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Woodrow Wilson | Article

A Portrait of Wilson

Wilson as President of Princeton University. 1902. PD.

The Wilson family bible records Thomas Woodrow Wilson's birth in Staunton, Virginia, "on the 28th December, 1856 at 12 3/4 o'clock at night." Growing up amid the tumult of the Civil War and Reconstruction, Tommy (as he was called) was immersed in the terror and despair of the South in those years. On May 14, 1865, an 8-year-old Wilson watched as captured Confederate president Jefferson Davis was led through town in chains. Though for many, life in the South would never be the same, Wilson, his two older sisters, and a younger brother experienced a comfortable childhood, enjoying the affection of a warm, attentive mother and the instruction of a gregarious yet demanding Presbyterian minister father. "Wilson's father would give him an idea that the true test was making the world a place where justice, where goodness had a better and bigger place than it had before he came on the scene," says Jay Winter, Historian

Wilson was a poor student early in life, still unable to read at age ten. Though teachers thought him slow, Wilson's parents provided him with plenty of support. Historians now believe young Wilson was afflicted by a form of dyslexia. To help his son overcome these difficulties, Wilson's father spent hours coaching him in the art of debate. From these early years forward, the Presbyterian faith his father preached would be Wilson's guiding belief. Enrolling first at Davidson College in North Carolina and then at the College of New Jersey in Princeton, Woodrow ( his mother's maiden name, and his newly adopted given name) excelled at oratory and debate, which led him to the study of law at the University of Virginia as a means to public office. Wilson's practice of law quickly stalled; mundane case work could not compete with his sweeping ambitions in politics and government.

While on a rare business trip from his law office in Atlanta to nearby Rome, Georgia, Wilson fell in love with an extremely intelligent young woman he saw in church, a burgeoning artist named Ellen Axson. They were married in 1885 and brought the first of their three daughters into the world the following year. Ellen and Woodrow agreed that to further his political ambitions, he should become a professor. He started graduate study at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he virtually created his own curriculum emphasizing literary-style commentary instead of specialized, primary research.

Wilson's first book, Congressional Government, criticized the American model of government in favor of the British parliamentary system. The book's success landed Wilson teaching posts at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, and Wesleyan College in Connecticut. An academic rising star, Wilson returned to Princeton in 1890 to become a professor of jurisprudence and economics at his beloved alma mater. The most popular professor on campus, Wilson lectured on the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots in America in the early 1890s. Captains of industry like the Rockefellers, Carnegies and Morgans had become fabulously wealthy, while the majority of American workers lived in poverty. Wilson proposed the federal government be given more power to rein in big business. Publishing his views in magazines like Harper's and accepting numerous speaking invitations, Wilson soon became a nationally-known public figure. In 1902, Wilson was unanimously elected president of Princeton University. 

As president of Princeton, Wilson sought to build the university into the nation's foremost center of scholarship. He proposed sweeping educational and social reforms, including the creation of a world-class graduate school in the center of campus. To make the university attractive to serious scholars, Wilson planned to abolish Princeton's fraternity-like eating clubs, filled with some of the school's richest and laziest students. While Wilson's proposals were initially well received, they soon became the objects of strong resistance from conservative trustees and rich alumni. As a result of the highly publicized battle, Wilson gained a national reputation for not only advocating educational reform, but for fighting social inequity. Soon, Wilson's name was mentioned as a leading candidate for public office. The New Jersey Democratic Party political bosses, who mistakenly thought the college president would play the part of political stooge, convinced Wilson that their support would guarantee his election as the state's governor. Once in office, Wilson successfully pushed a decidedly progressive agenda, and along the way outwitted the very bosses who thought Wilson a puppet for their use. His New Jersey successes positioned Wilson at the forefront of the cresting, national wave of progressivism. Wilson became the Democratic Party candidate fo the 1912 presidential election and won the tight race, helped in large part by the Republican Party's split between William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt.

During his first two years as president, Wilson demonstrated his political acumen in accomplishing one of the most impressive strings of domestic legislative victories in history. In the summer of 1914, as the world's first world war erupted in Europe, Wilson watched helplessly as his wife of thirty years died of a kidney disease. Losing Ellen threw Wilson into despair, but with the world at war, clear thinking had never been more important. Wilson maintained a precarious neutrality for nearly three years, promising to keep the country out of war as he ran for a second term in 1916, but then found no option but to lead the nation into battle.

Wilson hoped participation in the war would enable him to broker a peace treaty that might end war forever. Central to the treaty would be the creation of a forum for non-violent resolution of international hostilities — a league of Nations. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, he painstakingly won key points of the treaty from British prime minister David Lloyd George and French premier Georges Clemenceau, who vengefully favored heavy restitution from Germany. But back home Wilson's dreams were thwarted by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and other powerful political enemies who blocked the treaty's ratification.

The stress of a last-ditch, cross-country campaign to rally popular support for the treaty, coupled with recurring health problems, resulted in Wilson's suffering a physical breakdown and then a paralytic stroke. Rendered incapable of executing his duties, the president was sequestered from nearly all visitors by his personal physician and by his second wife, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, whom he had married in 1916.

The country was effectively without a chief executive for the last months of Wilson's term in office. In 1919, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Woodrow Wilson left the White House in March 1921, and he lived the next three years as a partial invalid in his Washington, D.C. home. He died on February 3, 1924, and was interred at the National Cathedral.

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