Woodrow Wilson

Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born in 1856 in Staunton, Virginia, moved to Augusta, Georgia at a very young age, and grew up in the deep South during the Civil War and Reconstruction. His father was a Presbyterian minister and his mother was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, an upbringing which helps to explain the degree to which Wilson viewed public service as a question of moral right and wrong. Before entering public life in 1910, Wilson was a successful scholar, educator, and college president, making him one of the few formal intellectuals ever to seek the Presidency. This combination of high moral purpose and high-minded abstraction characterizes much of Wilson’s career. Lofty and spellbinding in front of a crowd, he frequently struck personal acquaintances as disconnected and aloof; eloquent in his affinity for Humanity and the People in the abstract, his rapport with actual individuals was often less accomplished.

Wilson was educated at Princeton, the most Southerner-friendly of the major Eastern colleges, where he became a skilled debater and envisioned for himself a career in politics. After law school at the University of Virginia and a brief and unprofitable stint as a lawyer in Atlanta, however, Wilson turned to college teaching. He earned a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins in 1886 and taught history at Bryn Mawr and Wesleyan before landing back at Princeton in 1890 as Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Economy. His Hopkins thesis and best-known intellectual work, Congressional Government (1885), compared the American system of government unfavorably to a British-style parliamentary system, which Wilson considered more efficient and more accountable for its actions than slow, unwieldy American federalism. Congressional Government also attacked the American Presidency as a relatively weak and ineffectual institution and bemoaned the inability of the American political system to attract talented men to public service. (Link to excerpts.) By 1902, when he was elected president of Princeton, Wilson was considered one of the nation’s top scholars of American history and government. As president of Princeton, Wilson presided over the development of the college into a university, and fought to substitute scholarship for social status as the measure of success in college life. His results were mixed. He presided successfully over the re-organization of the Princeton curriculum into a preceptorial system that blended old-fashioned, regimented collegiate learning with the elective system increasingly prevalent at other colleges. His plan to substitute a quadrangle system of undergraduate housing for Princeton’s age-old and exclusionary eating clubs, however, failed ignominiously, as did an attempt to force integration of the new graduate school facilities into the center of campus life. During the course of these battles with alumni and trustees, Wilson at several key times rejected proffered compromise in favor of fighting for what he considered the essential principles of his program with exhortative, moralistic, and ultimately doomed rhetoric (Link here to primary sources). At odds with many of the trustees and about to enter New Jersey politics, he resigned as Princeton president in 1910.

In 1910 Wilson was approached by a coalition of the political machines then in control of the New Jersey Democratic Party to run for Governor. The machine politicians imagined they were getting a pliable conservative who would lend them prestige and rhetoric and leave their essential business – including their control over the party – alone. Until 1910, everything in Wilson’s professional and political history suggested that this might indeed be the case, for Wilson up until this point was a more or less orthodox conservative Democrat. Wilson had attacked William Jennings Bryan as a dangerous radical as late as 1907 and throughout his career had been generally contemptuous of Populism as well as of much of the developing program of twentieth-century reform. (Links to conservative speeches) He also explicitly promised party leaders he had no interest in smashing their organizations. During the campaign, however, Wilson became convinced of the moral rectitude of the reform program; once in office he pursued it without regard for – and to some degree without recognition of – the fact that it undercut the interests of those who put him there. He began by denying Jim Smith, the most powerful of his machine supporters, a seat in the Senate, and spent the next two years fighting for and achieving workmen’s compensation legislation, regulation of utilities, electoral reform, and other elements of the reform program. (Link to NJ Gov inaugural speech) Many of these were things Wilson had denounced a few years before. He had become convinced of their justice, however, and once Wilson was so convinced he considered his only remaining job to convince others of the morality of his stance. The reform program was correct, it was morally upright, and, as at Princeton, Wilson fought for it. He found himself instantly a darling of the reform wing of the Democratic Party.

Even before Wilson’s stunning success as New Jersey governor and his late conversion to reform, certain portions of the Democratic Party considered Wilson Presidential material; by 1912 the Wilson for President movement had already been underway several years, led in part by George Harvey, influential publisher of Harper’s Weekly, and Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World. For a Democratic Party divided between conservative Northern Democrats, Western Bryanites, and the Solid South, Wilson was an attractive national candidate, even more so as a reformer who was not three-time Presidential loser William Jennings Bryan. Wilson was, depending on how one looked at it, both Northerner and Southerner, conservative and reformer, Establishment member and political outsider. In addition, he had more powerful rhetorical skills than any nationally prominent Democrat save Bryan. He entered the 1912 campaign a front-runner for the Democratic nomination despite only two years of political experience.

Marc Horger was the author of this text. contents | the candidates | sitemap | credits