The family considered itself to be thoroughly southern. According to biographer H. W. Brands, the reverend “followed many of his southern colleagues-in-the-cloth in discovering biblical sanction for the peculiar institution,” and during the American Civil War (1861–1865), he even served for a short time in the Confederate army. His church, meanwhile, was used as a field hospital and a holding area for Union prisoners of war. Tommy, as the young Wilson was called, saw firsthand the destruction of war, and it shaped his view of war for the rest of his life.
Wilson did not learn to read until he was ten years old, and modern historians suggest that he may have suffered from dyslexia. When he was fourteen, he and his family moved to Columbia, South Carolina, and Wilson was tutored by professors at the Presbyterian seminary where his father taught. In 1873, Wilson entered Davidson College in North Carolina, but left after one year. In 1875 he entered the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) and received a bachelor of arts degree in 1879, ranked thirty-eighth in a class of 167. Wilson then entered the University of Virginia law school in Charlottesville, where he remained for a year before returning to his parents’ home in Wilmington, North Carolina, to study on his own. During this time Wilson began to use the name Woodrow instead of Thomas.
In 1882 Wilson joined a friend from the University of Virginia in an Atlanta law firm, but soon abandoned the practice for academia. In the summer of 1883 he enrolled at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and completed a doctorate in the history of government two years later. Wilson married Ellen Axson in 1885 and took his first university teaching position at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. After three years, he moved to Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, before, in 1890, being appointed chair of jurisprudence and politics at Princeton University.
Wilson published numerous books on history and politics—including Division and Reunion, 1829–1899 (1893), The State (1898), and Constitutional Government in the United States (1908)—and in 1902 was appointed president of Princeton. In his new position, Wilson built a national reputation as a progressive reformer. He toughened academic standards, hired new professors (including the first Jewish and Catholic faculty members), and instituted the preceptor system, which emphasized instruction in small discussion groups. Lack of fund-raising and conflicts with university trustees, however, slowed some of Wilson’s reforms. When he tried to eliminate elite, fraternal eating clubs—he argued that they distracted from the university’s educational focus—Wilson alienated many supporters and lost support among alumni and university trustees. He was also forced to back down from a plan to combine undergraduate and graduate buildings after a high-profile fight with former U.S. president Grover Cleveland, a university trustee.
Governor, Then President
In 1910, New Jersey’s Democratic Party bosses invited Wilson to run for governor, figuring him to be a naïve academic they could easily control. While Wilson gladly accepted their support—using it to easily win election in a traditionally Republican state—he quickly proved his independence. He outmaneuvered Democratic bosses by pushing numerous progressive reforms through the state legislature, including the institution of workers’ compensation and the regulation of state utilities and large businesses. His reputation as a reformer made him a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1912.
Wilson entered the Baltimore convention in July 1912 trailing Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Champ Clark, of Missouri, but neither had the necessary two-thirds of all votes to win the nomination. On the forty-sixth ballot, Wilson finally secured the nomination when party reformers, including three-time nominee William Jennings Bryan, threw their support behind him. Biographer Brands describes the 1912 general election as “one of the great contests of American political history.” Wilson ran against the incumbent Republican president, William Howard Taft; former U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party’s candidate; and Socialist Eugene Debs. Wilson and Roosevelt hotly debated the issue of business trusts, or monopolies, and toward the end of the campaign, Roosevelt survived an assassination attempt, rising to speak even while his shirt was stained with his own blood. In the end, the Republicans split the vote between Taft and Roosevelt, and Wilson won easily with 42 percent of the popular vote.
Wilson entered office on March 4, 1913, with a lengthy reform agenda and a Democratic majority in Congress. His primary concern was reforming the nation’s monetary system. Wilson pushed through Congress the Federal Reserve Act, instituting a system of regional banks overseen by presidential appointees. He also established the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Trade Commission, and reduced tariff rates to lower the cost of living for consumers. In addition, Wilson took on social reform. He is credited with the eight-hour work day and a law banning child labor. He appointed the first Jewish member of the Supreme Court of the United States, progressive lawyer Louis Brandeis. And, during his second term, he supported the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting women the right to vote. It was ratified in 1920.
Although remembered largely as a reformer, Wilson was responsible for notoriously regressive policies with regard to race. At Princeton, he had presided over the only major northern university not to admit black students, even actively discouraging black applicants, and as U.S. president, he authored legislation that would have curtailed African American civil rights. When Congress failed to pass it, he used his executive authority to segregate the federal government, pushing blacks out of positions that traditionally had been reserved for them.
In 1915, Wilson viewed the new motion picture Birth of a Nation, directed by D. W. Griffith and infamous for its negative portrayal of African Americans and its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. Wilson is said to have exclaimed, “It is like writing history with lightning,” although this is likely apocryphal. In fact, Wilson’s own History of the American People (1902), authored while he was at Princeton, was somewhat sympathetic to the Klansmen, who, he wrote, were only protecting themselves from “the principal mischief-makers of the reconstruction régime,” primarily northerners who moved south and “deliberately sowed discord.” Wilson’s book was more critical of the Klan than Birth, however, as he noted “society was infinitely more disturbed than defended.” Despite such mild criticism, Wilson’s writings supported an interpretation of Reconstruction (1865–1877) that was gaining influence in both the North and the South and History of the American People was one of the books that influenced the creation of Griffith’s movie.
Wilson’s wife Ellen Wilson died in August 1914 of kidney disease. Wilson sank into a deep depression that lasted until the following spring, when he met a local widow, Edith Bolling Galt, a native of Wytheville, Virginia. They were married in her Washington home on December 18, 1915.
World War I
The major issue in the 1916 presidential election was the war in Europe, which had begun in August 1914. Wilson insisted on American neutrality, but it was difficult to maintain while adversaries Germany and Britain attempted to disrupt each other’s shipping. Britain seized American cargos while German submarines sank ships carrying food to Britain. In May 1915 a German submarine sank the British passenger liner Lusitania, killing nearly 1,200 people, including 128 Americans. Popular opinion in America, which had long been isolationist, now supported war against Germany. Wilson remained cautious and only demanded that Germany no longer sink civilian ships without warning, to which Germany agreed.
Wilson’s supporters carried banners proclaiming “He Kept Us Out of the War,” and while it was a slogan Wilson disliked, it was good enough for an exceedingly narrow victory. The difference in several states was between a few hundred and a few thousand votes, and the result was in doubt for three days. Theodore Roosevelt claimed that the only difference between Wilson and his bearded opponent, Charles Evans Hughes, was a shave.
Two months later, in January 1917, Germany declared that it would resume unrestricted submarine warfare, sinking any ship nearing Britain. Wilson broke off relations with Germany but still hesitated to seek a declaration of war. In March 1917 the British released an intercepted German cable to Mexico promising an alliance if Mexico attacked the United States. The so-called Zimmermann Telegram fueled American public support for war, and on April 2, 1917, Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany “because the world must be made safe for democracy.”
American troops entered the fighting in October 1917 and by the summer of 1918 were on the offensive against Germany. Throughout U.S. involvement in Europe, Wilson worked to guarantee that the war would be fought for some purpose other than territorial gain. In January 1917 he gave a speech titled “Peace Without Victory” that outlined peace terms, proposing the two sides negotiate as equals rather than as victor and vanquished. In January 1918 Wilson delivered another speech articulating his “Fourteen Points,” which set conditions for a just and lasting peace. Among his proposals was the League of Nations, an idea originally proposed by the British but most vocally and forcefully advocated by Wilson.
Treaty of Versailles
After the war ended on November 11, 1918, Wilson represented the United States in the Paris peace talks and, in so doing, became the first president to travel to Europe while in office. Wilson convinced the other major powers, including Britain, France, Italy, and Japan, to approve the League of Nations, but the final Treaty of Versailles was harsher than Wilson had planned and further alienated Germany.
Here, Wilson made two key political mistakes. Despite having won only a narrow victory over the Republicans in 1916, he failed to include any prominent Republicans on his Versailles negotiation team. When Republicans won control of both houses of Congress in the 1918 midterm elections, Senate leaders promptly refused to ratify the treaty. Opponents proposed various amendments to the agreement, but Wilson stubbornly refused to compromise. Without Senate approval, Versailles had no legal standing in the United States, making it impossible for the country to join the new League of Nations, a fact that significantly weakened the organization. Still, Wilson was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on behalf of the league.