Woodrow Wilson’s America 100 Years Ago

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Woodrow Wilson won the Nobel Peace prize in 1919. Image by  A. B. Lagrelius & Westphal, Stockholm; courtesy of Nobel Prize.

During his term in office, Woodrow Wilson saw many similar problems to those America faces today. Image by A. B. Lagrelius & Westphal, Stockholm; courtesy of Nobel Prize.

The old political formulas do not fit the present problems; they read now like documents taken out of a forgotten age.”

This observation seems appropriate in describing the contemporary political climate in the United States. It was written, however, by the newly elected president, Woodrow Wilson, in 1913. It was the year before the Great War in Europe, a time of changing social trends and growing economic disparity. The new president was a Democrat, the first one since Grover Cleveland and only the second one since 1860 and the election of Abraham Lincoln.

Wilson’s America in 1913

Wilson won with 6,293,454 popular votes out of over 15 million cast in 1912. The dominant Republican Party split between incumbent William Howard Taft and former president Theodore Roosevelt. Although the period was dubbed the Progressive Era, Wilson’s America was characterized by great wealth disparity, deplorable working conditions, and an influx of immigrants, many coming from non-traditional regions such as Eastern Europe and Russia.

Unlike Roosevelt and Taft, Wilson had no political background except for having served two years as the governor of New Jersey. He was not aligned to the social upper class. After winning the presidency, for example, his wife was “appalled,” according to historian Virginia Cowles, that Mrs. Taft, the former First Lady, had spent over $6,000 a year on clothing appropriate to her position.

Mrs. Wilson reportedly remarked, “I like to be tastefully gowned but I do not think that extravagance brings a woman happiness.”

Children of silk workers in Paterson, New Jersey, May 1913. Library of Congress photo. Part of the Bain Collection.

The silk industry in Paterson, New Jersey employed many children with low wages and cruel conditions. Strikes in 1913 closed the factories. Library of Congress photo. Part of the Bain Collection.

In 1913 the American nation was in a period of transition. Like their counterparts in Britain who tended to be more aggressive, suffragettes marched, fighting for the right to vote. Wilson opposed them, as did his wife. Wealth disparity, highlighted in the nation’s social columns reporting on the Newport parties and other such gatherings, bred the fear of socialism. In the election of 1912, Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs had received almost a million popular votes.

© Copyright 2013 Michael Streich, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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