Woodrow Wilson biography
Woodrow Wilson, born on December 28, 1856, in Staunton, Virginia, spent his youth in the South, as the son of a devout Presbyterian family, seeing the ravages of the Civil War and its aftermath. A dedicated scholar and enthusiastic orator, he earned multiple degrees before embarking on a university career. In a fast rise politically, he spent two years as governor of New Jersey before becoming the two-term 28th president of the United States in 1912. Wilson saw America through World War I, negotiating the Versailles Treaty and crafting a League of Nations, a precursor to the United Nations. He suffered his second stroke during the last year of his presidency and died three years after leaving office, on February 3, 1924, with sweeping reforms for the middle class, voting rights for women and precepts for world peace as his legacy.
Woodrow Wilson was born Thomas Woodrow Wilson on December 28, 1856, to Jessie Janet Woodrow and Joseph Ruggles Wilson, a Presbyterian minister. Tommy, as he was called in his youth, was the third of four children to grow up in the Wilsons' warm, studious and devout household. The family lived all over the South, moving from Staunton, Virginia to Augusta, Georgia in Tommy’s first year, to Columbia, South Carolina, in 1870, where Reverend Wilson taught at the Columbia Theological Seminary (he began teaching in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1874).
Witnessing the ravages of the Civil War up close, Reverend Wilson, a Northern transplant, adopted the Confederate cause, and his mother nursed wounded soldiers. Tommy saw Confederate president Jefferson Davis marche through Augusta in chains, and always remembered looking up into the face of the defeated General Robert E. Lee.
Less than stellar in school—scholars now think that Wilson had a form of dyslexia—Reverend Wilson rigorously trained his first son in oratory and debate, which became a particular passion for the boy. He enrolled at nearby Davidson College, but he transferred when his father got a job at Princeton (known as the College of New Jersey until 1896). Wilson went on to study law at the University of Virginia, and earned his Ph.D. in political science and history at Johns Hopkins University. His thesis, Congressional Government, was published, launching a university career, with appointments at Bryn Mawr and Wesleyan.
Wilson's dream job was a professorship at Princeton, which he achieved in 1890, becoming the university's 13th president in 1902. It was largely due to Wilson's efforts that the College of New Jersey evolved into the prestigious Princeton University. In addition to a focus on innovative curriculum upgrades, he was always voted the most popular teacher on campus, renowned for his caring demeanor and high ideals. But it was his oratory skill that brought him renown beyond the university setting. Wilson's first stroke occurred while at Princeton in May 1906, seriously threatening his life.
Political ambitions and university politics had transformed Wilson into a social Democrat, and he was tapped for the governorship of New Jersey in 1910. A determined reformer, his successes made him the darling of Progressives, and he was nominated as the Democratic presidential candidate on the New Freedom platform in 1912.
Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated as the 28th president of the United States on March 4, 1913, following one of the nation's more unusual elections: Wilson ran on the Democratic ticket opposing incumbent William Howard Taft, but Theodore Roosevelt, disgruntled with his successor, launched a third party run, splitting the Republican vote and coming in second, ensuring Wilson's win.
The new president's inauguration was marked by a huge parade for women’s suffrage the day before, upon his arrival in Washington, D.C. The 19th Amendment, extending voting rights to women, was passed during Wilson's second term, on August 18, 1920.
Wilson’s New Freedom platform favored small businesses and farmers: He went after what he termed the "Triple Wall of Privilege"—signing in 1913 the Underwood-Simmons Act, which reduced tax rates that had previously favored industrialists over small business; and approving the Federal Reserve Act, making loans more accessible to the average American. He also further enforced anti-trust legislation in 1914 with the Clayton Antitrust Act, which supported labor unions, allowing for strikes, boycotts and peaceful picketing.
At the outbreak of World War I in Europe on July 26, 1914, Wilson declared America neutral, believing that "to fight, you must be brutal and ruthless, and the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into the very fiber of our national life"—producing a second campaign slogan: "He kept us out of war." Wilson tried to dispense a peace protocol to Great Britain along with the money and munitions they asked for, but was rebuffed. He finally asked Congress to declare war in April 1917, when Germany repeatedly ignored U.S. neutrality and sunk American ships.
When the war was declared over nearly a year and a half later, Americans were perceived as heroes. (The "Great War" was also meant to be the last war.) Wilson proposed the "Fourteen Points" as the basis for the peace treaty at Versailles, with the last point being the creation of a League of Nations to ensure world peace.
While adopted by Europe, Congress did not approve joining the League of Nations. Wilson suffered a second stroke while touring the nation, in an effort to curry public support for the League, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1920 for his efforts.
Wilson had fallen in love with Ellen Louise Axson, an accomplished artist, at church while traveling and working at his Atlanta law practice in 1883. Ellen was an educated woman, and a cousin of hers had actually feared she’d never marry because men didn’t like smart women, but Wilson did. The couple had three daughters together, and Wilson relied on Ellen a great deal for shared decision-making.
In 1907, Wilson broke Ellen’s heart when he had an affair while visiting Bermuda on a restorative trip. The couple moved on from the incident, however, and remained together. When Ellen died of kidney disease during Wilson's first year in the White House (1913), he reportedly walked around in a daze for days, whispering, "My God, what am I to do?"
A widow herself, Edith Bolling Galt met the grieving Wilson several months after the death of his first wife. Admiration quickly deepened into a more profound relationship, and the two married in late December 1915. True helpmeets, Wilson entrusted Edith with a secret code that accessed highly confidential war documents, and she often sat with him during Oval Office meetings. Additionally, Edith was the first U.S. first lady to travel with a sitting president on a European goodwill tour.
When President Wilson suffered his second serious stroke in October 1919, Edith masked the severity of his illness, making decisions in his stead and becoming, undercover, what some historians term America's first female president. Wilson made a partial recovery, but spent his remaining years seriously disabled.
Death and Legacy
After leaving office in 1921, the Wilsons moved to a home in northwest Washington, D.C., where Woodrow Wilson died at the age of 67, on February 3, 1924. He was buried in the Washington National Cathedral.
A scrupulous scholar, Wilson’s books include a biography of George Washington and the five-volume History of the American People.
Wilson was driven by a sense of mission and an ideal his father had instilled in him, to leave the world a better place than you found it. His legacy of peace, social and financial reform, and statesmanship with integrity lives on at the many schools and programs named after him, most notably the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and his old alma mater, Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.