Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born December 28, 1856 in Staunton, Virginia, to parents of a predominantly Scottish heritage. Since his father was a Presbyterian minister and his mother the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, Woodrow was raised in a pious and academic household. Born in Virginia in 1856 and raised in Georgia and South Carolina, Wilson's early memories included seeing Yankee soldiers marching into Augusta at the end of the Civil War. Wilson's father fervently supported the South's secession from the Union. Because of the war's disruption, much of Wilson's early education came from his father at home. Wilson was a poor student early in life, still unable to read at age ten. Though teachers thought him slow, Wilson's parents provided him with plenty of support. Historians now believe young Wilson was afflicted by a form of dyslexia. To help his son overcome these difficulties, Wilson's father spent hours coaching him in the art of debate.
In 1875, he entered Princeton, graduating in 1879. After a brief period at the law school of the University of Virginia, he studied on his own and passed the Georgia bar examination. Bored as a lawyer in Atlanta, he enrolled at Johns Hopkins University, where he earned a Ph.D. in history and political science in 1886.
In 1885, Woodrow Wilson married Ellen Louise Axson, the daughter of a minister from Savannah, Georgia during a visit to her relatives in Rome, Georgia. They had three daughters.
In 1885 Woodrow Wilson published Congressional
a splendid piece of scholarship which analyzes the
difficulties arising from the separation of the
legislative and executive powers in the American
Constitution. Before joining the faculty of Princeton
University as a professor of jurisprudence and political
economy, Wilson taught for three years at Bryn Mawr
College and for two years at Wesleyan College. He was
enormously successful as a lecturer and productive as a
Wilson maneuvered through Congress three major pieces of legislation. The first was a lower tariff, the Underwood Act; attached to the measure was a graduated Federal income tax. The passage of the Federal Reserve Act provided the Nation with the more elastic money supply it badly needed. In 1914 antitrust legislation established a Federal Trade Commission to prohibit unfair business practices.
In 1914 Woodrow Wilson faced a personal tragedy when his wife Ellen passed away. Wilson watched helplessly as his wife of thirty years died of a kidney disease. Losing Ellen threw Wilson into despair, but with the world at war, clear thinking had never been more important. Wilson maintained a precarious neutrality for nearly three years, promising to keep the country out of war as he ran for a second term in 1916, Wilson is one of only three presidents to be widowed while in office.
Another burst of legislation followed in 1916. One new law prohibited child labor; another limited railroad workers to an eight-hour day. By virtue of this legislation and the slogan "he kept us out of war," Wilson narrowly won re-election. But after the election Wilson concluded that America could not remain neutral in the World War. On April 2,1917, he asked Congress for a declaration of war on Germany. During the war, industrial production increased by 20 percent, daylight saving time was instituted to save fuel, the government took over the railroad system, and massive airplane and shipbuilding programs were launched. Americans began paying a new income tax and buying Liberty Bonds to pay for the war. Although most of the power the federal government acquired over the economy during the war was based on voluntary cooperation by businesses and individuals, conformity and aggressive patriotism became the order of the day. Private patriotic organizations persecuted dissenters and anyone suspected of political radicalism, and the administration sponsored Espionage and Sedition Acts that outlawed criticism of the government, the armed forces, and the war effort. Violators of the law were imprisoned or fined, and even mainstream publications were censored or banned.
Massive American effort slowly tipped the balance in favor of the Allies. Wilson went before Congress in January 1918, to enunciate American war aims--the Fourteen Points, the last of which would establish "A general association of nations...affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike." Trade restrictions and secret alliances would be abolished, armaments would be curtailed, colonies and the national states that made up the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires would be set on the road to independence, the German-occupied portions of France and Belgium would be evacuated, the revolutionary government of Russia would be welcomed into the community of nations, and a League of Nations would be created to maintain the peace. Believing that this revolutionary program required his personal support, Wilson decided that he would lead the American peace delegation to Paris, becoming the first President ever to go to Europe while in office.
After the Germans signed the Armistice in November 1918, Wilson went to Paris to try to build an enduring peace. He later presented to the Senate the Versailles Treaty, containing the Covenant of the League of Nations, and asked, "Dare we reject it and break the heart of the world?" But the election of 1918 had shifted the balance in Congress to the Republicans. By seven votes the Versailles Treaty failed in the Senate.
The President, against the warnings of his doctors, had made a national tour to mobilize public sentiment for the treaty. The stress of a last-ditch, cross-country campaign to rally popular support for the treaty, coupled with recurring health problems, resulted in Wilson's suffering a physical breakdown and then a paralytic stroke. Rendered incapable of executing his duties, the president was sequestered from nearly all visitors by his personal physician and by his second wife, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, whom he had married in 1916. The country was effectively without a chief executive for the last months of Wilson's term in office. In 1919, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Woodrow Wilson left the White House in March 1921, and he lived the next three years as a partial invalid in his Washington, D.C. home.