Woodrow Wilson: Idealist, progressive, hypocrite?

This lesson is designed to analyze progressivism and its impact through a study of Woodrow Wilson’s. Students will examine primary sources that focus on the president as a leading figure of the movement in the 1910’s.

Historical Background

Wilson was raised in the South, with strongly Pro-Southern views. But he was also a highly educated man, very much committed to reform, with a distinguished career in education and as governor of New Jersey. He lacked the warmth, empathic manner, and backslapping charm expected of a politician. But he was very much a symbol of, and exemplar of “progressive” politics. He was a reformer, and an idealist, committed to moral, political and economic betterment through reform. The example of Wilson will be used to assess the legacy of progressivism.

Lesson Objective

After extensive research on progressivism and Woodrow Wilson, students will be able to write a thesis and essay.



  1. Day 1: Students will read and discuss background material on Woodrow Wilson (they will have already studied Progressivism as a movement).
  2. Day 2: Students will work in the computer lab learning to use Google Books and other sites to find information; some titles, pages, etc. will be provided (see resources noted below; these will be listed on the promethean board and on Edline).
  3. Day 3: Students will continue their research in the computer lab; they will be asked to branch out and find 1-2 additional supportive primary sources using the internet tools discussed on Day 2.
  4. Day 4: Students will organize their information and create an outline for their essays, which will be due the following day. *Depending on student progress, this may be stretched to 5 days, allowing for an extra day of research.


Textbook reading (Faragher et al. 2011 723-795)


At first glance, the goals of the progressive era may seem clear cut but when examined closely the period is decidedly complex. Using primary sources both provided and researched and Woodrow Wilson as your focus, analyze two to three issues where the goals of progressivism showed the movement to be inharmonious with the ideals of democracy and governmental protection of its citizens otherwise set forth between the years 1910-1920.


“Missed Manners: Wilson Lectures a Black Leader.” History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web. http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5719

“Wilson – A Portrait.” PBS: American Experience. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/wilson/portrait/wp_african.html

“’Art [and History] by Lightning Flash’: The Birth of a Nation and Black Protest.” Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. http://chnm.gmu.edu/episodes/the-birth-of-a-nation-and-black-protest/

“American President: Woodrow Wilson.” The University of Virginia: Miller Center. http://millercenter.org/president/wilson

“American President: A Reference Resource.” The University of Virginia: Miller Center. http://millercenter.org/president/wilson/essays/biography/9

“Eugenics and Progressives.” Intellectual Takeout. http://www.intellectualtakeout.org/library/humanities/philosophy/applied-ethics/eugenics-and-progressives

Cooper, John Milton. Woodrow Wilson: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.

Faragher et al. 2011. “Urban America and the Progressive Era” and “World War I.” In Out of Many, a History of the American People, 6th ed. 723-795. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Hale, William Bayard. Woodrow Wilson, the Story of His Life. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1912.

Schulte Nordholt, J. W. Woodrow Wilson: A Life for World Peace. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

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