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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Students review the contents of the War Message and consider what documents might be useful in making further analyses of the text.
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.
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.
How did Abraham Lincoln understand the relationship between principles of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution? In this lesson students will examine Lincoln's "Fragment on the Constitution and Union" a brief but insightful reflection on the importance of the ideal of individual liberty to the constitutional structure and operation of the American union written in the last days of December 1860 when his election as president had brought the crisis of the American "house divided" to a head.
Students may be familiar with this famous battle from its depiction in Zack Snyder's movie 300, based on Frank Miller's graphic novel. In this lesson students learn about the historical background to the battle and are asked to ponder some of its legacy, including how history is reported and interpreted from different perspectives.