Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born on December 28, 1856, in Staunton, Virginia, the third child of four born to Joseph Ruggles Wilson and Janet Woodrow Wilson. Wilson's parents were Scots-Irish (his mother was an immigrant, his father the son of immigrants) who met and married in Ohio before moving south in 1854. Pastor of Staunton's First Presbyterian Church and chaplain at Augusta Female Seminary (now Mary Baldwin College), Joseph Ruggles Wilson was a notoriously strong-willed character. When Wilson was a year old, his father accepted a position at First Presbyterian Church in Augusta, Georgia, and Wilson lived there from 1858 until 1870.
The family considered itself to be thoroughly southern. According to biographer H. W. Brands, the reverend "followed many of his southern colleagues-in-the-cloth in discovering biblical sanction for the peculiar institution," and during the American Civil War (1861–1865), he even served for a short time in the Confederate army. His church, meanwhile, was used as a field hospital and a holding area for Union prisoners of war. Tommy, as the young Wilson was called, saw firsthand the destruction of war, and it shaped his view of war for the rest of his life.
In 1882 Wilson joined a friend from the University of Virginia in an Atlanta law firm, but soon abandoned the practice for academia. In the summer of 1883 he enrolled at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and completed a doctorate in the history of government two years later. Wilson married Ellen Axson in 1885 and took his first university teaching position at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. After three years, he moved to Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, before, in 1890, being appointed chair of jurisprudence and politics at Princeton University.
Governor, Then President
In 1910, New Jersey's Democratic Party bosses invited Wilson to run for governor, figuring him to be a naïve academic they could easily control. While Wilson gladly accepted their support—using it to easily win election in a traditionally Republican state—he quickly proved his independence. He outmaneuvered Democratic bosses by pushing numerous progressive reforms through the state legislature, including the institution of workers' compensation and the regulation of state utilities and large businesses. His reputation as a reformer made him a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1912.
Although remembered largely as a reformer, Wilson was responsible for notoriously regressive policies with regard to race. At Princeton, he had presided over the only major northern university not to admit black students, even actively discouraging black applicants, and as U.S. president, he authored legislation that would have curtailed African American civil rights. When Congress failed to pass it, he used his executive authority to segregate the federal government, pushing blacks out of positions that traditionally had been reserved for them.
Wilson's wife Ellen Wilson died in August 1914 of kidney disease. Wilson sank into a deep depression that lasted until the following spring, when he met a local widow, Edith Bolling Galt, a native of Wytheville, Virginia. They were married in her Washington home on December 18, 1915.
World War I
Wilson's supporters carried banners proclaiming "He Kept Us Out of the War," and while it was a slogan Wilson disliked, it was good enough for an exceedingly narrow victory. The difference in several states was between a few hundred and a few thousand votes, and the result was in doubt for three days. Theodore Roosevelt claimed that the only difference between Wilson and his bearded opponent, Charles Evans Hughes, was a shave.
American troops entered the fighting in October 1917 and by the summer of 1918 were on the offensive against Germany. Throughout U.S. involvement in Europe, Wilson worked to guarantee that the war would be fought for some purpose other than territorial gain. In January 1917 he gave a speech titled "Peace Without Victory" that outlined peace terms, proposing the two sides negotiate as equals rather than as victor and vanquished. In January 1918 Wilson delivered another speech articulating his "Fourteen Points," which set conditions for a just and lasting peace. Among his proposals was the League of Nations, an idea originally proposed by the British but most vocally and forcefully advocated by Wilson.
Treaty of Versailles
Here, Wilson made two key political mistakes. Despite having won only a narrow victory over the Republicans in 1916, he failed to include any prominent Republicans on his Versailles negotiation team. When Republicans won control of both houses of Congress in the 1918 midterm elections, Senate leaders promptly refused to ratify the treaty. Opponents proposed various amendments to the agreement, but Wilson stubbornly refused to compromise. Without Senate approval, Versailles had no legal standing in the United States, making it impossible for the country to join the new League of Nations, a fact that significantly weakened the organization. Still, Wilson was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on behalf of the league.
In September 1919, while on a cross-country speaking trip defending the treaty, Wilson fell ill and was rushed back to Washington. In October, he suffered a major stroke that left him paralyzed on his left side and blind in one eye. Wilson's condition was hidden from the public, from Congress, and even from his cabinet. In November 1920 Republican Warren G. Harding was elected president in a landslide. Wilson retired to his home in Washington, D.C., and died there on February 3, 1924. His presidential library is located in Staunton.
December 28, 1856 - Thomas Woodrow Wilson is born in Staunton, Virginia.
1858 - When Woodrow Wilson is a year old, his father accepts a position at First Presbyterian Church in Augusta, Georgia. The family lives there until 1870.
1873 - Woodrow Wilson enters Davidson College in North Carolina, but leaves after one year.
1879 - Woodrow Wilson receives a bachelor of arts degree from the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), ranked thirty-eighth in a class of 167. He then attends the University of Virginia law school for one year.
Summer 1883 - Woodrow Wilson enrolls at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. He completes a doctorate in the history of government two years later.
1885 - Woodrow Wilson marries Ellen Axson.
1890 - After teaching at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, and Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, Woodrow Wilson is appointed chair of jurisprudence and politics at Princeton University.
1902 - Woodrow Wilson is appointed president of Princeton University.
1910 - Woodrow Wilson is elected the governor of New Jersey. He serves from 1911 until 1913.
November 5, 1912 - Woodrow Wilson wins the United States presidential election by defeating incumbent Republican president, William Howard Taft; former U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party's candidate; and Socialist Eugene Debs.
March 4, 1913 - Woodrow Wilson takes office as the twenty-eighth president of the United States.
August 6, 1914 - Woodrow Wilson's wife Ellen Wilson dies of kidney disease.
May 1915 - A German submarine sinks the British passenger liner Lusitania, killing nearly 1,200 people, including 128 Americans. Popular opinion in America, which had long been isolationist, now supports war against Germany.
November 7, 1916 - Woodrow Wilson is reelected president of the United States. The slogan "He Kept Us Out of the War" helps him win an exceedingly narrow victory over Charles Evans Hughes.
January 1917 - Woodrow Wilson gives a speech titled "Peace Without Victory" that outlines peace terms for World War I, proposing the two sides negotiate as equals rather than as victor and vanquished.
November 11, 1918 - World War I ends. Afterward, Woodrow Wilson represents the United States in the Paris Peace Conference and, in so doing, becomes the first U.S. president to travel to Europe while in office.
November 19, 1919 - The U.S. Senate, led by Republican Henry Cabot Lodge, rejects the Treaty of Versailles, thereby preventing the United States from joining the League of Nations.
February 3, 1924 - Woodrow Wilson dies in his home in Washington, D.C.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Benbow, M. Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924). (2014, May 2). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Wilson_Woodrow_1856-1924.
- MLA Citation:
Benbow, Mark. "Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 2 May. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: November 7, 2008 | Last modified: May 2, 2014