For a man who always desired to be a great statesman, Woodrow Wilson had the supreme fortune–or perhaps misfortune–to enter national politics at the moment he did. Essentially a political unknown with only two years of public service under his belt when he was elected President in 1912, Wilson was thrown into the frenzy of progressive reform and a rapidly changing international order.

Since the last quarter of the 1800s, the rift between the wealthy and poor in the U.S. had been growing wider. A plutocracy formed as the wealthy got wealthier and the laborers and poor generally did not. The hardest hit by this division were farmers, and in the 1890s many in the Midwest joined to form the Populist Party headed by William Jennings Bryan. The Populists wanted to reform government in general and give more money to destitute farmers in particular. The movement died by the turn of the century, however, primarily because its followers could not rally support for their extreme economic reforms. However, the impetus for government reform had been planted, and when more Northerners began to demand change, Progressivism was born.

Progressives fought for a variety of reforms in the years prior to and during Wilson's presidency. W.E.B. DuBois of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) fought for racial equality in all aspects of life. Jane Addams founded and directed the Hull House for twenty-five years to help the urban poor. Margaret Sanger promoted the use of birth control and petitioned many state governments to lift their bans on contraceptives, which were illegal at the time. Feminists throughout the country fought hard for and won the right to vote with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Governor Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin adopted several new ballot initiatives such as recall, referendum, and the direct election of U.S. Senators.

Progressivism peaked during Theodore Roosevelt's presidency from 1901 to 1908. Much of Roosevelt's domestic policy involved fighting big industry and corruption to help the common man. He offered the American people a "Square Deal" to improve their standard of living and to exert more control over large domineering corporations, or trusts. Trusts, technically illegal under the 1890 Sherman Act, attempted to consolidate business interests to create monopolies on specific products and eliminate competition. Although Roosevelt succeeded in reforming government, his successor William Howard Taft–who had been elected as a Rooseveltian reformer–had by the end of his four years managed only to alienate the progressives in both parties. It is little surprise the progressives looked to the Governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson, a man who had in only two years drastically reformed politics and government in his state. They elected Wilson to continue the progressive traditions in Washington.

Ironically, Wilson's primary challenges during his two terms in office came not from domestic concerns, but from several international crises. Shortly after his inauguration, Wilson faced a new threat from Mexico. The country underwent two revolutions during Wilson's administration, and the United States was involved in both. Wilson sent American troops to occupy the Mexican port of Veracruz during the first, and a much larger invasion force called the Punitive Expedition in the second. Relations between the two nations very nearly collapsed into war. Wilson also attempted to amend the wrongs committed by the imperialist Roosevelt administration. While in office Wilson gave almost total political autonomy to the Philippine Islands, apologized to the Colombian government for America's involvement in the Panamanian Revolution of 1903, and had Congress repeal the unfair Panama Canal Act. However, though Wilson strongly believed in the liberal ideal of self-determination, he also ordered the occupations of Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua during his first term.

Wilson also dealt with the European conflict. Since the 1870s, a number of the major countries in Europe had been gearing for war with each other. The independent German kingdoms united in the 1870s and began to grow to eventually become the largest power on the continent. Meanwhile, France was arming heavily in case its centuries-old rival Germany chose to attack. Russia also feared the growing German threat and sought to ally itself with Great Britain, France, and even Germany itself for protection. The British, for their part, tried hard to remain out of the conflict, but found that having the world's most powerful navy made that impossible. Rebellious provinces within the Austro-Hungarian Empire made central Europe extremely unstable, and the leaders of the Ottoman Empire in the Near East sought to expand their power. War was inevitable, and when it did erupt, it quickly became the bloodiest conflict in human history. President Wilson faced the task of charting America's course in the war. After eventually uniting with the Entente powers to defeat the Central powers, he then had to convince the world to work for a true, lasting peace.

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