The Virginia-born son of a Presbyterian minister, Wilson became president of Princeton University in 1902; he resigned the post in 1910 to run successfully for the governorship of New Jersey. Two years later, he won a tight race for the Democratic nomination for president, aided by a split in the Republican Party and the third-party candidacy of former president Theodore Roosevelt. After a vigorous campaign on a reformist platform dubbed New Freedom, Wilson outpolled both Roosevelt and the Republican incumbent, William Howard Taft, though he failed to capture a majority of the popular vote.
At his inauguration ceremony on March 4, 1913, Wilson made clear his vision of the United States and its people as an exemplary moral force: “Nowhere else in the world have noble men and women exhibited in more striking forms the beauty and the energy of sympathy and helpfulness and counsel in their efforts to rectify wrong, alleviate suffering, and set the weak in the way of strength and hope.” Wilson s first term as president would be dedicated to pushing through ambitious domestic programs—including the Federal Reserve Act and the creation of the Federal Trade Commission; his second, which began in 1916, would be marked irrevocably by the First World War.
Though Wilson won reelection in 1916 on a platform of strict neutrality, he would soon give himself over completely to his vision of the United States as a powerful moral force that should play an important role in shaping international affairs. German aggression—best exemplified by its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare—provided an impetus for this vision, pushing the president and his country towards entrance into the war. Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war on April 2, 1917; the U.S. formally entered the war four days later.
Wilson’s famous Fourteen Points—presented in a speech to Congress in January 1918—and his plan for an international organization dedicated to regulating conflicts and preserving peace between nations became the basis, after the armistice, for the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations. In the face of tough opposition from conservative opponents in Congress, Wilson was unable to push through ratification of either the treaty or the League in his own country, which greatly lessened its efficacy in the post-war era. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1920, an exhausted Wilson suffered a stroke soon after that nearly killed him. He left office in 1921 and died three years later.