The twenty-eighth President of the United States, whose full name was Thomas Woodrow Wilson, was born on December 28, 1856, in Staunton, Virginia, to parents Joseph R. Wilson and Janet Woodrow Wilson. Young "Tommy's" father was a prominent southern Presbyterian minister and teacher, and his mother was descended from a strong Presbyterian family as well. Shortly after the boy's birth, the family moved to Augusta, Georgia, where Tommy spent the majority of his formative years. When he was fifteen or so, the family moved again to Columbia, South Carolina. The Civil War deeply ravaged the South during the 1860s and as a consequence, many of the schools had been shut down. Ironically, the boy who would one day become a great scholar, educator, and President therefore did not receive any formal education until he was nearly in his teenage years. He did not even have any reading skills until he was nine years old.
In 1873, when he was seventeen, Woodrow left home and enrolled in Davidson College in North Carolina, one of the best Presbyterian colleges in the country. However, after a year he became ill and returned home to be with his family. By 1875 Wilson had regained his health and decided to enter Princeton University, then called the College of New Jersey. Wilson attended the university for four years where he received good marks and participated in many of the school's social activities. He graduated from Princeton in 1879.
Since he was a young boy, Wilson had always wanted to be a great statesman. His particular aspiration for many years was to become a U.S. Senator from Virginia, the state he considered his home state even though he had barely lived a year there as a baby. After Princeton, he decided to enroll at the law school of the University of Virginia. At the time, Wilson figured that studying law was the best route to becoming a legislator. He remained in Virginia for nearly a year and then moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where he established a law firm with a former classmate, Edward I. Renick. The two men kept the practice alive for more than a year despite the paucity of clients. Over 140 other young lawyers had come to the southern town of 37,000, making work scarce.
Wilson decided to abandon law in 1883 and decided to take some graduate courses in political science, reasoning that if he could not become a legislator via law he could do so via education. He enrolled in the recently founded Johns Hopkins University and studied there for nearly three years. He published one of his most famous works, Congressional Government, as his doctoral dissertation, and the book immediately placed him in the ranks of the most respected political scientists of the day. He ultimately received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins in 1886.
In autumn of 1885, Wilson accepted his first teaching position at Bryn Mawr College for young women and remained there for two years. He then moved to Connecticut to teach at Wesleyan University and then moved again back to New Jersey to finally settle down and teach jurisprudence and political economy at Princeton University. Students at all thee schools praised Wilson for his teaching abilities and the quality of his lectures. He continued to contribute to the study of political science and history with his publication of The State, a biography of George Washington, Division and Reunion, and a History of the American People.
Wilson also found time to start a family. Two days before leaving for Johns Hopkins, Wilson proposed to Ellen Axson Wilson of Rome, Georgia. The two were married on June 24, 1885, in Savannah, Georgia. By 1889, they had three children: Margaret, Jessie, and Eleanor.
In 1902 Woodrow Wilson was unanimously elected president of Princeton University, becoming the first man besides a clergyman to hold the office. As president of the university, Wilson initiated many education reforms. He devised and implemented the preceptorial system to replace the large impersonal lectures with smaller, more personal group teaching. This method of teaching is now standard in many colleges throughout the country. His quadrangle plan called for the creation of several campus dormitories that would also house dining facilities, libraries, and classrooms in an attempt to eliminate the pretentious eating clubs that dominated the university's social scene. Although Wilson was unsuccessful in implementing this plan, many other American universities later used his idea.
Even though Wilson worked over twenty years as an educator, he had never abandoned his dream of becoming a statesman, and when he was presented with the opportunity to jump into politics in 1910, he took it. In 1910, the local New Jersey Democratic political machine bosses sought an honorable and trustworthy candidate to run for the state's gubernatorial office. They found Wilson, who agreed to run for governor as long as he could also run for President of the United States in the upcoming 1912 national elections. Wilson won the election by a landslide, and quickly became known as a progressive Democratic governor for his reform politics. In his campaign to reform government, he even attacked the same political machines that had earlier supported him.
His success as Governor gave him national fame as a man of action, and he was therefore given the Democratic nomination for President in 1912. Wilson campaigned against Progressive Party candidate Theodore Roosevelt, Republican President William Howard Taft, and Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs. Because of the rift within the Republican Party that year, Wilson received an overwhelming majority of the Electoral College votes and became the twenty-eighth President of the United States.
Wilson continued to initiate reforms. His domestic policy reforms were collectively known as the New Freedom and involved creating a national banking system, prosecuting the trusts, and reducing the national tariff. Ironically, however, the man elected for his progressive thinking spent the majority of his time on foreign affairs rather than domestic concerns. The Wilson administration saw and eventually became involved in two bloody civil wars in Mexico. At one point, it seemed as if relations between the two countries would collapse entirely when Wilson ordered General John J. Pershing to invade Mexico with the Punitive Expedition to find Mexican rebel Pancho Villa. Wilson also authorized the U.S. military occupations of Haiti, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic.
When World War I erupted in Europe in 1914 and began spreading to other continents, Wilson proclaimed that the United States would not partake in the war but would conduct business as usual as a neutral nation. Within a few years, however, neutrality became unrealistic as German U-boats increased their attacks on American shipping. Wilson sent a series of protests and warnings to the German government, but they were ignored. The sinking of three American ships without warning on the same day in March 1917, followed by the discovery of secret Zimmerman Note to Mexico, prompted the United States to declare war. Wilson directed the American war effort with a tight fist under the authority of the Overman Act. He passed the Espionage Act in 1917 and the Sedition Act in 1918, as well as the War Revenue Act, which increased the income tax to its highest level up to that period in time. He ordered General Pershing to lead the American troops in Europe.
After the war's end in 1918, Wilson sailed to France to attend the Paris Peace Conference where over thirty nations planned to draft a formal peace treaty. Most of the treaty was discussed by the leaders of the Big Four nations, including the United States. Wilson aimed to establish a lasting peace based on the principles laid forth in his Fourteen Points speech that had been delivered earlier that year. The most important points of the speech called for self-determination for all peoples of the world and for the creation of a League of Nations to ensure collective security and peace. The world leaders drafted the Treaty of Versailles that included the new charter for Wilson's League of Nations.
To Wilson's dismay, he could not convince enough members in the U.S. Senate to ratify the treaty. Many senators feared that the League could draw the U.S. into another international war or violate American sovereignty. To convince these skeptical senators, Wilson set out on a nationwide campaign to convince the American people that the treaty and the League were essential for peace. The trip, however, only added to Wilson's exhaustion, and he collapsed on September 25, 1919. A week later, he suffered a stroke that left one side of his body paralyzed for the rest of his life. Wilson spent much of the remainder of his Presidency in bed, and as a result, the treaty failed to receive the two-thirds required vote in the Senate.
After Warren G. Harding was elected President in 1920, Wilson retired to public life in Washington, D.C. That year he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts at the Paris Peace Conference. He founded a law firm in the city with one of his former cabinet members, but never seriously worked on any cases. He lived quietly until he died in his sleep on February 3, 1924. He was buried two days later in the Episcopal cathedral in Washington, D.C.
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