WOODROW WILSON: A PROGRESSIVE MAN OF HIS ERA

Woodrow WilsonBorn in Staunton, Virginia, in December 1856, Thomas Woodrow Wilson came to Augusta with his family in 1858 when his father accepted the position as minister of First Presbyterian Church. Here he spent his childhood during some of the most tumultuous times in the country’s history—the Civil War and early years of Reconstruction. The boyhood home presents the facts of young Wilson’s life and family in the context of the 1860s and 1870s. Wilson, like other presidents, was a product of his times and the boyhood home examines influences of this place and time on his formation including education, religion, family, interactions with others, environment, and war. The family left Augusta in 1870 for Columbia, South Carolina. Wilson soon entered college, first at Davidson, then Princeton, where he graduated in 1879. After a year in law school at the University of Virginia and a brief stint practicing law, Wilson pursued his intellectual interests in graduate school at John Hopkins University, obtaining a Ph.D. in 1885. After teaching at Bryn Mawr and Wesleyan, Wilson returned in 1890 to Princeton, where he spent the remainder of his academic career. Wilson never returned to the South to live, spending the rest of his life in the North or the nation’s capital, although he always considered himself a Southerner, and married two Southern women.

Wilson became a recognized scholar of history and political science, publishing nine books on government and history, and a popular professor, known among faculty as well as students for his inspiring oratory. In 1902, Wilson became president of Princeton. With his stress on intellectual interchange among faculty and students, and reforms to diminish campus elitism, Wilson put the university on the path to becoming the highly regarded academic institution it is today. In 1910 Wilson became the Democratic governor of New Jersey where he earned a reputation as a progressive. Two years later the party chose Wilson as it nominee for president in 1912. With the Republican Party split, he won office on his “New Freedom” platform.

 

 

Wilson inaugurationWilson’s presidency included significant measures in business and finance, including anti-trust legislation and the Federal Reserve System. He supported the working class with the establishment of the Department of Labor and measures including the first federal legislation for work hour regulation for railroad workers, workman’s compensation for federal employees hurt on the job, and child labor legislation. He was not an initial supporter of the woman’s suffrage amendment to the Constitution, but changed his position during World War I. Although his platform in 1912 had reflected racial moderation and received support from African American leaders, his administration was a major disappointment for racial progressives. His appointments of Southerners to two of his Cabinet posts led to the segregation of federal executive departments and he did nothing to prevent states from segregating or removing African American entirely from federal jobs within their states. Although some of his writings have been taken out of context, Wilson reflected the racism of the times, often called the ‘nadir’ for African Americans.

 

 

Wilson at his deskWilson is best known for foreign policy, including his efforts to mediate in World War I and his vision for a different world as seen in his famous Fourteen Points. This included the League of Nations, which he was able to convince America’s allies to include in the Treaty of Versailles, albeit without his own country’s participation. His experiences with war as a child growing up in Augusta were influences in his vision of a “war to end all wars” and make the world “safe for democracy.”

The boyhood home is interpreted for the time the Wilsons lived in the house. Furnishings and accessories are either original to the home or appropriate to that time. In the Joseph Rucker Lamar Boyhood Home, next door, which is also headquarters to Historic Augusta, Inc., a soon-to-be completed exhibit will explore later aspects of Wilson’s life and times including his academic career, his presidency, his pastimes, his family, and his attitudes on issues of race, class, and gender.