Woodrow Wilson’s ‘New Freedom’: Progressive Reforms & Their Legacy

Woodrow Wilson, The Progressive: To what extent did President Woodrow Wilson provide a ‘New Freedom’ for the American people?


The early 20th century was a transformative period for the United States. As the nation grappled with rapid industrialization, urbanization, and a changing socio-political landscape, the progressive movement emerged as a response to the perceived excesses and inequalities of the Gilded Age. At the forefront of this movement stood Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States. His tenure, from 1913 to 1921, was marked by ambitious efforts to reform and modernize various aspects of American society and governance. Coined as the “New Freedom”, Wilson’s policy agenda aimed to restore economic competition, enhance individual rights, and reduce the power of large corporations and trusts. This essay delves into the extent to which President Woodrow Wilson actualized his vision of “New Freedom” for the American people.

Background on the Progressive Movement

The progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a diverse and multifaceted response to the myriad challenges that the United States faced due to rapid industrialization. It was not a monolithic movement, but rather a coalition of various groups and individuals who sought to address the social, political, and economic inequities that had become increasingly apparent.

One of the main tenets of progressivism was the belief in the power of government to be a force for good. Progressives argued that active governmental intervention was necessary to ensure fairness, justice, and equality in an era dominated by large corporations and powerful economic interests. This belief stood in stark contrast to the prevailing laissez-faire attitude of the late 19th century, which espoused minimal government intervention in economic affairs.

Among the myriad of issues that progressives sought to address were: rampant political corruption, the unregulated power of trusts and monopolies, poor urban living conditions, the plight of workers in an industrial economy, and the need for improved public education. To achieve their aims, they advocated for a range of reforms, from direct primary elections and the initiative, referendum, and recall processes to regulatory agencies and social welfare programs.

It was within this fervent atmosphere of change that Woodrow Wilson emerged as a national leader. Prior to his presidency, Wilson had already established himself as a progressive thinker during his tenure as the president of Princeton University and later as the governor of New Jersey. His academic background in history and political science, coupled with his hands-on experience in state governance, uniquely positioned him to grasp the nuances of the challenges at hand and to envision a comprehensive roadmap for national reform.

Yet, as with any transformative movement, Wilson’s approach to progressivism was not without its detractors. There were other notable figures in the movement, such as Theodore Roosevelt with his “New Nationalism” and William Howard Taft, whose policies and visions often diverged from Wilson’s. This rich tapestry of ideas and debates set the stage for Wilson’s presidency and his quest to realize the “New Freedom” for the American populace.

Economic Reforms

One of the cornerstones of Wilson’s “New Freedom” agenda was the profound reshaping of the American economic landscape. The United States, in the early 20th century, was in the throes of rapid industrialization, marked by the dominance of large corporations and trusts. These entities wielded unprecedented power, often at the expense of competition, consumer interests, and economic fairness. Wilson’s economic reforms were aimed at restoring a level playing field, safeguarding individual rights, and promoting economic democracy.

Federal Reserve Act: Perhaps the most significant of Wilson’s economic reforms was the establishment of the Federal Reserve System in 1913. Prior to its inception, the U.S. suffered from an inflexible monetary system, which made the nation vulnerable to financial panics. The Federal Reserve Act created a centralized banking system, dividing the country into twelve districts, each with its own reserve bank. This system provided a more elastic currency, facilitated the transfer of funds, and acted as a lender of last resort. For the first time, the U.S. had an institution that could respond dynamically to its financial needs, stabilize the banking sector, and cushion the impacts of economic downturns.

Clayton Antitrust Act: Building on previous antitrust legislations, the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 further clarified and strengthened the nation’s stance against monopolistic practices. It explicitly prohibited certain business tactics that were deemed as anti-competitive, including price discrimination and tying contracts. Furthermore, it offered clearer guidelines on mergers and acquisitions, aiming to prevent the stifling of competition. Importantly, the act declared that labor unions were not to be treated as monopolies, ensuring workers’ rights to strike, picket, and boycott.

Underwood Tariff: In a bid to reform the nation’s financial structure and reduce the cost of living, Wilson championed the Underwood Tariff Act of 1913. This legislation significantly reduced tariff rates, which had previously been protectionist in nature, benefiting large corporations at the expense of the average consumer. The Underwood Tariff, while lowering duties, also introduced a graduated federal income tax as permitted by the recently ratified 16th Amendment. This not only diversified the government’s revenue streams but also ensured a more equitable taxation system, wherein the wealthy bore a fairer share of the fiscal burden.

In the wider context, these economic reforms underscored Wilson’s commitment to the principles of the Progressive Movement. He believed in a dynamic, responsive government that could safeguard public interest against unchecked corporate power. By establishing a stable monetary system, fostering fair competition, and implementing a more equitable taxation system, Wilson laid the foundations for a modern economic framework that would guide the nation through the challenges of the 20th century and beyond.

Social Reforms

While economic reforms under Woodrow Wilson took center stage in the narrative of his presidency, it is essential to recognize the social reforms that sought to address the fundamental issues faced by ordinary Americans. The Progressive Era was marked by a collective awakening to the myriad social challenges brought about by rapid industrialization and urbanization. Wilson’s administration sought to create a more inclusive, equitable, and just society through a series of transformative measures.

Child Labor: One of the defining features of the early 20th-century industrial landscape was the extensive use of child labor. Children, often very young, worked long hours in hazardous conditions for meager pay. Addressing this issue was paramount to Wilson’s progressive agenda. The Keating-Owen Act of 1916 was a landmark legislation in this direction. It prohibited the sale of goods produced using child labor across state lines. Although it was later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, it marked a significant step towards federal involvement in labor regulations and set the stage for later reforms.

Labor Rights: Wilson’s tenure saw significant strides in labor rights. The Adamson Act of 1916 established an eight-hour workday for interstate railway workers, setting a precedent for further labor reforms in other sectors. This was a monumental victory for labor unions, which had been advocating for better working conditions and shorter work hours for decades. Additionally, in the wake of numerous strikes and labor unrests during this period, Wilson played a mediating role, often advocating for the rights of workers while ensuring that essential services and industries remained operational.

Worker Safety and Welfare: The early 20th century witnessed several industrial accidents, with the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 being a stark reminder of the hazardous conditions many workers faced. Recognizing the pressing need for safety reforms, Wilson’s administration backed the establishment of standards and regulations to enhance worker safety. Furthermore, the Seamen’s Act of 1915 aimed to improve the working conditions for sailors, ensuring better treatment, safety standards, and fair wages.

The social reforms initiated under Wilson showcased the broader objectives of the Progressive Movement: ensuring that the benefits of industrialization and modernization did not come at the expense of the fundamental rights and well-being of the populace. While there were limitations and challenges in implementing these reforms, they underscored a shift in national consciousness towards a more socially responsible governance model.

Political Reforms

The turn of the 20th century witnessed growing public discontent with political machinations, corruption, and the undue influence of vested interests on the democratic processes. Recognizing the urgent need to restore faith in the American political system, Woodrow Wilson championed a series of political reforms aimed at enhancing transparency, accountability, and direct participation of the citizens in governance.

17th Amendment – Direct Election of Senators: Ratified in 1913, the 17th Amendment was a transformative piece of legislation that mandated the direct election of senators by the popular vote. Before this amendment, senators were chosen by state legislatures, a system that was often riddled with corruption and political maneuvering. By ensuring that senators were elected directly by the people, the 17th Amendment strengthened the democratic fabric of the nation and reduced the potential for political corruption at the state level.

Women’s Suffrage: Although the push for women’s suffrage predates Wilson’s presidency, his eventual support was crucial for the movement’s success. Initially, Wilson was non-committal on the issue. However, influenced by relentless advocacy, wartime contributions of women, and shifting public sentiment, he became a vocal proponent by the end of his second term. In 1920, after intense lobbying and advocacy, the 19th Amendment was ratified, granting women the right to vote. This was a monumental shift in the American political landscape, ensuring that half the population was no longer disenfranchised based on gender.

Advocacy for Transparency and Accountability: Wilson’s academic background provided him with a deep understanding of governance and the need for a transparent government. He advocated for open discussions and was a firm believer in the “public’s right to know”. During his tenure, several measures were taken to make the government’s workings more transparent and accountable to the people. His administration worked on streamlining various government functions, reducing bureaucratic red tape, and enhancing the overall efficiency of the federal system.

These political reforms, both direct and indirect, were instrumental in shaping a more inclusive and representative democracy. They addressed some of the systemic issues plaguing the American political system, ensuring that it remained of the people, by the people, and for the people. Through these efforts, Wilson’s administration furthered the progressive ethos, striving for a more equitable and participatory political framework.

Limitations and Criticisms

While Woodrow Wilson’s presidency was marked by a series of groundbreaking reforms that shaped the progressive era, it was not without its limitations and criticisms. The fervor for progress and change often cast a shadow over some of the less admirable aspects of Wilson’s administration and policies. A balanced assessment requires an exploration of these criticisms as well.

Racial Policies and Segregation: One of the most significant criticisms of Wilson’s presidency is his stance on racial issues. Wilson, a Southerner by birth, held views that were regressive, especially when it came to African Americans. His administration saw the re-segregation of multiple agencies of the federal government. Moreover, prominent African American leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois, who initially supported Wilson, were deeply disappointed by his lack of commitment to civil rights. The racism and prejudice evident during his administration remain a significant blemish on his progressive legacy.

First Amendment and Civil Liberties: Under the guise of wartime exigencies during World War I, Wilson’s administration witnessed a curtailment of civil liberties. The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 were used to suppress dissent and opposition to the war. Many, including prominent figures like Eugene V. Debs, were imprisoned for speaking out against the war. Critics argue that these acts severely undermined the First Amendment rights of Americans, marking a dark phase in the nation’s commitment to freedom of speech.

Inconsistent Foreign Policy: While Wilson is often lauded for his vision of the League of Nations and his efforts towards a peace settlement after World War I, his foreign policy was marked by inconsistencies. His interventionist policies in Latin America, particularly in Mexico and the Dominican Republic, were seen by many as imperialistic and contradictory to his championing of self-determination on the global stage.

Resistance to Progressive Movements: Despite being labeled a progressive leader, Wilson was often hesitant to support some progressive causes until they gained significant traction. This was evident in his initial reluctance to support women’s suffrage and certain labor reforms. Critics argue that while he eventually backed these movements, it was more a result of political expediency than genuine progressive conviction.

In evaluating Wilson’s legacy, it is essential to juxtapose his accomplishments against these limitations. While he undoubtedly advanced the progressive cause in several areas, the criticisms highlight the complexities and contradictions of his presidency, reminding us of the multifaceted nature of historical figures and their legacies.

Wilson’s Legacy

The legacy of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency is one of deep contrast. It interweaves momentous reforms and lasting institutions with significant shortcomings and contentious decisions. As we step back and assess the lasting impact of his leadership on American history and the wider world, we find a narrative that’s both a testament to the transformative spirit of the Progressive Era and a reminder of the multifaceted challenges faced by leaders in times of rapid change.

Architect of Modern American Governance: The Federal Reserve System, antitrust laws, tariff reforms—these aren’t mere footnotes in American history. They form the bedrock of modern American economic governance. By establishing institutions like the Federal Reserve, Wilson helped usher the nation into a new age of financial stability and adaptability. The antitrust laws, while built upon earlier efforts, found renewed vigor under his administration, aiming to balance the scales between corporate interests and the common man. His economic policies underscored the role of a responsive government in ensuring a fair economic playing field for all.

A Champion for Democracy: Wilson’s political reforms, especially his support for the 19th Amendment and the ratification of the 17th Amendment, solidified his reputation as a champion for democratic ideals. By supporting women’s suffrage, even if belatedly, and by ensuring direct representation in the Senate, he extended the democratic promise to a wider section of American society. Furthermore, his vision of the League of Nations, though not realized in the way he had hoped, showcased his commitment to a world order based on collective security and dialogue, rather than conquest and dominance.

The Double-Edged Sword of Foreign Policy: On the global stage, Wilson’s legacy is intricate. His “Fourteen Points” speech laid the foundation for the post-World War I peace negotiations and inspired many across the world with its emphasis on self-determination, free trade, and open diplomacy. However, the U.S.’s refusal to join the League of Nations, despite Wilson’s passionate advocacy, signaled the nation’s reluctance to entangle itself in global commitments. This isolationist sentiment would play a significant role in the interwar period. Meanwhile, his interventions in Latin America, often seen as imperialistic, contrasted sharply with his rhetoric of self-determination and freedom.

Racial Relations and Civil Liberties: This is perhaps where Wilson’s legacy faces its sternest criticism. For all his progressive credentials, his stance on racial issues was undeniably regressive. The re-segregation of government agencies and his inaction on pressing civil rights issues cast a long shadow on his presidency. Additionally, the suppression of civil liberties during World War I, justified as wartime necessities, raise questions about his commitment to fundamental American values during times of crisis.

Legacy in the Progressive Pantheon: It’s impossible to discuss Wilson without referencing the broader Progressive Movement. In many ways, his presidency can be seen as its zenith, a period when the highest office in the land echoed the calls for reform, justice, and modernization that had been building up for decades. While leaders like Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft had also embraced progressive ideals, it was under Wilson that many of these ideas found concrete legislative expression. Yet, it’s also under Wilson that the limitations of the Progressive Movement became starkly evident, particularly in the realms of racial justice and civil liberties.

Conclusion: Woodrow Wilson remains one of the most studied, debated, and, at times, polarizing figures in American history. His presidency was marked by sweeping reforms that have left an indelible mark on the nation’s governance, economy, and society. Yet, it was also a period of missed opportunities and decisions that have been justly criticized. As with many historical figures, Wilson’s legacy is not one-dimensional. It’s a complex tapestry that reflects the broader currents of his time—the aspirations, contradictions, and challenges of early 20th-century America. As we evaluate his contributions, we must do so with a sense of historical nuance, recognizing both the transformative impact of his leadership and the areas where he fell short.


Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, situated at a pivotal juncture in American history, is emblematic of the broader Progressive Era’s aspirations and contradictions. His tenure, defined by sweeping economic, political, and social reforms, sought to reshape the American landscape in response to the rapid changes of industrialization, urbanization, and global interconnectedness. Wilson’s vision of a “New Freedom” was ambitious: a society where economic fairness reigned, political representation was widened, and social injustices were addressed head-on.

And yet, for all the groundbreaking reforms—the establishment of the Federal Reserve, the support for women’s suffrage, the advocacy for global diplomacy through the League of Nations—Wilson’s legacy is equally marked by significant shortcomings. His stance on racial issues and civil liberties, coupled with his occasionally inconsistent foreign policies, serve as stark reminders that progress is seldom linear and unambiguous.

In evaluating Woodrow Wilson, we encounter the quintessential challenges of historical interpretation: How do we weigh the remarkable achievements against the evident flaws? How do we navigate the duality of a leader who advanced progressive causes in one realm while faltering in another? The answers to these questions may vary based on perspective and analysis, but what remains undeniable is Wilson’s profound impact on the American story.

As students of history, our task is not merely to praise or condemn, but to understand, contextualize, and learn. Woodrow Wilson’s presidency offers a rich tapestry of lessons about leadership, reform, and the complexities of progress. It reminds us that history is not merely a chronicle of events but a reflection of the evolving human endeavor—fraught with challenges, marked by achievements, and always striving for a better tomorrow.

Course Outline and Professor’s POV: To what extent did President Woodrow Wilson provide a “New Freedom” for the American people?

When Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat won the election of 1912 he received only 42% of the vote. The Progressive candidates; Roosevelt, Taft and Debs totaled 58% of the vote. Clearly America still sought progressive change. Wilson, an educator and the son of a Presbyterian Minister, recognized this and embarked on a program to continue Progressive reform called the “New Freedom.”

Woodrow Wilson

I. Woodrow Wilson – The “New Freedom” reforms

A. Tariff Reform

1. Underwood Tariff of 1913

-First lowering of tariffs since the Civil War

-Went against the protectionist lobby

B. Business Reform – Wilson’s program was known as the New Freedom. (The phrase came after the campaign, as the title of a book of his speeches, and as the slogan for his administration’s policies.) Wilson believed government’s role was to create a level playing field. Then individual energy and business competition would give Americans lives both decent and free from big-brother intrusions. His solution for monopoly was antitrust prosecution and break-up.

1. Federal Trade Act (1914)

-Set up FTC or Federal Trade Commission to investigate and halt unfair and illegal business practices. The FTC could put a halt to these illegal business practices by issuing what is known as a “cease and desist order.”

2. Clayton Antitrust Act (1914)

-Declared certain businesses illegal (interlocking directorates, trusts, horizontal mergers)

-Unions and the Grange were not subject to antitrust laws. This made unions legal!

-Strikes, boycotts, picketing and the collection of strike benefit funds ruled legal

C. Banking Reform – Needed elastic currency, ability to control the amount of $ in circulation.

1. Creation of Federal Reserve System

– Federal Reserve Banks in 12 districts would print and coin money as well as set interest rates. In this way the “Fed,” as it was called, could control the money supply and effect the value of currency. The more money in circulation the lower the value and inflation went up. The less money in circulation the greater the value and this would lower inflation.

2. Federal Farm Loan Act set up Farm Loan Banks to support farmers.