Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia, the son of a respected Presbyterian minister whose Calvinist values helped to shape the future president. The elder Wilson relocated his family to Augusta, Georgia, where he pastored another congregation and served as a chaplain to Confederate troops. One of young Wilson’s early memories was of witnessing Jefferson Davis in chains being taken through the streets of Augusta on his way to prison. Answering other ministerial calls, the Wilson family moved to Columbia, South Carolina and later to Wilmington, North Carolina. Despite the rigors of war and Reconstruction, the Wilsons managed to maintain a comfortable existence throughout. Young Woodrow had difficulty as a student and some later observers have speculated that he may have been dyslexic; his father`s patient attentions helped him with his studies.
Woodrow Wilson was admitted to Davidson College in North Carolina, where he hoped to prepare for the ministry. In 1875 he enrolled at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) and gained a reputation as an excellent debater, but only an average student. However, during these years he gave up on plans for the ministry and developed an interest in history. In 1879 he entered the law school at the University of Virginia, but ill health forced a premature end to his formal studies. Wilson returned home and undertook a self-directed study of law; his health improved and he opened a law practice in Atlanta in 1882. The venture, however, was not very successful and he returned to school at Johns Hopkins University in 1883 in the hope of becoming a university professor. He rapidly blossomed into a talented scholar and published his doctoral dissertation, Congressional Government (1885), in which he examined the role of Congressional committees, a topic poorly understood by the public at that time.
An appointment to the faculty at Bryn Mawr College in 1885 ushered in an unhappy experience; Woodrow Wilson was not comfortable in a women’s institution and three years later he secured a position at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He became a popular faculty member, prepared another book, (The State), and coached a winning football team.
In 1890 Wilson was appointed professor of jurisprudence and economics at Princeton. These were busy years for the popular teacher, who also devoted his energies to the publication of Division and Reunion (1893) and History of the American People (1902), as well as public lecturing and writing for popular magazines. A frequent theme that emerged at Princeton was his belief in the wisdom of having a strong executive at the helm of the nation. In 1902 he was unanimously elected president of Princeton, the first layman to hold that position.
As a college president, Woodrow Wilson was an innovator and reformer whose stands eventually wore out his welcome. He was dedicated to the goal of making Princeton an institution of the first rank and fostered instructional reform through the use of “preceptors” — young academics who were assigned to live with the students and to hold discussion sessions related to the class work. Wilson also was successful in updating the university’s curriculum. However, he ran into strong resistance on two other issues. He failed in an effort to eliminate the exclusive eating clubs that had long been a part of campus life. Wilson wanted to replace that institution with more democratic dining facilities in the dormitories, but wealthy alumni rebelled and threatened to cut off donations if the clubs were ended. Wilson also lost a battle over the location of a new graduate school. He wanted the new facility to be located in the heart of the campus, but the enterprising dean — perhaps wanting increased independence — gathered donor backing for an off-campus location. Wilson’s victories and defeats were widely reported in the New Jersey press, making him a popular figure.
Tiring of butting heads over academic issues, and capitalizing on recent publicity, Woodrow Wilson accepted the Democratic nomination for governor of New Jersey in the summer of 1910. James “Sugar Jim” Smith held the reins of the state machine and thought the college president would lend an aura of reform to his tarnished party. Wilson won an overwhelming victory in the fall and then quickly divested Smith of any notion that he would be easily manipulated. Smith had anticipated a Senate seat for helping Wilson, but the new governor spearheaded a movement on behalf of another candidate — and won.
Woodrow Wilson aligned himself with legislative progressives and managed to record major accomplishments in short order. Laws were passed providing for regulation of public utilities, school reform, workmen’s compensation, direct primaries, and later, state antitrust legislation for the formerly permissive New Jersey. These successes made Wilson a national political figure. During this period, Wilson developed a close political relationship with “Colonel” Edward M. House of Texas, who would later engineer Wilson’s nomination for president and then served as one of his closest advisors.
Woodrow Wilson’s triumph in the Democratic convention of 1912 was not assured, but in the end owed much to former nominee William Jennings Bryan. The main challenge in the campaign came from Theodore Roosevelt, the Bull Moose candidate, who trumpeted his progressive message as the “New Nationalism.” Woodrow Wilson responded with a vigorous campaign of his own and dubbed his more restrained form of progressivism as the “New Freedom.” Both reform candidates recognized that the main issue of the day was the relationship between big business and government. Wilson’s whopping electoral victory was somewhat misleading; he received only about 42 percent of the popular vote, but that was sufficient to become the first Democratic president in 20 years.
Woodrow Wilson experienced great early success by fulfilling his New Freedom pledges of reform in tariff revision, banking and currency matters, and antitrust modification. In foreign affairs, Bryan was rewarded with an appointment as secretary of state and devoted sincere efforts to negotiating a series of arbitration treaties as a means of preventing war; efforts were made to establish order in the western hemisphere and yielded mixed results.
Tragically for Wilson, World War I broke out the same week that his first wife died. He sought vainly to maintain the neutrality of the American people and gain recognition for the nation’s trading rights as neutrals on the seas, but a series of crises made the public increasingly sympathetic to the Allied cause.
Woodrow Wilson was slow to join the movement for national defense preparedness, but on November 4, 1915, Wilson delivered a speech that drew on a biblical passage, Ezekial 33:6, "But if the watchman see the sword come, and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not warned ... his blood will I require at the watchman`s hand." At Wilson`s request, the following spring Congress approved an unprecedented peacetime increase in the American Army and Navy.
Wilson was easily renominated in 1916, but faced a stiff challenge from his Republican opponent, Supreme Court Associate Justice Charles Evans Hughes. The president reluctantly downplayed his domestic accomplishments and adopted the campaign slogan, “He kept us out of war.”
Following a pledge not to sink passenger vessels in May 1916, Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1, 1917, provoking American entrance into the conflict. Wilson asked for a declaration of war on April 2; Congress complied four days later. The president quickly emerged as a skilled wartime leader by molding public opinion with such optimistic phrases as “a war to make the world safe for democracy” and “a war to end all wars.”
In January 1918, Woodrow Wilson laid out his vision of the structure of a lasting peace in his Fourteen Points, a statement whose essential fairness played a role in lessening the German people’s enthusiasm for the war.
After the armistice in November 1918, Wilson decided to head the American peace delegation personally, hoping to assure the implementation of his conception of the postwar world. Despite being received with great adulation by the public in Europe, the president was soon confronted by Allied leaders who preferred that the peace process be a means to incapacitate the German war machine for generations to come. Dubbed derisively as “the drum major of civilization,” the idealistic president was forced in the end to approve compromises in order to achieve his top priority, the League of Nations, included in the Treaty of Versailles.
An exhausted Woodrow Wilson returned to the United States, where opposition to the treaty and League was gaining strength. In typical fashion, he took his appeal directly to the public on a railroad speaking tour through the Midwest and West. In late September Wilson collapsed and was taken back to Washington, where he suffered a stroke on October 2. He was partially paralyzed and was incapable of spearheading the fight for the League; the Senate defeated proposals late in 1919 and again in the spring of 1920.
Rather than accept compromise, Wilson chose to take the treaty to the electorate by publishing entreaties on its behalf, believing that a Democratic triumph in the Election of 1920 would force the Senate to see things his way. His call for a “solemn referendum” was not heeded by the voters, who handed Warren Harding and the Republicans a smashing victory.
Woodrow Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in late 1920 for his services in the previous year. However, his brief retirement in Washington was unhappy; the ill and embittered former president lived out his days in virtual seclusion. He died on February 3, 1924.