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Woodrow Wilson
Thomas Woodrow Wilson, Harris & Ewing bw photo portrait, 1919 (cropped).jpg
Portrait by Harris & Ewing, 1919
28th President of the United States
In office
March 4, 1913 – March 4, 1921
Vice President Thomas R. Marshall
Preceded by William Howard Taft
Succeeded by Warren G. Harding
34th Governor of New Jersey
In office
January 17, 1911 – March 1, 1913
Preceded by John Franklin Fort
Succeeded by James Fairman Fielder
13th President of Princeton University
In office
October 25, 1902 – October 21, 1910
Preceded by Francis Landey Patton
Succeeded by John Grier Hibben
Personal details
Thomas Woodrow Wilson

(1856-12-28)December 28, 1856
Staunton, Virginia, U.S.
Died February 3, 1924(1924-02-03) (aged 67)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Resting place Washington National Cathedral
Political party Democratic
(m. 1885; died 1914)
(m. 1915)
  • Politician
  • academic
Awards Nobel Peace Prize (1919)
Signature Cursive signature in ink

Thomas Woodrow Wilson (December 28, 1856 – February 3, 1924) was an American politician and academic. He served as the 28th president of the United States from 1913 to 1921. Wilson was a member of the Democratic Party and served as the president of Princeton University and as the governor of New Jersey before winning the 1912 presidential election.

As president, Wilson changed the nation's economic policies and led the United States into World War I in 1917. He was the leading architect of the League of Nations. During his first year as president, Wilson authorized the widespread imposition of segregation inside the federal bureaucracy. His first term was largely devoted to pursuing passage of his progressive New Freedom domestic agenda. His first major priority was the Revenue Act of 1913, which lowered tariffs and began the modern income tax. Wilson also negotiated the passage of the Federal Reserve Act, which created the Federal Reserve System. Two major laws, the Federal Trade Commission Act and the Clayton Antitrust Act, were enacted to promote business competition and combat extreme corporate power.

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the U.S. declared neutrality as Wilson tried to negotiate a peace between the Allied and Central Powers. He narrowly won re-election in the 1916 United States presidential election, boasting how he kept the nation out of wars in Europe and Mexico. In April 1917, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany in response to its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare that sank American merchant ships.

Wilson nominally presided over war-time mobilization and left military matters to the generals. He instead concentrated on diplomacy, issuing the Fourteen Points that the Allies and Germany accepted as a basis for post-war peace. He wanted the off-year elections of 1918 to be a referendum endorsing his policies, but instead the Republicans took control of Congress. After the Allied victory in November 1918, Wilson went to Paris where he and the British and French leaders dominated the Paris Peace Conference. Wilson successfully advocated for the establishment of a multinational organization, the League of Nations. It was incorporated into the Treaty of Versailles that he signed. Wilson had refused to bring any leading Republican into the Paris talks, and back home he rejected a Republican compromise that would have allowed the Senate to ratify the Versailles Treaty and join the League.

Wilson had intended to seek a third term in office but suffered a severe stroke in October 1919 that left him incapacitated. His wife and his doctor controlled Wilson, and no significant decisions were made. Meanwhile, his policies alienated German and Irish Democrats and the Republicans won a landslide in the 1920 presidential election. Scholars have generally ranked Wilson in the upper tier of U.S presidents, although he has been criticized for supporting racial segregation. His liberalism nevertheless lives on as a major factor in American foreign policy, and his vision of ethnic self-determination resonated globally.

Early life

Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born to a family of Scots-Irish and Scottish descent in Staunton, Virginia. He was the third of four children and the first son of Joseph Ruggles Wilson and Jessie Janet Woodrow.

Wilson's paternal grandparents had immigrated to the United States from Strabane, County Tyrone, Ireland, in 1807, settling in Steubenville, Ohio. His grandfather James Wilson published a pro-tariff and anti-slavery newspaper, The Western Herald and Gazette. Wilson's maternal grandfather, Reverend Thomas Woodrow, moved from Paisley, Renfrewshire, Scotland, to Carlisle, Cumbria, England, before migrating to Chillicothe, Ohio, in the late 1830s. Joseph met Jessie while she was attending a girl's academy in Steubenville, and the two married on June 7, 1849. Soon after the wedding, Joseph was ordained as a Presbyterian pastor and assigned to serve in Staunton. Thomas was born in the Manse, a house of the Staunton First Presbyterian Church where Joseph served. Before he was two, the family moved to Augusta, Georgia.

Woodrow Wilson by Pach Bros c1875
Wilson, c. mid-1870s

Wilson's earliest memory was of playing in his yard and standing near the front gate of the Augusta parsonage at the age of three, when he heard a passerby announce in disgust that Abraham Lincoln had been elected and that a war was coming. Wilson was one of only two U.S. presidents to be a citizen of the Confederate States of America, the other being John Tyler. Wilson's family were staunch supporters of the Confederacy during the American Civil War.

From 1870 to 1874, Wilson lived in Columbia, South Carolina, where his father was a theology professor at the Columbia Theological Seminary. In 1873, Wilson became a communicant member of the Columbia First Presbyterian Church; he remained a member throughout his life.

Wilson attended Davidson College in North Carolina for the 1873–74 school year but transferred as a freshman to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). He studied political philosophy and history, joined the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, and was active in the Whig literary and debating society. He was also elected secretary of the school's football association, president of the school's baseball association, and managing editor of the student newspaper. In the hotly contested presidential election of 1876, Wilson declared his support for the Democratic Party and its nominee, Samuel J. Tilden. After graduating from Princeton in 1879, Wilson attended the University of Virginia School of Law, where he was involved in the Virginia Glee Club and served as president of the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society. After poor health forced his withdrawal from the University of Virginia, he continued to study law on his own while living with his parents in Wilmington, North Carolina. Wilson was admitted to the Georgia bar and made a brief attempt at establishing a law firm in Atlanta in 1882. After less than a year, he abandoned his legal practice to pursue the study of political science and history.

Marriage and family

Ellen Wilson in 1912

In 1883, Wilson met and fell in love with Ellen Louise Axson, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister from Savannah, Georgia. He proposed marriage in September 1883; she accepted, but they agreed to postpone marriage while Wilson attended graduate school. Ellen graduated from Art Students League of New York, worked in portraiture, and received a medal for one of her works from the Exposition Universelle (1878) in Paris. She agreed to sacrifice further independent artistic pursuits in order to marry Wilson in 1885. She learned German so that she could help translate works of political science that were relevant to Wilson's research. Their first child, Margaret, was born in April 1886, and their second, Jessie, in August 1887. Their third and final child, Eleanor, was born in October 1889. In 1913, Jessie married Francis Bowes Sayre Sr., who later was High Commissioner to the Philippines. In 1914, Eleanor married William Gibbs McAdoo, the Secretary of the Treasury under Wilson and later a senator for California.

Academic career


In late 1883, Wilson enrolled at the recently established Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore for doctoral studies. Wilson studied history, political science, German, and other areas. Wilson hoped to become a professor. He received a Ph.D. in history and government from Johns Hopkins in 1886, making him the only U.S. president who has possessed a Ph.D.

In 1885 to 1888, Wilson accepted a teaching position at Bryn Mawr College, a newly established women's college near Philadelphia. Wilson taught ancient Greek and Roman history, American history, political science, and other subjects. There were only 42 students, nearly all of them too passive for his taste. He left as soon as possible, and was not given a farewell.

In 1888, Wilson left Bryn Mawr for Wesleyan University in Connecticut, an elite undergraduate college for men. He coached the football team, founded a debate team, and taught graduate courses in political economy and Western history.

In February 1890, with the help of friends, Wilson was appointed by Princeton to the Chair of Jurisprudence and Political Economy, at an annual salary of $3,000 (equivalent to $97,711 in 2022). He quickly gained a reputation as a compelling speaker. In 1896, Francis Landey Patton announced that the College of New Jersey would henceforth be known as Princeton University; an ambitious program of expansion followed with the name change. Wilson's academic reputation continued to grow throughout the 1890s, and he turned down multiple positions elsewhere including at Johns Hopkins and the University of Virginia.

Wilson published several works of history and political science and was a regular contributor to Political Science Quarterly. Wilson's textbook, The State, was widely used in American college courses until the 1920s. In The State, Wilson wrote that governments could legitimately promote the general welfare "by forbidding child labor, by supervising the sanitary conditions of factories, by limiting the employment of women in occupations hurtful to their health, by instituting official tests of the purity or the quality of goods sold, by limiting the hours of labor in certain trades, [and] by a hundred and one limitations of the power of unscrupulous or heartless men to out-do the scrupulous and merciful in trade or industry." His third book, Division and Reunion (1893), became a standard university textbook for teaching mid- and late-19th century U.S. history.

President of Princeton University

Woodrow Wilson 1902 cph.3b11773
Wilson in 1902
Princeton University Prospect
Prospect House, Wilson's home on Princeton's campus

In June 1902, Professor Wilson was promoted to president. He tried to raise admission standards. Wilson appointed the first Jew and the first Roman Catholic to the faculty, and helped liberate the board from domination by conservative Presbyterians. He also worked to keep African Americans out of the school, even as other Ivy League schools were accepting small numbers of black people.

Wilson's efforts to reform Princeton earned him national notoriety, but they also took a toll on his health. In 1906, Wilson awoke to find himself blind in the left eye, the result of a blood clot and hypertension.

Wilson became disenchanted with his job due to the resistance to his recommendations, and he began considering a run for office.

Governor of New Jersey (1911–1913)

Woodrow Wilson, New Jersey Governor - 1911
Governor Wilson, 1911
1910 New Jersey gubernatorial election results map by county
Results of the 1910 gubernatorial election in New Jersey. Wilson won the counties in blue.

In the gubernatorial election, Wilson soundly defeated Republican gubernatorial nominee Vivian M. Lewis by a margin of more than 65,000 votes. After winning the election, Wilson appointed Joseph Patrick Tumulty as his private secretary, a position he held throughout Wilson's political career.

By the time Wilson took office, New Jersey had gained a reputation for public corruption; the state was known as the "Mother of Trusts" because it allowed companies like Standard Oil to escape the antitrust laws of other states. Wilson and his allies quickly won passage of the Geran bill, which undercut the power of the political bosses by requiring primaries for all elective offices and party officials.

Republicans took control of the state assembly in early 1912. Before leaving office Wilson oversaw the establishment of free dental clinics and enacted a "comprehensive and scientific" poor law. Wilson also signed a series of antitrust laws known as the "Seven Sisters," as well as another law that removed the power to select juries from local sheriffs.

Presidential election of 1912

In the 1912 general election, Wilson faced two major opponents: one-term Republican incumbent William Howard Taft, and former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, who ran a third party campaign as the "Bull Moose" Party nominee. The fourth candidate was Eugene V. Debs of the Socialist Party.

Wilson took 42 percent of the popular vote and 435 of the 531 electoral votes. Wilson's victory made him the first Southerner to win a presidential election since the Civil War, the first Democratic president since Grover Cleveland left office in 1897, and the first president to hold a Ph.D.


(left to right) Margaret Wilson, Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, Jessie Woodrow Wilson, Woodrow Wilson, Eleanor Randolph Wilson (1912)
The Wilson family

The health of Wilson's wife, Ellen, declined after he entered office, and doctors diagnosed her with Bright's disease in July 1914. She died on August 6, 1914. Wilson was deeply affected by the loss, falling into depression. On March 18, 1915, Wilson met Edith Bolling Galt at a White House tea. Galt was a widow and jeweler who was also from the South. After several meetings, Wilson fell in love with her, and he proposed marriage to her in May 1915. Galt initially rebuffed him, but Wilson was undeterred and continued the courtship. Edith gradually warmed to the relationship, and they became engaged in September 1915. They were married on December 18, 1915. Wilson joined John Tyler and Grover Cleveland as the only presidents to marry while in office.

Presidential election of 1916

Wilson had won the state by 3,806 votes, giving him a majority of the electoral vote. Nationally, Wilson won 277 electoral votes and 49.2 percent of the popular vote. Wilson's re-election made him the first Democrat since Andrew Jackson (in 1832) to win two consecutive terms. The Democrats kept control of Congress.

1920 election

Republican nominee Warren G. Harding defeated Democratic nominee James Cox in the 1920 election.

Despite his medical incapacity, Wilson wanted to run for a third term. While the 1920 Democratic National Convention strongly endorsed Wilson's policies, Democratic leaders refused, nominating instead a ticket consisting of Governor James M. Cox and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt.

On December 10, 1920, Wilson was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize "for his role as founder of the League of Nations". Wilson became the second sitting United States president after Theodore Roosevelt to become a Nobel Peace Laureate.

Final years and death (1921–1924)

Woodrow Wilson tomb 2
The final resting place of Woodrow Wilson at the Washington National Cathedral

After the end of his second term in 1921, Wilson and his wife moved from the White House to a town house in the Kalorama section of Washington, D.C. He continued to follow politics as President Harding and the Republican Congress repudiated membership in the League of Nations, cut taxes, and raised tariffs. In 1921, Wilson opened a law practice with former Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby. Wilson showed up the first day but never returned, and the practice was closed by the end of 1922.

Wilson tried writing, and he produced a few short essays after enormous effort. He declined to write memoirs, but frequently met with Ray Stannard Baker, who wrote a three-volume biography of Wilson that was published in 1922. In August 1923, Wilson attended the funeral of his successor, Warren Harding. On November 10, 1923, Wilson made his last national address, delivering a short Armistice Day radio speech from the library of his home.

Wilson's health did not markedly improve after leaving office, declining rapidly in January 1924. Woodrow Wilson died on February 3, 1924, at the age of 67. He was interred in Washington National Cathedral, being the only president whose final resting place lies within the nation's capital.

Race relations

Quotation from Woodrow Wilson's History of the American People as reproduced in the film The Birth of a Nation.

Wilson was born and raised in the South by parents who were committed supporters of both slavery and the Confederacy. Academically, Wilson was an apologist for slavery and the Redeemers, and one of the foremost promoters of the Lost Cause mythology. Wilson was the first Southerner elected president since Zachary Taylor in 1848 and the only former subject of the Confederacy. Wilson's election was celebrated by southern segregationists. At Princeton, Wilson actively dissuaded the admission of African-Americans as students.

During Wilson's presidency, D. W. Griffith's pro-Ku Klux Klan film The Birth of a Nation (1915) was the first motion picture to be screened in the White House. Though he was not initially critical of the movie, Wilson distanced himself from it as public backlash mounted and eventually released a statement condemning the film's message while denying he had been aware of it prior to the screening.


Wilsonuv pomnik Opletalova Praha 5876
Woodrow Wilson Monument in Prague

The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library is located in Staunton, Virginia. The Woodrow Wilson Boyhood Home in Augusta, Georgia, and the Woodrow Wilson House in Washington, D.C., are National Historic Landmarks. The Thomas Woodrow Wilson Boyhood Home in Columbia, South Carolina is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Shadow Lawn, the Summer White House for Wilson during his term in office, became part of Monmouth University in 1956. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1985. Prospect House, Wilson's residence during part of his tenure at Princeton, is also a National Historic Landmark. Wilson's presidential papers and his personal library are at the Library of Congress.

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., is named for Wilson, and the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton was named for Wilson until Princeton's Board of Trustees voted to remove Wilson's name in 2020. The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation is a non-profit that provides grants for teaching fellowships. The Woodrow Wilson Foundation was established to honor Wilson's legacy but was terminated in 1993. One of Princeton's six residential colleges was originally named Wilson College. Numerous schools, including several high schools, bear Wilson's name. Several streets, including the Rambla Presidente Wilson in Montevideo, Uruguay, have been named for Wilson. The USS Woodrow Wilson, a Lafayette-class submarine, was named for Wilson. Other things named for Wilson include the Woodrow Wilson Bridge between Prince George's County, Maryland and Virginia, and the Palais Wilson, which serves as the temporary headquarters of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva until 2023 at the end of leasing. Monuments to Wilson include the Woodrow Wilson Monument in Prague.

Popular culture

In 1944, 20th Century Fox released Wilson, a biopic about the 28th President. Starring Alexander Knox and directed by Henry King, Wilson is considered an "idealistic" portrayal of the title character. The movie was a personal passion project of studio president and famed producer Darryl F. Zanuck, who was a deep admirer of Wilson. The movie received mostly praise from critics and Wilson supporters, and scored ten Academy Awards nominations, winning five. Despite its popularity amongst elites, Wilson was a box-office bomb, incurring an almost $2 million loss for the studio. The movie's failure is said to have had a deep and long lasting impact on Zanuck and no attempt has been made by any major studio since to create a motion picture based around the life of Wilson.


  • The History of the American People. In five volumes. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1901–02. Vol. 1 | Vol. 2 | Vol. 3 | Vol. 4 | Vol. 5
  • The Public Papers of Woodrow Wilson. Ray Stannard Baker and William E. Dodd (eds.) In six volumes. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1925–27.
  • Study of public administration (Washington: Public Affairs Press, 1955)
  • A Crossroads of Freedom: The 1912 Campaign Speeches of Woodrow Wilson. John Wells Davidson (ed.) New Haven, CT: Yale University Press,
  • The Papers of Woodrow Wilson. Arthur S. Link (ed.) In 69 volumes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967–1994.

See also

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