Dr. Thomas Woodrow Wilson – The Man
Years 1856 – 1924
Presidency 1913 – 1921
Material taken primarily from:
Presidential Anecdotes by Paul F. Boller, Jr. @ 1981
Pictorial History of American Presidents by John and Alice Durant @ 1955
The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents by William A. DeGregorio @ 1984
Thomas Woodrow Wilson was named after his maternal grandfather, the Reverend Thomas Woodrow, a Presbyterian minister. He was born in Virginia, but his family moved to Georgia when he was very young. After graduating from Princeton he began going by T.Woodrow Wilson and soon thereafter dropped the first initial. Wilson’s father was also a minister and theology professor and he enjoyed telling the following story: “His father, wearing an old alpaca coat, was seated in his buggy driving a well-groomed gray mare down the street when one of his parishioners called to him, “Doctor, your horse looks better groomed than yourself.” “Yes,” said Wilson’s father, “I take care of my horse; my congregation takes care of me.” (Boller)
Wilson loved limericks and described himself in this manner:
For beauty I am not a star.
There are others more handsome by far.
But my face, I don’t mind it
Because I’m behind it.
It’s the people in front whom I jar.
He had a long, drawn face, blue-gray eyes, brown hair, and oversized ears. He stood about 5’11” and weighed 175-185 pounds. His health generally was poor. From childhood he was plagued by indigestion; as president he at times used a stomach pump on himself. The strain of overwork severely undermined his health. In college and as a professor at Princeton University he nearly collapsed under the load. Thereafter he learned to pace himself better. He wore glasses from age eight. In 1895 a retinal hemorrhage left him with poor vision in his right eye. He was virtually blind in his last years.
Wilson was thought to be a slow learner as a young child. He was unable to read until age nine; he had trouble grasping fundamental arithmetic. His weak eyes and frail health undermined his efforts at improvement. In 1873 he entered Davidson College, but poor health forced him to drop out at the end of his freshman year. He performed well there with an A average. His health restored, he enrolled at Princeton in 1875. He graduated with a 90 average, 38th of some 167 students of the class of 1879.
In 1879 he entered the University of Virginia law school but dropped out, again for health reasons, in his second year. He was bored with legal study, pursuing it only as a means to enter politics. While recuperating at home in Wilmington, North Carolina, Wilson continued to study law on his own and was admitted to the bar in October 1882. He settled briefly in Atlanta, where he practiced law in partnership with Edward I. Renick. In 1883 he decided to give up law and, he thought, his dream of a career in politics, to become an educator. He enrolled as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he earned a Ph.D. in political science in 1886. Wilson is the ONLY President to earn a doctorate.
At age 28 he married Ellen Axson, 25 in 1885. She, like Wilson, was the child of a Presbyterian minister. Ellen was a lady of refined tastes with a fondness for art, music and literature. They had a very happy marriage with three daughters. During their 29-year marriage, they exchanged some 1,400 love notes, writing them to each other whenever they were separated. Wilson’s home was a fortress of femininity. His three adoring daughters and his devoted wife continually pampered him.
Wilson appreciated women, especially attractive women. He responded to their admiration, was happy and warm in their company and liked to have them around. He was dependent upon them to an extraordinary degree for his own personal self-affirmation.
Wilson was among the most literate of the presidents. He was a historian of recognized authority whose books were used as texts in schools, and he had been a professor of jurisprudence and political economy in three colleges from 1885 - 1902: Bryn Mawr (Pennsylvania) College, - Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut - and Johns Hopkins University.
From 1902 – 1910 he served as head of Princeton. Here he made many progressive changes to the University. In 1910 at the age of 53 he was called off the golf course to receive the nomination for the governorship of New Jersey. Here he once again achieved a number of progressive changes. Two years later he was elected president of the United States.
Wilson had only one term as Governor of New Jersey before coming to the Presidency. His background was academic rather than political. On receiving the Democratic nomination for President at Baltimore in 1912, he declared: “I am a Presbyterian and believe in predestination and election. It was Providence that did the work at Baltimore.” After the election he told William F. McCombs, chairman of the Democratic National Committee: “Before we proceed I wish it clearly understood that I owe you nothing.” Surprised, McCombs reminded him of his services during the campaign, but Wilson exclaimed: “God ordained that I should be the next President of the United States. Neither you nor any other mortal could have prevented that!” Boller
In the election of 1912 Wilson refused to take part in the public brawl between Taft and Roosevelt and the people liked him for it. He was always suavely polite to his two opponents, and even praised Taft for his patriotism and integrity. When Roosevelt was shot, Wilson halted his campaign until his opponent recovered. The country admired this gesture of sportsmanship. Durant
His daughters enjoyed living in the White House. They liked to join White House guided tours, keeping their identity secret from the tourists. As the guide showed the out-of-town visitors through the Executive Mansion, the girls would embarrass their fellow tour members by making loud and highly critical remarks about President Wilson’s daughters. Frank & Melick
As First Lady Mrs. Wilson painted and drew sketches in a studio set up on the third floor of the White House, donating much of her work to charity. She arranged the White House weddings of two of her daughters. She died of Bright’s disease (the same disease Chester Arthur had while he was President and died from) in the White House on August 6, 1914. President Wilson was so devastated at her loss that he confided to aide E.M. House that he hoped to be assassinated.
In April 1915 Mrs. Edith Galt was introduced to Wilson at the White House by Helen Bones, the president’s cousin and official White House hostess since the death of Mrs. Wilson. Edith was a ninth-generation direct descendant of Princess Pocahontas. Wilson invited her to stay to tea and instantly took a liking to the attractive, intelligent widow. The President was58 and she was 43. He became an ardent wooer. He sent her flowers daily, and had a wire installed between her home and the White House and put aside all save the most important affairs of state to be with her. The President proposed in May, and she consented in July, but the engagement remained secret until October.
So enthralled was he that, after a date, a Secret Service agent recalled the president skipping along the streets of Washington and whistling a popular ditty, “Oh, you beautiful doll! You great big beautiful doll!” But as news of the courtship became public, there followed much malicious gossip of the President’s lack of respect for the memory of his first wife. Distressed at the effect all this might be having on his fiancée, Wilson offered Mrs. Galt the opportunity to back out of their engagement. She spurned the offer, replying that she would stand by him not for duty, pity, or honor, but for love. They were married in December 1915. The wedding was a small affair attended by some 40 relatives and close friends.
During W.W.I, the Wilsons did what every homeowner dreams about. In order to release White House groundskeepers for the war effort, they kept a herd of sheep on the White House lawn to eat the grass. Not only did the grass remain short, but the wool was sold, providing nearly $100,000 to the Red Cross, a lot more than they would have made using groundskeepers. Frank & Melick
Wilson won re-election in 1916. During his second term the U.S. entered World War I. Wilson was very rigid and uncompromising in his goals for the war and the results to be achieved after the war. Wilson once said: “I am sorry for those who disagree with me, because I know they are wrong.” He was not a good listener. When Walter Hines Page, ambassador to England during W.W.I, came to Washington to report on the situation there, he found it impossible to get Wilson to listen to any opinions at variance with his own. When Page persisted, Wilson “sprang up, stuck his fingers in his ears, and, still holding them there, ran out of the room.” Boller
“Still, for all his limitations, Wilson was probably the most influential man ever to occupy the White House. The foreign policy he developed during W.W.I. has unquestionably had profound effects on the course of American (and thus world) history. He made world pacification – the achievement of world peace by collective action – the primary objective of American foreign policy. He was convinced that it was America’s duty – and its destiny – to take the lead in organizing the “peace-loving nations” to uphold world order. And ever since his day, the belief that world pacification should occupy a central place in America’s foreign policy has played a crucial part in shaping the country’s perception of what is necessary, desirable, and possible in the world of nations.” Boller
Early in December 1918, Wilson sailed for France to attend the Paris Peace Conference. In a triumphant tour of France, England and Italy the President received tremendous ovations. He was hailed as “the people’s man,” and the apostle of a new order. He did not ask for land or money, the usual prizes of war; he sought only a secure peace, a League of Nations to make future wars impossible. Durant
Georges Clemenceau, French Premier said of Wilson’s Fourteen Points: “God Almighty gave us Ten Commandments, and we broke those. Now we have Wilson who gives us Fourteen.”
The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to two Presidents. In 1906 to Theodore Roosevelt for negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War and in 1919 to Wilson for his efforts in creating the League of Nations.
The Treaty of Versailles, which included the League of Nations Covenant, had been signed, but it had yet to be approved by the U.S. Senate. The League was Wilson’s dream. It was the heart of the treaty and he supposed it unthinkable that it would be rejected. But to his horror he found that there was much objection to it. In an effort to win support Wilson took a tour around the nation appealing directly to the American people. This tour was taken against the advice of his doctor and on September 3, 1919 at age 63 the President had aged noticeably. One side of his face twitched and he was continually in a state of nervous exhaustion in turn despondent and irritable. Yet he was determined. At Pueblo, Colorado he suffered a stroke and the rest of the trip was canceled. The physical breakdown of the President was hastened by the Senate’s rejection of the Treaty in November.
Edith now decided he could “still do more with a maimed body than anyone else.” She decided who could see him and which matters were important enough for his attention. She called it her “Stewardship,” but others referred to the period as “Mrs. Wilson’s Regency”, and labeled her “Mrs. President.”
The President’s doctors upheld her, however, and insisted that any attempt to declare Wilson incompetent would fail, for they agreed with Edith that his mind was “clear as crystal.” Edith maintained that,”I, myself, never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs.”
In 1967 the 25th Amendment to the Constitution was passed regarding “Presidential Disability and Succession.” Frank & Melick
March 4, 1921 Wilson rode to the Capitol with his successor, Warren G. Harding, but did not stay for the Inaugural. The Wilsons retired to a red brick house in Washington. He tried practicing law in partnership with Bainbridge Colby, his former secretary of state, but was unable to do more than discuss legal matters at home. He could read only with the aid of a magnifying glass and eventually was virtually blind. He attended the funeral of President Harding in Washington in August 1923.
Wilson died on February 3, 1924. There was no state funeral. He was buried in Washington; the only President buried in Washington.
Books written by Wilson:
Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics (1885)
The State: Elements of Historical and Practical Politics (1889)
George Washington (1893)
An Old Master, and Other Political Essays (1893)
More Literature and Other Essays (1896)
A History of the American People (5 vols.) (1902)
President Wilson’s Case for the League of Nations (1923)