Careers with History: Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States

Thomas Woodrow Wilson’s name is often used to sell history degrees. Wilson was the only President ever to earn a PhD. Yet he didn’t learn to read until he was ten years old.

Wilson earned an A.B. (Bachelor of Arts) from Princeton University, and his undergraduate paper was “Our Kinship with England.”

T. Woodrow Wilson’s Undergraduate studies were well rounded, however. He studied Chemistry, Astronomy, English, Political Science, and History, among other subjects, at two different Universities. Wilson then went on to get a law degree, a PhD, and pursued at academic career that made him President of Princeton University.

The incompetent lawyer

Before the academic career, however, Wilson tried his hand at being a lawyer. He did study law at University of Virginia, after all. (Although Wilson had to finish his law degree at home, due to health problems.)

Wilson didn’t seem to do well with law. He joined a friends firm, which later ceased to exist. He didn’t enjoy studying law at school, and practising it wasn’t that rewarding for young Wilson either.

The meeting of minds

However, it was in the pursuit of this career that an extraordinary meeting of minds took place.

While practising law in Georgia, Wilson met a real Southerner, a preacher’s daughter from a long line of preachers.

(Some say that they met once before. According to that story, Thomas Woodrow was seven years old then, and had not yet learned how to read.)

The Washington Herald called Ellen Louise Axson, or “Ellie Lou”, “radiant Beauty of the South.” Ellie Lou was “an artist of rare accomplishments” as a portrait painter and landscape artist.

Despite his being a rather unsuccessful lawyer, Ellie Lou fell for “Tommie” Woodrow Wilson. After eleven dates, Tommie Woodrow proposed, and Ellie Lou said yes.

A new man, Tommie Woodrow gave up the law and his academic career took off.

The gracious hosts

On the year of their marriage, Thomas Woodrow Wilson landed a job at Bryn Mawr College.

Next he landed a job at his old alma mater, Princeton.  There, Ellie Lou became very popular for “her ready wit and her faculty for charming entertainment.”

Ellie Lou could hold a conversation with almost anyone. Which was very useful as Woodrow, or “Tommie” as some of his colleagues used to call him, often hosted his students at his home, at a time when most professors preferred to keep a great distance from their students.

Academic offers were soon flooding in, as Mr. Wilson became a prolific writer. He wrote about many subjects, including history, politics and literature.

Woodrow Wilson wasn’t the kind of man looking to bring attention to himself. Rather, he just enjoyed helping his students and sharing his passions. He didn’t even have his photograph on the books he published.

The Princeton Union tells the story of a visitor who wanted to know more about the school’s president.

The visitor saw a bespectacled man, a man so ordinary that he assumed he assumed was a clerk at the college. He asked this bespectacled man where he could find a picture of the school’s president – Woodrow Wilson – in a book.

“There is no portrait of Wilson in any of his books,” replied the bespectacled Princeton ‘clerk’, “but if you will look in a certain magazine,” the bespectacled man continued, naming the month, title and year, “you will find a fair likeness of him.”

With that, the bespectacled man picked up his hat, bowed, and left.

Then the visitor noticed the real clerk. “Do you know who that man was?” The visitor asked the clerk.

“Professor Woodrow Wilson.” was the only answer that could be given.

The outspoken teacher

Wilson was outspoken about university education. “You don’t send a boy to college to find an education.” he insisted, “You send him [there] to find himself.”

President was outspoken about other things too, like the future of the Democratic Party in the Southern States.

“Let the South demand a rehabilitation of the Democratic party on the only lines that can restore it to dignity and power. Since 1896 the Democratic party has permitted its name to be used by men who ought never to have been admitted its councils — men who held principles and professed purposes which it had always hitherto repudiated . By themselves and under their proper designation as Populists and radical theorists, contemptuous alike of principle and experience. these men could never have played any role in national politics but that of a noisy minority.” Wilson told the Society of the Virginians at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York in 1904.

“It is now high time that the South, which has endured most by way of humiliation at the hands of this faction should demand that it be utterly and once for all thrust out of Democratic councils. The country does need a party of conservatives, acting in the spirit of the law and ancient institutions.”

While other professors thought it was more professional to keep their political ideas to themselves, Woodrow Wilson shared his with the world.

Wilson was also outspoken about America’s involvement in the Philippines, which me mentioned in career advice he gave to lawyers. He told them that they couldn’t find “precedent” in America’s relation to state-building there. Wilson also told lawyers to get an education.

“I ask you if you believe you now belong to a learned profession?” Wilson asked a group of lawyers “I do not believe any man can become a learned lawyer merely by reading cases. When we see students put into a laboratory to make experiments laid down in books I know they are not learning chemistry. There is a bread a butter pursuit of the law and another possibly less remunerative but leading to intellectual mastery.”

Knowing the past wasn’t everything. The “meeting of minds” was.

“I believe the only way to learn is by trying your mind alongside some other mind and drawing conclusions.” He said.

(I wonder what Woodrow Wilson would have thought about distance learning courses?)

Wilson’s political outspokenness led to a joke in a magazine that the President of Princeton should run for President of the United States. This joke was taken seriously by many people who liked what Woodrow Wilson PhD said, and Princeton’s President Wilson soon became Governor of New Jersey.

While some parts of the US supported his presidential bid as early as 1904, in parts of the South this Southerner was relatively unknown and obscure until the 1912 election that brought him to the White House.

Not bad for a kid who only learned to read at ten. (What he did when he got there is another story.)