Woodrow Wilson

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Date: 2011
Publisher: UXL
Document Type: Biography
Length: 3,523 words
Content Level: (Level 3)
Lexile Measure: 1080L

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About this Person
Born: December 28, 1856 in Staunton, Virginia, United States
Died: February 03, 1924 in Washington, District of Columbia, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: President (Government)
Other Names: Wilson, Thomas Woodrow (American president)
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Woodrow Wilson brought the United States into World War I in 1917, helping the Allies (France, Britain, and Italy) win the war. His famous "Fourteen Points" proposed a fair peace with defeated Germany and the creation of a League of Nations to ensure future peace.

Woodrow Wilson was born Thomas Woodrow Wilson in Staunton, Virginia, on December 28, 1856. He grew up in a very religious household, for his father, Joseph Ruggles Wilson, was a minister and his mother, Jessie Woodrow Wilson, a minister's daughter. Married in 1849, the Wilsons had two daughters, Marion and Annie, before the birth of their first son, whom they named after Jessie's brother, Thomas Woodrow. He would be called Tommy until he finished college. When he was two, the family moved to Augusta, Georgia, where Joseph Wilson had been offered a position as minister at the First Presbyterian Church.

"Dream life"

Tommy was a shy, quiet boy who passed many of his hours in fantasy worlds created by his imagination. As he later said, "I lived a dream life ... when I was a lad and even now my thought goes back for refreshment to those days when all the world seemed to me a place of heroic adventure" (Heckscher, p. 13). He seemed lazy in school, not learning to read until the age of eleven or twelve, and would be slow in maturing as a young man. The slowness was perhaps encouraged by his mother, who has been described as overprotective of her son, and by two sheltering older sisters, who constantly read him stories, probably making it less important for him to learn to read on his own.

"Tommy Wilson is improving"

When Tommy was fourteen, his father won a post as professor at the seminary (a training college for ministers) in Columbia, South Carolina. Uncle James Woodrow, another brother of Jessie's, also taught at the seminary. Tommy continued to do poorly in school, and his father and uncle grew concerned over his lack of progress.

Tommy did learn quickly, however, when he was interested in a subject. At sixteen, he became fascinated with shorthand, a system that uses symbols instead of words to increase the speed of writing things down. He put great effort into mastering shorthand and would continue to use the system in later life. Such accomplishments led Uncle James to write (in a family letter), "Tommy Wilson is improving" (Heckscher, p. 21). Tommy also became fascinated by naval ships. He spent hours at his desk making complicated drawings of various warships and dreaming up sea battles fought and won by Admiral Thomas Wilson. Over the desk hung a picture of British Prime Minister William Gladstone, the daydreaming sixteen-year-old's leading hero. When he grew older, Tommy told a friend, he wanted to be a statesman like Gladstone.

Davidson and Wilmington

In 1873, when he was seventeen, Wilson began his higher education at Davidson College, in North Carolina, where he finally began to do well in classes. He took an interest in debating, beginning to polish the skills that would make him into a superb public speaker. Wilson only spent one year at Davidson. His father had changed jobs again, taking the family to Wilmington, North Carolina, and his parents wanted their son with them.

North to Princeton

In 1875, after a year at home, Wilson went back to school, this time venturing north to the College of New Jersey in Princeton. Renamed Princeton University in 1896, it would play a central role in Wilson's life. He would teach there and then serve as the most effective president in the university's history, using his presidency as a springboard onto the national political scene. All of this lay in the future, however, when the shy eighteen-year-old arrived to begin his four years as a college student.

"Magical years"

Wilson loved Princeton. By his second year, he had overcome his childhood shyness. At college, he was elected to student leadership offices and gained wide admiration for his debating and public speaking skills. Wilson developed his own unique style of giving a speech, more conversational and relaxed than the gesture-filled style of the day. Though not a natural athlete, he became involved with football, coaching the team occasionally and helping them achieve an undefeated 1878 season. He also began the serious study of history and political science, thinking and writing about the forces that shape great events and the efforts of statesmen and leaders to control those forces.

By the end of his time at Princeton, Wilson had begun to discover his own intellectual powers and was one of the most respected students on campus. These years of growth and self-discovery would always be, as he later called them, "the magical years" (Heckscher, p. 36).


In 1879, the year he began going by the name Woodrow at his mother's suggestion, Wilson graduated from Princeton. The next year, following the wishes of his father, he began studying law at the University of Virginia Law School. A year and a half of law school was followed by a period of doubt about practicing law. With his father pressing him, Wilson finally moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and set up a law practice there in 1882. However, he was not really happy as a lawyer. Believing himself more suited to being a scholar, he continued reading and writing about history and political science.

Graduate studies and courtship

In 1883 Wilson began graduate studies in political science at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Before leaving Georgia, he had met and fallen in love with a pretty young twenty-three-year-old painter named Ellen Louise Axson. The daughter of a minister (a friend of Wilson's father), she had captured Wilson's heart just as he was deciding to go to Johns Hopkins. In September she agreed to marry him, and the two exchanged letters and visits as Wilson worked at his studies. They were married in June 1885, just as Wilson finished the book Congressional Government, which won him his doctoral degree. Published that year, the book received wide praise as an outstanding analysis of Congress's workings. It also won its young author a teaching job at a new women's college called Bryn Mawr, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


The Wilsons spent two years at Bryn Mawr, where Wilson continued his progress in the academic world, writing articles and beginning another book. He grew increasingly frustrated with the college's administration, however, and when offered a job at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, he accepted it eagerly.

He taught at Wesleyan until 1890, becoming one of the university's most popular professors. For years afterward, students remembered his enthusiasm and humor in class. "He had a contagious interest—his eyes flashed," one later recalled. "I can see him now, with his hands forward, the tips of his fingers just touching the table, his face earnest and animated" (Heckscher, p. 94-95). Others remembered his jokes or the choice of words he used to describe a subject. In teaching, Wilson truly seemed to have found the calling that was his destiny. Yet below the surface, he felt—as he had since childhood—the stirring of desire for political leadership, for great deeds, for the heroic adventure.

Return to Princeton

Now a slender thirty-four-year-old teacher with a narrow, long-featured face and a quick, lively way of moving, Wilson accepted a job at Princeton, his old college, in 1890. Highly respected for his book and articles as well as for his teaching style, he was something of a star even before he arrived, with 124 out of 238 juniors and seniors signed up for one of his classes in his very first term.

By this time, the Wilsons had three daughters: Margaret, born in 1886; Jessie, born in 1887; and Eleanor, born in 1889. After the move to Princeton, the couple decided not to have any more children. They rented a large house, and Ellen busied herself in the role of mother (having given up painting when they married) while Wilson wrote and taught his classes. He also had great fun with his daughters, playing games and telling favorite stories in which he acted out the parts.

In 1893 Wilson published a second book, Division and Reunion, about the Civil War era. Like his earlier work, this one was also widely praised, establishing a reputation for Wilson as a leading historian. Two years later, the Wilsons had a bigger house built for themselves, with a roomy study upstairs. At exactly nine o'clock each night the family would hear a click from the study as Wilson locked his desk, and he would spend the rest of evening with them, talking, playing, or singing songs.

University president

The Princeton board of trustees (the university's governing body) in 1902 unanimously elected Wilson president of the university. Almost immediately he began work on a series of reforms intended to improve the school's performance. He won agreement from trustees and alumni, or former students, in reorganizing the departments, teaching methods, and selecting of classes. Wilson began what became known as the "preceptorial" system there, adding more than forty young teachers (preceptors) to the faculty to act as informal advisors to the undergraduates. Still in place at Princeton, the system is known for its effectiveness.

In other areas Wilson was overruled, however. For several years he struggled to win approval for two plans. One would have linked the graduate and undergraduate schools more closely; the other would have given Princeton a "college" organization similar to the great English universities of Oxford and Cambridge, in which a number of colleges are administered as one university. Though popular with both students and teachers, the plans were bitterly and successfully opposed by wealthy alumni and trustees. In the long struggle, Wilson made powerful enemies and suffered his first taste of defeat. (When the college plan was finally adopted at Princeton in the 1980s, the first college was named for Wilson.)


His well-publicized battle with the alumni and trustees brought Wilson to national attention. Seen as a "progressive," a champion of the common people who fought against the wealthy and powerful, he gained wide popularity. He was approached by the New Jersey Democratic Party bosses, and with their support won the Democratic Party's nomination for New Jersey governor in 1910. Throwing off the influence of the crooked political bosses, he went on to easy victory in the race and served as governor for two years.

As he did at Princeton, Wilson shook up New Jersey politics with an immediate series of progressive reforms. Showing remarkable leadership, he pushed most of his ideas through the state legislature soon after taking office. The new laws gave voters a stronger voice in electing state officials, regulated public utilities like electricity and gas, reorganized the school system, established workmen's compensation (payment for on-the-job injuries), fought corruption in state politics, and banned industrial monopolies from the state.

To the presidency

Wilson's triumphs as governor won him the Democratic presidential nomination in 1912. He based his campaign on a promise of national reforms similar to those he had passed in New Jersey. Called "The New Freedom," the program helped him win a close and exciting three-way race against President William Howard Taft and former president Theodore Roosevelt. As before, he pushed through the reforms as soon as he took office. Many of them survive in some form today.

Among other laws, The New Freedom limited child labor; set up the first income tax; established the Federal Reserve, the government organization which still regulates banking; offered better working conditions to sailors and railroad workers; and established the Federal Trade Commission to prevent unfair monopolies in business. Yet with all his success at home, President Wilson still faced huge problems in international relations. European countries had meanwhile moved quickly down the road to war with one another.

Challenges abroad

At age fifty-four, Wilson had switched from an academic career to a political one, and he had risen to the highest office in the land in two short years. As governor and then president, he had won victories that were nothing short of amazing. Great challenges remained, though, especially abroad, where he faced greater difficulties than any president had for decades. The most immediate problem came when revolution broke out in Mexico in February 1913, a month before Wilson's inauguration. Wilson's opposition to the new dictator of Mexico, Victoriano Huerta, led to years of conflict, ending with the invasion by the United States of its southern neighbor under General John J. Pershing.

Then, in 1914, after decades of growing tension among the European powers, World War I broke out in Europe. It was a new kind of war. For the first time, technology (such as the recently invented machine gun) allowed both sides to kill huge numbers of the enemy more quickly and in greater numbers than before. By 1915 the Allies and the German enemy had descended into a slow and costly type of trench warfare, with territorial gains of a few yards being paid for by thousands of lives. The war's brutality shocked the world, scarred Europe for generations, and cost eight million dead by its end in 1918.


On August 6, 1914, a few days before the war broke out, Ellen Wilson died after several months of illness. "God has stricken me almost beyond what I can bear," Wilson wrote to a friend (Heckscher, p. 334). Facing both personal tragedy and the chaos of war, Wilson behaved with typical courage and restraint. His foremost aim was to keep the United States out of the conflict. The British and the Germans made it difficult to remain neutral, however. The British Navy often illegally took over American ships at sea, and beginning in 1915 the Germans began using submarines to attack Allied merchant and passenger ships. In both cases, American rights and even lives were at risk. In 1915 the Germans torpedoed and sank the British passenger liner the Lusitania, killing (among others) more than 100 Americans.

Wilson so firmly demanded that the German submarine attacks stop that his secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, resigned, fearing Germany would declare war on the United States. Wilson, however, had calculated perfectly. The Germans promised to stop sinking passenger ships.

Struggle for peace

Wilson worked not only to keep the United States out of the war but also to end it. In 1915 and early 1916, he sent his closest friend and advisor, Colonel Edward House, to Europe to discuss possible peace terms with Allied and German leaders. After being narrowly reelected later that year (with the slogan "He Kept Us Out of War"), he again sent House to Europe. Wilson's hopes of staying out of the war were shattered in early 1917, however, when Germany announced unrestricted submarine warfare against all ships, Allied or neutral. On April 2, after a number of American ships had been sunk, the president went before Congress. Declaring that "the world must be made safe for democracy" (Heckscher, p. 440), he asked for a declaration of war against Germany. Four days later, the United States was at war.

Wilson and the United States at war

U.S. participation actually had little immediate effect. With an army of barely over 200,000, the country was poorly prepared for war. Wilson's leadership carried the day, however. The president set up a variety of war agencies to mobilize U.S. resources, bringing major industries and services under government control. In May 1917, he pushed a selective service bill through Congress, which would lead to nearly three million men being drafted into the army by the end of the war.

As the country mobilized for war, Wilson had to decide what part the United States would play in the Allied effort. He wanted to help win the war, but he also knew that each of the other Allies wanted to come out of it with territorial gains. He was not interested in helping them win more territory—indeed, he viewed such pursuits as part of the problem that had caused the war in the first place. He also faced the question of command. Should the Americans fight on their own, or as part of a team? Wilson agreed to American participation in Allied war planning but was uneasy about putting U.S. troops under foreign command. Instead, he selected General John J. Pershing to command the American soldiers as head of the American Expeditionary Force. Pershing planned to have one million American soldiers in Europe by 1918.

Fourteen Points

Still hoping to make peace even while waging war, in January 1918 Wilson outlined a program of fourteen peace proposals in a speech to Congress. Among other demands, the "Fourteen Points" called for open diplomatic and economic relations (instead of secret treaties and trade barriers), arms reduction, self-government for various peoples, and finally a League of Nations to oversee world affairs. The ideas were not new. Wilson himself had already pressed for a League of Nations, an international body that would have some authority over international relations. In joining these ideas together, however, Wilson presented the world with an organized proposal for handling international relations differently than ever before. The Fourteen Points appealed to common people on both sides, giving the Allies a powerful moral advantage in the war of words that went with the armed struggle.

Later that year, after long and difficult negotiations by Wilson, Germany requested peace under the terms of the Fourteen Points.

Paris Peace Conference

The Armistice (cease-fire) was signed on November 11, 1918. The two sides still had to agree on the terms of the peace, to be ironed out in Paris early the following year. On December 4, Wilson and a large group of advisors sailed for Europe. Wilson himself headed the American delegation to the conference.

In Europe Wilson was greeted as a hero by huge crowds, who lined the streets to catch a glimpse of him. The Allied leaders with whom Wilson met gave him a cooler reception, however. In all, twenty-seven victors were represented at the conference; none of the defeated nations was allowed to take part. Dominating the discussions were the "Big Four": U.S. president Wilson, British prime minister David Lloyd George, French premier Georges Clemenceau, and Italian premier Vittorio Orlando. The three others did not share Wilson's commitment to the Fourteen Points. Clemenceau in particular was eager to take the greatest revenge possible on Germany. During the six months in Paris, Clemenceau and Wilson disagreed strongly, with Lloyd George often taking the middle ground between them.

Senate fight

The final version of the treaty went against most (but not all) of the Fourteen Points, as the Allies' desire for revenge overcame Wilson's efforts. Germany was forced to admit guilt for the war, to give up territory, to disarm, and to agree to pay heavy reparations (payments to the victors to help make up the war's costs). Yet Wilson won agreement to his point that called for a world organization, the League of Nations. Also, without his influence Germany would have suffered harsher penalties.

At home, however, even stiffer opposition waited. Wilson's most powerful opponent, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, led the Republican-dominated Senate, whose approval would be needed in order for the United States to ratify the peace treaty. Lodge, attacking the idea of American participation in the League of Nations, blocked the treaty's passage in the Senate. Rising to the fight, in September 1919 Wilson went on a speaking tour of the West, hoping public support would persuade the Senate to vote for the treaty.


Wilson had suffered mild health problems in the past, probably including one or more minor strokes. Now, in just over three weeks, he traveled 8,000 miles and delivered forty speeches. During the first part of the trip, his efforts won praise from newspapers and the public. But the rest of his travels progressed less happily. On September 25, 1919, after a long speech in Pueblo, Colorado, Wilson collapsed in his private railroad car. With shades drawn, going slowly to lessen the bumps, the train returned to Washington. There, on October 2, Wilson suffered a massive stroke that paralyzed his left side and left him weak and bedridden.

Slow decline

Wilson would never again be up to the full duties of his office. Instead of resigning, however, as was expected under the circumstances, he stayed in office. Much of the responsibility fell on his advisers—and on his second wife, Edith, whom he had married in 1915. Without him to fight for it, the treaty failed to make it through the Senate. Unable to run for reelection, Wilson demanded that the treaty be the main issue of the 1920 election. The Democratic nominee, James Cox, lost badly to Republican Warren Harding, a well-known treaty opponent. Under Harding, the United States made a separate peace with Germany (outside the plan of the Paris Peace Conference) and never joined the League of Nations.

In 1920 Wilson won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work as president. His health slowly fading, Wilson continued to live in Washington, D.C., cared for by his wife. He died on February 3, 1924, in Washington, D.C.


  • Collins, David R., Woodrow Wilson: 28th President of the United States, Garrett Educational Corp., 1989.
  • Heckscher, August, Woodrow Wilson, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1991.
  • Leavell, J. Perry, Jr., Woodrow Wilson, Chelsea House, 1987.
  • Randolph, Sallie G., Woodrow Wilson, President, Walker, 1992.
  • Rogers, James T., Woodrow Wilson: Visionary for Peace, Facts on File, 1997.
  • Schraff, Anne, Woodrow Wilson, Enslow, 1998.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2108102439