President Woodrow Wilson’s Economic Policies

How He Made the Presidency So Powerful

President Woodrow Wilson
President Woodrow Wilson delivers a speech from the back of a train. Photo:

Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Woodrow Wilson was the 28th president, serving from 1913 to 1921. During his presidency, he increased the power of the presidency despite congressional efforts to oppose him.

Wilson oversaw America’s entrance into World War I. His “14 Points” laid the groundwork for the Treaty of Versailles. Wilson argued vehemently for the League of Nations to protect the world from another horrific war. Wilson believed in free trade and a nation’s right to self-governance. Wilson received a Nobel Prize for his efforts to promote peace.

Wilson created the Federal Reserve and the Federal Trade Commission. He was one of seven Democratic presidents during the 20th century.

Wilson’s Accomplishments

Immediately upon taking office, Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act to create America’s first central bank. The nation had just suffered from devastating booms and busts. Congress wanted the regional banks to control the Fed, but Wilson insisted on a central board to balance the bankers’ regional structure. Unfortunately, these complicated arrangements are why people are confused about who owns the Fed. It is an independent body made up of 12 regional Federal Reserve banks.

Wilson signed the Underwood-Simmons Act in 1913. It reduced tariffs on manufactured goods and raw materials, which lowered costs for consumers. To compensate for the loss in revenue, it also created a graduated federal income tax. Most workers at that time made too little to get hit with the tax, and the reduction in tariffs did not immediately reduce the cost of imports. World War I broke out the following year, reducing European production.


In 1914, Wilson instructed Congress to create the Clayton Anti-Trust Act. It expanded on the Sherman Act to limit monopolies’ power. It gave the newly established Federal Trade Commission power to enforces these laws.

In 1919, Wilson vetoed the Volstead Act, which enforced the 18th Amendment prohibiting alcohol. A year later, he advocated for the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote in 1920.

Wilson’s Role in World War I

Germany sank the British ocean liner Lusitania in 1915. Wilson warned any further attacks would cause the United States to enter World War I.

In 1916, Wilson signed three acts to prepare the United States for war.

  1. He approved the Adamson Act to create an eight-hour workday for railroad workers. Wilson wanted to avoid a strike by the railroad unions while the country was gearing up for World War I. That set the standard for Ford Motor Company to do the same 10 years later.
  2. The Federal Farm Loan Act set up government loans to farmers to develop and expand their farms.
  3. He also signed the Keating-Owen Act. It banned articles produced by child labor from being sold in interstate commerce. The Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional two years later.

On April 2, 1917, Wilson addressed Congress, where he famously said, “The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire not conquest, no dominion.”

The United States declared war on April 6, 1917, after Germany attacked U.S. merchant ships. In early 1918, the United States deployed 1 million troops to Europe. In November 1918, they severed a critical German railway supply track at Meuse-Argonne. That crippled the German offensive. Germany surrendered in 1918.

Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points

Wilson presented the Fourteen Points in a speech to Congress on January 8, 1918. It called for the establishment of the League of Nations and independence for the smaller countries in the war. It didn’t promote war reparations from Germany. But the Republicans in the U.S. Congress defeated it.

In summary, Wilson’s 14 points were:

  1. Peace treaties must be negotiated and remain in public.
  2. Freedom of navigation upon the seas.
  3. Free trade.
  4. Reduce armaments except for what is necessary for defense only.
  5. Colonized people must have an equal voice as the governing country.
  6. Russia must be allowed to determine its own future.
  7. Belgium must be restored to freedom and self-rule.
  8. Alsace-Lorraine should be returned to France.
  9. Italy’s boundaries should be aligned with its nationalities.
  10. People formerly under the Austro-Hungary Empire should be allowed to self-rule.
  11. Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro should be restored to sovereignty. Serbia should have access to the sea.
  12. The Turkish portion of the Ottoman empire shall be free. Other countries under Turkish rule shall be allowed self-rule. The Dardanelles should be open to free trade.
  13. Poland should be free and be granted free access to the sea.
  14. A league of nations should be created.

Wilson used these 14 points to broker the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. 

Wilson and the Debt

President Wilson was the second-largest contributor to the debt, percentage-wise. He added $21 billion, which was a more than 700% increase over the $2.9 billion debt of his predecessor. That was because of World War I. During his presidency, the Second Liberty Bond Act gave Congress the right to adopt the national debt ceiling. See how much Wilson added to the national debt by comparing the U.S. debt by president.


President Wilson’s salary during his term was $75,000 a year. In 2019, this value translated to $1.9 million. It’s much more than the $400,000 annual salary a president receives today.

Wilson’s Early Years

Woodrow Wilson was born in Virginia in 1856, the son of a Presbyterian minister. Wilson’s early years were affected by the horrors of war. His father used his church as a hospital for injured Confederate troops during the Civil War.

Wilson graduated from Princeton, then referred to as the College of New Jersey, in 1879. He received a law degree from the University of Virginia Law School. He then earned a doctorate at Johns Hopkins University in 1886. Wilson is the only U.S. president to have a PhD.

He taught at Bryn Mawr, Wesleyan, and Princeton. Wilson was president of Princeton from 1902 to 1910. He became nationally known for reforming education.

This national reputation led some conservative Democrats to ask Wilson to run for governor of New Jersey in 1910. In the campaign, he abandoned the conservative machine and switched to a progressive platform.

Wilson was nominated for president at the 1912 Democratic Convention. He campaigned for the “New Freedom” program, which advocated individualism and states’ rights.

After Leaving Office

While in office on September 25, 1919, Wilson suffered a stroke that left him almost blind and partially paralyzed. His impairment was kept from the public, and his wife, Edith, fulfilled many of his duties. Wilson’s stroke prevented him from accomplishing much after he left office. Although he was almost blind and remained partially paralyzed, Wilson fantasized about running for a third term in 1924 to seek a referendum from the American people on the League of Nations. He felt that if he won, it would prove that the American people supported a League of Nations.

In August 1923, Wilson published a brief plea for a more enlightened foreign policy entitled “The Road Away From Revolution.” In November, he labored through a short Armistice Day address on a nationwide radio network, but he could not manage any real public role. He died quietly at his home on February 3, 1924. Wilson is buried in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

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  1. The Nobel Foundation. "Woodrow Wilson."

  2. Federal Reserve History. "Federal Reserve Act Signed Into Law."

  3. Federal Trade Commission. "Our History."

  4. United States International Trade Commission. "A Centennial History of the United States International Trade Commission," Pages 88-91.

  5. Federal Trade Commission. "The Clayton Act: 100 Years and Counting."

  6. U.S. House of Representatives. "The Volstead Act."

  7. Library of Congress. "Tactics and Techniques of the National Woman's Party Suffrage Campaign."

  8. Library of Congress. "The Lusitania Disaster."

  9. Library of Congress. "Eight Hour Day (1916): Topics in Chronicling America."

  10. Farm Credit Administration. "History of FCA."

  11. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "History of Child Labor in the United States—Part 2: The Reform Movement," Pages 14-16.

  12. Our Documents. "Joint Address to Congress Leading to a Declaration of War Against Germany (1917)."

  13. Library of Congress. "U.S. Enters World War I."

  14. National Archives. "The Meuse-Argonne Offensive."

  15. Yale Law School. "President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points."

  16. The White House. "Woodrow Wilson."

  17. U.S. Department of the Treasury. "Historical Debt Outstanding—Annual 1900-1949."

  18. Congressional Research Service. "The Debt Limit: History and Recent Increases," Pages 5-6.

  19. Congressional Research Service. "President of the United States: Compensation," Page 3.

  20. Johns Hopkins Magazine. "More Than a Mere Student."

  21. Princeton University. "The Presidents of Princeton University."

  22. University of Virginia Miller Center. "Woodrow Wilson: Life After the Presidency."

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