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American Experience - Woodrow Wilson
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Wilson - A Portrait
Woodrow Wilson
Ellen Axson Wilson
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Wilson - A PortraitElection of 1912

Woodrow WilsonIt was one of the most significant elections in all of American history because it involved a philosophical debate about the nature of governmentÍ rarely seen in American politics.
David M. Kennedy, Historian

Woodrow Wilson, then governor of New Jersey, was the Democratic PartyÝs candidate for the presidential election of 1912. The country faced problems that the founding fathers had never imagined. The changes in urbanization and industrialization that the United States had undergone since the 1880s were so massive that government urgently needed to develop new approaches to its role. America had to reorder itself, many believed, and so did progressive Woodrow Wilson.

Democratic convention
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Eugene Debs

Serious candidates raised the discourse of the election beyond personality to political philosophy. Representing big business and the status quo was the conservative Republican incumbent, President William Howard Taft. In the middle and appealing to the reform-minded majority of Americans was former president Theodore Roosevelt nominated by the newly founded Progressive Party, also known as the Bull Moose Party. On the extreme left was the labor leader and Socialist Party nominee Eugene Debs, who told his supporters it was time for the working class to run America.


Wilson campaigning Roosevelt was one of the most kinetic, almost frantic personalities of his era. Wilson was much more thoughtful, more cerebralÍ but beneath that veneer was quite a passionate individualÍ David M. Kennedy, Historian

Wilson and Roosevelt, both reformers, were trying to win the voters in the middle. Wilson was perceived as cold and aloof; one reporter said shaking his hand was like shaking a dead fish. In contrast, the charismatic Roosevelt appealed to people with his bluster and back-slapping. WilsonÝs best hope against Roosevelt was to crisscross the country, speaking directly to the voters about a "New Freedom" designed to help what he called "the man on the make." This was a middle-class man who aspired to the property or business-owning class. By the summer of 1912, Wilson had carved out a solid center of people who wanted change.


Wilson in chair Íthe most important lines from his race for presidency in 1912 is that his New Freedom package is designed to help the man on the make, not the man who has already made it.Victoria Bissell Brown, Historian

On election night, Wilson retreated home to his Princeton residence to await the nationÝs verdict with his family. After dinner he read Ellen and his daughters a poem by Browning about the importance of accepting GodÝs will.

When the results were in, three-quarters of the American electorate had voted for parties of change. There was clearly a mandate for reform, but not necessarily for Wilson. He had garnered six million votes, but together Taft and Roosevelt had polled a million more. And there were another million who had chosen Debs and the Socialists.

Woodrow Wilson was president because the Republican Party had split.

If you want to test your political skills, try to Win the Election of 1912!


Wilson vs. TR
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