Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924)

Figure 1.--.

Woodrow Wilson tried in vain to bring the United States into the League of Nations. Like Theodore Roosevelt before him, Woodrow Wilson regarded himself as the personal representative of the people. "No one but the President," he said, "seems to be expected ... to look out for the general interests of the country." He developed a program of progressive reform and asserted international leadership in building a new world order. In 1917 he proclaimed American entrance into World War I a crusade to make the world "safe for democracy." Wilson had seen the frightfulness of war as a young boy in the South during the Civil War. Wilson was an ardent believer in social justice and democracy. He called for New Freedoms in his administration and campaigned for self determination for Europeans after the World War I. His commitment to democracy and freedom, however, did not extend to black Americans.


He was born in Virginia in 1856, the son of a Presbyterian minister who during the Civil War was a pastor in Augusta, Georgia, and during Reconstruction a professor in the charred city of Columbia, South Carolina.


After graduation from Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) and the University of Virginia Law School, Wilson earned his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University and entered upon an academic career. In 1885 he married Ellen Louise Axson.


Wilson advanced rapidly as a conservative young professor of political science and became president of Princeton in 1902. As president he rejected black applicants.

Political Career

His growing national reputation led some conservative Democrats to consider him Presidential timber. First they persuaded him to run for Governor of New Jersey in 1910. In the campaign he asserted his independence of the conservatives and of the machine that had nominated him, endorsing a progressive platform, which he pursued as governor.

Election of 1912

The election of 1912 was one of the most interesting and significant elections in American history. The election of 1912 was one of the most important in American politics. Roosevelt and Taft considered themselves friends. Taft never could have become president without Roosevelt's personal intervention. Roosevelt soon found himself missing the presidency after he left office. This personal feeling was amplified when progressives began to complain to him about President Taft. Gradually the personal relationship between the two men ruptured. Here Mrs. Taft was a factor. She did not like Roosevelt and this affected Taft's opinions. Roosevelt saw Taft as weak and abandoning his legacy to conservative party boses. Taft came to see Roosevelt as a dangerous man and a threat to American democracy. Roosevelt deciced to contest the Republican nomination. Still emensely popular, Roosevelt won state primary election, including the Ohio primary. The Republican machine politicans, however, succeeded in renominated Taft. A majority of Republicans favored Roosevelt and he did well in the states with primaries. But most delegated to the Republican Convention were chosen in state conventions dominated by the party bosses. Roosevelt was angered that he and his supporters were ignored by these Republican bosses. He thus bolted the party to lead the Progressives. The Party under Roosevelt became known as the Bull Moose Party. Taft considered the Roosevelt candidacy as a personal affront from a former friend. Wilson was nominated for President at the 1912 Democratic Convention and campaigned on a program called the New Freedom, which stressed individualism and states' rights. The Republican split guaranteed Wilson's election. In the three-way election he received only 42 percent of the popular vote but an overwhelming electoral vote.

First Term

Domestic Legislation

Wilson maneuvered through Congress three major pieces of legislation. The first was a lower tariff, the Underwood Act; attached to the measure was a graduated Federal income tax. The passage of the Federal Reserve Act provided the Nation with the more elastic money supply it badly needed. In 1914 antitrust legislation established a Federal Trade Commission to prohibit unfair business practices. Another burst of legislation followed in 1916. One new law prohibited child labor; another limited railroad workers to an 8-hour day.

Segregation of the Federal Civil Service

One of the few areas of Americamn life that remained open for blacks to compete on an equal basis with whites was the Federal civil service. This resulted from two circumstances. First except for the two Cleveland administrations, the Federal Government was in Republican hands for 50 years (1861-1913). The different Republican presidents had a range of attitudes toward blacks. Some were supportive, others paternalistic or indifferent. None were particularly hostile or committed to souther Jim Crow approaches. The other factor was the reforms carried out during the Arthur Administration establishing a merit-based civil service. The spoils system was ended and job seakers took competitive tests which determined along with other qualifications appointments. As a result, there was in the Federal agencies a substantial number of black employees, including positons in managerial and technical posts. This changed with President Wilson who had grown up in the South and won the election with a core of southern voters.

Election of 1916

The Democrats renominated President Wilson and Vice President Marshall without any real opposition at the St. Louis convention (June). President Wilson's policy of keeping America out of the War while suceeding in convincing Germany to refrain from unrestricted submarine warfare. Former President Roosevelt's Bull Moose supporters wanted him to run again, but Roosevelt realised he had not chance of success, not could he now gain the Republican nomination. His Bull Moose campaign in 1912 had alienated to many Republican Party loyalists. Had Roosevelt not bolted the Party in 1912, he almost certainly would have been bominated in 1916. The Republicans instead nominated the respected Supreme Court Associate Justice Charles Evans Hughes. Thet also Charles W. Fairbanks for vice presudent. Faiurbanks had been Roosevelt's vicepresident. President Wilson's reelection was by no means certain. Since the Civil War, Wilson was one of only two successful Democratic candidates and unlike 1912 there was no thirdy pary spliting the Republicans. Former President Roosevelt campaign strongly for Hughes, in part to restore his status in the Re[ublican Party, The Democrats adopted the slogan, "He kept us out of war." Wilson was uncomfortable about this as he was not at all certain that he could continue to keep America out of the War and in fact within months would sign a declaration of war. This was the decisive issue in the campaign. Hughes held view similar to Wilson, but came to be seen as the war candidate. This was primaroily because of Roosevelt criss-crossing the country and speaking in support of Hughes. Roosevelt' belicose speeches, however, left the impression that Hughes would lead America into the War. The former president was still very popular and his speeches given considerable attention in the press. The election in the end was very close. Many historians believe that Roosevelt's belicose speeches leaving the impression that Hughes was a pro-war candidate probably cost him the election. The election was held before Germany resumed unrestricted sunmarine warfare and the Zimmerman Telegram fiasco. Most Americans in 1916 were oppsed to entering the War. The election was settled in California wjhich went Democratic by a mere 4,000 votes.

Second Term

Domestic policies

President Wilson despite have a very capable wife and three accomplished daugters was no advocate of women's sufferage when he arrived in the White House (1913). And as aresult, the white House became a target of Suffragette picketing. Gradully he began to change his mind. A factor was the harsh tratement doled out to women arrested for demonstrating, especially during the War. Imprisoned Suffragettes engaging in hungerstrikes were subjected to brutal forced feedings. The service of 10,000 women in the Navy and Marines as well many more in factories and offices during the War seems to turned the Presient around and he began promoting the 19th Amendment. He publically changed his strance in 1918, even lobbying the Senate. The President said, "We have made partners of the women in this war. Shall we admit them only to a partnrship of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?" The Senate rejected the proposed amendment by two votes (1918). Finlly the nexy year Congress approved the amendment (1919).

World War I

After the 1916 election Wilson concluded that America could not remain neutral in the World War. On April 2,1917, he asked Congress for a declaration of war on Germany. Massive American effort slowly tipped the balance in favor of the Allies. Wilson went before Congress in January 1918, to enunciate American war aims--the Fourteen Points, the last of which would establish "A general association of nations...affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike."

League of Nations

After the Germans signed the Armistice in November 1918, Wilson went to Paris to try to build an enduring peace. He later presented to the Senate the Versailles Treaty, containing the Covenant of the League of Nations, and asked, "Dare we reject it and break the heart of the world?" But the election of 1918 had shifted the balance in Congress to the Republicans. By seven votes the Versailles Treaty failed in the Senate.


The President, against the warnings of his doctors, had made astrenus national tour to mobilize public sentiment for the treaty. Exhausted, he suffered a stroke and nearly died. He was tenderly nursed by his second wife, Edith Bolling Galt. She became a kind of defacto president. The President's health was one of the most closely guarded matiinal secret. [Berg] The President lingered on until 1924.


Ellen Louise Axson Wilson (1860-1914)

"I am naturally the most unambitious of women and life in the White House has no attractions for me." Mrs. Wilson was writing to thank President Taft for advice concerning the mansion he was leaving. Two years as first lady of New Jersey had given her valuable experience in the duties of a woman whose time belongs to the people. She always played a public role with dignity and grace but never learned to enjoy it.

Those who knew her in the White House described her as calm and sweet, a motherly woman, pretty and refined. Her soft Southern voice had kept its slow drawl through many changes of residence.

Ellen Louise Axson grew up in Rome, Georgia, where her father, the Reverend S.E. Axson, was a Presbyterian minister. Thomas Woodrow Wilson first saw her when he was about six and she only a baby. In 1883, as a young lawyer from Atlanta, "Tommy" visited Rome and met "Miss Ellie Lou" again -- a beautiful girl now, keeping house for a bereaved father. He thought, "what splendid laughing eyes!" Despite their instant attraction they did not marry until 1885, because she was unwilling to leave her heartbroken father.

That same year Bryn Mawr College offered Wilson a teaching position at an annual salary of $1,500. He and his bride lived near the campus, keeping her little brother with them. Humorously insisting that her own children must not be born Yankees, she went to relatives in Georgia for the birth of Margaret in 1886 and Jessie in 1887. But Eleanor was born in Connecticut, while Wilson was teaching at Wesleyan University.

His distinguished career at Princeton began in 1890, bringing his wife new social responsibilities. From such demands she took refuge, as always, in art. She had studied briefly in New York, and the quality of her paintings compares favorably with professional art of the period. She had a studio with a skylight installed at the White House in 1913, and found time for painting despite the weddings of two daughters within 6 months and the duties of hostess for the nation.

The Wilsons had preferred to begin the administration without an inaugural ball, and the First Lady's entertainments were simple; but her unaffected cordiality made her parties successful. In their first year she convinced her scrupulous husband that it would be perfectly proper to invite influential legislators to a private dinner, and when such an evening led to agreement on a tariff bill, he told a friend, "You see what a wise wife I have!"

Descendant of slave owners, Ellen Wilson lent her prestige to the cause of improving housing in the capital's Negro slums. Visiting dilapidated alleys, she brought them to the attention of debutantes and Congressmen. Her death spurred passage of a remedial bill she had worked for. Her health failing slowly from Bright's disease, she died serenely on August 6, 1914. On the day before her death, she made her physician promise to tell Wilson "later" that she hoped he would marry again; she murmured at the end, "...take good care of my husband." Struggling grimly to control his grief,Wilson took her to Rome for burial among her kin.

Edith Bolling Galt Wilson (1872-1961)

"Secret President," "first woman to run the government"--so legend has labeled a First Lady whose role gained unusual significance when her husband suffered prolonged and disabling illness. A happy, protected childhood and first marriage had prepared Edith Wilson for the duties of helpmate and hostess; widowhood had taught her something of business matters.

Descendant of Virginia aristocracy, she was born in Wytheville in 1872, seventh among eleven children of Sallie White and Judge William Holcombe Bolling. Until the age of 12 she never left the town; at 15 she went to Martha Washington College to study music, with a second year at a smaller school in Richmond.

Visiting a married sister in Washington, pretty young Edith met a businessman named Norman Galt; in 1896 they were married. For 12 years she lived as a contented (though childless) young matron in the capital, with vacations abroad. In 1908 her husband died unexpectedly. Shrewdly, Edith Galt chose a good manager who operated the family's jewelry firm with financial success.

By a quirk of fate and a chain of friendships, Mrs. Galt met the bereaved President, still mourning profoundly for his first wife. A man who depended on feminine companionship, the lonely Wilson took an instant liking to Mrs. Galt, charming and intelligent and unusually pretty. Admiration changed swiftly to love. In proposing to her, he made the poignant statement that "in this place time is not measured by weeks, or months, or years, but by deep human experiences..." They were married privately on December 18, 1915, at her home; and after they returned from a brief honeymoon in Virginia, their happiness made a vivid impression on their friends and White House staff.

Though the new First Lady had sound qualifications for the role of hostess, the social aspect of the administration was overshadowed by the war in Europe and abandoned after the United States entered the conflict in 1917. Edith Wilson submerged her own life in her husband's, trying to keep him fit under tremendous strain. She accompanied him to Europe when the Allies conferred on terms of peace.

Wilson returned to campaign for Senate approval of the peace treaty and the League of Nations Covenant. His health failed in September 1919; a stroke left him partly paralyzed. His constant attendant, Mrs. Wilson took over many routine duties and details of government. But she did not initiate programs or make major decisions, and she did not try to control the executive branch. She selected matters for her husband's attention and let everything else go to the heads of departments or remain in abeyance. Her "stewardship," she called this. And in My Memoir, published in 1939, she stated emphatically that her husband's doctors had urged this course upon her.

In 1921, the Wilsons retired to a comfortable home in Washington, where he died 3 years later. A highly respected figure in the society of the capital, Mrs. Wilson lived on to ride in President Kennedy's inaugural parade. She died later in 1961: on December 28, the anniversary of her famous husband's birth.


Wilson had three children with his first wife, Ellen Louise Axson Wilson. There were three children, all girls. The children were all grown by the time their father was elected president, but two were married in White House ceremonies. This of course is interesting because it was during the Wilson presidency that the issue of women's suffrage became a major national issue and sufragettes began picketing the White House. Margaret the eldest daughter led a particularly colorful life.

Margaret Woodrow (1886-1944)

Wilson's first wife Ellen insisted in going back to Georgia, joking but only in part, so the children would not be born with Yankees. Margaret was thus born in Georgia. Margaret led one of the most interesting lives of all the presidential children. She studied music at Goucher College. She also took private lessons in New York. When World War I began in 1917, she traveled extensively in America and Europe to entertain the troops and raise money for the Red Cross. She worked for many social causes after the War. She developed an interest in the Indian (South Asian) classics and edited some English translations. She went to Pondicherry, India and lived in the ashram of Sri Aurobindo, a follower of Ghandi. She did not marry and died in India.

Jessie Woodrow (1887-1933)

Jesse was also born in Georgia. She attended Princeton and was married in the White House to Harvard Law Professor Francis Sayre. They had three children. She worked to promote women's sufferage, various social issues, and the League of Nations that her father was advocated. She was active in the Massachusetts Democraric Party. She died from complications which developed during an appendectomy.

Eleanor Randolph (1889-1967)

Elenor was born in Connecticut while her father was teaching at Wesleyan University. She was known as Nellie. Nellie attended Princeton. She was also married in a White House ceremony in which she married Williamd Gibbs McAdoo who the Secretary of the Treasury. He had been Wilson's campaign manager and strong advocate of progressive measures. The marriage made them an important Washington power couple. McAdoo was aeadig candidate at the Democratic presidential nominating convntions, but failed to get the vnimination. They had two children, but he filed for divorce in 1934.


Berg, A. Scott. Wilson (2013), 832p.

Wead, Doug. All the President's Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America's First Familirs (Atria: New York, 2003), 456p.


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