Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton on December 28, 1856, and soon after his family moved to Augusta, Georgia.
President of Princeton University, governor of New Jersey, 1919 Nobel Peace Prize winner, accomplished author, Wilson became president of the United States in 1913, served for two terms and brought the nation through World War I. He led the design of the League of Nations, an organization to bring all nations of the world together with a goal to avoid future world wars. His League because the United Nations in 1946.
On Saturday, February 3, 2024, the U.S. marked the 100th anniversary of Wilson’s death in Washington, D.C. at age 67 after a lengthy struggle with health issues which included a stroke in 1919 from which he never fully recovered. Wilson is the only U.S. president buried in the nation’s capital. He was interred at Washington National Cathedral.
“For me, I think it is important to acknowledge Wilson’s passing because of his lasting influence on our country and world. I don’t believe most people realize the impact of Wilson on our lives today,” said Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum President & CEO Robin von Seldeneck.
She cited the example of American laws that protect workers in the workplace, antitrust laws designed to protect from price-fixing, and the creation of the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Labor.
“Wilson also laid the groundwork for the modern presidency. He transformed the executive branch by enhancing its visibility and influence. His pioneering use of press conferences changed how presidents communicate with the public. Through these press conferences, Wilson effectively shaped public opinion, disseminating his policies and perspectives to a wide audience. Wilson also brought back the tradition of presenting State of the Union addresses in person, the first since Thomas Jefferson to do so,” von Seldeneck said.
Lastly, she cited the example of diplomacy with other nations. Military power previously settled issues between nations, “but Wilson advocated for dialogue, negotiation and cooperation between countries. Wilson laid the groundwork for a more interconnected and interdependent world order, one where nations could resolve differences through dialogue rather than resorting to the horrors of war. Despite the challenges and limitations of his vision, Wilson’s advocacy for diplomacy as a fundamental principle of international relations remains a significant legacy in the pursuit of global peace and stability.”
Wilson “left a profound and complex legacy that shapes our nation and world even today,” according to the museum in Staunton that bears his name. The anniversary of his death is an opportunity to reflect on his accomplishments and missteps in history.
Wilson was president in 1917 when he made the difficult decision to bring the U.S into World War I. He cited the need to “make the world safe for democracy.” His commitment to peace and democracy led to the League of Nations, a precursor to the United Nations. For his work at the end of the war and for designing the League of Nations, he was awarded a Nobel Prize for Peace in 1919.
Wilson’s work made international cooperation and diplomacy the cornerstone of American foreign policy.
The U.S. banking system was unstable after the Civil War, and the Panic of 1907 created a reform movement to bring order and accountability to banks. Wilson made banking reform part of his political platform. He signed the Federal Reserve Act into law in 1913, which created a central banking system with 12 regional Reserve Banks. The Federal Reserve remans as the backbone of the U.S. banking and financial system, and continues to oversee monetary policy, regulate banks and seeks to provide financial stability.
Wilson is one of three legislative presidents of the 20th Century, along with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. The power of monopolies was curbed and competition promoted with his advocacy of antitrust legislation. In 1914, he signed the Clayton Antitrust Act, which strengthened existing antitrust laws by prohibiting certain business practices that lessened competition and laid the groundwork for subsequent antitrust enforcement efforts. His antitrust legislation continues to influence antitrust policy in 2024.
Wilson championed progressive reforms to address social and economic injustices, including laws regulating child labor, establishing workers’ compensation programs, and instituting eight-hour workdays for railroad workers. Some reforms have been modified or superseded since Wilson, but the broader principles of progressive governance, including efforts to protect workers’ rights and promote social welfare, remain relevant in contemporary policymaking.
Wilson’s legacy also includes contradictions. He advocated for democratic principles on the global stage and championed the concept of self-determination for nations, but at home his administration perpetuated segregationist policies and tolerated racial discrimination.
Wilson’s life and legacy are a reminder that even our most revered leaders are not without their shortcomings and contradictions and examining leaders like him can provide valuable lessons for the next generation to strive for greater self-awareness, empathy and a deeper understanding of the impact of our actions on others and the world around us.
Rebecca J. Barnabi is the national editor of Augusta Free Press. A graduate of the University of Mary Washington, she began her journalism career at The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. In 2013, she was awarded first place for feature writing in the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Awards Program, and was honored by the Virginia School Boards Association’s 2019 Media Honor Roll Program for her coverage of Waynesboro Schools. Her background in newspapers includes writing about features, local government, education and the arts.