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Woodrow Wilson Submits the Treaty of Versailles

July 10, 1919

Portrait of President Woodrow Wilson

On July 10, 1919, the president of the United States, for the first time since 1789, personally delivered a treaty to the Senate. This was no ordinary treaty; it was the Treaty of Versailles, ending World War I and establishing the League of Nations. As Secret Service agents and Capitol Police officers sealed off the Senate wing to everyone without a special pass, President Woodrow Wilson walked into the chamber lugging the oversized document under his right arm. Recently returned from Paris and his unprecedented self-assigned role as leader of the American negotiating team, Wilson hoped for prompt Senate approval but feared trouble from Republicans, newly restored as the chamber's majority party.

The president's address set his ratification campaign off to a stumbling start, as he strained to read from typewritten notes on small index cards. Perhaps suffering from the effects of a small stroke, Wilson inadvertently omitted words as he proceeded. Realizing this, he stopped and repeated the garbled sentence, only to drop more words and repeat more sentences.

Only near the end of his 40-minute address did Wilson approach eloquence. Setting aside his cards, the president turned to the Republican side of the chamber, where members sat in sullen hostility. He declared that treaty approval was their only option. "The stage is set, the destiny disclosed. It has come about by no plan of our conceiving, but by the hand of God. We cannot turn back. The light streams on the path ahead, and nowhere else." His conclusion evoked only scattered applause.

Wilson's worsening medical condition, including a major stroke the following October, robbed him of the resiliency that had brought significant legislative victories earlier in his presidency. Refusing to agree to the "reservations" necessary to gain vital support from moderate Republicans, Wilson suffered major defeats as the Senate rejected the treaty in November and again the following March.