WOODROW WILSON, 1856–1924
Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia, on December 28, 1856. He was the third of four children of Janet Woodrow and Joseph Ruggles Wilson, a Presbyterian minister. He spent his childhood in Augusta, Georgia, and Columbia, South Carolina; graduated from Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) in 1879; and attended the University of Virginia Law School. In 1885 he married Ellen Louise Axson of Rome, Georgia, and took a teaching position at Bryn Mawr College, which he held for three years. He earned his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University in 1886, and joined the faculty of Wesleyan College. In 1890, he began a distinguished career at Princeton University, where he was named president in 1902.
Persuaded by conservative Democrats to make a successful run for governor of New Jersey in 1910, Wilson pursued a progressive platform in office. Nominated for president at the 1912 Democratic Convention, Wilson campaigned on a program called the New Freedom, which stressed individualism and states' rights. In the three-way race against incumbent President William Howard Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson received 42 percent of the popular vote and was elected the nation's 28th chief executive.
The Wilson Administration, 1913–21
Woodrow Wilson took the oath of office on March 4, 1913 and moved to the White House with his wife Ellen and three daughters Jessie, Margaret, and Nell. Mrs. Wilson was dedicated to the cause of improving housing for the city's poor, many of whom were African Americans living in slums just a stone's throw from the Capitol Building. She also supervised the alteration and redecoration of the White House family quarters, and redesigned and replanted the East and West gardens close to the Executive Mansion. A talented artist of the American Impressionist style, she had a studio with a skylight installed at the White House and found time for painting. She hired housekeeper Elizabeth Jaffray, who the Tafts had brought in to modernize the White House's domestic operations, and also reappointed Isabella Hagner, who had served as social secretary during the Roosevelt years. Although Mrs. Wilson's health was slowly failing from acute kidney disease, she organized the White House weddings of two of her daughters: Jessie married Francis Bowes Sayre in November 1913, and Eleanor married William Gibbs McAdoo in May 1914. On August 6, 1914, not long after Eleanor's wedding, Mrs. Wilson succumbed to the disease and died in the White House. The following year mutual friends introduced the bereaved president to Edith Bolling Galt, a widow. After a swift, nine-month courtship, the President and Mrs. Galt were married on December 18, 1915.
During his first term in office, Wilson dealt with a wide range of domestic issues. He helped persuade Congress to establish a land bank system for maintenance and improvement loans to farmers; re-enact a federal income tax; pass the Federal Reserve Act and establish a central bank; and approve the establishment of the Federal Trade Commission in 1914. He championed labor laws to institute an 8-hour day on railroads (and time-and-a-half for overtime), and to prohibit the shipment of any product produced by child labor in interstate commerce. Wilson also launched the National Park Service as part of the Interior Department. In 1918, during his second term, President Wilson changed his official stance and declared support of an amendment guaranteeing American women the right to vote; this was a major factor in turning the tide for woman suffrage. The 19th amendment was ratified on August 26, 1920.
War and Peace
President Wilson had to contend with two serious foreign policy problems during his first administration. The first was with Mexico, then roiling with revolutionary tumult following the 1913 assassination of its democratically elected president. The second foreign policy challenge was the struggle to remain neutral during World War I. After the German submarine U-20 sunk the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland killing 128 Americans in May 1915, Wilson asked Congress for permission to arm merchant ships to safeguard American lives and United States rights at sea. His skill at avoiding all-out hostilities with Mexico and in Europe helped him narrowly win reelection in 1916.
But in the early months of 1917 it became apparent that the United States and Germany were on a collision course. Germany's continued submarine warfare against neutral shipping and the revelation that German diplomats had tried to entice Mexico to go to war against the United States prompted Wilson to break off diplomatic relations in February, and on April 6 Wilson signed the war declaration. Over the course of the next 19 months, more than 4.7 million U.S. soldiers, sailors, and airmen jointed the Allies to fight for victory. More than 120,000 U.S. servicemen were lost before Germany surrendered on November 11, 1918.
Mrs. Wilson submerged her life in her husband's after the United States entered the conflict in 1917—trying to keep him fit under tremendous strain. When they were home in Washington, she made sure he took long evening drives and weekend river trips on the presidential yacht Mayflower. She also continued the practice of movies at the White House and occasional excursions to the theater. During the war, President and Mrs. Wilson were determined to set an example of frugality for American families, sacrificing and conserving to help with the war effort. They suspended entertaining at the White House and participated in programs publicizing their compliance with such U.S. Food Administration programs as meatless and wheatless days. The Wilsons also brought sheep to the White House to graze on the lawn and save manpower; they auctioned the wool to support the Red Cross.
Two months after Wilson signed the war declaration, he set forth his "Fourteen Points" for peace in the world and from this the "League of Nations"—an international organization to enforce peace—arose. Wilson represented the United States at the peace conference held in Versailles, France, on December 4, 1918. Part One of the Treaty of Versailles, signed in June 1919, contained the covenant of Wilson's League of Nations. In 1919 Wilson's contributions to the peace process were recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize.
Christmas in the Wilson White House
In 1913, the president's first year in office, the Wilsons spent the holidays in Christian Pass, Mississippi, playing golf in the morning and motoring in the afternoons. In 1914, the Washington Herald noted the Wilson family would stay in Washington, "The Christmas decorations will be exceedingly simple and, but for the usual wreaths at the stately windows of the Executive Mansion, there is little indication of the approach of the great day."
The births of Jessie's and Eleanor's children made holidays at the White House especially festive, and inspired new traditions. Each year the Wilsons placed a great tree in the second floor library (today's Yellow Oval Room) for the enjoyment of granddaughters Ellen McAdoo and Frances Sayres, and for grandniece Josephine Cothran. The tree was "decked and lighted and loaded with gifts for all the family and household." It was also tradition for President Wilson to distribute as many as a 125 turkeys to the White House staff and police force every year.
The wartime Christmas of 1917 was observed quietly. The Wilsons opened gifts with the grandchildren in the morning and enjoyed the traditional family dinner at 7 p.m. Red Cross banners and flags were hung from thousands of Washington homes that year and President and Mrs. Wilson loaded up the White House limousines with gifts and made their way over to the Washington Country Club in Arlington, Virginia, distributing presents to children who came out to greet them and leaving joy in their wake.
On Christmas Day in 1918, President Wilson addressed 10,000 troops gathered about him in a vast wheat field near Humes, France. First Lady Edith Wilson joined her husband on this trip; together on Christmas, they dined as guests of General William Pershing at the headquarters of the Twenty-sixth Division.
After the White House
When his term ended in 1921, President Wilson retired to a comfortable home on S Street in the Kalorama neighborhood in Washington, where he lived until his death in 1924. His widow Edith lived in the house until her death in 1961. Thanks to Edith Wilson and her bequest, The Woodrow Wilson House is now a site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and a public museum. A monument to the former president, the Woodrow Wilson House features the Wilson's furnishings, art, photographs, state gifts, and personal effects; it was designated a National Historic Landmark 1964.
Brands, H.W. Woodrow Wilson: The American Presidents Series: The 28th President, 1913–1921. New York: Macmillan, 2003.
Cooper, John Milton. Woodrow Wilson: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.
Gibbs, Elaine M. "Woodrow and Edith Wilson: Costumed for a World Stage." White House History, no. 32 (2013): 48–61.
Levin, Phyllis Lee. Edith and Woodrow: The Wilsons in the White House. New York: Scribner / Simon and Schuster, 2001.
Miller, Kristie. Ellen and Edith: Woodrow Wilson's First Ladies. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010.
Saunders, Frances Wright. Ellen Axson Wilson: First Lady Between Two Worlds. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.
Seale, William. The President's House: A History. Washington, D.C.: The White House Historical Association, 2008.
Seale, William. The White House: The History of an American Idea. Washington, D.C.: Washington, D.C.: The White House Historical Association, 2001.
Tribble, Edwin. A President in Love: The Courtship Letters of Woodrow Wilson and Edith Bolling Wilson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.
Wilson, Edith Bolling. My Memoir. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1939.
Woodrow Wilson House
2340 S Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20008
Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum
20 N. Coalter Street
Staunton, VA 24401
Woodrow Wilson Family Home
1705 Hampton Street
Columbia, SC 29201