His Scotch-Irish ancestry — The emigrant from County Down — The New Home in Philadelphia — Literary and Religious Character of the Early Wilsons — Moved to Ohio — The Call of the South — His Father's Dominating Influence on his Life — Tribute to his Mother in her girlhood Home
"My best training came from my father." — Wilson
"My Boss will not let me do this."
That was what Woodrow Wilson said one day to a member of his Cabinet who had suggested dropping work for a diversion he knew would appeal to President Wilson. He gave the answer quoted.
"Your Boss —?" began the friend, wondering who could be the Boss of the President of the United States.
"I have a Conscience that is my Boss," said the President. "It drives me to the task and will not let me accept the tempting invitation."
The dominant force in Wilson was the inherited spirit of the Scotch Covenanter, mellowed by the saving grace found in appreciation of the humorous, the absurd, the strange. In duty he was the Covenanter. Speaking at one time of his inherited traits, Wilson said: "So far as I can make out I was expected to be a perfectly bloodless, thinking machine — whereas I am perfectly p28aware that I have in me all the insurgent elements of the human race! I am sometimes, by reason of long Scottish tradition, able to keep these instincts in restraint. The stern Covenanter tradition that is behind me sends many an echo down the years." He "belonged to the small but superb nation, north of the Tweed, which is bred in disciplined poverty, nourishing the body on porridge and the soul on predestination. He had all the qualities, all the sensitive and angular impulses of a thoroughbred. He was high-spirited as a race horse. By a pedigree religious rather than royal he was an aristocrat and he knew it."
The Scotch and Irish strains in Woodrow Wilson help to interpret the twenty-eighth President of the United States. The traits of both show for mastery in him and made him the scholar, the reformer, the fighter, full of vigor and full of humor. The saving grace of humor which shocked some members of Lincoln's Cabinet was quite as apparent in Woodrow Wilson. He was fortunate in having a Cabinet who loved stories, and some of them were good story-tellers themselves. Relief from the strain that comes through turning aside to the lighter vein saved him as it saved Lincoln. If the world saw in him chiefly the Covenanter spirit, it was because he lived in days when the stress of serious affairs left little time for the spirit of play and jest which was revealed chiefly to his intimates.
James Wilson, his grandfather, was the first of the family to come to America. He set sail from County Down, Ireland, in 1807. On the ship that sailed to Philadelphia, came also Anne Adams, an Ulster young woman, bound also for the land of freedom and opportunity. A sea voyage is notable for intimate confidences. p29That voyage brought the young people into the haven of love which was followed by marriage the next year in Philadelphia. Good Presbyterians, both, it was Rev. George C. Potts, pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian Church, who performed the ceremony. The wife had vivid recollections of her North of Ireland home and loved to old age to talk of it, saying from that home she could see the white linen flying on the line in Scotland.
Mr. and Mrs. James Wilson
The grandfather and grandmother of Woodrow Wilson
Ten children, seven boys and three girls, were born to the Wilsons, and all were reared by the "blue stocking" Presbyterian mother in the knowledge of the Shorter Catechism and Calvinistic faith and practice. Of the children, Henry, Edwin, and Margretta were triplets. These two sons bore such strong resemblance, one was often taken for the other. They made their identity known to their intimates by the manner in which they wore their watch guards — Edwin wore a fob, while Henry wore a chain about his neck.
The grandfather of President Wilson, upon his arrival, turned his steps to 15 Franklin Court, a former home of Benjamin Franklin, trained printer. He found employment on the Aurora, edited by William Duane, whose ardent espousal of Jefferson's growing Republican party caused him to be haled before the authorities on the charge of having violated the Sedition Law. Young Wilson had come to America, expecting to see the real new freedom, only to find his new home applying old world suppression of a free press. It was not to last long. Press censorship cannot live in the free air of America. Woodrow Wilson saw to it that there was no censorship of the press in the United States during the World War.
As evidence that the young couple admired the gifted and courageous Duane, who "suffered persecution" for p30his support, as Jefferson said, of "the great principles of the Revolution," they named their first child "William Duane." When Duane in 1812 was made Adjutant General of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, James Wilson succeeded to the management of the Aurora. The boldness and audacity of that paper in its war upon Federalism foreshadowed Woodrow Wilson's like war on Imperialism a century later. The lure of what was then called the West caused the editor to trek to Pittsburgh, then having the promise of its subsequent growth. He crossed into Ohio, and after a brief stay in Lisbon, established a newspaper at Steubenville. His paper was called the Western Herald, wielded large influence and gave its publisher ample income for his growing family. Every one of his seven sons served their apprenticeship in the Herald printing office and became expert compositors. In 1832, in conjunction with four of his sons and two apprentices, James Wilson founded the Pennsylvania Advocate at Pittsburgh, Pa., the first issues being printed on the Steubenville press. Soon, however, he installed the first Washington handpress west of the mountains and the whole of one side of the Pittsburgh paper was printed with one impression. That was as much enterprise in those days as a rotogravure press in this decade.
James Wilson divided his time between the papers at Pittsburgh and Steubenville, living in his Ohio home. He was an editor whose editorials expressed his convictions and had a punch. For example, he may be said to have originated the attempt to humiliate a political opponent by writing his last name with a lower case letter, as he did in referring to Samuel Medary, a candidate for office, as "Sammedary" in this offensive paragraph: "Sammedary's friends claim for him the p31merit of having been born in Ohio. So was my dog Towser." Such newspaper political amenities, however, did not create social estrangement, for later Henry Wilson, son of the editor, married the daughter of Governor Samuel Medary, and the editor-father favored the occasion with his presence and the bride with his blessing. He not only was an influential editor of the Jeffersonian school, but was given the title of "Judge" because he presided as Justice of the Peace. He also served in the Ohio Legislature. He died at Pittsburgh in 1837 during a cholera epidemic.
The father of President Wilson was the youngest son and was named Joseph Ruggles Wilson. He was born in Steubenville, February 28, 1822, and was taught the trade of printer. It is said that there was no journeyman printer who could set more type. From early boyhood he was a reader of books and, showing ambition to become a scholar, he entered Jefferson College when he was eighteen. It was a Presbyterian college, located at Canonsburg, Pa., and was afterwards merged into Washington and Jefferson College. He graduated as valedictorian of the class in 1844. The next year found him teaching at Mercer, Pa. Having become a member of the Presbyterian Church when a boy, there came to him during this year of teaching the imperative call to the ministry. "Here am I," was his response. To him a call to preach meant summons to obtain the best preparation. He gave one year to the study of theology at the Western Theological Seminary at Alleghany, Pa., and then had a year at Princeton. This year at Princeton broadened his general education and had lasting influence in shaping his style, as well as grounding him in his theological studies. Though licensed to preach, p32he was not to be ordained and have a pulpit for two years. In that period, he taught in the Steubenville Male Academy, while giving all spare time to study and reading. To Steubenville in those teaching days came Janet Woodrow, called "Jessie," of Chillicothe, Ohio, to school. She was the daughter of Rev. Dr. Thomas Woodrow, who was born in Paisley, Scotland, in 1793 and was a graduate of Glasgow University. The Woodrows trace their Scotch history for 600 years with numbers of men of scholarship and standing in the ministry. Dr. Woodrow sailed for Canada on October 21, 1835, with his wife and seven children. His wife, born Williamson, died shortly after landing. After a year as Presbyterian missionary at Brockville on the St. Lawrence, Dr. Woodrow accepted a call to the First Presbyterian Church at Chillicothe, Ohio. He preached there for ten years, then at Columbus, Ohio, where he died April 27, 1877. He was "a fine scholar, a good preacher and especially powerful in prayer" — say the records of the Presbytery at Chillicothe.
Joseph Ruggles Wilson and Janet Woodrow were married June 7, 1849, the bride's father officiating. Ordained by the Presbytery of Ohio as a Presbyterian preacher two weeks after marriage, the young preacher accepted a position as "professor extraordinary" of rhetoric (they had high-sounding names in small colleges in those days) in Jefferson College. After one year's service, he heard the call to the South, which made Woodrow Wilson a Virginia-born child of Ohio-born parents, and for four years he was professor of chemistry and natural sciences in Hampden-Sydney Presbyterian College, Virginia. In addition to his professional duties, he preached on Sundays to country churches in the p33vicinity of the college. Here two daughters were born, Marion and Annie Josephine. In 1855 he accepted a call as pastor of the Presbyterian Church at Staunton, Va. The town was in the heart of the Valley of Virginia, with a cultured citizenship, given to good works and to hospitality. The home where his distinguished son was born December 28, 1856, was the manse of the Presbyterian Church of which he was pastor. The boy was christened Thomas Woodrow Wilson. The elder daughter, Marion, married Rev. Ross Kennedy, a Presbyterian preacher, who died some years later in Augusta, Arkansas. The younger daughter, Annie Josephine, married Dr. George Howe, a physician in Columbia, S. C., who died, leaving one son, Dr. George Howe, Professor of Latin and Dean of the College of Arts in the University of North Carolina, and a daughter, who is Mrs. Frank Compton, of Chicago. Mrs. Howe, daughter, and child were frequent visitors at the White House until Mrs. Howe's death during President Wilson's presidential term. The youngest son, Joseph Ruggles Wilson, named for his father, was long member of the staff of the Nashville (Tenn.) Banner, and now holds a responsible position with the Fidelity and Deposit Company of Maryland and is making his home in Baltimore, Md.
Birthplace of Woodrow Wilson, Staunton, Virginia.a
In the parsonage of the Presbyterian Church, "Tommy" Woodrow Wilson was born on December 28, 1856
In the spring of 1858, when "Tommy" Wilson was less than two years old, his father became pastor of the First Presbyterian Church at Augusta, Georgia. He soon took rank among the foremost preachers and leaders of the Presbyterian Church. In the division of the churches, caused by the War Between the States, Dr. Wilson cast his lot with the Southern branch of the church. He was chosen "Stated Clerk" of the Southern Presbyterian General Assembly, and held the position p34for forty years, resigning at the age of seventy-seven in 1899. He was Moderator of the Assembly in 1879. Upon his invitation, the first General Assembly of the Southern Presbyterian Church was held in his church at Augusta. It was here that Dr. Thornwell made the address, giving reason and justification for the Presbyterians of the South to withdraw and organize an Assembly, composed exclusively of Southern churches. Dr. Thornwell, of small stature, was, to quote Dr. Wilson, an "intellectual athlete." Twenty-five years afterwards, in a description of the occasion, he wrote: "Every eye was upon him (Thornwell) and every sound was hushed by a spell whilst for forty historic minutes this Calvin of the modern Church poured forth such a stream of elevated utterance as he of Geneva never surpassed; his arguments being as unanswerable as they were logically compact." The impression it made on Dr. Wilson may be appreciated when twenty-five years later he said, "The thrill of that hour is upon me now."
It was the blood of such bears that ran in the veins of Woodrow Wilson and had much to do with his thinking and acting. His life illustrated the maxim, "A man's education should begin with his grandfather." He paid tribute to them when he visited England in 1918. At Carlisle, where his grandfather on his mother's side, Dr. Thomas Woodrow, was minister of the Independent Congregation from 1819 to 1835, he attended services at Lowther Congregational Church and on being invited to the pulpit said:
"It is with unaffected reluctance that I inject myself into this service. I remember my grandfather very well, and, remembering him, I can see how he would not approve. I remember what he required of me and p35remember the stern lesson of duty he spoke. And I remember painfully about things he expected me to know and I did not now.
"The feelings excited in me to‑day are really too intimate and too deep to permit of public expression. The memories that have come of the mother who was born here are very affecting. Her quiet character, her sense of duty, and her dislike of ostentation have come back to me with increasing force as these years have accumulated. Yet perhaps it is appropriate that in a place of worship I should acknowledge my indebtedness to her and her remarkable father, because, after all, what the world now is seeking to do is to return to the paths of duty, to turn from the savagery of interests to the dignity of the performance of right."
The boy was father to the man.
a For full details see the page at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library: notice that the recent photographs show a house that has been restored to what is said to have been its appearance when Wilson was born. The photo above is undated, but must have been taken when he was a public figure; presumably the differences are due to additions by other tenants after the Wilsons moved out.
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Life of Wilson
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Page updated: 17 Aug 08