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Woodrow Wilson: Life Before the Presidency

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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, watching his mother tend wounded Confederate soldiers in a local hospital, and witnessing Confederate President Jefferson Davis pass through town under Union guard. 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.

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. He 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, born in Carlisle, England, but raised in America, 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, Tommy enrolled in Davidson College in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he excelled in logic, rhetoric (effective writing and public speaking), 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 of the University of Virginia but dropped out in his second year after being spurned by a cousin, 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 Ph.D. 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—Cabinet Government in the United States" was published in the summer of 1879 just after he 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 Ph.D. 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—though he concluded by 1908 that constitutional change was not necessary, a vigorous President 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. Savannah-born but reared in Rome, Georgia, Ellen, the daughter of the Reverend Samuel E. Axson, shared Wilson's Presbyterian upbringing. Ellen 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 would exercise 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.

Although resigned to a career in education and scholarship, 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, a work 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, everything he proposed was rubber-stamped by the faculty and trustees, but after 1906, things did not go as well. A plan to build a new graduate college in the center of the campus was defeated by a powerful dean, and a proposal to do away with the socially exclusive eating clubs and residential houses in favor of common meals and dormitories was blocked by stiff opposition from alumni and faculty. 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 the Democrats would not tarnish the governorship and assumed the college professor would be politically naive and easy to control from behind the scenes. Wilson won the nomination on the first ballot and immediately shocked the professional politicians by declaring his independence from party bosses. He 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 corrupt practices act 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. By 1911, Wilson had caught the eye of the nation's progressive leaders, including William Jennings Bryan, the leading figure of the Democratic Party.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Kendrick Clements

Professor Clements is a Distinguished Professor of History, Emeritus at the University of South Carolina. His writings include:

Woodrow Wilson (Co-authored with Eric A. Cheezum, American President Reference Series, Congressional Quarterly Press, 2003)

The Presidency of Woodrow Wilson (University Press of Kansas, 1992)

Woodrow Wilson: World Statesman (Twayne Publishers, 1987)