I N 1913 Mr. Taft's term of office came to an end, and Mr. Woodrow Wilson was elected President. He came into office at no easy time. At home many things needed reform and on the borders there was trouble. For two years the republic of Mexico, which had always been a troublous neighbor, had been in a constant state of anarchy. One revolution followed another, battles and bloodshed became common events. Many Americans had settled in Mexico and in the turmoil American lives were lost and American property ruined.
While Mr. Taft was in office he tried to protect the Americans in Mexico. But he could do little, as the Mexicans made it plain that any interference on the part of America would mean war. Mr. Taft avoided war, but the state of things in Mexico went from bad to worse, and when Mr. Wilson became President a settlement with Mexico was one of the problems he had to face.
But first of all the new President turned his thoughts to home matters. Ever since the McKinley Tariff the duties on goods imported into the country had remained high. Many people, however, had come to believe that high tariffs were a mistake, for while they enriched a few they made living dearer than need be for many. These people wished to have tariffs "for revenue only." That is, they thought duties should only be high enough to produce sufficient income for the needs of the government. They objected to tariffs merely for "protection." That is, they objected to tariffs which "protected" the manufacturer at the expense of the consumer.
President Wilson held these opinions strongly, and during the first year of his presidency a bill was passed by which mere luxuries, things which only rich people bought, were heavily taxed, while the taxes on foodstuffs and wool, things which the poorest need, were made much lighter. These changes in the tariff brought in much less income for the government, and to make up for the loss an Income Tax was levied for the first time, every one who had more than 4,000 dollars a year having to pay it. In this way again the burden of taxes was shifted from the poor to the rich.
The President next turned his attention to the banks. Little change had been made in their way of doing business since the Civil War, and for some time it had been felt that to meet the growing needs of trade a change was wanted. Many people had tried to think out a new system, but it was not easy, and they failed. Mr. Wilson, however, succeeded, and in December, 1913, the Currency Bill was passed.
It would take too long, and would be rather difficult, to explain just what this Act was. Shortly it was meant to keep too much money from getting into the hands of a few people, and to give every one with energy and enterprise a chance.
Other Acts connected with the trade of the country followed these, all of which intended to make the life of the weak and poor easier. Of these perhaps the most interesting for us is the Child Labour Act. This Act was meant to keep people from making young children work too hard, and in order to make child labour less profitable to "exploiters" the Act forbids the sending of goods made by children under fourteen from one state to another. If the children are obliged to work at night, or for more than eight hours during the day, the age is raised to sixteen. This Act was signed in September, 1916, but did not come into force until September, 1917.
While these things were being done within the country troubles beyond its boarders were increasing. First there was trouble with Mexico.
A few days before Mr. Wilson was inaugurated Madero, the President of Mexico, was deposed and murdered, and a rebel leader named Huerta at once proclaimed himself President. That he had anything to do with the murder of Madero has never been openly proved, but Mr. Wilson, believing that he had, looked upon him as an assassin, and refused to acknowledge him as head of the neighboring republic. But beyond that Mr. Wilson hesitated to mix himself or his country in the Mexican quarrel, believing that the Mexicans themselves could best settle their own affairs.
"Shall we deny to Mexico," he asked, a little later, "because she
is weak, the right to settle her own affairs? No, I say. I am proud
to belong to a great nation that says, 'this country which we could
crush shall have as much freedom in her own affairs as we have in
Whether the President was wise or unwise in his dealings with Mexico we cannot say. The trouble is too close to us. It is not settled yet. But the one thing we can clearly see is that Mr. Wilson loved and desired peace, not only with Mexico but with the whole of America. He wanted to unite the whole of America, both North and South, in bonds of kindness. He wanted to make the small weak republics of South America feel that the great republic of North America was a watchful friend, and not a watchful enemy, eager, and able when she chose, to crush them. Had the United States put forth her strength Mexico could have been conquered, doubtless, in no long time. But Mr. Wilson took a wider view than those who counselled such a course. Instead of crushing Mexico, and thereby perhaps arousing the jealousy and suspicion of other weak republics, he tried to use the trouble to increase the good will of these republics toward the United States. He tried to show them that the United States was one with them, and had no desire to enlarge her borders at the expense of another. Whether the means he used were wise or not time will show.
For the most part the country was with the President in his desire to keep out of war with Mexico. This was partly because they believed that America was not prepared for war, partly because they knew that war must certainly end in the defeat of the Mexicans. Having defeated them the United States would be forced to annex their territory, and this no one wanted.
But to keep out of war was no easy matter. The wild disorder in Mexico increased daily. Besides Huerta other claimants for the presidency appeared and the country swarmed with bandit forces under various leaders, all fighting against each other.
At length in April, 1914, some United States sailors who had landed at the Mexican port of Tampico were taken prisoner by the Huertists. They were soon set free again, but Huerta refused to apologise in a satisfactory way, and an American squadron was sent to take possession of Vera Cruz.
War seemed now certain. But it was averted, and after holding Vera Cruz for more than seven months the American troops were withdrawn. "We do not want to fight the Mexicans," said Mr. Wilson, at the funeral of the sailors who lost their lives in the attack. "We do not want to fight the Mexicans; we want to serve them if we can. A war of aggression is not a proud thing in which to die. But a war of service is one in which it is a grand thing to die."
On the invitation of the United States three of the South American republics, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, known from their names as the A. B. C. Powers, now joined with the United States in trying to settle the Mexican difficulty. In May, 1914, they held a Mediation Conference at Niagara Falls in Canada. But nothing came of it, and the disorder in Mexico continued as before.
In July, however, there seemed some hope of a settlement. Huerta fled to Europe leaving his friend, Francisco Carbajal, as President. For a month Carbajal kept his post. Then anarchy worse than ever broke loose. Three men, Carranza, Villa, and Zapata, each declaring themselves President, filled the land with bloodshed and ruin.
Once again on the invitation of the United States South America intervened, delegates from six South American republics meeting at Washington to consider what could be done to bring peace to the distracted country. They decided to give the Mexicans three months in which to settle their quarrels, and warned them that if by that time order was not restored United America would be forced to take action.
Soon after this, however, Carranza succeeded in subduing his rivals to a certain extent, and got possession of the greater part of the country. The United States, therefore, recognised him as President of Mexico, and very shortly many of the European powers did the same.
It seemed as if peace might really come at last to Mexico. But although Villa was worsted he was by no means crushed, and he and his undisciplined followers still kept the country in a state of unrest, doing many deeds of violence. In January, 1916, these marauding troops seized and murdered a party of Americans. A little later they crossed frontiers, and were only driven back after a sharp encounter with United States troops.
This brigandage had to be stopped, and, as Carranza seemed unable to subdue the rebels, five thousand American troops entered Mexico intent on punishing Villa and his bandits. But the task was no easy one. Villa was well suited to be a bandit leader, and he was thoroughly at home in the wild and mountainous country. The Americans, however, pressed him hard, and a battle was fought in which he was believed for a time to have been killed. Soon, however, he was discovered to be alive, and as aggressive as before.
Meanwhile President Carranza had grown restless and suspicious of American interference, and demanded that the United States troops should be withdrawn from Mexican soil. Indeed he became so threatening that Mr. Wilson called out the militia, and ordered a squadron of war vessels to Mexican waters.
Scarcely was this done when the news reached Washington that a skirmish had taken place between Mexican and United States troops, in which forty had been killed, and seventeen taken prisoners.
War now seemed certain. But once more it was averted. Carranza set his prisoners free and proposed that the two republics should settle their differences by arbitration.
To this Mr. Wilson agreed, and in the beginning of September a Commission composed of delegates from both countries came together. The Commission suggested that both Mexico and the United States should work together to patrol the frontiers, and safeguard them from further raids. But to this Carranza would not agree, and in February, 1917, the United States troops were withdrawn, and Mexico was once more left "to save herself."