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Chapter 4

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Life of Woodrow Wilson

Josephus Daniels

in the
Greenwood Press edition,
New York, 1971

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 6

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p22  Chapter V
Finding Himself

Studying law at the University of Virginia — Incidents and reminiscences — Started law as step to political career — there was incompatibility of temperament — Took his delight at Johns Hopkins — Married to Miss Ellen Axson — Beautiful home life — Death of Mrs. Wilson

"The man who knows the strength of the tide is the man who is swimming against it, not the man who is floating with it." — Wilson

Law, particularly in the South, is the vestibule to a political career. For more than a century the University of Virginia has been the training school for many youths, especially of the South, who held to the Jeffersonian creed. Jefferson counted the founding of the University of Virginia as one of the three things worth being placed on the simple shaft which marks his grave in Monticello, hard by the University of Virginia.

In 1879, the lack of money among its clientele had reduced the attendance to 328, with standards well maintained. Great teachers, with salaries of $2,000, and sometimes less, emulated Mark Hopkins. The greatest of them at the period (September, 1879) when Woodrow Wilson went there to study law, was John B. Minor, head of the Law Department. His reputation among teachers of the law was of the best and embryonic lawyers from a score of states thronged his classroom. Thither went the Princeton graduate, attracted partly by Minor's  p55 fame and partly by the feeling which always possessed him that he was the real son of the commonwealth in which he was born. He entered into the life of the college circle. He was a frequent and brilliant contributor to the University magazine. Though not an athlete, he enjoyed sports and often acted as umpire. He was initiated into the Phi Kappa Psi. He joined the Jefferson Literary Society, of which he was secretary, and as at Princeton won rank among the best debaters. It is interesting that the two "star" debaters of the society were Woodrow Wilson and William Cabell Bruce, now Senator from Maryland. He won the orator's prize and Bruce the debater's medal in a debate April 2, 1880, upon the query: "Is the Roman Catholic Church a menace to American institutions?" Wilson took the negative, his associate being J. M. Horner, now Episcopal Bishop of Western North Carolina. The affirmative was taken by Senator Bruce and Benjamin L. Abney of South Carolina. The judges rendered the decision:

"The committee of the faculty selected by your society to judge of the debate for prizes of the society, beg leave to report as follows:

"While the general character of the debate in question has been very creditable to the speakers and to the society they represent, two of the contestants have shown remarkable excellence. Being requested to decide between these gentlemen our committee is of the opinion that the medal intended for the best debater should be awarded to Mr. Bruce.

"In deciding that the position of the orator to the society, with the other medal bestowed therewith, should be awarded to Mr. Wilson our committee desires to express very high appreciation of his merits not merely  p56 as a speaker, for which this honor is bestowed, but as a debater also."

At that time as he afterwards abundantly proved in crucial days, Wilson believed in righteous peace when it could be had with honor. With many other students, he went to a circus at Charlottesville. Mr. M. H. Caldwell, of Concord, N. C., tells of an incident growing out of it and the mass meeting which followed:

"Trouble began when the students were enthusiastic in applause of a show girl. Some yelled, others clapped their hands. This enraged a showman. He rushed into the ring, denounced all of us as ruffians, scoundrels and blackguards, and threatened to throw us from the tent. He reminded us of the showman that had been killed there in former years and declared that if any one was killed on this occasion it would be a student.

"Several of the students wanted to fight there, but some one came and got the showman. We went back to the campus and the fun was on. A mass meeting was called to determine whether or not all of the students should go to the show that night and compel the man to apologize or whether everyone should stay away. Leroy Percy, later United States Senator from Mississippi, was spokesman for the crowd that wanted to fight; Woodrow Wilson was champion of the other crowd. Fiery speeches were made, but the logic of Wilson prevailed and his side won by about ten votes."

Speaking of the same incident, N. C. Manson, Jr., of Lynchburg, Va., says:

"There was great excitement and a number of fiery speeches on both sides of the question. Mr. Wilson spoke against the attack; Mr. Percy for it. Mr. Wilson was well known to the students; was exceedingly popular, and his  p57 courage was recognized by all. I have always thought that his influence with the student, combined with his wonderfully frank discussion of the reasons for and against the attack which he summed up in the question, 'Is it worth it?' secured the defeat of the proposition by a small majority." In his speech Wilson had counselled against the attack, but declared if the majority decided against him he would be ready to fight with them.

"When Wilson reached the University," said Senator Bruce, "he was tall and lanky, correct in dress and a stickler for proper deportment. While he was not a goody-goody, he was never absent at chapel, and showed the deep religious training of his father, a Presbyterian clergyman. He was always a model among the students.

"He was not conceited, but always had much confidence in himself and was conscious of his superiority of intellect.

"He had a good sense of humor and used to tell the gang funny stories, often at the expense of his worthy father. To illustrate the condition of his family, he told this one of an encounter between his father and a parishioner down in North Carolina:

"The parishioner said:

" 'How come, Preacher Wilson, you have such a sleek horse and you're so skinny yourself?'

" 'Well,' answered Wilson's father, 'I feed the horse, but the congregation feeds me.'

"Woodrow did not then manifest qualities which appeared in later life. But he did have the spark of greatness. Gov. Hubbard of Texas recognized it at our graduation exercises. Wilson's speech was the second on the program and after it Hubbard said there was a young man whose name would go down in history."

 p58  M. B. Winder, of Richmond, another classmate, remembers Mr. Wilson "chiefly as the rather frail young man whose name immediately preceded mine on the roll call of the class. But I also remember him," Mr. Winder added, "as one of the most brilliant contributors to the pages of the University magazine and as one of the most interesting talkers in the old 'Jeff' hall, whither many of us were attracted by the desire to hear him."

Roswell Page, brother of Thomas Nelson Page, was among the classmates who remembered Mr. Wilson as one "ever appreciative of anything that savored of humor, though very reserved behind a pair of eye glasses that were always worn"; and virtually all of the 32 alumni of the classes of 1879‑81 now living in Virginia recall Wilson, the singer. Mr. Wilson was a member of the University glee club in 1880 and 1881 and his friends said he possessed a tenor voice of marked qualities. He also was a member of the college quartet.

[image ALT: A group of 12 young men in late-19c suits: six of them sport mustaches, and one of those an impressive pair of sideburns, almost a full beard. Six are standing, four are seated on chairs in front of them, and two seated on the floor in the foreground, but there is still a general air of stiffness and posing for the photographer. It is a group portrait of the Glee Club of Johns Hopkins University in 1884.]

© World Wide Photos

President Wilson in 1884

The Glee Club of Johns Hopkins University, organized by Woodrow Wilson (standing, second from left) when he was a post-graduate student in 1884.

Wilson's chief absorption was the study of law and government, or rather law as it related to government. The days at the institution Jefferson founded helped in the shaping of Wilson's life and always afterward he looked back upon those years with gratitude, and the associations and interest did not wane. Shortly before he was chosen President of Princeton there were negotiations looking to his becoming the first president of the Virginia University when the Jefferson idea of a chairman of the faculty seemed no longer the best policy of administration. At that time he wrote: "What you say about the University of Virginia of course interests me very greatly. I think that the wisest thing that can be done is to take some man from the South, who has already had some experience as head of a university,  p59 and who can come to the University of Virginia with enthusiasm not only, but with a good deal of experience as well."

Wilson's advice in principle was followed and his warm friend, Dr. Edwin A. Alderman, was chosen. In the early days of his administration, when Alderman was ill, Wilson said to a member of the cabinet: "I wish he were strong. He would fill a great place admirably and be a tower of strength to the administration."

Wilson pursued his legal education under Professor Minor until the close of 1880, when, having been troubled by a long period of indigestion, he found it imperative to give heed to his health. The next twelve months found him in Wilmington, N. C., recuperating and reading and gaining strength, and helped by stimulating association with his father. Completing his law course, with collateral reading, Wilson obtained license to practice law and May, 1882, found him located at Atlanta. He formed a partner­ship with Edward Ireland Renick, somewhat older than Wilson.

Renick and Wilson

read the simple sign out of a window of a room on the second floor, facing the side street, at 48 Marietta Street. Both young men were strangers in the bustling city, with no influential connections necessary to insure clients in the first months of practice. Young men of character and learning, they studied, and Wilson wrote, and waited for the clients who did not come in sufficient numbers to give adequate income. It was while waiting in Atlanta for clients that he wrote the first chapter of his "Congressional Government." Study and preparation for its writing and the actual writing of the beginning  p60 of his great work engrossed his time so fully that the lack of clients did not distress him. He saw in these eighteen months in Atlanta that his life work was neither in the court room nor in advising clients. It must be in consecration to the thing that had long gripped him — teaching young men the road to better government and its just administration. It was more "incompatibility of temperament" than lack of clients that determined Wilson's quitting the law for teaching. He was disillusioned in Atlanta when he discovered "the depth and slime of the gulf that often separated the philosophy of law from its practice." If he could be said to entertain any deep-seated prejudice, it was against what he called "the legalistic" barriers that stood in the way of securing quick justice. The slow processes and miscarriages of justice, and particularly as to unlawful combinations in restraint of trade, were unbearable to him. He wished sound and prompt ways to prevent illegal practices. It was to this end, when he became President, he conceived the value of the Federal Trade Commission. He believed it could, without harassing business, check unfair practices, avoiding the years of litigation that ancient processes made possible.

In 1883, Wilson went to the Johns Hopkins University for two years to take the course in history and political economy, holding the Historical Fellowship the second year. Chiefly, he devoted himself to research work, under the guidance of such authorities as Richard T. Ely and Herbert B. Adams. His association with kindred spirits, not a few of whom attained distinction, made his days at Johns Hopkins always happy memories. With Charles B. Levermore (who recently won the Bok Peace prize), he organized a glee club, and frequent  p61 meetings of social enjoyment were held at the home of Prof. Charles S. Morris, of the Latin and Greek Department. That club had among its members Davis R. Dewey, Edward T. Ingle, David T. Day, B. J. Ramage, F. M. Warren, Albert Shaw, E. R. L. Gould, Arthur Yager, and others, some of whom won high place. He appointed Yager Governor of Porto Rico. The picture of that club, with Wilson wearing a mustache and "sideburns," still hangs in the room of the Historical Seminary. These were years of broadening study and inspiration. He wrote at that time "An Old Master," a study of Adam Smith. In 1886, he obtained his Ph. D. degree, his thesis being "Congressional Government." He had plowed in a virgin field, the book was well received, became an authority, and remains as marked a contribution to the study of government as Mr. Bryce's "The American Commonwealth."

Wilson's "Life of George Washington," published in 1896, bore this dedication to his wife:


E. A. W.

Without Whose Sympathy and Counsel

Literary Work Would Lack


It was in 1883, on a visit to his cousin, Jessie Woodrow Bones, at Rome, Georgia, that the Mr. Wilson met Miss Ellen Louise Axson. The event had so large a place in his life that it may be well to say that the meeting was on the piazza of the Bones residence and that he took her to her home across the river that evening. It is tradition that, as he crossed the bridge, returning, he voiced the resolve that one day Miss Axson should be his wife.  p62 On his eleventh visit she gave the answer which later made her Mrs. Wilson. She was the daughter of Rev. S. Edward Axson, prominent Presbyterian minister of Savannah. Her grandfather was Rev. Nathan Hoyt, long Presbyterian pastor at Athens, Georgia. It was an ideal union, for the two young people had been reared in like environment of culture and religious atmosphere. The venture in law at Atlanta had revealed to him that teaching and politics, not law, was his life work. There was no prospect of immediate marriage. He had decided upon two years at Johns Hopkins to take his degree and Miss Axson went to the Art Students' League, in New York, to perfect herself in painting, in which she had real talent. These days of preparation accomplished, the young couple were married at the home of the bride's grandfather in Savannah, on June 24, 1885. A honeymoon in the mountains of Western North Carolina, with Waynesville in the centre, was marked by rambles, with some pencil sketches by the bride and much reading by both. Then, Wilson having accepted a professor­ship in Bryn Mawr, they set up a home near Philadelphia. It was during these years that the two oldest children, Misses Margaret and Jessie Woodrow (now Mrs. Francis B. Sayre), were born, both at Gainesville, Ga. Thence to Wesleyan University, at Middletown, Conn., where their younger daughter, Eleanor, who later became the wife of the Hon. William G. McAdoo, was born.

Only one other home of long duration was known — that at Princeton — until the move to the White House. The Princeton house was a home of their own making, and the architecture and furnishings attested Mrs. Wilson's taste. It is said to have been designed after one  p63 in Keswick, England. The buff-and‑black timbered house is approached through a closed porch. Steps led to a well-liked room lined with tiers of brick that made an ideal library. Mrs. Wilson entered into all social affairs at Princeton and to that home came men of letters and distinction. It was a place of study, of companion­ship, of the finest flower of hospitality. Deeply religious, well read, and artistic, Mrs. Wilson was a leader in the social life of the college town, as wife of a professor of growing influence and later as the wife of the distinguished President. Her ambitions for her husband and her faith in his future made her keenly interested in all that concerned him. All his life he was a home-body, giving himself without reserve to those in the loved circle. The Wilsons never permitted the claims of society to deny the supremacy of the home life. The family group in Washington embraced the President, Mrs. Wilson, their three daughters, and Miss Helen Woodrow Bones, a cousin of Mr. Wilson.

To go ahead of the story: a few weeks prior to Wilson's inauguration to the Presidency, a visiting friend to whom she talked freely, was asked by her: "What do you think of the propriety of an inaugural ball when Woodrow is inaugurated?" (She never called him anything but "Woodrow.") The visitor thought these balls were garish and rather cheap, but it had so long been regarded as a necessary part of the inauguration, he supposed the Committee would wish to keep up the custom.

"I cannot bear to think of a ball, with the modern dances, when Woodrow is inaugurated," she said, carrying the impression that she regarded the occasion as a "dedication," not a social event. There was no inaugural ball. The Washington Committee protested without avail, and the belles and dressmakers of Washington  p64 stormed. Mrs. Wilson had her way and the President-elect shared her view. In the few short months Ms. Wilson presided as "the first lady of the land," as the President's wife is always called, she won all hearts by her gracious receptions, her re-making and beautifying portions of the White House grounds, and her leader­ship in removing the squalor of the tenements and crowded alleys of the city of Washington. Welfare workers and artists and women with a purpose found her a co‑worker.

Mrs. Wilson after a long period of declining health, died in the White House, August 6, 1914, and her husband and daughters tenderly carried her body to Rome, Georgia, to sleep beside her parents. She lives in the hearts of those admitted to the sacred precinct of her friendship and in her contribution to society and improving living conditions. She illustrated the best of Southern womanhood, happy and beautiful alike, as a girl in the home of the Christian minister, wife and mother in the quiet college campus surroundings, and as first lady in the White House. The dedication of his book, "George Washington," expressed his obligation for her sympathy and counsel. He would have added his "devotion" if he could have permitted any save "heaven and the One Ear alone" to hear the affection that blessed and steadied him.

Mrs. Wilson died seventeen months after becoming mistress of the White House. "Promise me," she whispered to Dr. Grayson as she was passing, "that when I go you will take care of Woodrow." Always her thought was of the husband in whom her life and ambition had been centered. And Dr. Grayson never forgot and never failed.

Finding himself, Wilson found home and happiness.

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