1800
Andrew Jackson and the Election of 1828
Abraham Lincoln and the Election of 1860
Abraham Lincoln and the Election of 1864
Theodore Roosevelt and the Election of 1904
Franklin Roosevelt and the Election of 1932
Lyndon Johnson and the Election of 1964
Ronald Reagan and the Election of 1980