Woodrow Wilson: A Biography

(Thomas) Woodrow Wilson, 28th president of the United States (1913-1921), was born in Staunton, Virginia on December 28, 1856, son of a Presbyterian minister. He spent much of his boyhood in the south (a boyhood home stands in Columbia, South Carolina). His foray into politics began with a successful bid for the governorship of New Jersey (1910-1913), where he was previously president of Princeton College (now Princeton University).

Drafted as a progressive for the 1912 Democratic presidential ticket, Wilson carried the election—due in large part to a split in the Republican fold caused by former President Theodore Roosevelt running against the GOP incumbent, President William Howard Taft. Wilson narrowly won reelection four years later based on the promise that “He Kept Us Out of War,” although he asked Congress to declare war on Germany just four weeks into his second term (April 6, 1917).

Following the first World War Wilson played a critical role at the Paris Peace Conference (1919) and helped shape the League of Nations (forerunner of the U.N.). Isolationist opposition at home, spearheaded by Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, was fierce. Wilson barnstormed the country to rally popular support, the strain of which cost him his health. On September 25, 1919 while stumping in Pueblo, Colorado the President collapsed. The remainder of Wilson’s speaking tour was canceled and the President’s train hastily returned to Washington. Seven days later, on October 2, 1919 Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke at the White House. His entire left side was paralyzed. Thereafter Wilson’s presidential duties were largely executed by First Lady Edith Bolling Galt (1872-1961). So complete was the cover-up of Wilson’s incapacity that even Vice President Thomas R. Marshall and the Cabinet were kept unawares of the extent of his illness.

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In the first official photograph released after his stroke, President Woodrow Wilson and First Lady Edith Bolling Galt pose for White House cameras on June 1, 1920. Taken to quell rumors about the President’s illness, this carefully-staged picture masks the extent of Wilson’s incapacity.

The first official White House photograph following Wilson’s stroke was taken at the mansion on June 1, 1920. Released to quell rumors about the President’s condition, the picture was carefully-staged to mask the degree of his illness. Wilson’s hair, lost during the stroke, is thin, and he wears no neck tie or shirt sleeves. While the First Lady appears to be casually holding a document for the President, the reality was that Wilson could not possibly hold it himself. The President’s left side, gracefully hidden by his wife, was almost completely immobilized.¹

Following the election of 1920, which went to Republican Warren G. Harding, President and Mrs. Wilson retired to a private residence on S Street in Washington. Here the President spent the last three years of his life. Woodrow Wilson died at his S Street home on February 3, 1924, at the age of sixty-seven. He is entombed (with the First Lady) in the Washington National Cathedral.

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¹  As is common in many other cases, Wilson’s paralysis seems to have gradually subsided. By the time the President left the White House in March 1921 he was able to walk with the aid of a cane, which he continued to use until his death three years later.

(Featured Image: President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) poses at his desk in the Oval Office, ca. 1916-1917. Originally placed in the center of the West Wing by William Howard Taft in 1909, the Oval Office was removed to the southeast corner by F.D.R. in 1933.)

—originally compiled in August 2011

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