Wilson Is Elected U.S. President

As president, Woodrow Wilson, a reform-minded Democrat, propelled the United States in progressive directions both domestically and internationally.

Summary of Event

The presidential election of 1912 was one of the most exciting elections in U.S. history. Woodrow Wilson was the victor in the three-way race with Theodore Roosevelt, who had already served almost two full terms as president, and the incumbent, William Howard Taft. Wilson became the first Democrat elected to the presidency since Grover Cleveland and only the second since James Buchanan. The campaign broke the normal pattern for American presidential races, in which issues were usually subordinate to personalities. At stake in 1912 were three competing philosophies: Wilson’s New Freedom, Roosevelt’s New Nationalism, and Taft’s conservative Republicanism. Presidency, U.S.;Woodrow Wilson[Wilson]
Presidential elections, U.S.;1912
New Freedom
[kw]Wilson Is Elected U.S. President (Nov. 5, 1912)
[kw]U.S. President, Wilson Is Elected (Nov. 5, 1912)
[kw]President, Wilson Is Elected U.S. (Nov. 5, 1912)
Presidency, U.S.;Woodrow Wilson[Wilson]
Presidential elections, U.S.;1912
New Freedom
[g]United States;Nov. 5, 1912: Wilson Is Elected U.S. President[03210]
[c]Government and politics;Nov. 5, 1912: Wilson Is Elected U.S. President[03210]
[c]Social issues and reform;Nov. 5, 1912: Wilson Is Elected U.S. President[03210]
Wilson, Woodrow
[p]Wilson, Woodrow;presidential election 1912
Roosevelt, Theodore
[p]Roosevelt, Theodore;presidential election 1912
Taft, William Howard
Clark, Champ
Underwood, Oscar
Brandeis, Louis D.

Debates during the campaign were deep and incisive. The challenge had been building up within a badly divided nation since Theodore Roosevelt left the presidency in 1909. His handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, was expected to continue Roosevelt’s progressive reforms. Roosevelt went off to Africa on a hunting expedition, expecting that Taft’s presidency would follow closely his own reforms. Taft, an amiable behemoth of 340 pounds, was physically lazy, temperamentally unsuited to the presidency, and an inept politician. Roosevelt had been able to hold together a tenuous Republican coalition of Old Guard eastern conservatives and midwestern and urban Progressives through shrewd political maneuvering and philosophical wavering between liberal and conservative policies. Taft, a conservative at heart, had no taste for political infighting and allowed the party to disintegrate into squabbling and disunity. When Roosevelt returned home in 1910, the party was in a state of great disorder, and the Democrats had scored large gains in the elections that year. It was in 1910 that Woodrow Wilson campaigned for and won his first political office, the governorship of New Jersey. As governor, Wilson set in motion basic reforms that transformed New Jersey’s government from a corrupt regime dominated by political bosses into the model of a reform state.

By 1912, the Republican schism had become irreparable; when Theodore Roosevelt marched out of the Republican convention in Chicago on June 22, 1912, to form the new Progressive Party, the election of a Democrat to the presidency was virtually assured. When the Democrats assembled in Baltimore on June 24, 1912, their party was at a historic crossroads.

Wilson had enjoyed a distinguished career as a scholar before his entrance into politics. After graduating from Princeton University in 1879 and attempting a brief, unsuccessful law career, he completed his doctorate in political science and history at The Johns Hopkins University in 1886. His academic career culminated in his election to the presidency of Princeton University in 1902. By that time, Wilson had written three books on the American system of government and was a budding theoretician on U.S. politics. A dispute at Princeton, resulting from long-standing opposition to some of Wilson’s educational reforms, coincided with the opportunity for Wilson to enter politics as the Democratic candidate for governor of New Jersey. Wilson accepted the nomination, and his winning campaign, as well as his subsequent reform administration, made him the brightest Democratic political force in the nation and an immediate contender for the presidential nomination in 1912.

Wilson was the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination until the Republican split made the Democratic nomination much more viable. At that point, the new leader for the nomination was Champ Clark, the Speaker of the House, who, like Taft, was temperamentally and intellectually unsuited for the presidency. Clark was an old-line politician who had broadened his political base beyond his native Missouri to attract most of William Jennings Bryan’s old western following. Representative Oscar Underwood of Alabama, another leading candidate, had strong southern backing. After a bitter convention fight, Wilson finally won the nomination of the Democratic Party on the forty-sixth ballot.

The election turned into a confrontation between two philosophies of progressivism. Roosevelt’s New Nationalism asserted the necessity of a strong Hamiltonian federal government, the retention and regulation of large corporations, and a program of government-supported social welfare. Wilson answered with the New Freedom, which a prominent Massachusetts lawyer, Louis D. Brandeis, had helped to formulate. The New Freedom asserted the need for Jeffersonian localism, the breaking up of large corporations, and a return to the small entrepreneurial unit. For the first time, the philosophical alternatives of a new industrial age were being debated in a political campaign.

With the Republican vote split between Taft and Roosevelt, the Democratic challenger, Woodrow Wilson, was elected with 6,293,454 votes to 4,119,538 for Roosevelt, 3,484,980 for Taft, and 900,672 for Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs. Although he received only 42 percent of the popular vote, Wilson won an overwhelming victory in the electoral college, with 435 votes to Roosevelt’s 88 and Taft’s 8. As a newcomer to politics, Wilson was not burdened by political debts such as Roosevelt’s obligations to eastern Republican business interests, and he had a sympathetic Congress ready to cooperate in implementing his Progressive reform program.


Wilson strengthened the presidency even further than had Roosevelt. He became the leader of the people as well as of the Congress, and he dominated the government during both his terms in office. He achieved landmark legislative reforms in his first term with vital tariff, banking, and antitrust measures. Later he adopted, in addition to his own ambitious program, almost all the proposals championed by Roosevelt in the great debate of 1912. When World War I engulfed the United States, Wilson became the first of the powerful twentieth century war presidents. The effects of the 1912 campaign and Wilson’s election to the presidency dominated U.S. liberal politics throughout the twentieth century. The New Deal New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt owed many of its philosophical premises to Wilson’s progressivism and much of its implementation to Wilson’s expansion of executive power.

In international affairs, the spirit of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, Fourteen Points which promised a “peace without victory,” still well expresses one of the idealistic themes in U.S. foreign policy. However, Wilson’s failure to develop consensus or involve opposition voices during the negotiation of the League of Nations League of Nations led to a major foreign policy setback and to nonratification by the United States of the Covenant of the League of Nations, despite Wilson’s vigorous but belated attempt to win popular and legislative support for this first-ever modern international collective security body. Many scholars believe that the nonparticipation of the United States was an important factor in the ultimate failure of the League of Nations. Presidency, U.S.;Woodrow Wilson[Wilson]
Presidential elections, U.S.;1912
New Freedom

Further Reading

  • Burton, David H. The Learned Presidency: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1988. Comprehensive review of the presidencies of three men who were strikingly different yet similar in significant ways, and who brought a new aura of intellectualism to the nation’s highest office.
  • Cooper, John Milton, Jr. The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. 1985. Reprint. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2004. Examines the two highly divergent but equally important political personalities who helped shape modern U.S. political thought. Provides valuable insights into Roosevelt’s compulsion to enter the 1912 electoral race, thereby splitting the Republican vote and assuring Wilson’s victory.
  • Heckscher, August. Woodrow Wilson. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991. Full-scale biography by a former president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation places Wilson’s political career, especially the crucial 1912 election, in long-range perspective. Offers new and penetrating insights into the public and private career of one of the most important U.S. presidents.
  • Link, Arthur S. Wilson. 5 vols. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1947-1965. Definitive study of Wilson’s life and career is an indispensable resource for any serious student of the 1912 election.
  • Milkis, Sidney M., and Jerome M. Mileur, eds. Progressivism and the New Democracy. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999. Collection of essays by political scientists and historians examines the long-term effects of the Progressive Era on U.S. politics and government. Includes index.
  • Schantz, Harvey L., ed. American Presidential Elections: Process, Policy, and Political Change. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. Collection of essays analyzing presidential elections throughout U.S. history. Contributors compare specific elections and discuss their impacts on political parties, American society, and public policy. Introductory essay provides a thorough explanation of the presidential election process. Includes tables, figures, and index.
  • Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. 1912-1924. Vol. 6 in History of American Presidential Elections. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. Contains the official platforms of the Democratic and Republican Parties as well as transcripts of speeches and remarks by Wilson, which help give the particular flavor of the times in which the election was held.

Federal Reserve Act

Federal Trade Commission Is Organized

Clayton Antitrust Act

Pershing Expedition

Brandeis Becomes the First Jewish Supreme Court Justice

United States Establishes a Permanent Tariff Commission

United States Enters World War I

League of Nations Is Established

Treaty of Versailles