Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12
Curriculum Unit

Woodrow Wilson and Foreign Policy (4 Lessons)

Created July 16, 2010

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The Unit

Overview

Woodrow Wilson numbers among the most influential Presidents in the history of U.S. foreign policy. Elected in 1913 as a Progressive reformer, the former college professor and governor of New Jersey expected to devote his time and talents to fulfilling an ambitious domestic reform agenda. Foreign policy, Wilson assumed, would be a secondary concern. As he remarked, "[i]t would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs."

That irony was soon realized. In 1913, Wilson repudiated his predecessors' Dollar Diplomacy. (Dollar Diplomacy called for the U.S. government to promote stability, primarily in Latin America and the Caribbean, in order to yield investment opportunities for American companies, with the hope that the development would also result in prosperity for the affected nations.) Certainly Wilson supported private American investment in Latin America and elsewhere, but the promotion of democracy was a higher priority. In 1914, disturbed by the violence of Mexico's revolution (and the arrest of U.S. sailors in Tampico), Wilson sent American troops across the border. The next year, he dispatched Marines to Haiti.

The international event that most preoccupied the President was, of course, World War I, which broke out in Europe in August 1914. Wilson declared neutrality for the United States and urged Americans to remain impartial as well. Neutrality, however, quickly proved difficult. Just as American attempts to sell goods to France and Britain during the Napoleonic Wars had incurred the wrath of those battling Great Powers, so, too, did this wartime trade result in violations of U.S. neutrality. The British Navy seized goods bound for German ports; German submarine attacks on Allied ships resulted in American deaths. In April 1917, with German provocations growing worse, Wilson asked Congress to declare war on the Central Powers.

Wilson's actions were not merely reactive, however—far from it. After taking office, Wilson quickly evolved an ambitious foreign policy. Although he drew upon several durable traditions in U.S. foreign relations, most notably an abiding faith in the superiority of democracy, Wilson's foreign policy was unique in its own right. Among other points, "Wilsonianism" advocated the spreading of democracy, the opening of global markets, the creation of an international organization dedicated to keeping peace, and an active global role for the United States. The dispatch of troops to Mexico and Haiti reflected these goals, but it was through entry into World War I that Wilsonianism reached its high point. "The world must be made safe for democracy," declared the President, and, once the war was won, he hoped to achieve this aim through a just and fair peace treaty and the formation of the League of Nations.

In this curriculum unit, students will study the formation, application, and outcomes-successes and failures alike-of Wilson's foreign policy. Students will subsequently appreciate the profound legacy of Wilsonianism in U.S. foreign relations as they continue their study of modern U.S. history.

Guiding Questions

  • What was Wilson's foreign policy, and how did it differ from previous American foreign policy?
  • How did the Wilson administration respond to revolution and civil unrest in Latin America?
  • After almost three years of neutrality, was the decision to intervene in World War I justified?
  • Were Wilson's Fourteen Points realized in the Versailles Treaty?

Learning Objectives

  • Discuss how the academic career and Progressivism of Wilson shaped his ideas about foreign policy
  • Identify four major points of "Wilsonianism": spreading democracy, open markets, an international organization dedicated to keeping peace, and an active global role for the United States
  • Explain what was both traditional and new about Wilsonianism
  • Identify American economic and strategic interests in the Western Hemisphere
  • Explain how the U.S attempted to safeguard American economic interests and promote democratic reforms in Latin America during Wilson's presidency
  • Discuss how Wilson's actions reflected his foreign policy principles
  • Explain why many Latin Americans resented or resisted U.S. actions
  • Explain why the United States adopted a policy of neutrality after the outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914
  • Identify challenges to American neutrality
  • Explain why Wilson decided to request a declaration of war
  • Discuss the ways in which Wilson wanted to use victory in the war to fundamentally change international relations and to promote the spread of democracy
  • Discuss how the Fourteen Points, especially the League of Nations, demonstrated Wilsonian principles
  • Summarize the aims of the other Allied powers at the Paris Peace Conference
  • Identify which of the Fourteen Points became part of the Versailles Treaty

Preparation Instructions

First, review each lesson plan. Second, find and bookmark the recommended links and materials from each lesson's EDSITEment reviewed websites. Third, download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies, as needed, for student viewing. (As an alternative, excerpted versions of the documents are included on the Text Document.) Fourth, download the Text Document for this lesson, provided here as a PDF, which includes questions for students to answer. Finally, print and copy the handouts you will use in class.

Analyzing primary sources

To provide your students with the skills needed to examine primary sources, you may find it helpful to visit the Learning Page from the Library of Congress.

In particular, students may find the Mindwalk activity useful in preparing to work with primary sources.

At the National Archives website, the Digital Classroom provides worksheets to practice document analysis.

The Lessons

  • Lesson 1: The Origins of "Wilsonianism"

    Created July 16, 2010
    Because of the First World War and its aftermath, Woodrow Wilson fashioned an  ambitious international agenda.

    The influence of President Woodrow Wilson on American foreign policy has been profound and lasting. Using a variety of primary sources, students analyze the origins of the ambitious foreign policy that came to be known as Wilsonianism and compare it with important alternative traditions in American foreign policy.

  • Lesson 2: "To Elect Good Men": Woodrow Wilson and Latin America

    Created July 16, 2010
    Woodrow Wilson changed the course and tone of U.S. policy towards Latin  America.

    President Woodrow Wilson and his first Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, rejected the Dollar Diplomacy that had guided U.S. relations with Latin America during the administration of William Taft. Wilson resolved that the United States would only recognize Latin American governments founded upon law and order, "not upon arbitrary or irregular force. In this lesson, students analyze Wilson's attempts to carry out this "missionary diplomacy" in Haiti and Mexico as well as the responses of selected Haitians and Mexicans.

  • Lesson 3: Wilson and American Entry into World War I

    Created July 16, 2010
    Woodrow Wilson tried to keep America out of World War I

    In August 1914, President Woodrow Wilson asked Americans to remain impartial in thought and deed toward the war that had just broken out in Europe. For almost three years, the President presided over a difficult, deteriorating neutrality, until finally the provocations could no longer be ignored or negotiated. In this lesson, students analyze one of the most significant moments in twentieth century U.S. foreign relations: Wilson's decision to enter World War I in order to make the world "safe for democracy."

  • Lesson 4: Fighting for Peace: The Fate of Wilson's Fourteen Points

    Created July 17, 2010
    In the aftermath of the First World War, Woodrow Wilson tried to push a  comprehensive and enlightened peace plan.

    In January 1918, less than one year after the United States entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson announced his Fourteen Points to try to ensure permanent peace and to make the world safe for democracy. Wilson's aims included freedom of the seas, free trade, and, most important, an international organization dedicated to collective security and the spreading of democracy. Through the use of primary source documents and maps, students examine Wilson's Fourteen Points, as well as his efforts to have them incorporated into the final peace treaties.

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Europe
  • History and Social Studies > Place > The Americas
  • History and Social Studies > Place > The Caribbean
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
Skills
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Map Skills
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing skills
Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12
Curriculum Unit

Abraham Lincoln on the American Union: “A Word Fitly Spoken” (4 Lessons)

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The Unit

Overview

This unit explores the political thought of Abraham Lincoln on the subject of American union. For him, the union was not just a structure to govern the national interests of American states; it also represented a consensus about the future of freedom in America—a future where slavery would eventually be eliminated and liberty protected as the birthright of every human being. Students will examine Lincoln's three most famous speeches—the Gettysburg Address and the First and Second Inaugural Addresses—in addition to a little known fragment on the Constitution, union, and liberty to see what they say regarding the significance of union to the prospects for American self-government.

Although Lincoln did not attend high school or college, he possessed a logical and inquisitive mind that found clarity in working out legal and political problems on paper. One fragment he wrote after the 1860 presidential election addressed how the Constitution and union were informed by the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln wrote that while America's prosperity was dependent upon the union of the states, "the primary cause" was the principle of "Liberty to all." He believed this central ideal of free government embraced all human beings, and concluded that the American revolution would not have succeeded if its goal was "a mere change of masters." For Lincoln, union meant a particular kind of government of the states, one whose equality principle "clears the path for all—gives hope to all—and, by consequence, enterprize, and industry to all."

As president of the United States, Lincoln used his First and Second Inaugural Addresses to explore the meaning of the American union in the face of a divided country. Upon assuming the presidency for the first time, he spoke at length about the nature of union, why secession was antithetical to self-government, and how the federal constitution imposed a duty upon him to defend the union of the states from rebellious citizens. When he was reelected four years later, and as the Civil War drew to a close, Lincoln transcended both Northern triumphalism and Southern defiance by offering a providential reading of the war and emancipation in hopes of reuniting the country.

In his most famous speech, delivered upon the dedication of a national cemetery at the battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Lincoln gave a brief but profound meditation on the meaning of the Civil War and American union. With the Emancipation Proclamation as a new and pivotal development of the federal war effort, Lincoln sought to explain why the war to preserve the Union had to become a war to secure the freedom of former slaves. The nation would need to experience "a new birth of freedom" so that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Upon completing this unit, students should have a better understanding of why Lincoln revered the union of the American states as "the last best, hope of earth."

Guiding Questions

  • How did Lincoln understand the principles of the Declaration of Independence as the goal of the American union?
  • How did Lincoln defend the Union from states seeking to leave or "secede" from the Union?
  • How did Lincoln see the Civil War as an opportunity for the nation to bring forth a "new birth of freedom" (or liberty for all), and why was this necessary for the survival of American self-government?
  • How did Lincoln seek to restore the American union as the Civil War drew to a close?

Learning Objectives

  • Explain what Lincoln thought was the chief cause of America's prosperity.
  • Explain the principles of human equality and government by consent expressed in the Declaration of Independence.
  • Show how the principles of the Declaration represent the aim of the American union and constitution.
  • Articulate how Lincoln used a verse from Proverbs to symbolize the relationship between the principle of individual freedom and the practice of constitutional self-government.
  • Explain provisions of the federal constitution that Lincoln believed empowered him to defend the American union from attempts at secession.
  • Explain how South Carolina, as the first state to try to leave the Union, defended her attempt to secede upon Lincoln's election to the presidency.
  • Articulate why Lincoln thought he had a constitutional obligation as president to preserve the Union from attempts at secession.
  • Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the pro-Union and pro-secession arguments, and decide which argument is the most philosophically defensible.
  • Explain why some Northern Democrats criticized Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
  • Explain why Lincoln thought July 4, 1776, was the birthday of the United States.
  • Articulate the connection Lincoln made between emancipation and preserving the Union.
  • Describe the "unfinished task" that Lincoln presented to the American people at Gettysburg.
  • Describe the historical context for Lincoln's second inauguration as president.
  • Articulate some of the concerns of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, a leader of the Radical Republicans, who controlled Congress after the election of 1864.
  • Describe the mood of the South as reflected in Confederate President Jefferson Davis's rhetoric in early 1865.
  • Explain Lincoln's understanding of how the war began, its relation to slavery, and the role of God in the conflict.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plans in the unit. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites used in this lesson. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable PDFs listed on the left-hand sidebar under "Additional Student/Teacher Resources."
  • Download the Text Documents for the lessons, available as PDFs. These files contain excerpted versions of the documents used in each lesson, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.
Analyzing primary sources

If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets.

Unit Lesson Plans

Each lesson in this unit is designed to stand alone; taken together they present a robust portrait of how Lincoln viewed the American union. If there is not sufficient time to use all four lessons in the unit, either the first or third lesson convey Lincoln's understanding of the American union as a means to securing "Liberty to all"—with the first lesson focusing on the principled connection between the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, and the third lesson addressing the practical connection between the Union war effort, the freedom of the newly emancipated slaves, and the preservation of American self-government. Adding the second lesson would show why Lincoln's understanding of the union and Constitution obliged the president to defend the nation from secession. Adding the fourth lesson would explore how Lincoln thought that only a common memory of the war as the chastening of God to both sides for the national (not Southern) sin of slavery could restore national unity.

The Lessons

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Culture
  • History and Social Studies > People > Other
  • History and Social Studies > People > Women
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Reform
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Religion
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Slavery
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > U.S. Constitution
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
Skills
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Developing a hypothesis
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing skills
  • Lesson 2. The Debate in the United States over the League of Nations: Disagreement Over the League

    Woodrow Wilson for League of Nations

    American foreign policy debate over U.S. entry into the League of Nations-collective security versus national sovereignty, idealism versus pragmatism, the responsibilities of powerful nations, the use of force to accomplish idealistic goals, the idea of America. Understanding the debate over the League and the consequences of its failure provides insight into international affairs in the years since Great War. In this lesson, students read the words and listen to the voices of some central participants in the debate over the League of Nations.

  • Lesson 1: The Debate in the United States over the League of Nations: League of Nations Basics

    Woodrow Wilson for League of Nations

    American foreign policy resonates with the same issues as the debate over U.S. entry into the League of Nations-collective security versus national sovereignty, idealism versus pragmatism, the responsibilities of powerful nations, the use of force to accomplish idealistic goals, the idea of America. Understanding the debate over the League and the consequences of its ultimate failure provides insight into international affairs in the years since the end of the Great War and beyond. In this lesson, students read the words and listen to the voices of some central participants in the debate over the League of Nations.

  • Lesson 3: George Washington on the Sedition Act

    George Washington.

    What arguments were offered in support of the Sedition Act? Washington's favorable attitude toward the Sedition Act illustrates that reasonable men in 1798 could support what most modern Americans would regard as an unjust law.

  • Lesson 3: President Madison's 1812 War Message: Answers Lead to More Questions

    The "Western" frontier for the United States in the early 19th century

    Students review the contents of the War Message and consider what documents might be useful in making further analyses of the text.

  • Lesson 1: President Madison's 1812 War Message: A Brief Overview

    James Madison felt compelled by events to declare war on Great Britain.

    Students will read President Madison's War Message (in either an edited/annotated or full-text version) and be given the opportunity to raise questions about its contents.

  • Lesson 2: The Battles of the Civil War

    Created July 17, 2010
    "A Harvest of Death."

    Through the use of maps and original documents, this lesson will focus on the key battles of the Civil War, Gettysburg and Vicksburg and show how the battles contributed to its outcome. It will also examine the "total war" strategy of General Sherman, and the role of naval warfare in bringing about a Union victory.

  • Lesson 3: U.S. Neutrality and the War in Europe, 1939–1940

    Famous aviator Charles Lindbergh

    The outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939 posed a serious challenge to U.S. neutrality. On the one hand, Americans' sympathies lay overwhelmingly with Great Britain and its allies; on the other hand, public sentiment overwhelmingly favored staying out of the war. Through a study of contemporary documents, students learn about the difficult choices faced by the Roosevelt administration during the first fifteen months of World War II, culminating in the decision to provide direct military aid to Great Britain.

  • Lesson 3: The Gettysburg Address (1863)—Defining the American Union

    Photo of Lincoln at Gettysburg dedication. Lincoln is highlighted in this image  in the middle of the crowd at the dais.

    This lesson will examine the most famous speech in American history to understand how Lincoln turned a perfunctory eulogy at a cemetery dedication into a concise and profound meditation on the meaning of the Civil War and American union.