In 1917 Inauguration Day was held not on January 20th–that would not change until Franklin Roosevelt’s second term in 1937–but on March 4th.  As it happened, the 4th was on a Sunday that year, and in deference to the Sabbath, the President was often sworn in quietly to preserve the continuity of government.  The next day the President was publicly sworn in, and all festivities associated with the Inauguration took place.

Woodrow Wilson’s Second Inaugural Address is interesting, as the Wilson campaign made use of the slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War.”  The address seems clearly to address the issue that war might not be avoidable.

He starts out with a statement of satisfaction about the successes of his first term.  But it quickly changes to the issues of the world at hand:  “This is not the time for retrospect. It is time rather to speak our thoughts and purposes concerning the present and the immediate future. ”

Second Inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, 1917

Wilson speaks to the domestic successes of the previous four years, but “other matters have more and more forced themselves upon our attention — matters lying outside our own life as a nation and over which we had no control, but which, despite our wish to keep free of them, have drawn us more and more irresistibly into their own current and influence.”

Wilson continued, and he spoke to the theme of the country being a nation of immigrants:

“It has been impossible to avoid them. They have affected the life of the whole world. They have shaken men everywhere with a passion and an apprehension they never knew before. It has been hard to preserve calm counsel while the thought of our own people swayed this way and that under their influence. We are a composite and cosmopolitan people. We are of the blood of all the nations that are at war. The currents of our thoughts as well as the currents of our trade run quick at all seasons back and forth between us and them. The war inevitably set its mark from the first alike upon our minds, our industries, our commerce, our politics and our social action. To be indifferent to it, or independent of it, was out of the question.

And yet all the while we have been conscious that we were not part of it. In that consciousness, despite many divisions, we have drawn closer together. We have been deeply wronged upon the seas, but we have not wished to wrong or injure in return; have retained throughout the consciousness of standing in some sort apart, intent upon an interest that transcended the immediate issues of the war itself.”

Wilson spoke to the desires for peace and the efforts to continue with work on domestic issues, but the country’s position in the world is changing:

“We are provincials no longer. The tragic events of the thirty months of vital turmoil through which we have just passed have made us citizens of the world. There can be no turning back. Our own fortunes as a nation are involved whether we would have it so or not.”

He then makes a statement of American principles, and what the country should stand for.  It reads like the starting point for Wilson’s Fourteen Points a few years later:

“That all nations are equally interested in the peace of the world and in the political stability of free peoples, and equally responsible for their maintenance; that the essential principle of peace is the actual equality of nations in all matters of right or privilege; that peace cannot securely or justly rest upon an armed balance of power; that governments derive all their just powers from the consent of the governed and that no other powers should be supported by the common thought, purpose or power of the family of nations; that the seas should be equally free and safe for the use of all peoples, under rules set up by common agreement and consent, and that, so far as practicable, they should be accessible to all upon equal terms; that national armaments shall be limited to the necessities of national order and domestic safety; that the community of interest and of power upon which peace must henceforth depend imposes upon each nation the duty of seeing to it that all influences proceeding from its own citizens meant to encourage or assist revolution in other states should be sternly and effectually suppressed and prevented. ”

Wilson talks about the obligations of his oath, and prays for wisdom in carrying out his duties.

He gives a warning about war profiteers, perhaps a warning for the ages:  “We are to beware of all men who would turn the tasks and the necessities of the nation to their own private profit or use them for the building up of private power.”

And finally, his concluding statement:  “The shadows that now lie dark upon our path will soon be dispelled, and we shall walk with the light all about us if we be but true to ourselves–to ourselves as we have wished to be known in the counsels of the world and in the thought of all those who love liberty and justice and the right exalted.”

In less than a month, on April 2nd, President Woodrow Wilson would ask Congress for a Declaration of War against Germany.  Congress obliges him four days later.

For the full text of Wilson’ Second Inaugural Address, see:


Blair Tarr is the Museum Curator of the Kansas State Historical Society. He oversees the three-dimensional collections of the Society, but has special interests in the Civil War, Wichita-made Valentine diners, and Leavenworth's Abernathy Furniture. In the last few years he has also done a lot of cramming on The Great War. He is a past president of the Kansas Museums Association and the Civil War Round Tables of both Kansas City and Eastern Kansas. He is currently a board member of the Heritage League of Greater Kansas City.