Introduction to Every Leader
Being There: Encountering America's Presidents
28th President of the United States, 1913-1921
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Woodrow Wilson House
Washington, DC

Woodrow Wilson House
Woodrow Wilson House
A National Trust Historic Site, Washington, DC

Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States, served two very different terms of office.  Elected as a reformer in 1913, he enacted many reforms that are still part of the American political system.  Reelected in 1916, in part on his “He Kept Us Out of War” slogan, Wilson saw World War I take over his second term.  In 1917, he reluctantly called the nation to join in the struggle to “make the world safe for democracy” and directed the American support essential to Allied victory.  He played a central role in creating the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I.  When Wilson returned from Versailles, however, he discovered that the country’s mood had changed.  Support for the League of Nations, which Wilson saw as an essential part of the peace treaty, had sharply declined.  During an intense and exhausting speaking tour, he suffered a debilitating stroke, and the League went down to defeat.  A broken man, he retired at the end of his term to spend the last three years of his life at what is now the Woodrow Wilson House.  His second wife, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, selected the handsome Georgian mansion near Embassy Row in Washington, DC as an appropriate residence for a former president.  The Wilsons moved into their new home on March 4, 1921, the day of Warren G. Harding’s inauguration. A few hundred people gathered outside to honor the ex-President, and they gathered again on Armistice Day and Wilson's birthday every year until his death in 1924.

Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia in 1856.  His father was a Presbyterian minister.  The family lived in the South through the Civil War and Reconstruction. Wilson graduated from Princeton in 1879.  He got a law degree from Johns Hopkins and practiced briefly but soon gave that up.  He returned to Johns Hopkins in 1883 and completed his Ph.D. in 1886.  He married Ellen Axson, also the child of a Presbyterian minister, in 1885.  Wilson was teaching political science at Princeton in 1902, when the college trustees unanimously elected him president.  During his nine years as president, he set out to reform the institution, against opposition from many faculty and alumni.  His work as a reformer attracted the attention of the New Jersey Democratic Party.  In 1910, Wilson resigned from Princeton to run for governor of New Jersey, on a platform of moderate progressive reform and opposition to trusts and high tariffs.  Winning by a wide margin, he enacted many reforms.

By 1911, Wilson was already seeking the presidential nomination, but the Democratic National Convention did not nominate him until the 46th ballot.  He campaigned on a program of “New Freedom,” to return the government to the people and control special privileges.  Running against Republican William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, the candidate of the Progressive Party, Wilson won with only 42 percent of the popular vote.

President Wilson's Drawing Room
President Wilson's Drawing Room
Woodrow Wilson House, A National Trust Historic Site, Washington, DC

Wilson saw the president as the personal representative of all the people.  During his first term, he succeeded in getting many reform initiatives through Congress.  The Underwood Act lowered tariffs and introduced the first graduated income tax.  The Federal Reserve Act reformed and stabilized the banking system.  The Federal Trade Commission Act outlawed unfair business practices.  Other legislation prohibited child labor, regulated hours of work on the railroads, and established labor’s right to organize and to strike.  On August 25, 1916, President Wilson signed the act creating the National Park Service to protect the country’s 35 national parks and monuments.

In foreign affairs, President Wilson continued his predecessors’ policies of intervention in Latin America and the Caribbean, but his main concern was the war that had broken out in Europe in August of 1914.  Although he immediately declared American neutrality, he soon had to face a British blockade of neutral shipping.  The German decision to use its submarines to sink neutral ships without warning, often with great loss of life, was an even more serious challenge.  Although Wilson’s protest temporarily ended the sinkings, American popular opinion began to turn against Germany and its allies. 

Wilson narrowly won reelection in 1916, based on his domestic reform program and his ability to keep the nation out of the war in Europe.  His attempts to persuade Britain and Germany to accept a “peace without victory” in early 1917 were unsuccessful.  When Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, sinking four American ships, Congress declared war on April 2,1917.  The mobilization of men and supplies that Wilson directed played a critical role in the Allied victory.

President Wilson's Garden at the Woodrow Wilson House

President Wilson's Garden Woodrow Wilson House
A National Trust Historic Site,Washington, DC

The "Fourteen Points" that Wilson articulated as a basis for lasting peace had a strong influence on the armistice that ended the war.  Forced to make compromises at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, he managed to include the creation of a League of Nations as an integral part of the peace treaty.  He saw the League as the place where problems that might grow out of the treaty could be resolved peacefully.  Wilson won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919.

When Wilson returned to Washington, DC in the summer of 1919, he presented the treaty to the Senate for ratification.  The Republicans took over control of the Senate in 1918, when the end of the war produced a new wave of isolationist sentiment, but Wilson refused to compromise.  He insisted that the treaty, and the League of Nations at its heart, be accepted without change.  In September, he launched a "whistle-stop" tour to build public support for ratification, against the advice of his doctor.  Wilson was a spellbinding speaker, and some people think he might have succeeded, but on October 2, 1919, he collapsed from a paralytic stroke.  The Versailles Treaty failed in the Senate by seven votes.  It took until the Harding administration to pass a joint congressional resolution formally ending the war.

Portrait of Edith B.Wilson in the dining room

Portrait of Edith B.Wilson in the dining room
Woodrow Wilson House,
A National Trust Historic Site,Washington, DC

The year after the death of his first wife in 1914, Wilson married widow, Edith Bolling Galt. Some historians call her "the first female president of the United States" for the role she played in hiding the effects of her husband’s disabling illness from the public during his last year and a half in office.  She began searching for a permanent residence in Washington in 1920.  Delighted with a handsome five-year old Georgian mansion she found at 2340 S Street NW, she informed her husband that it would make an ideal retirement home.  On December 14, Wilson surprised his wife by presenting her with the deed.  Before moving in, the Wilsons made a number of changes to accommodate Wilson’s condition.  They installed an elevator to make it easier for him to move around and created a terrace off the second-floor dining room, so that Wilson could walk outside without having to negotiate steps.  They also added a billiard room and enlarged the library to accommodate his 8,000 books. Wilson spent his three remaining years in partial seclusion, cared for by his wife and servants. Except for a daily automobile ride and a weekly visit to the movies, he rarely left home or received guests.  On Armistice Day in 1923, he spoke to more than 20,000 well-wishers who came to the house to honor him, still affirming the principles in which he believed. It was his last public appearance.  He died three months later in his upstairs bedroom.

Wilson’s widow donated the S Street house and many of its furnishings to the National Trust for Historic Preservation but continued to live in the house until her death in 1961.  The Trust opened it to the public in 1963.  Today, visitors can see the three-story, red brick neo-Georgian house, as it was when Wilson lived there. The front door opens to a marble-floored entrance hall and stairway, flanked by the kitchen, servants' dining room, and billiard room.  The main public spaces, a drawing room facing S Street, library, dining room, and solarium overlooking the garden, are on the second floor. The third floor contains five bedrooms.  Original furnishings include portraits, books, autographed photographs of world leaders, commemorative china, and Bolling family furniture.  The library holds the leather chair Wilson used at Cabinet meetings and numerous personal effects. The Bible on which he took the oath of office as governor and as president is on display in the drawing room.  Radios, silent movies, dresses, and personal items reflect the Wilsons’ day-to-day lives.

Plan your visit

The Woodrow Wilson House at 2340 S St., NW Washington, DC. has been designated a National Historic Landmark. Click here for the National Historic Landmark registration file: text and photos.  The house is open Tuesday-Sunday from 10:00am to 4:00pm and closed on major holidays. An entrance fee is charged. For more information visit the National Trust for Historic Preservation Woodrow Wilson House website or call 202-387-4062.

The site is the subject of an online lesson plan, Woodrow Wilson: Prophet of Peace.  The lesson plan has been produced by the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places program, which offers a series of online classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places. To learn more, visit the Teaching with Historic Places home page. The Woodrow Wilson House has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey. The Woodrow Wilson House is featured in the National Park Service Washington, DC Travel Itinerary.

The Woodrow Wilson Birthplace is featured in the National Park Service Virginia Main Street Communities Travel Itinerary. The Woodrow Wilson Boyhood Home is featured in the National Park Service's Augusta, GA Travel Itinerary

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