His official White House portrait

A feeble Wilson seemed to lose control of the presidency in 1919.
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1913: The president from Princeton
The Trentonian
It was Princeton where Wilson, as university head, conceived a dynamic scheme of educational reform. And it was Trenton where he served as New Jersey's governor and turned the state into a laboratory for political experiment.

Wilson was headstrong, brainy and bold. He was a passionate believer in the common people and he got votes by appealing to their idealism. In 1913, he took his democratic vision to the White House after winning a landslide election.

Wilson never forgot where he came from. "All the politics that are in me I learned in New Jersey," he said.

But the professor-turned-politician took on other, less welcome traits in his Jersey years. He made enemies easily, had no gift for compromise and gave an impression of self-righteousness.

"In many ways, he was a very practical, hard-headed politician, a man who worked out a carefully reasoned rationale to whatever position he took," said John Little, who helped edit Woodrow Wilson's papers at Princeton. "But, especially after he came down with his illness, he had a sense that everyone who wasn't with him was fighting the will of God and destiny."

Wilson was the only man ever elected president while New Jersey, but his origins were in the South.

He was born Thomas Woodrow Wilson on Dec. 29, 1856, in Staunton, Va., the son of a minister, and grew up amid Presbyterian piety. His parents read the Bible every day and taught their young son the virtues of both religion and education.

When Woodrow was 2, his family moved him to Augusta, Ga. With all the town schools closed because of the Civil War, and with what was probably a case of dyslexia, the boy did not learn to read until he was 9.

However, once he did read, he became an intense scholar. At 19, he packed off for Princeton, the traditional college for the sons of southern gentlemen. There, he joined the debating society and edited the student paper, The Princetonian.

Wilson graduated with the Class of 1879, uncertain about a career. Despite his upbringing, he was never really interested in becoming a minister. He got a law degree, wrote books on public affairs, and ended up becoming a professor. Eventually he was hired by his alma mater of Princeton.

Wilson was, first and foremost, a professor. He looked like a professor. He was thin and serious-faced, wore glasses and had a firmly set jaw. But he was not a cloistered academic -- in fact, he won a following as a popular writer and a lecturer who championed democracy.

"I want to write books which will be read by the great host who don't wear spectacles," he wrote to his first wife, Ellen, as a young man.

In 1902, Princeton's board of trustees named Wilson the new university president. It was a remarkable choice, since the college -- founded as a training school for clergymen -- never before had a layman in charge.

Wilson quickly showed an independent and open-minded nature. He adopted a widely copied teaching system using tutors, and he set rigorous new standards that propelled Princeton into the front rank of American universities along with Harvard and Yale.

But Wilson's reforms caused grumbling among the old guard who preferred their college to be cozy and comfortable. "He's ruining a fine country club," one was heard to say.

Eventually, Wilson overreached himself with plans to wipe out Princeton's exclusive eating clubs for socially privileged students and to place a graduate school on-campus. He lost both fights and, by 1910, was a frustrated man.

Salvation came from New Jersey's Democratic bosses. They needed a candidate for governor 

who could be portrayed as a reformer, but not the real thing.

Wilson seemed to fit the bill perfectly. He'd made his mark as a popular hero in his fight against snobbery at Princeton, but rarely said anything controversial about state politics.

The election of 1910 gave Wilson the greatest victory ever won by a Democratic candidate for governor. Newark's Democratic boss, Jim Smith, asked for payback in the form of political favors. Even before taking office, Wilson refused, winning acclaim for his principled stand.

The battle with the bosses gave the new governor the momentum he needed for an unprecedented mission of reform. New Jersey's Legislature at the time was dominated by special interests: railroads, insurance companies, John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil.

Wilson took them all on, and won.

He signed the nation's first workman's compensation law; set up primary elections; reformed campaign finance; regulated utilities; and allowed cities to choose nonpartisan governments.

Political observers everywhere were amazed by how Wilson the academic had descended on Trenton's State House and "licked the gang to a frazzle," as one put it.

Wilson acted nonchalant. "The bunch of New Jersey politicians I have been dealing with," he said, "are neophytes in the arts of intrigue compared with some of these Princeton politicians."

With little more than a year as governor, Wilson had achieved such stunning success that he was the Northeast Democrats' leading choice for president in the 1912 elections. It took 46 ballots, but the party convention in Baltimore ended up nominating him.

That year, the Republicans split between the conservative William Howard Taft and the Bull Moose progressives of Theodore Roosevelt. Wilson, who propounded a moderate course of reform he called "The New Freedom," was never flashy on the campaign trail. But he talked common sense and won voters' minds, if not their hearts. He won in a landslide -- 40 of 48 states.

On March 3, 1913, Wilson left his home on Princeton's Cleveland Lane for a train to Washington.
Students serenaded him with "Old Nassau." The next day, he was sworn in as president -- the last man ever to ride to his inauguration in a horse-drawn carriage.

For the rest of his life, Wilson maintained his voting address at 10 Nassau St., but never again would he even stay the night in the borough.

Wilson now had a national stage to perform on, and he repeated his Trenton magic in a dazzling first year in the White House.

In 1913 alone, he pushed through laws to set up the federal banking system, lower the tariff and create the first progressive income tax. In later years, he would abolish child labor and set up the eight-hour day for federal employees.

Wilson also became the first president in more than 100 years to address Congress directly -- using his speeches as a way to get the public directly involved in political affairs.

"He was the president who first showed us that government could work for the people, and that people could achieve things through government, if they were given an opportunity," said Carl Mayer, a Wilson admirer who once served as Princeton Township committeeman and ran for Congress as a Green Party candidate in 1998.

"He was never beholden to the special interests, and it's a shame that more politicians don't follow his example today," Mayer said.

Ironically, however, it was foreign affairs -- which Wilson had never been interested in -- that would determine his place in history.

With World War I costing millions of lives, Wilson tried desperately to stay neutral and won re-election on the slogan, "He kept us out of war."

But the pressure to get involved was too great, and in 1917, Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany.

"The world must be made safe for democracy," he said, promising a war without conquest and a just, fair peace.

Once the terrible conflict finally ended in 1918, Wilson foresaw a League of Nations that would bind the world in peacekeeping arrangements.

However, his enemies in the Senate attached conditions to the peace treaty that he thought were unacceptable. Wilson toured the country to drum up support for his own plan and against the Senate.

He collapsed with a stroke in October 1919, lay paralyzed for months and fell into a harsh, uncompromising mood that doomed any chance for a League. For months, his second wife, Edith, effectively ran the country.

Wilson ended his life a bitter man, predicting -- quite correctly -- that Europe would explode into another war within 20 years. Months before his death in 1924, he made his last speech.

"I am not one of those who have the least anxiety about the triumph of the principles I have stood for," he said, resting feebly against a cane in front of his Washington house. "That we shall prevail is as sure as that God reigns."

                           First published Nov. 1, 1998
Before Woodrow Wilson became our 28th president, before he entered World War I to "make the world safe for democracy" and before he transformed American life with his progressive agenda, he got his schooling in public life in Princeton and Trenton.