Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born on December 28, 1856 in Staunton, Virginia. Tommy Wilson as he was called, was barely a year old when his family moved to Augusta, Georgia. He would live there until his early teens when the Wilson family moved to Columbia, South Carolina. Tommy was the third of four children to grow up in the Wilsons’ house. His father was a Presbyterian minister whose parents emigrated from Northern Ireland to the United States in 1807 and settled in Ohio. His father also served as a chaplain in the Confederate army during the American Civil War, and used his church as a hospital for injured Confederate troops. Woodrow saw Confederate President Jefferson Davis march through Augusta in chains, and always remembered looking up into the face of the defeated General Robert E. Lee.
Woodrow did not learn to read until he was 10, likely due to dyslexia. His father trained him in oratory and debate, which became a passion for Woodrow. He enrolled at Davidson College and transferred to Princeton (then called the College of New Jersey) in 1875, and then studied law at the University of Virginia. Woodrow entered The Johns Hopkins University in 1883 to study government and history and wrote Congressional Government, which was published in 1885. His book was accepted as his dissertation and he received a Ph.D. degree from Johns Hopkins the following year. Woodrow is the only U.S. president to earn a doctorate degree.
In the spring of 1883, Woodrow went to assist in settling his Uncle William’s estate in Georgia. While there he fell in love with Ellen Louise Axson, the daughter of a minister from Savannah, Georgia. They became engaged but the marriage was delayed when her father was admitted to the Georgia State Mental Hospital, he committed suicide in 1884. Ellen gained admission to a New York art school and after graduation she agreed to sacrifice further independent artistic pursuits in order to keep her marriage commitment. In 1885, Woodrow married Ellen Axson, the couple would eventually have three daughters, Margaret, Jessie, and Eleanor.
Woodrow taught at Bryn Mawr College from 1885 until 1888, teaching ancient Greek and Roman history, he refused offers as university president from both Michigan and Indiana Universities. In 1888, Woodrow went to Wesleyan University where he coached the football team and founded the debate team, which bears his name.
Woodrow’s first book, Congressional Government, advocated a parliamentary system. He also became a contributor to the academic journal, Political Science Quarterly. His second publication was a textbook, entitled The State, and was used in college courses throughout the country until the 1920s. His third book, entitled Division and Reunion, was published in 1893 and his fourth publication, a five-volume work entitled History of the American People, was published in 1902.
In 1890 Woodrow got his dream job as a Princeton professor and became the university’s 13th president in 1902. Woodrow focused on curriculum upgrades and was always voted the most popular teacher on campus. He also expanded the university and increased the faculty from 112 to 174, who were selected for their record as outstanding teachers. He also made biblical studies a scholarly pursuit and appointed the first Jew and Roman Catholic to the faculty.
Woodrow suffered his first stroke while at Princeton in May 1906, it seriously threatened his life. He woke up one morning to find himself blind in the left eye, the result of a blood clot and hypertension. He took a Bermuda vacation where he met socialite, Mary Hulbert Peck. In his letters home Woodrow was open to his wife Ellen about his visits with Mary. Ellen thought there may have been an affair but nothing was ever proven, Woodrow did keep correspondence with her and took other trips to Bermuda to relax.
In his last scholarly work, Constitutional Government of the United States published in 1908, Woodrow said that the presidency“will be as big as and as influential as the man who occupies it.”This also brought Woodrow into the state and national political arena. After having difficulties with the Princeton Board of Directors he resigned as the Princeton University’s President in 1909, and made it known that he was interested in running for political office.
In 1910 Woodrow accepted the Democratic nomination for governor of New Jersey and easily won the election. His ambitious and successful progressive agenda earned him national recognition, and in 1912 he won the Democratic nomination for president. Woodrow’s “New Freedom” campaign, focused on revitalizing the American economy, he became the 28th United States President with 435 out of 531 electoral votes, and 41.8% of the popular vote. Thomas Riley Marshall, former Indiana Governor, was elected as the Vice President.
Woodrow was the first Southerner President since Andrew Johnson and was supported by an unprecedented number of African Americans. He was the first President since John Adams, in 1799, to make his State of the Union Address personally in Congress and was also the first Democratic president since Grover Cleveland.
On March 4, 1913 Woodrow was the last American president to travel to his inauguration ceremony in a horse-drawn carriage. The Wilson’s decided against an inaugural ball and instead gathered with family and friends at the White House.
Washington D.C. was flooded with revelers who dreamed of a return to the glory days when southern gentlemen ran the country. Rebel yells and the song “Dixie” could be heard throughout the city. The new administration brought to power political leaders from the old South who would play influential roles in Washington for generations to come.
Woodrow used his Presidential powers to reverse federal government agencies integration during the post-Civil War Reconstruction period which enabled African-Americans to obtain federal jobs. He promptly authorized members of his cabinet to reverse the policy of racial integration in the federal civil service. By the end of 1913 many departments, including the Navy, had workspaces segregated by screens, and restrooms, cafeterias were segregated, although no executive order had been issued.
Wilson defended his administration’s segregation policy even after the practices were protested in letters from both blacks and whites, to include official statements by both black and white church groups. The president’s African-American supporters, who had crossed party lines to vote for him, were bitterly disappointed. His grandfather would have been disappointed also, he had published a pro-tariff and anti-slavery newspaper when he settled in Steubenville, Ohio in the early 1800,
Woodrow’s wife Ellen died of kidney disease on August 6, 1914, making him one of three former presidents to become a widow while serving in the White House. He experienced a long period of depression which was eventually replaced with a feeling of happiness when he met and married Edith Bolling Galt in December 1915. She was a widow whose husband had owned a Washington, D.C., jewelry business.
As president, Woodrow was responsible for many social and economic reforms including the passage of the Federal Reserve Act, the Child Labor Reform Act, and legislation that supported unions to ensure fair treatment of working Americans. The 19th Amendment was ratified during his second term, guaranteeing all women the right to vote.
When World War I broke out in Europe on July 26, 1914, Woodrow declared America neutral, and during his second presidential campaigned he used the slogan “He kept us out of war.” He and Vice President Marshall won in 1916 with a narrow electoral margin of 277-254 and a little more than 49 percent of the popular vote.
In March 1917 several American ships were sunk by Germany and Teddy Roosevelt privately stated, “if he does not go to war I shall skin him alive”. The United States also learned that Germany tried to persuade Mexico to enter into an alliance against America. On April 2, 1917, Woodrow asked Congress to declare war on Germany, stating, “The world must be made safe for democracy.”
Nearly a year and a half later the war was declared over and Americans were perceived as heroes because they helped bring victory for the European Allies. Woodrow helped negotiate the Treaty of Versailles and outlined his ideas to form a League of Nations.
He embarked on a cross-country speaking tour to promote his ideas for the League of Nations directly to the American people. Woodrow was on a train bound for Wichita, Kansas on September 25 when he collapsed from stress, and the rest of his tour was cancelled. On October 2, he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. Woodrow’s condition was kept hidden from the public, his wife worked behind the scenes to fulfill a number of his administrative duties for his remaining time in office.
Historians state that the lack of Vice President Mashall’s support for the League of Nations resulted in Congress not joining, it was adopted by Europe. This decision may have resulted in World War II due to the United States being unable to influence European policies leading up to the rise of Adolph Hitler. Woodrow was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize and heralded in Europe as a savior of peace.
After leaving office in 1921, Woodrow and his wife moved to a private residence in northwest Washington, D.C.. He died on February 3, 1924 at the age of 67, and is buried in the Washington National Cathedral.
Woodrow was an automobile enthusiast and enjoyed riding in his 1919 Pierce-Arrow with the top down. He was the first president in office to watch a World Series game in 1915 and threw out the 1st ball in the game. He also enjoyed cycling and golf.
A highly respected figure in society, Mrs. Wilson devoted the rest of her life to managing her husband’s legacy. Edith Wilson held the literary rights to all of her husband’s papers and denied access to those whose motives she did not trust and granted access to those who proved their loyalty to her. She rode in President Kennedy’s inaugural parade in January 1961 and died later that year on December 28, the anniversary of her famous husband’s birth.
Woodrow’s idealism and status as a great world leader led to the creation of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington D.C. as the U.S. memorial to him.
“…it is as hard to do your duty when men are sneering at you as when they are shooting at you.“
“A conservative is a man who sits and thinks, mostly sits.”
“America lives in the heart of every man everywhere who wishes to find a region where he will be free to work out his destiny as he chooses.”
“I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow.”
“Just what is it that America stands for? If she stands for one thing more than another it is for the sovereignty of self-governing people.”
“No man can sit down and withhold his hands from the warfare against wrong and get peace from his acquiescence.”
“The flag is the embodiment, not of sentiment, but of history.”
“The law that will work is merely the summing up in legislative form of the moral judgement that the community has already reached.”
“The man who is swimming against the stream knows the strength of it.”
“You are not here merely to make a living. You are here to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, and with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world. You impoverish yourself if you forget this errand.”
“The history of liberty is the history of resistance. The history of liberty is a history of the limitation of governmental power, not the increase of it.”
“Only a peace between equals can last. Only a peace the very principle of which is equality and a common participation in a common benefit.”
“In the last analysis, my fellow country men, as we in America would be the first to claim, a people are responsible for the acts of their government.”
“The world must be made safe for democracy.”
“We live in an age disturbed, confused, bewildered, afraid of its own forces, in search not merely of its road but even of its direction. There are many voices of counsel, but few voices of vision; there is much excitement and feverish activity, but little concert of thoughtful purpose. We are distressed by our own ungoverned, undirected energies and do many things, but nothing long. It is our duty to find ourselves.”
“Once lead this people into war and they will forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance.“
“I can imagine no greater disservice to the county than to establish a system of censorship that would deny to the people of a free republic like our own their indisputable right to criticize their own public officials. While exercising the great powers of office I hold, I would regret in a crisis like the one through which we are now passing to lose the benefit of patriotic and intelligent criticism.”
“Power consists in one’s capacity to link his will with the purpose of others, to lead by reason and a gift of cooperation.”
“No nation is fit to sit in judgement upon any other nation.”
“There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight; there is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.”
“The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty.”
“America is not a mere body of traders; it is a body of free men. Our greatness-built upon freedom-is moral, not material. we have a great ardor for gain; but we have a deep passion for the rights of man.”
“Liberty has never come from the government. Liberty has always come from the subjects of it. The history of liberty is the history of resistance. The history of liberty is a history of limitations of governmental power, not the increase of it.”
Expunging Woodrow Wilson from Official Places of Honor
Wilson – A Portrait / African-Americans
The Nobel Peace Prize 1919 – Woodrow Wilson
Ten Things to Know About Woodrow Wilson
Books by Woodrow Wilson
Constitutional Government in the United States
The Minister and the Community
The State: Elements of Historical and Practical Politics
Division and Reunion
A History of the American People
On Being Human
An old master, and other political essays
On the Writing of History
Books by other authors
Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
Madam President: The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson
Wilson’s War: How Woodrow Wilson’s Great Blunder Led to Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and World War II
#28 Woodrow Wilson
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American Presidents Series: Woodrow Wilson
Life Portrait of Woodrow Wilson