Thursday, September 1, 2011

Woodrow Wilson

Washington, DC. Visited July 1998

To me, Woodrow Wilson has always been a boring president. This isn’t based on any research or personal awareness of the man, mostly just looking at photographs.  He seems like a college professor (which he was) more than a politician or statesman.  Although he did sport the top hat with class.  But, the truth is, he was in his time a remarkable president – passing sweeping legislation that still has significant impact on our nation today. Wilson was at the helm when the Age of Empires ended with World War I and the United States ascended to the forefront of international power. And he is at the center of one of the great mysteries of the American presidency.

Woodrow Wilson was born December 1856 in Staunton, VA – the son of a Presbyterian minister. Though originally from Ohio, Wilson’s father was a slave-owning southern-minded man who stood staunchly with the Confederate cause during the Civil War. For those interested in Presbyterian history, Joseph Wilson was one of the founders of the Southern Presbyterian Church in the United States.

Woodrow spent most of his childhood in Augusta, GA. He was prone to illness and apparently suffered from dyslexia and did not learn how to read until his teenage years. But he doggedly pursued education, eventually graduating from Princeton University in Political Science. Maturing intellectually, he was able to pass the Georgia Bar and practice law, but eventually returned to academics and received his PhD in political science from John’s Hopkins University. He taught at Bryn Mawr College and other schools before landing on the Princeton faculty, where he ascended to the office of President of the College in 1902.

Wilson statue on the University of Texas Campus.  Woodrow
Wilson is regularly ranked among the top ten U.S.
presidents in scholarly polls

Wilson’s formal political career began in an unusual way, moving straight from academics to politics – his first elected office was as governor of New Jersey in 1910. After just two years of increasing national prominence, Wilson ran for and won the presidential election, defeating incumbent William Howard Taft to become the 28th President of the United States.

Woodrow Wilson’s first term included a number of significant legislative triumphs that continue to shape our national economy, notably the creation of the graduated national income tax, the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Trade Commission. Sadly, Wilson was a man of his times, a staunch supporter of segregation both in word and deed. His first term also brought the tragedy of the unexpected death of his wife from a stroke in 1914. About 18 months later he remarried, and this marriage to Edith Galt was to have significant implications for Wilson’s second term in office.
Wilson started a several presidential customs, including
press conferences and throwing out the first
pitch at baseball games
Here is some odd archival footage – almost like an early photo-op. Wilson signing things, talking on one of those new fangled telephones and watching sheep on the White House lawn.

Woodrow Wilson was re-elected in 1916 primarily on the basis of his efforts to keep the US out of the war in Europe. But early in his second term he became convinced that the US could not remain neutral after it was discovered that Germany was seeking to persuade Mexico to attack the United States. The war dominated Wilson’s second term, and the influx of US military might at this crucial time effectively guaranteed an Allied defeat of Germany.

21,000 troops form a portrait of Woodrow
Wilson at Camp Sherman Ohio in 1918
President Wilson brought to the end of the war a grand vision for international peace that centered around the creation of a global League of Nations. His efforts at peace won him the Nobel Prize. While this idea had international popularity, it was being significantly opposed at home. Wilson embarked on a national tour to garner support from the people. It was on this tour that Wilson suffered a massive stroke, leading to one of the most unusual and controversial situations in the history of the American Presidency. The stroke left him immediately debilitated, but this fact was fully known only to his wife and his doctor. For the remainder of his presidency Edith Wilson effectively served, according to Wilson historian John Milton Cooper, as presidential ‘regent’, shaping the national agenda through what she filtered through to her enfeebled husband. Cooper further states,

"This is the worst instance of presidential disability we've ever had," said John Milton Cooper, a Wilson scholar at the University of Wisconsin. "We stumbled along . . . without a fully functioning president" for a year and a half.” (Washington Post, 2.3.07)

On the 'Wilson Family Presidency' a historian notes that, "They were flying
by the seat of their pants, doing damage control.  It's fun to watch."

At the end of his second term Wilson retired from public office, and lived largely out of the public eye at his Washington townhouse until his death three years later, on February 3, 1924. He was buried in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. The Episcopal rector of the new cathedral had envisioned it as an American Westminster Abbey, but Wilson and Helen Keller are the only people buried there who seem to rise to true national historic stature.

Something really funky at the Natl. Cathedral.  In a contest to select gargoyles,
school kids selected Darth Vader's head as a fitting sculpture for the Cathedral. 
I kid you not.

When we visited the Cathedral on a home school trip in 1998 I had no idea Woodrow Wilson was buried there. I was walking along one side of the sanctuary and passed by this simple stone box with his name on the top. When we later visited the impressive JFK gravesite at Arlington that day I was struck by how different the two presidents were memorialized. It is an interesting study in history.

On a homeschool trip stumbling across WW with my daughter Melissa
and nephew Craig cica 1998.