Son of the South
Thomas Woodrow Wilson entered the world in Staunton, Virginia, on December 28, 1856. His father, Joseph Ruggles Wilson, was a Presbyterian minister, and his mother, Jessie Woodrow Wilson, was the daughter of one Presbyterian divine and a descendant of several more. Tommy, as the baby was called, was their third child and first son.
Before his second birthday, the family left Staunton for Augusta, Georgia, a move that put Joseph in a more prominent pulpit and brought him an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree.
In the autumn of 1860, Tommy was standing near the front gate of the Augusta parsonage when a passerby said that Abraham Lincoln had been elected and there would be war. Not yet four, the boy did not understand, but the force of the stranger’s voice sent him running into the house for an explanation. The war soon dominated the family’s life. After the national governing body of the Presbyterian Church declared its opposition
to slavery, Joseph Wilson hosted the founding assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America. He spent a summer as a chaplain to the Confederate Army, his churchyard occasionally served as a stockade for Union prisoners, and when necessary, a corner of the church was fitted out as a military hospital. Jessie assisted in caring for the wounded.
In 1870, when Tommy was thirteen, the family moved to Columbia, South Carolina, where Joseph joined the faculty of a Presbyterian seminary.
Torched in the last weeks of the war, Columbia was still a blackened wreck. Although the adult Woodrow Wilson rarely reminisced about the destruction on view in Columbia, the ruins and the maimed soldiers he saw daily left him with a permanent horror of war.
Tommy grew up in the care of parents who were loving but not at ease in the larger world. Jessie was often abed with maladies that defied diagnosis, and Joseph, despite his eminence in Presbyterian circles, was hounded by a sense that he did not measure up. Shy except in the pulpit, he overcompensated by holding forth in schoolmaster fashion or by telling jokes, the same jokes, again and again. He was the sort of man who is more respected than enjoyed.
President Wilson’s moral certitude has often been ascribed to his religious upbringing, but
Joseph Wilson’s Presbyterianism was not as exacting as the Scottish original. Joseph did not imagine that he knew the will of Heaven, nor did he tyrannize his congregations with visions of Hell. He savored at least two pleasures of the flesh, pipe smoking and Scotch drinking. In the furor loosed by Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), Joseph stood with the religious progressives who maintained that science was compatible with religion because all truths were part of a higher Truth.
Until the birth of the Wilsons’ fourth and last child, Joseph Jr., in 1867, Tommy was schooled by his parents, both of whom were intelligent, cultivated, and well educated.
Joseph Sr. graduated at the head of his class at Jefferson College, in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, and went on to study at two schools of theology. Jessie was a graduate of a respected school in Ohio, the Steubenville Female Seminary.
The Wilsons prized moral education above other forms of instruction but also passed on their love of language and English literature. Joseph had a melodious, well-trained voice, and on Sunday afternoons, with the family gathered round, he entertained by reading a few chapters of Charles Dickens or Sir Walter Scott. Jessie had been born in England, but the Wilsons’ literary Anglophilia probably owed no more to that fact than to the educated American’s view of the Old World as the repository of high culture. The garden of American letters was still small, and to Southerners of the nineteenth century, it must have seemed choked with Yankees.
Tommy was odd man out in this bookish household. He did not learn the alphabet until he was nine, could not read until he was eleven or twelve, and at thirteen still struggled with reading and writing. Flagging every error in Tommy’s compositions, Joseph demanded revision after revision. It has been suggested that Tommy’s reading difficulties were the unconscious rebellion of a powerless boy against a powerful father, but it appears that Tommy’s reading problem was more physiological than oedipal. Edwin A. Weinstein, a neuropsychiatrist and close student of Wilson’s medical history, concluded that Wilson suffered from developmental dyslexia, a childhood disorder not understood at the time.
Joseph suspected his son of laziness, a reasonable guess in light of the boy’s facility with spoken English. Tommy was precocious in conversation, had an exceptional ear for dialect, and was quick to master grammar and syntax.
The adult Woodrow Wilson fondly recalled the hours he and Joseph had devoted to dissecting sermons and speeches to see how they worked and where they might be improved. No schooling would contribute more to Woodrow Wilson’s political triumphs than these oratorical studies.
If Woodrow Wilson ever wrote an unkind word about his father, it did not survive. The son voiced his admiration often and at length, and always referred to Joseph as the finest of all his teachers.
Jessie rarely figured in Woodrow’s recollections, and the handful of stories that came down through the family suggest that she was humorless and touchy.
Yet she must have been more than the sum of her faults. As a young man, Wilson freely confessed to having been a mama’s boy, and he and three other members of his extended family named daughters for her.
• • •
Tommy’s adolescence was a mix of escapist fantasy and small forays in the direction of independence. While physically present in his parents’ home, he led a covert parallel life in his imagination, first as Vice Admiral Thomas W. Wilson, who sailed the world, exterminated pirates, and recorded his exploits in dispatches to the Royal Navy. As Lieutenant Thomas W. Wilson of Her Majesty’s Royal Lance Guards, he upbraided subordinates for wearing civilian dress and warned that further infractions would bring a drop in rank.
All his life, Woodrow Wilson felt himself in a tussle to control the side of his temperament he thought of as volcanic, and in his adolescent wish to command others, it is easy to see a wish to master his own unruly self.
At sixteen, Tommy hung a portrait of Prime Minister William Gladstone over his desk and announced that he too would be a statesman.
The last of his invented selves, Commodore Wilson of the Royal United Kingdom Yacht Club, appeared shortly thereafter, and the commodore’s maritime
preoccupations were soon crowded out by a consuming interest in writing the yacht club’s constitution. No longer content to rule his imaginary realms, Tommy yearned to organize them as well. The yearning, which became a lifelong passion, would culminate in his constitution for the world, the covenant of the League of Nations.
In spite of Tommy’s scholastic difficulties, his parents assumed that he would go to college, and his wish to be a politician rather than follow his father into the ministry drew a predictable reaction: Joseph sent him to Davidson College in North Carolina, a small Presbyterian establishment whose graduates typically went on to divinity school. Sixteen and now calling himself Tom, Wilson entered Davidson in 1873.
He turned in a creditable academic performance and was an enthusiastic participant in a debating society.
But in his second semester, when he suffered from an endless cold, his notebooks filled up with self-denigration, inspirational verse, and spiritual advice transcribed from Protestant periodicals.
Tom’s need for such solace coincided with the greatest crisis in his father’s life. In the spring of 1874, after years of success as a minister, church leader, and professor of theology, Joseph Wilson found himself out of work. He had clashed with his students over chapel attendance, the dispute went to the governing body of the church for adjudication, and when church authorities ruled in the students’ favor, Joseph resigned. The resignation was a matter of principle, he wrote Tom; the seminary had given him a responsibility but no power to carry it out. With a large household to support, Joseph hastily accepted a call from the Presbyterians of Wilmington, North Carolina. They offered a generous salary, but the church lacked the prestige of his posts in Columbia and Augusta, and Wilmington was regarded as a cultural backwater. Joseph was devastated.
Tom joined his family in Wilmington for the summer, expecting to return to Davidson in the fall, but it was soon decided that he would spend a year at home, studying Greek with a tutor to fit himself out for Princeton. Princeton appealed to Joseph because it was the finest Presbyterian college in the United States, and
it appealed to Tom because it had produced an extraordinary number of statesmen. In the Republic’s first two decades alone, forty-three Princeton men had been elected to Congress (twenty-three to the House, twenty to the Senate), thirteen had become governors, and three had been appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States. The roll of honor also included a vice president (Aaron Burr) and a president (James Madison).
Tom worked at his Greek, and with the aid of mail-order instruction manuals spent hours mastering
shorthand, a valuable skill for a boy who
wrote slowly. He rarely socialized with his contemporaries during the fifteen months between Davidson and Princeton, and when he ventured out of the manse on his own, it was often to take a solitary walk around Wilmington’s harbor. To the Wilson family’s butler, the tall, quiet boy of eighteen seemed like “
an old young man.” When not studying Greek or practicing shorthand, Tom spent long stretches of time with his father, and it is possible that Joseph’s crisis and his need for the companionship of his loving, much loved son were the chief reasons for the long interruption in Tom’s college education. Profoundly upset by his failure at the seminary, afraid that he would never again know success, Joseph suffered greatly yet refused to abandon his faith in God’s love.
He grimly lashed himself to the mast and submitted to the will of Providence. Tom did not write about this time in their lives, but the experience of watching his father hold fast despite his anguish left an indelible impression. President Wilson would sometimes yield to expediency, but he never shrank from his deepest moral convictions, a trait that made him a formidable opponent and an unpredictable ally.
• • •
Tom set off for Princeton in September 1875, and apart from a brief detour into law, he would stay in academe until he entered politics, in 1910. After graduating from Princeton, he would study at the University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins, teach at Bryn Mawr and Wesleyan, and then return to Princeton for twelve years as a professor and eight as president. Each of these institutions suited him for a time, but Princeton was the only one he loved, and with good reason. His intellect, his passions, his political gifts—Princeton unfurled them all.
Soon after arriving, Tom met another statesman-in-waiting, Charles A. Talcott, who would serve a term in the U.S. House of Representatives when Wilson was president.
As undergraduates, Wilson and Talcott vowed to groom themselves for politics by mastering all the arts of persuasion, especially oratory.
Tom competed in campus debates, dissected great speeches, and took classic orations into the woods, where he could practice his delivery without being observed.
He also labored over his compositions, honing his powers of argument and striving for the bright clarity he saw in the histories of Thomas Macaulay.
Tom’s wish for a place in the governing class ran so deep that he sometimes fantasized himself already there.
At a stalemate in a political tiff with one of his friends, he joshed that they would resume their debate in the Senate, and on a card that served as a bookmark, he signed himself “
Thomas Woodrow Wilson, Senator from Virginia.”
Aware of Tom’s overreaching, Joseph occasionally reminded him of the need for patience and a sense of proportion. “Dearest boy, can you hope to
jump into eminency all at once?” he inquired after Tom sent a petulant account of being passed over for an oratorical contest. “My darling, make more of your class studies. Dismiss ambition—and replace it with hard industry, which shall have little or no regard to present triumphs, but which will be all the time laying foundations for future work and wage.”
Unenthusiastic about most of his classes, Tom would finish thirty-eighth in a class of 105. But in history and philosophy, which abounded in lessons for would-be statesmen, he applied himself to excellent effect. Proudly he wrote his father, “
I have made a discovery; I have found that I have a mind.” He also had a powerful will, although he could not force it to concentrate on mathematics or French or Greek.
Instead he devoured works of English history and transcripts of debates in Parliament, which often appeared in the British press. An essay on oratory in one English periodical struck him with such force that he would always remember where he was when he read it—at the head of a staircase in the library. From his father Tom had learned that great oratory was closely reasoned and deeply felt as well as pleasing to the ear. The essay affirmed Joseph’s observations and went on to declare that great oratory was the fount of great statesmanship. Few notions could have ignited more hope in an aspiring politician who loved oratory and excelled at it.
As a Southerner, Tom often felt out of place at Princeton. He was stunned to find that his fellow students made no effort to conceal their contempt for the South, and when he failed in his attempts to broaden their minds, he wrote his mother that he sometimes longed to drive his arguments home with a punch. “
Tommy dear, don’t talk about knocking anybody down—no matter what they do or say,” Jessie replied. “Yankee ignorance” must be borne in silence, she said, and in her experience, the less one said about politics, the better.
Tom kept his fists at his side but constantly thought, talked, and wrote about politics. In 1876, as the United States celebrated the centenary of the Declaration of Independence, he sourly predicted that the Republic would be destroyed by universal suffrage. Granted in 1870 by the Fifteenth Amendment, universal suffrage was hardly universal. It excluded women. But in giving the vote to all men, it threatened white supremacy in the South, where blacks outnumbered whites in many states. Many white Southerners, Tom Wilson included, argued that universal suffrage was a mistake not because blacks were black but because 80 percent of them were illiterate.
That was true—a legacy of state laws that had made it a crime to teach slaves to read. But it was also true that 20 percent of whites were illiterate, and their fitness for the franchise was rarely challenged.
Tom’s antipathy to universal
suffrage was so strong that when he was asked to defend it in a campus debate, he declined.
Making friends came no more easily to Tom Wilson than to his parents, but a half-dozen classmates brought him into their circle, and once he was sure of their affection, he revealed that behind his decorous facade there was a great big ham. He loved theater and by osmosis had become a gifted mimic. His new friends were regularly entertained with impersonations, jokes told in several dialects, and a large store of limericks. His performances, like his father’s, masked his shyness, but he could summon more charm than his father. Tom’s friends reveled in his antics, admired his discipline, and encouraged his political ambitions. Several of them would energetically deploy their influence and wealth to speed his rise to prominence. The friends Wilson made at Princeton were the only friends he kept for life.
In his last year at Princeton, Wilson felt sufficiently sure of his literary and intellectual powers to submit a political essay to the International Review, a prestigious journal of opinion. Entitled “
Cabinet Government in the United States,” the essay pointed out a deficiency in the American political system and proposed a remedy. Pressing national issues were being ignored, the author said, because senators and congressmen no longer engaged in serious public debate. Instead they did business in committee, usually behind closed doors, an arrangement that allowed them to indulge in a perpetual orgy of self-dealing. To solve the problem, Wilson said, Americans had only to emulate the British, who did not pass laws until they had thrashed them out in debate on the floor of the House of Commons. He argued that public debate would end the undemocratic secrecy that had crept over the Congress and would thwart the rise of the mediocre man, because only the ablest could prevail when “arguments are the weapons and the people the judges.”
Wilson also urged the United States to adopt the British practice of linking the legislative and executive branches through the cabinet. Cabinet members and the prime minister all held seats in Parliament, an arrangement that gave a prime minister a decided edge over a president in advancing his legislative proposals. And when a prime minister lost his majority in Parliament, out he went—unlike a president, who stayed on till the end of his four-year term. Wilson pronounced the British model superior because it minimized the potential for the impasses that develop when elections wrest control of the Congress from the president’s party.
The young author’s prescription was inspired by a diagnosis made a decade earlier in The English Constitution, by the British political economist Walter Bagehot. Bagehot pitied the United States, where the separation of powers had weakened both the executive and the legislature.
produced deadlock, and when there was little opportunity for meaningful accomplishment, first-rate men had scant interest in running for office, Bagehot thought. In spite of the fact that “Cabinet Government in the United States” leaned heavily on Bagehot, the essay was still a triumph for Thomas W. Wilson, as he now signed himself. By sheer willpower, the boy who could hardly read had turned himself into a writer with a confident, clear, persuasive voice.
Wilson was elated when he received a letter of acceptance from one of the editors of the International Review, Henry Cabot Lodge. Forty years later President Wilson would pit himself against Senator Lodge in an epic struggle over American foreign policy, but in the spring of 1879, Lodge was a man of letters and a freshman representative in the lower house of the Massachusetts legislature.
The review paid its contributors next to nothing, airily explaining that the financial rewards were inversely proportional to the honor of appearing in the same pages as Henry James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and John Greenleaf Whittier.
Wilson spent his mite on a bookcase, which he kept close at hand all his life.
• • •
The would-be senator from Virginia collected his Princeton diploma in June 1879 and started down a path taken by many a political hopeful: he studied law. But he found his law books tedious, skipped class, and disliked his new school, the University of Virginia. “
There’s no college life here, as we know college life, at all,” he complained to Charlie Talcott. “It’s simply a place where men happen to have congregated for study—and for nothing else.” Troubled by his inability to give himself to the study of law, he wondered if he had chosen the wrong road to politics, and his doubts filled him with anxiety about his ambitions. When Tom returned to Charlottesville after his summer vacation, Joseph urged him to concentrate on his studies and put aside his literary and oratorical endeavors for the year.
Concentration proved impossible. Tom had fallen in love.
The object of his affections was his cousin Hattie Woodrow, who was attending a female seminary in Staunton, the town where Tom was born. Many an hour that the law student might have devoted to his books was spent on the forty miles of road between Staunton and Charlottesville. Tom had not yet declared himself to Hattie, but after his first year of law school, he began calling himself Woodrow Wilson.
He later explained the choice by saying that he wanted to honor both sides of his family and that “Woodrow Wilson” struck him as more distinguished than “Thomas W. Wilson.” Whether he recognized it or not, the new name also represented a fusion with Hattie.
Ill health—chronic indigestion and chronic colds—forced Wilson to
withdraw from law school after the fall semester of his second year. He began reading law on his own, and with no classes to attend, he was free to go to Ohio in 1881 for an extended stay with Hattie and her family. She had not encouraged his attentions, but he had interpreted her reserve as a social stratagem, a way of showing him that she was a proper young lady.
When he proposed, she immediately declined on the grounds that they were first cousins.
Deeply pained by the rejection, Wilson told no one outside the family for almost a year. Robert Bridges was the first of his Princeton friends to learn of it, in March 1882, and as he put his experience on paper, Wilson seemed surprised to discover that he was still upset. “[E]ven at this distance of time I am unable to speak of it without such a rush of feeling as makes clear expression next to impossible,” he wrote.
Two months later, Woodrow Wilson left home for good. He was twenty-five. He had decided to settle in Atlanta, where
Henry W. Grady, editor of The Atlanta Constitution, was trying to persuade the rest of the United States that a New South, democratic rather than feudal, was on the rise. “The South found her jewel in the toad’s head of defeat,” Grady declared. “The shackles that had held her in narrow limitations fell forever when the shackles of the negro slave were broken. Under the old regime the negroes were slaves to the South; the South was a slave to the system.” The New South was “less splendid on the surface, but stronger at the core—a hundred farms for every plantation, fifty homes for every palace—and a diversified industry that meets the complex need of this complex age.”
Woodrow Wilson had expressed similar views and imagined that playing a part in the emergence of the New South would give him a toehold in politics.
With another fledgling lawyer, Edward I. Renick, Wilson opened a law firm in the center of Atlanta in June 1882. Renick, an acquaintance from Charlottesville, would succeed as a lawyer, but Wilson immediately found himself at odds with every aspect of practicing law. He shrank from the idea of courting potential clients. He was appalled by the greed and pettiness on display in the courtroom. And on a visit to the State Senate, he made the unhappy discovery that the senators of Georgia had none of the finesse of the oratorical statesmen he idolized. The final shock was the realization that he would need a small fortune to enter politics.
He was still living on an allowance from his father.
Given the feverishness of his political ambition, Wilson showed surprisingly little gumption in the face of rather ordinary obstacles, and his passivity brought concerned letters from home. “
It is hardly like you, my brave boy, to show a white feather before the battle is well joined,” Joseph wrote. In
Joseph’s judgment, the situation called for Totus in illo—all in. He promised his support if the law proved intolerable but did not think it right for Woodrow to quit before getting his feet “fully upon the ladder.”
After only a few months in Atlanta, Woodrow was putting his Totus into an endeavor unlikely to win a single client. A congressional commission was coming to town to hold hearings on the tariff, the federal government’s principal source of revenue in the era before the modern income tax (which President Wilson would bring into being). Imposed on most imports, the tariff protected American manufacturers from competition, producing handsome profits for them while raising prices for everyone else. The South, which had few factories and considerably less wealth than the rest of the country, was especially hard hit. Agriculture was the mainstay of the South and West, and farmers, unlike the manufacturers of the Northeast, had to sell in a free market and buy whatever they needed at prices inflated by the tariff.
Like most Southerners, Wilson advocated free trade. He was thrilled by the prospect of sharing his views with members of Congress and undoubtedly hoped to dazzle them with his oratory and expertise. Although he doubted that he would end American protectionism, he was pleased by the idea that his words might be immortalized in the federal record. (Not all of the testimony would be published. As the official stenographer explained, some of it was not even recorded, “but where the insanity does not crop out too plainly we will allow it to go in.”)
Wilson’s speech won compliments from the local congressman, passed the stenographer’s sanity test, and made the front page of Henry Grady’s Constitution, which reported that Mr. “Good-row” Wilson had been long-winded but intelligent.
The experience was a great disappointment to young Mr. Wilson. He had imagined himself testifying before a large audience, but the hearings took place in a smallish hotel dining room. No one was looking for the next Daniel Webster, and the young Mr. Wilson lacked the nerve to introduce himself to the congressmen present. Later in his career, Wilson would speak fondly of his Southern upbringing and would claim (usually in the company of other Southerners) that he was a proud son of the South. But he was also a confirmed nationalist by the time he left Princeton. He did not feel of a piece with the New South.
Discouraged and unable to focus on the law,
he continued to spend most of his time reading history and writing political essays, several of which were published by Robert Bridges, then an editor at the New York Evening Post. “
I am unfit for practice,” he wrote Bridges in April 1883. “I have had just enough experience to prove that.”
Law had been a stepping-stone to
politics, and if he could not enter politics, perhaps he would take up writing, his other great love.
Bridges sympathized but warned Wilson that a man of letters led a financially precarious life.
• • •
All doors seemed closed until the spring of 1883, when his uncle James Woodrow, president of South Carolina College, suggested an academic career. The idea immediately appealed to Wilson. He would have an income, a ready-made audience, and time to write.
With his fantasies once again galloping far ahead of his prospects, he dared to hope that by writing history and political commentary, he would become a respected voice in national affairs. The term “public intellectual” had not yet been coined, but that was the role Wilson now envisioned for himself. With Uncle James’s encouragement, Woodrow applied to the doctoral program in history at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University, a new institution devoted to graduate study.
The fretful year in Atlanta came to a surprisingly happy end. He won admission to Johns Hopkins, and during a stay in Rome, Georgia, where he had gone on a legal errand for his mother, he went to church one Sunday morning and found himself attracted to a young woman in a veil. After a few inquiries, he was at her family’s door on the pretext of paying his respects to her father, the Reverend Samuel Axson, who had once been an assistant to Joseph Wilson. In the course of the chitchat, Woodrow inquired after the health of the daughter he had seen in church. The Reverend Axson called her into the parlor and made the introduction.
Ellen Louise Axson was twenty-three, and her charms included a petite figure, glowing complexion, expressive brown eyes, and a profusion of coppery curls. A stranger needed only a few minutes in her company to see that she was warm, intelligent, and well read. Woodrow dallied in Rome for ten days, made two more trips from Atlanta to Rome in the next six weeks, and left Georgia feeling that he had found “
a new and altogether delightful sort of companion.”
Ellen was intrigued by Woodrow, although as eligible bachelors went, he was hardly a prize. Tall and spindly, he considered himself homely, and unless he smiled, he was. His eyes were a chilly blue-gray, his nose and ears unduly large, his face all angles and planes. At twenty-six, he had yet to earn a living, and graduate school would again postpone the day of his self-sufficiency. He did not know if his professorial plan would succeed, and there was reason to wonder whether he would find the next chapter of his life any more satisfying than the last.
Ellen, trapped in a grim situation with no foreseeable end, was also a questionable prospect. Her mother had died two years before, dropping her
widower into an incapacitating grief. As the oldest child, Ellen was expected to care for him and her three siblings. When she could, which was not often, she escaped into painting and drawing, her greatest loves. She was genuinely talented, especially at portraiture, and her artistic accomplishments delighted her new suitor.
Both Woodrow and Ellen had plans to retreat to the cool hills of North Carolina in August, she with a friend in Morganton, and he with his mother in Arden, fifty miles away. They had no opportunity to see each other there, and on September 14, Woodrow left Arden for Johns Hopkins with no assurances from Ellen except a promise to write to him. Waiting for a train in Asheville, he strolled the streets and happened to catch sight of a coiled braid through a hotel window. He recognized it as Ellen’s, raced toward it, and found her in one of the hotel’s public rooms. Her vacation in Morganton had been cut short, she explained; her father had fallen ill, and she was in Asheville to catch a train home.
Helpless against his joy and hope, Woodrow declared his love, proposed, and vowed to help care for her family. Ellen hesitated, unsure of her love for Woodrow and afraid that he would regret his haste. Pressing hard, he said her doubts would cloud his studies. She gave in, and he pronounced himself the country’s happiest man.
Telling a friend about his engagement, he described Ellen’s attainments and her beauty but said that he had fallen in love with her simply because she was “irresistibly lovable.” Why she loved him was a mystery, he went on, but he had decided to accept her love “without seeking to understand it—as something sent to strengthen and ennoble me.”