Historic Augusta symposium sheds new light on Woodrow Wilson’s character

Woodrow Wilson was an American president of firsts: The first president with an earned doctorate, to leave the shores of the U.S. while still in office, to view a film in the White House, to attend a World Series game, to give an amplified speech and to visit the Pope.

And yet, apart from his leadership throughout and in the years following World War I, it is perhaps Wilson’s relationship with the women in his life that defined his presidency.

Wilson was surrounded by strong women. His first wife, Ellen, was both intelligent and nurturing, and he ensured that his three daughters were all college-educated. Wilson also passed the 19th Amendment, granting women’s suffrage at a time when the idea of women voting was still quite controversial.

“I hope women remember me the next time they go to the polls, as they are entirely indebted to me,” he said.

Part of that reason, according to Frank Aucello, executive director of the Washington D.C. Woodrow Wilson House, was because Wilson was a strict constitutional scholar.

He did not believe that the founding document of American government was there to be messed around with at every change of public sentiment. But part of that side of his character was a product of the times. While he was an abolitionist, he also strongly believed in segregation.

“That’s part of him that cannot be glossed over,” Aucello said. He was the son of a Presbyterian minister who broke from the national church over the issue of slavery.

That was Wilson. Perhaps one of the most iconic presidents ever to serve in
office, with his beaver pelt top hat and severe pince-nez glasses, he was also one of the most complicated.

“The reason why people have this instant impression is because of the media at the time,” Aucello said. “People don’t understand that he was a family man.”

Wilson worked hard to keep his public and private lives separate, so much so that historians’ true picture of him became clear only after his death, when his memoirs and memories of people to whom he had been close started to become available.

“My constant embarrassment is to restrain the emotions that are inside me,” Wilson once said.

Despite the fact that Wilson was elected as a progressive reformer with a strong domestic restructuring agenda in 1913, he was almost immediately faced with international crisis.

“It would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs,” he told a colleague before he left for Washington.

He fought the crisis of foreign affairs on two fronts: to the South, he chased Pancho Villa around the Mexican desert. To the East, he faced World War I. But he kept the U.S. out of it as long as he could, until after the sinking of the U.S.S. Lusitania tipped the weight of public and political opinion towards American involvement.

And the shell of the first shot that American troops took in that war sits in the exhibit that Historic Augusta currently hosts, alongside the clothes of surrender used by German troops at the end of that war.

Wilson 150: The Exhibition
Joseph R. Lamar Boyhood Home
Through May 23, 2008
706-724-0436
historicaugusta.org

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