Thomas Woodrow Wilson, known to much of the American public as simply Woodrow Wilson,
was born on December 28, 1856 in Staunton, Virginia. He was the third child born
to Joseph Ruggles Wilson and Jessie Janet Woodrow. His mother was from Carlisle,
Cumberland, England, and his father’s side of the family came from Northern Ireland.
Despite the fact that Wilson’s grandfather was against slavery, Wilson’s parents
identified with the confederacy and defended slavery. Wilson’s father was one of
the original members of the Southern Presbyterian Church in the United States, after
it broke apart from the Northern Presbyterians in 1861. Wilson lived in Augusta,
Georgia, until age 14. When Reconstruction began, his family moved to Columbia,
South Carolina, where his father taught at Columbia Theological Seminary.
Wilson did not learn to read until after he was ten years old. His difficulties
can be attributed to dyslexia, though he taught himself many ways to compensate
for his deficiencies. He attended Davidson College in 1873, but was unable to continue
on for a second year, due to medical issues. When his father began teaching at Princeton
University, Wilson transferred there and graduated in 1879. He actively spoke out
for the Whig Party, and devised a Liberal Debating Society. Wilson then attended
his first year of law school at the University of Virginia. He had to withdraw from
school, due to his health, and then continued on with his studies from his home
in Wilmington, North Carolina. In 1882, after he had studied on his own for several
years, Wilson opened a practice in Atlanta. He passed the Georgia bar; however,
there was an overwhelming amount of lawyers, so he rarely had a high enough caseload
to keep him busy. In 1883, Wilson applied and was admitted to Johns Hopkins University
to work towards his doctorate in history and political science. After graduating,
he taught for three years at Bryn Mawr College and two years at Wesleyan College.
Wilson was afflicted with hypertension, and likely had his first stroke at age 39.
However, he took after his seemingly hypochondriac mother, and oftentimes thought
he was more ill than he was. Despite health issues, Wilson married Ellen Louise
Axson, and together they had three daughters: Margaret, Jessie, and Eleanor. When
Ellen died in 1914, Wilson dated a woman named Edith Galt, and the two were married
the following year. Edith was a descendant of the Native American woman Pocahontas.
Wilson’s interests included cars and baseball. He also regularly bicycled and played
Relationship with Princeton University
Wilson became a faculty member of Princeton University in 1890. He taught classes
on jurisprudence and political economy. He later became the president of Princeton,
after having been promoted by trustees of the school, in 1902. Wilson devised many
improvements to the school, including hiring more faculty, expanding to include
a graduate school and a school for electrical engineering, as well as a museum of
natural history. He designed curriculum guidelines that signalled the progressive
nature of these changes. He raised academic standards so that admission qualifications
were much higher than they had been previously. Eventually, several of Wilson’s
plans were rejected by men who wanted to keep the college more like a club for the
elite than a school where anyone can come to study. This rejection encouraged Wilson
to pursue a life of politics.
In 1910, after having left his position of president of Princeton University, Wilson
ran for the Governor of New Jersey. Wilson was successful, even though just two
years prior, Taft and the Republicans had a very strong support in New Jersey. Wilson’s
success was attributed to the growing support for progressive ideas endorsed by
Roosevelt, amongst others.
Presidency and World War I
In 1912, Wilson picked a running-mate, IN Governor Thomas R Marshall, and a campaign
manager, NY lawyer William Frank McCombs, and ran for the United States presidency.
Wilson appealed to much of the American public, especially the South, because he
was progressive and sober, but didn’t advocate for a dry America. He connected best
with younger intellectuals, lawyers, and the like. He spoke for “New Freedom,” which
limited the federal government’s power and was opposed to the controlling nature
of monopolies. Wilson emerged victorious in the election, defeating both William
Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt.
Wilson served his first term as president from 1913 – 1917. He appointed many fellow
democrats to government positions. He held the first press conference, and started
the tradition of allowing reporters to ask questions. He gave the State of the Union
address live, which no president had done since Thomas Jefferson, as he had stopped
that practice in 1801. In 1913, Wilson got Congress to pass the Federal Reserve
Act. This was a compromise between Republicans and Democrats; Democrats wanted to
rid the US of private banks and Wall Street, and wanted the government to control
the central bank, so that it could print money as Congress needed it. The compromise
did the following: it allowed private banks to control the Federal Reserve Banks
(there were 12), but it also placed controlled interest in the system through a
board appointed by the president with the Senate’s approval. This also supported
the idea of an “elastic” currency. He was not a “trustbuster” as Taft and Roosevelt
were before him. He encouraged economic competition through the Federal Trade Commision.
Wilson spent the majority of his first presidential term trying to keep World War
I in Europe. Though he offered to mediate, neither the Allies nor the Central power
took him seriously enough. He did not focus his energy about building up the US
army, because he believed that would encourage the spread of the war. In 1916, Wilson
handily won the re-election to presidency, using the slogan “He kept us out of war.”
However, in 1917, the decision to go to war was inevitable. US ships were threatened,
and Wilson wanted the war in order to make the world a “safe” place for democracy.
The US proceeded as an associated power, not an alliance to any particular country.
He wanted the war to be “the war to end war,” and then devised the Fourteen Points, which
included the proposal for a League of Nations. He gave this address on January 8,
1918, and emphasized cooperation amongst nations. He attended the Peace Conference
of 1919, which aimed to grant big and small nations the same political independence.
Wilson’s League of Nations idea made its way to the Treaty of Versailles, which
was one of the major peace treaties at the end of WWI and ended the war between
Germany and the Allies.
Other important features of Wilson’s time in office were passing the 19th amendment,
which gave all women the right to vote, as well as supporting unions and developing
the Child Labor Reform Act.
After the Presidency
After serving his terms as President, Wilson and his wife, Edith, moved to a townhouse
in Washington, D.C. On November 10, 1923, Wilson gave a short radio speech celebrating
Armistice Day from his home. This was his last national address. He died several
months later, on February 3, 1924, and was buried in the Washington National Cathedral.
Here, we have two of Wilson’s most important addresses: