Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924)

By Judd Bankert

Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia, on December 28, 1856 to Reverend Dr. Joseph Wilson and Janet Woodrow Wilson. He was raised in Georgia and dropped his first name in early manhood. Wilson graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1879, studied law at the University of Virginia from 1879 to 1880, and did graduate work in history, economics, and political science at The Johns Hopkins University from 1883 to 1885 to earn a PhD in 1886.   

Wilson taught at Bryn Mawr College (1885-1888), Wesleyan University (1888-1890), and Princeton (1890-1902).  During this period, he emerged as a leading political scientist, historian, and general writer, publishing (among other works) Congressional Government, The State, Division and Reunion, and A History of the American People.  His last scholarly work, Constitutional Government in the United States, was published in 1908. These books demonstrated Wilson’s oratory and literary abilities as well as his penchant for new and progressive ideas.

Elected president of Princeton University in 1902, Wilson led a general movement to upgrade the institution by reorganizing the curriculum, introducing new teaching methods, and enriching the faculty.  Failure to achieve social reorganization of undergraduate life and a bitter dispute over the construction of the graduate college caused Wilson to resign in 1910.  In that same year Wilson was elected Governor of New Jersey.  His success in winning reform legislation led to his nomination for the Presidency by the Democratic Party and to his election to that office in 1912, in large part because the Republican Party was split by the bolting of Theodore Roosevelt.  

From 1913 to 1915, Wilson and the Democratic Congress enacted what is called the “New Freedom” program.  Aimed at expanding economic opportunity and encouraging competition, it included tariff reduction, establishment of the Federal Reserve System, new antitrust legislation, the first child-labor act, federal rural credits, and the eight-hour day for railroad workers.  Re-elected by a narrow margin in November 1916, Wilson sought to mediate the First World War, only to see his own country drawn into the conflict in April 1917, as a result of an all-out German submarine campaign against merchant shipping.  Wilson energetically led the American people and vitalized the economy for a total war effort as he emerged as the chief spokesman for a just and lasting peace settlement.

When war ended in an Armistice on November 11, 1918, Wilson went to Paris to attend the Peace Conference in order to fight  for his program in person. The reformist attitude as well as his desire to increase equality and fair peaceful practices were embodied in his Fourteen Points.  These included the end of secret alliances, a justice settlement of colonial claims, restitution of Belgium, return of Alsace-Lorraine to France, autonomy for the subject peoples of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, and the establishment of a League of Nations.  He won only some of his objectives in the Treaty of Versailles, but it did include Wilson’s great hope for the postwar world—the League of Nations.   

Having lost control of Congress in 1918, Wilson became embroiled in a controversy with Republicans over ratification of the treaty.  In an effort to rally popular support for the treaty and the League he undertook a strenuous speaking tour of the West in September 1919, only to suffer a severe stroke. Wilson and his chief Republican opponent, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, were largely responsible because they could not reconcile their differences the Senate refused to consent to the ratification of the treaty and America would never join the League.  Wilson left the White House as an invalid in March of 1921.  He died less than three years later on February 3, 1924 at age 67 at his Washington home.  He is buried in the National Cathedral, the only President who is laid to rest in the Nation’s capitol.    

Recommended Reading

Clements, Kendrick A.  Woodrow Wilson: World Statesman. Dee, 1999.

Cooper, John Milton, Jr.  Woodrow Wilson: a Biography. Knopf, 2009.

Levin, Phyllis Lee.  Edith and Woodrow. Drew, 2001.

Smith, Gene.  When the Cheering Stopped. Morrow, 1964.

Wilson, Woodrow.  The New Freedom. Doubleday, 1913.

Judd Bankert

In the fall of 2000 the curator of the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace spotted someone at a reception who bore a remarkable resemblance to the 28th President, and since then, Judd Bankert has been portraying President Wilson as part of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Birthplace's living-history program.  Mr. Bankert has performed in scores of special interpretive programs and spoken at both public and private receptions.  Living in Staunton, Virginia, the home of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Birthplace, Mr. Bankert has access to one of the best research facilities for Wilson scholarship in the country.  This, combined with an interest in history and experience as an educator (he was a certified K-8 teacher), has enabled Mr. Bankert to create unique programs drawing from the writings and speeches of America's 28th President.   

Bullet Points

Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States, famously rallied the American people to make “the world safe for democracy.”  Determined that America would not spend her blood and her might on anything less than a “war to end all wars,” Wilson would personally lead the American peace delegation to Paris in 1919 and make the creation of a League of Nations, a general association of nations to ensure world peace, the foundational component of the Treaty of Versailles.   Locked in a bitter struggle with the U.S. Senate whose Republican majority was opposed to America joining the League, he took his appeal directly to the American people.  In an attempt to rally support for the League Wilson, already in poor health, in the fall of 1919 undertook a whistle-stop tour of the nation only to suffer a paralytic stroke which effectively doomed his effort and ultimately the League.


“When I think over what we are engaged in doing in the field of politics, I conceive it this way, men who are behind any interest always unite in organization, and the danger in every country is that these special interests will be the only things organized, and that the common interest will be unorganized against them. The business of government is to organize the common interest against the special interests. “  

“My vision of America is not in terms of a great political power, nor of a rich nation, but in terms of moral leadership and service to humanity.”

“No man is a true Christian who does not think of how he can lift his brother, how he can assist his friend, how he can enlighten mankind, how he can make virtue the rule of conduct in the circle in which he lives.”

“I would rather fail in a cause that someday will triumph than win in a cause that I know some day will fail.  I am confident that what I have fought for and stood for is for the benefit of this nation and of mankind.  If this is so I believe that it ultimately will prevail, and if it is not, I don't want it to prevail.”

“It bores me to have men waste my time in general terms.  What I want to know is how it is to be done. I am never interested until that point is reached. When I was teaching and my students would offer me a general proposition, I would send them away telling them to draw up an act of Congress to do it. They did not often come back. I am not interested until a practical method is proposed--that is, I suppose that in government I am a pragmatist; my first thought is, will it work?"  

“But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest to our hearts - for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own Governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety of all nations and make the World itself at last free.”


1856 - Thomas Woodrow Wilson born, Staunton, Virginia.

1902 - Elected president of Princeton.

1910-13 - Governor of New Jersey.

1912 - Elected President of the United States.

1914 - World War I (The Great War) begins in Europe.

1915 - Lusitania sunk, resulting in the death of 1,201 passengers, including 128 Americans.

1916 - Reelected President of the United States.

1917 - Requests declaration of war against Germany.

1918 - Armistice ends World War I.

1918 - Sails to Europe to lead American peace delegation to Paris peace conference.  

1919 - Treaty of Versailles, calling for the creation of a League of Nations, signed.

1919 - Suffers paralytic stroke while on speaking trip in support of the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles.  

1919 - Senate defeats Treaty of Versailles.

1921 - Second term as president of the United States ends.

1924 - Dies at age 67 at home on S. Street, Washington, DC.