Woodrow Wilson: Life Before the Presidency

Woodrow Wilson: Life Before the Presidency

Thomas Woodrow Wilson—he would later drop his first name—was born on December 28, 1856, in the small Southern town of Staunton, Virginia. His father was a minister of the First Presbyterian Church, and Tommy was born at home. Less than a year later, the family moved to Augusta, Georgia. Young Wilson's earliest memories were of the Civil War, seeing Union soldiers march into town and watching his mother tend wounded Confederate soldiers in a local hospital. He also saw the poverty and devastation of Augusta during the early years of Reconstruction. In 1870, his family moved to Columbia, South Carolina, and then to Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1874. As an adult, Wilson would later remark “the only place in the world where nothing has to be explained to me is the South.”

Although Wilson's father, the Reverend Joseph Ruggles Wilson, had been reared in Ohio before moving to Virginia in 1849, he became “unreconstructedly Southern” in values and politics after moving to the South. The Reverend Wilson served as pastor of several Southern Presbyterian congregations and taught theology at Columbia Theological Seminary and, much later in life, at Southwestern Presbyterian Theological University. He helped organize the Presbyterian Church of the Confederate States of America, in which he became a leader. The church leased, rather than owned slaves, as was its custom, and Wilson grew up around a majority African American community in Columbia.

In this environment, Wilson’s father taught his son the justification of the South's secession from the Union, a belief in Providence (God as the caring guide of human destiny), predestination (that all events have been willed by God), and the importance of daily prayer. Wilson's mother, Janet Woodrow Wilson, known as Jessie, was born in Carlisle, England, but raised in America. She was a warm and loving companion to Wilson's father and a devoted mother to her four children—Woodrow, his two older sisters, and a younger brother. Later in life, Wilson described himself as a “mama's boy” who had clung to his mother's apron strings.

Passion for Education and Scholarship

Although troubled by weak eyesight and possible dyslexia that delayed his learning to read, Wilson was otherwise a normal boy, playing baseball and energetically exploring Augusta and Columbia with friends and cousins. Public schools scarcely existed in the South of his youth, and while he received some tutoring from former Confederate soldiers who set up primitive schools after the war, most of his early education came from his father, who emphasized religion and British history and literature.

In 1873, although only sixteen and poorly prepared in most academic subjects, Wilson enrolled at Davidson College near Charlotte, North Carolina, where he excelled in logic, rhetoric, Latin, English, and composition while doing reasonably well in math and Greek. Unfortunately, his poor health—probably homesickness and concern about his father, who had resigned under pressure from the faculty of the Columbia seminary—forced him to drop out of school after one year. In 1875, Wilson enrolled at the College of New Jersey, which later changed its name to Princeton University. He graduated thirty-eighth out of 167 students in 1879.

That same year, he entered the law school at the University of Virginia but dropped out in his second year after being spurned by his first cousin Hattie Woodrow, with whom he fancied himself in love. Returning home to Wilmington, North Carolina, Wilson continued to study law on his own. In 1882, he moved to Atlanta, where he set up a legal practice with a friend from the University of Virginia and passed the Georgia bar examination. Wilson practiced law for less than a year, however. Greatly bored with life as an attorney, he abandoned the practice of law and enrolled in Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore as a graduate student in history and political science. He earned his PhD in 1886.

Wilson found his undergraduate courses undemanding and often spent more time on extracurricular activities than on his academic work. A history major in college, he read extensively on his own in British history, wrote and debated frequently, and contributed essays to the Nassau Literary Magazine and the International Review. His first serious work, an essay, “Cabinet Government in the United States,” was published in the International Review (Henry Cabot Lodge was the editor) during the summer of 1879 just after Wilson graduated from Princeton. He also edited the Princetonian (the school newspaper), participated in the American Whig and Liberal debating clubs, served as president of the campus baseball association and secretary of the football association, and acted in school plays. At the University of Virginia, Wilson headed the Jefferson Literary Society debating club while singing in the campus glee club and a college quartet. He continued his glee club and debating interests at Johns Hopkins.

His graduate school research and writing resulted in a published PhD dissertation entitled Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics. In this work, which soon became one of the classics of American political science, Wilson criticized the congressional domination of government and the weak post-Civil War presidency. He argued in favor of replacing the American separation of powers between the president and Congress with the British parliamentary system, in which a prime minister would lead both the government and the majority party in Parliament. Such perspectives on governance, emphasizing strong leadership by the executive over the legislature, would be later reflected in his presidency—although he concluded by 1908 that constitutional change was not necessary. By that time, Wilson had seen how a vigorous president such as Theodore Roosevelt could lead as effectively as a prime minister.

In his last year of graduate school, Wilson, age twenty-eight, married Ellen Louise Axson, age twenty-five, at the home of her paternal grandfather in Savannah, Georgia. Born in Savannah but reared in Rome, Georgia, Ellen, the daughter of the Reverend Samuel E. Axson, shared Wilson's Presbyterian upbringing. She was a talented artist with polished manners and a strong character—a woman with a social conscience as well as refined tastes in art, music, and literature. Until her death in August 1914, she exercised a strong influence on her husband, encouraging him to work for the welfare of the poor and dispossessed as well as for political and economic reform.

Despite sterling credentials marking him out for a career as a scholar, Wilson craved political power and dreamed of becoming a U.S. senator as a stepping stone to the presidency. He taught political economy and public law at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania from 1885 to 1888 before accepting a professorship in history at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. There, he published The State, a study of comparative government that won him tenure. Two years later, he accepted the professorship of jurisprudence (law) and political economy at Princeton, where he offered popular courses for the next twelve years. During this time, he published nine more books, including a biography of George Washington and a five-volume history of the United States.

President of Princeton University

When the trustees of Princeton tapped Wilson as the new president of the university in 1902, they expected reform not revolution. The first president not trained as a clergyman, Wilson immediately set out to transform the old Ivy League institution into a modern liberal university. He replaced the impersonal lecture method of instruction with the preceptorial mode, in which instructors tutored small groups of students on the Oxford University model. Wilson reorganized the departments and redesigned the curriculum.

For several years, the faculty and trustees rubber-stamped everything he proposed, but after 1906, things did not go as well. Wilson clashed with a powerful dean about a plan to build a new graduate college in the center of the campus. He also alienated alumni, faculty, and trustees with a proposal to do away with the socially exclusive eating clubs and residential houses in favor of common meals and dormitories. His final years at Princeton were thus fraught with stress and combat but kept Wilson in the public eye as a farsighted yet realistic reformer.

Governor of New Jersey

When approached by representatives of the New Jersey Democratic Party about running for governor of the state in 1910, Wilson agreed, provided that the nomination came with “no strings attached.” Party bosses concurred because they needed an honest leader like Wilson to convince voters that recent scandals involving Democrats would not tarnish the governorship. Party bosses such as Senator James Smith assumed the college professor would be politically naive and easy to control from behind the scenes. Wilson, who campaigned promising to be “an unconstitutional governor”—an allusion to his desire to break with legalistic views of what a state executive could do—won the nomination on the first ballot. He immediately shocked the professional politicians by declaring his independence from party bosses. Wilson won a decisive victory in the general election over his Republican opponent and thereafter declared war on machine politics.

Within two years, Wilson pushed through legislation that mandated direct party primaries for all elected officials in the state, a progressive innovation growing among governors nationally. He was also successful with a corrupt practices act that required all candidates to file campaign financial statements, limited campaign expenditures, and outlawed corporate contributions to political campaigns. Additionally, Wilson called for a public utility commission empowered to set rates and supported passage of a workers' compensation law to aid the families of workers killed or injured on the job. And, for the first time in the state’s history, Wilson began holding daily press conferences while the legislature was in session. By 1911, Wilson had caught the eye of the nation's progressive leaders, including William Jennings Bryan, the leading figure of the Democratic Party.