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Woodrow Wilson

President, Princeton University/Governor of New Jersey/U.S. President

Centurion, 1904–1924

Full Name Thomas Woodrow Wilson

Born 28 December 1856 in Staunton, Virginia

Died 3 February 1924 in Washington, District of Columbia

Buried Washington National Cathedral, Washington, District of Columbia

Proposed by Elgin R. L. Gould and James W. Alexander

Elected 1 October 1904 at age forty-seven

Seconder of:

Century Memorials

There are coincidences in death as there are in life; coincidences which, occurring with men of mark, will sometimes emphasize the fact of the ending of an era. Our schoolboy histories used to point out the dramatic touch which the passing of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, on the same Independence Day of 1826, gave to the fact that the old Federalist party had at that date also breathed its last and that the Democratic party, led by new men with new ideas, was about to break with its State rights, strict-construction past. A somewhat similar realization that one chapter of contemporary history has closed and another opened is brought by the death, within the twelve-month, of Woodrow Wilson and Henry Cabot Lodge.

Although both of these well-known statesmen had been long-time members of the Century, neither was a familiar figure at the Clubhouse. Senator Lodge was said to prize his membership mostly as a mark of affiliation with the best intellectual group in New York City; Mr. Wilson was apt to visit the Club, on the rare occasions when he came, as a refuge from the exigencies and annoyances of politics. A few surviving Centurions will recall in 1912 the Sunday before Labor Day—the zero hour of Presidential battles—when Governor Wilson, then the Democratic candidate, sat at the Club’s dinner-table and frankly unfolded, to the one or two fellow-diners who had been left behind in the holiday exodus, his personal apprehension over what seemed the irresistible rolling ball of popular favor for the Third ticket and Mr. Roosevelt. It was a curious moment in campaign psychology, coming as it did at almost the very day of the campaign on which, in 1864, Mr. Lincoln sealed up for his cabinet the identical notes declaring his personal judgment that “this administration will not be re-elected.” Perhaps it needed the confidential atmosphere of the White House or the Century to make possible, at such a moment, such confessions of political misgiving.

Wilson and Lodge were outstanding figures in the epoch of American history which may be said to have begun in 1914 and to have ended perhaps in 1920, perhaps in 1924. Neither was identified exclusively, however, with the events of the intervening period. In Wilson’s case especially, future history will hardly overlook the reform of the currency in 1913; the establishment of the Federal Reserve, under resolute pressure from the new Democratic president and not without co-operation of the Senator from Massachusetts. Lodge’s championship of international copyright will similarly be remembered. But in the public mind, both men will be primarily associated, first with the episode of our attempted neutrality in the European war, then with our amazingly effective and triumphant participation in the struggle, then with that strange peace convocation in which the President of the United States seemed to reach the highest pinnacle of international prestige and personal authority in modern history, and at last with that other legislative battle which ensued at Washington, of which it is possible to say that while one side was overwhelmingly defeated the other side did not win.

We are even now too near to that embittered conflict to be sure just how far the legislative battle of 1919 was actually fought on the merits of the general issue, which was American participation in a union to preserve world peace, and how far it was fought on the incidents, passions and personalities of the day. Personal failings and personal mistakes had much to do with the controversy, and both protagonists were far too well-versed in political history not to recognize the fact. Reviewing, many years before 1919, the closing administrative days of our first president, Mr. Lodge cited the accusations of an excited Opposition that Washington’s conduct had been “improper and monarchical” and had “violated the Constitution”; described the refusal of Congress to follow the previously unbroken precedent of visiting the White House on the President’s birthday, and then remarked that “party feeling could hardly have gone further”; that “this single incident is sufficient to dispel the pleasing delusion that party strife and bitterness are the product of modern days.” Describing in his “History of the American People,” published long before the war, the wrecking of another American president’s public policies by the Senate, Mr. Wilson wrote that “a more moderate, more approachable, . . . less headstrong man might by conference have hit upon some plan by which his differences with the leaders in Congress would have been accommodated.”

Alexander Dana Noyes
1925 Century Association Yearbook

Wilson was born in Virginia, graduated from Princeton in 1879, and received a doctorate in History from Johns Hopkins, the only President to earn a Ph.D. In 1885, he married Ellen Louis Axson, who died in 1914, during Wilson’s first term. He is one of three presidents to be widowed while in office. The following year he married Edith Bolling Galt.

Wilson pursued an academic career, and in 1902, he became president of Princeton, where several of his major efforts at change ended in failures. He attempted to abolish upperclass eating clubs, a move that was fiercely opposed by one of the most powerful trustees Moses Taylor Pyne. His plan to locate the proposed graduate building in the same area as the undergrad colleges was also fruitless when he was opposed by Andrew Fleming West, the influential Dean of the graduate school.

Disenchanted, he was persuaded to run for New Jersey governor, and he was elected in 1910. Two years later, he was nominated for President at the Democratic convention. With Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft dividing the Republican Party vote, Wilson was elected. Possibly scarred by his battles at Old Nassau, his two administrations were remarkably free of Centurions: Newton D. Baker, Secretary of War, and Franklin K. Lane, Secretary of the Interior, joined the club during Wilson’s second term. Wilson was narrowly reelected in 1916, partly due to his slogan “he kept us out of the war,” but when Germany began unrestricted submarine warfare, he asked Congress to declare war on April 2, 1917.

After the Armistice in November 1918, Wilson went to Paris to help create the League of Nations and shape the Treaty of Versailles. For his efforts, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919. But his dream of seeing the U.S. as part of the League of Nations was not to be as the Treaty failed in the Republican controlled Congress. Wilson collapsed with a debilitating stroke in 1919 and died in 1924 in Washington.

James Charlton
“Centurions on Stamps,” Part I (Exhibition, 2010)