Quotes from Woodrow Wilson

World War I's Effect on the 18th President of the United States

Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States
Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States. Library of Congress

Woodrow Wilson (1856-1927), the 28th president of the United States, while not considered a terrific orator—he was more comfortable debating than orating—gave many speeches around the country and in Congress during his tenure. Many of them contained memorable quotations.

Wilson's Career and Accomplishments

Serving two consecutive terms as president, Wilson distinguished himself by leading the country into and out of the World War I and presiding over landmark progressive social and economic reforms, including the passage of the Federal Reserve Act and the Child Labor Reform Act.

The 19th Amendment to the Constitution ensuring all women the right to vote was also passed during his administration.

A Virginia-born lawyer, Wilson began his career as an academic, eventually landing at his alma mater, Princeton, where he rose to become president of the university. In 1910 Wilson ran as the Democratic Party’s candidate for New Jersey governor and won. Two years later he was elected president of the nation. 

During his first term Wilson grappled with the war in Europe, insisting on U.S. neutrality, however by 1917 it was impossible to ignore German aggression and Wilson asked Congress to declare war, asserting that “The world must be made safe for democracy." When the war ended, Wilson was a strong proponent of the League of Nations, a forerunner of the United Nations that Congress refused to join. 

Notable Quotations

Here are a number of Wilson’s most notable quotes: 

  • "The Constitution was not made to fit us like a straitjacket.”—A speech about “Americanism” at the Cooper Union, in New York, NY, November 20, 1904.
  • "Life does not consist in thinking, it consists in acting."—Announcing his presidential campaign in Buffalo, NY, September 28th, 1912.
  • "I am not one of those who believes that a great standing army is the means of maintaining peace, because if you build up a great profession those who form parts of it want to exercise their profession."—from a speech in Pittsburgh, quoted in The Nation, February 3, 1916.
  • "I believe in democracy because it releases the energies of every human being."—At the Workingman’s Dinner, New York, September 4, 1912.
  • "If you think too much about being re-elected, it is very difficult to be worth reelecting."—Address at the celebration of the rededication of Congress Hall in Philadelphia, October 25, 1913.
  • "One cool judgment is worth a thousand hasty counsels. The thing to do is to supply light and not heat."—Address at Soldier's Memorial Hall, Pittsburgh, January 29, 1916.
  • "There is a price which is too great to pay for peace, and that price can be put in one word. One cannot pay the price of self-respect."—Speech at Des Moines, Iowa, February 1, 1916.
  • "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 no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make."—on the State of War with Germany during an Address to Congress. April 2, 1917.
  • "The Americans who went to Europe to die are a unique breed.... (They) crossed the seas to a foreign land to fight for a cause which they did not pretend was peculiarly their own, which they knew was the cause of humanity and mankind. These Americans gave the greatest of all gifts, the gift of life and the gift of spirit."—speech at the American Memorial Day while visiting American graves at Suresnes Cemetery, May 30, 1919.

    Sources:

    • Craig H. 1952. Woodrow Wilson as an orator. Quarterly Journal of Speech 38(2):145-148.
    • Wilson W, and Pestritto RJ. 2005 Woodrow Wilson: The Essential Political Writings. Lanham, Massachusetts: Rowman & Littlefield.
    • Wilson W, and Hart AB. 1918 [2002]. Selected Addresses and Public Papers of Woodrow Wilson. Honolulu, Hawai'i: University Press of the Pacific.
    • Wilson, W, and Link, AS. 1993. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson. Princeton University Press.