The 28th President of the United States
Who Was Woodrow Wilson?
Woodrow Wilson served two terms as the 28th president of the United States. He began his career as a scholar and educator, and later gained national recognition as the reform-minded governor of New Jersey. Just two years after becoming governor, he was elected president of the United States. Despite his isolationist leanings, Wilson oversaw American involvement in World War I and was a key figure in brokering the peace between the Allied and Central powers.
the war, Wilson presented his “Fourteen Points,” a plan to prevent future wars, and proposed the creation of the League of Nations, a predecessor to the United Nations. Woodrow Wilson suffered a massive stroke during his second term, but did not leave office. Details of his illness were hidden from the public while his wife carried out many of his duties for him. President Wilson was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize.
Dates: December 29,* 1856 – February 3, 1924
Also Known As: Thomas Woodrow Wilson
Famous Quote: “War isn’t declared in the name of God; it is a human affair entirely.”
Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia to Joseph and Janet Wilson on December 29, 1856. He joined older sisters Marion and Annie (younger brother Joseph would arrive ten years later). Joseph Wilson, Sr. was a Presbyterian minister of Scottish heritage; his wife, Janet Woodrow Wilson, had emigrated to the U.S. from Scotland as a young girl. The family moved to Augusta, Georgia in 1857 when Joseph was offered a job with the local ministry.
the Civil War, Reverend Wilson’s church and surrounding land functioned as a hospital and campground for injured Confederate soldiers. Young Wilson, after seeing up close the kind of suffering war could produce, became vehemently opposed to war and remained so when he later served as president.
“Tommy,” as he was called, didn’t attend school until he was nine (partly because of the war) and did not learn to read until the age of eleven. Some historians now believe that Wilson suffered from a form of dyslexia. Wilson compensated for his deficit by teaching himself shorthand as a teenager, enabling him to take notes in class.
In 1870, the family moved to Columbia, South Carolina when Reverend Wilson was hired as a minister and professor of theology at a prominent Presbyterian church and seminary. Tommy Wilson attended a private school, where he kept up with his studies but did not distinguish himself academically.
Early College Years
Wilson left home in 1873 to attend Davidson College in South Carolina. He only stayed for two semesters before becoming physically ill trying to keep up with his coursework and extracurricular activities. Poor health would plague Wilson his entire life.
In the fall of 1875, after taking time off to regain his health, Wilson enrolled at Princeton (then known as the College of New Jersey). His father, an alumnus of the school, had helped him get admitted.
Wilson was one of a handful of southerners who attended Princeton in the decade after the Civil War. Many of his southern classmates resented northerners, but Wilson did not. He firmly believed in maintaining the unity of the states.
By now, Wilson had developed a love of reading and spent a lot of time in the school library. His tenor singing voice won him a spot in the glee club and he became known for his skills as a debater. Wilson also wrote articles for the campus magazine and later became its editor.
After graduating from Princeton in 1879, Wilson made an important decision. He would serve the public — not by becoming a minister, as his father had done — but by becoming an elected official. And the best path to public office, Wilson believed, was to earn a law degree.
Becoming a Lawyer
Wilson entered law school at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in autumn of 1879. He didn’t enjoy the study of law; for him, it was a means to an end. As he had done at Princeton, Wilson participated in debate club and the choir. He distinguished himself as an orator and drew large audiences when he spoke.
During weekends and holidays, Wilson visited relatives in nearby Staunton, Virginia, where he had been born. There, he became smitten by his first cousin, Hattie Woodrow. The attraction was not mutual. Wilson proposed marriage to Hattie in the summer of 1880 and was devastated when she rejected him.
Back in school, the dejected Wilson (who now preferred to be called “Woodrow” rather than “Tommy”), became seriously ill with a respiratory infection. He was forced to drop out of law school and return home to recuperate. After regaining his health, Wilson completed his law studies from home and passed the bar exam in May 1882 at the age of 25.
Wilson Marries and Earns a Doctorate
Woodrow Wilson moved to Atlanta, Georgia in the summer of 1882 and opened a law practice with a colleague. He soon realized that not only was it difficult to find clients in a large city but that he also disliked practicing law. The practice did not prosper and Wilson was miserable; he knew he must find a meaningful career.
Because he loved to study government and history, Wilson decided to become a teacher. He began his studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland in the fall of 1883.
While visiting relatives in Georgia earlier in the year, Wilson had met and fallen in love with Ellen Axson, the daughter of a minister. They became engaged in September 1883, but could not marry right away because Wilson was still in school and Ellen was caring for her ailing father.
Wilson proved himself an able scholar at Johns Hopkins. He became a published author at 29 years old when his doctoral thesis, Congressional Government, was published in 1885. Wilson received praise for his critical analysis of the practices of congressional committees and lobbyists.
On June 24, 1885, Woodrow Wilson married Ellen Axson in Savannah, Georgia. In 1886, Wilson received his doctorate in history and political science. He was hired to teach at Bryn Mawr, a small women’s college in Pennsylvania.
Wilson taught at Bryn Mawr for two years. He was well-respected and enjoyed teaching, but living conditions were very cramped on the small campus. After the arrival of daughters Margaret in 1886 and Jessie in 1887, Wilson began to search for a new teaching position. Buoyed by his growing reputation as a teacher, writer, and orator, Wilson received an offer for a higher-paying position at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut in 1888. The Wilsons welcomed a third daughter, Eleanor, in 1889.
At Wesleyan, Wilson became a popular history and political science professor. He involved himself in school organizations, as a faculty football advisor and leader of debate events. As busy as he was, Wilson found the time to write a well-regarded government textbook, winning praise from educators.
Yet Wilson longed to teach at a larger school. When offered a position in 1890 to teach law and political economy at his alma mater, Princeton, he eagerly accepted.
From Professor to University President
Woodrow Wilson spent 12 years teaching at Princeton, where he was repeatedly voted most popular professor. Wilson also managed to write prolifically, publishing a biography of George Washington in 1897 and a five-volume history of the American people in 1902.
Upon the retirement of University President Francis Patton in 1902, 46-year-old Woodrow Wilson was named president of the university. He was the first layperson to hold that title.
During Wilson’s Princeton administration, he oversaw several improvements, including expanding the campus and building additional classrooms. He also hired more teachers so that there could be smaller, more intimate classes, which he believed were beneficial to students. Wilson raised the admission standards at the university, making it more selective than before.
In 1906, Wilson’s stressful lifestyle took a toll — he temporarily lost vision in one eye, probably due to a stroke. Wilson recovered after taking some time off.
In June of 1910, Wilson was approached by a group of politicians and businessmen who had been taking note of his many successful endeavors. The men wanted him to run for governor of New Jersey. This was Wilson’s opportunity to fulfill the dream he’d had as a young man.
After winning the nomination at the Democratic Convention in September 1910, Woodrow Wilson resigned from Princeton in October to run for governor of New Jersey.
Campaigning across the state, Wilson impressed crowds with his eloquent speeches. He insisted that if he were elected governor, he would serve the people without being influenced by big business or party bosses (powerful, often corrupt men who controlled political organizations). Wilson won the election by a healthy margin in November 1910.
As governor, Wilson brought about a number of reforms. Because he objected to the selection of political candidates by the “boss” system, Wilson implemented primary elections. In an effort to regulate billing practices of powerful utilities companies, Wilson proposed guidelines for a public utilities commission, a measure which was quickly passed into law. Wilson also contributed to the passage of a law that would protect workers from unsafe working conditions and compensate them if they were injured on the job.
Wilson’s record of sweeping reforms brought him national attention and led to speculation of a possible presidential candidacy in the 1912 election. “Wilson for President” clubs opened up in cities across the country. Convinced he had a chance of winning the nomination, Wilson readied himself to campaign on the national stage.
President of the United States
Wilson went into the Democratic National Convention of 1912 as an underdog to Champ Clark, House Speaker, as well as other popular candidates. After dozens of roll calls — and in part due to the support of previous presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan — the vote shifted in favor of Wilson. He was declared the Democratic candidate in the race for president.
Wilson faced a unique challenge — he was running against two men, each of whom had already held the highest office in the land: incumbent William Taft, a Republican, and former president Theodore Roosevelt, running as an independent.
With Republican votes divided between Taft and Roosevelt, Wilson easily won the election. He didn’t win the popular vote, but did win a vast majority of the electoral vote (435 for Wilson, while Roosevelt received 88 and Taft only 8). In just two years, Woodrow Wilson had gone from being the president of Princeton to the president of the United States. He was 56 years old.
Wilson set forth his goals early in his administration. He would focus on reforms, such as the tariff system, currency and banking, oversight of natural resources, and legislation to regulate food, labor, and sanitation. Wilson’s plan was known as the “New Freedom.”
During Wilson’s first year in office, he oversaw the passage of key pieces of legislation. The Underwood Tariff Bill, passed in 1913, lowered the tax on imported items, resulting in lower prices for consumers. The Federal Reserve Act created a system of federal banks and a board of experts that would regulate interest rates and the circulation of money.
Wilson also sought to limit the powers of big business. He faced an uphill battle, convincing Congress of the need for new antitrust legislation that would prevent the formation of monopolies. Taking his case first to the people (who in turn contacted their congressmen), Wilson was able to get the Clayton Antitrust Act passed in 1914, along with legislation that established the Federal Trade Commission.
Death of Ellen Wilson and Beginning of WWI
In April 1914, Wilson’s wife became gravely ill with Bright’s disease, an inflammation of the kidneys. Because no effective treatments were available at the time, Ellen Wilson’s condition worsened. She died on August 6, 1914 at the age of 54, leaving Wilson lost and bereft.
In the midst of his grief, however, Wilson was obligated to run a nation. Recent events in Europe had taken center stage following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary in June 1914. European nations soon took sides in the conflict that escalated into the First World War, with the Allied Powers (Great Britain, France, and Russia), squaring off against the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary).
Determined to stay out of the conflict, Wilson issued a Neutrality Proclamation in August 1914. Even after the Germans sank the British passenger ship Lusitania off the Irish coast in May 1915, killing 128 American passengers, Wilson resolved to keep the United States out of the war.
In the spring of 1915, Wilson met and began courting Washington widow Edith Bolling Galt. She brought happiness back into the president’s life. They were married in December 1915.
Dealing with Domestic and Foreign Affairs
As the war raged on, Wilson dealt with problems closer to home. He helped avert a railroad strike in the summer of 1916, when railroad workers threatened a nationwide strike if they were not granted an eight-hour work day. Railroad owners refused to negotiate with union leaders, leading Wilson to go before a joint session of Congress to plead for legislation of an eight-hour work day. Congress passed the legislation, much to the disgust of railroad owners and other business leaders.
Despite being branded a puppet of the unions, Wilson went on to win the Democratic nomination for his second run for president. In a close race, Wilson managed to beat Republican challenger Charles Evans Hughes in November 1916.
Deeply troubled by the war in Europe, Wilson offered to help broker a peace between the warring nations. His offer was ignored. Wilson proposed the creation of a League for Peace, which promoted the notion of “peace without victory.” Again, his suggestions were rejected.
The U.S. Enters World War I
Wilson broke off all diplomatic relations with Germany in February 1917, after Germany announced that it would continue submarine warfare against all ships, including non-military vessels. Wilson realized that U.S. involvement in the war had become inevitable. On April 2, 1917, President Wilson announced to Congress that the United States had no choice but to enter World War I. Both the Senate and the House quickly approved Wilson’s declaration of war.
General John J. Pershing was placed in command of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) and the first American soldiers left for France in June 1917. It would take more than a year before the inclusion of American forces helped to turn the tide in favor of the Allies. By the fall of 1918, the Allies clearly had the upper hand. The Germans signed the armistice on November 18, 1918. In January 1919, President Wilson, hailed as a hero for helping to end the war, joined European leaders in France for a peace conference.
At the conference, Wilson presented his plan to promote worldwide peace, which he called “The Fourteen Points.” The most important of these points was the creation of a League of Nations, whose members would consist of representatives from every nation. The League’s primary goal would be to avoid further wars by using negotiations to settle differences. Delegates at the conference for the Treaty of Versailles voted to approve Wilson’s proposal of the League.
Wilson Suffers a Stroke
Following the war, Wilson turned his attention to the issue of women’s voting rights. After years of only half-heartedly supporting women’s suffrage, Wilson committed himself to the cause. The 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, was passed in June 1919.
For Wilson, the stresses of being a wartime president, combined with his losing battle for the League of Nations, took a devastating toll. He was stricken by a massive stroke in September 1919. Severely debilitated, Wilson had difficulty speaking and was paralyzed on the left side of his body. He was unable to walk, let alone lobby Congress for his cherished League of Nations proposal. (The Treaty of Versailles would not be ratified by Congress, which meant that the United States could not become a member of the League of Nations.)
Edith Wilson did not want the American public to know the extent of Wilson’s incapacitation. She instructed his physician to issue a statement that the president was suffering from exhaustion and a nervous breakdown. Edith protected her husband, allowing only his physician and a few family members to see him.
Concerned members of Wilson’s administration feared that the president was incapable of carrying out his duties, but his wife insisted he was up to the job. In fact, Edith Wilson accepted documents on her husband’s behalf, decided which ones needed attention, then helped him hold the pen in his hand to sign them.
Retirement and the Nobel Prize
Wilson remained very weakened by the stroke, but did recover to the extent that he could walk short distances with a cane. He completed his term in January 1921 after Republican Warren G. Harding was elected in a landslide victory. Prior to leaving office, Wilson was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts toward world peace.
The Wilsons moved into a house in Washington after leaving the White House. In an era when presidents did not receive pensions, the Wilsons had little money to live on. Generous friends came together to raise money for them, enabling them to live comfortably. Wilson made very few public appearances after his retirement, but when he did appear in public, he was greeted by cheers.
Three years after leaving office, Woodrow Wilson died at his home on February 3, 1924 at the age of 67. He was buried in a crypt in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Wilson is considered by many historians one of the ten greatest U.S. presidents.
*All of Wilson’s documents list his birth date as December 28, 1856, but an entry in the Wilson family bible clearly states he was born after midnight, early on the morning of December 29.