Biography of Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States

President Woodrow Wilson and wife Edith in 1918

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Woodrow Wilson (December 28, 1856–February 3, 1924) was the 28th president of the United States, serving from 1913 to 1921. Prior to that, Wilson was the governor of New Jersey. Although he won reelection with the slogan "He kept us out of war," Wilson was the commander-in-chief when the country finally entered World War I on April 6, 1917.

Fast Facts: Woodrow Wilson

  • Known For: Wilson was the president of the United States from 1913 to 1921.
  • Born: December 28, 1856 in Staunton, Virginia
  • Parents: Joseph Ruggles Wilson, a Presbyterian Minister, and Janet Woodrow Wilson
  • Died: February 3, 1924 in Washington, D.C.
  • Education: Davidson College, Princeton University, University of Virginia, Johns Hopkins University
  • Awards and Honors: Nobel Peace Prize
  • Spouse(s): Ellen Axson (m. 1885–1914), Edith Bolling (m. 1915–1924)
  • Children: Margaret, Jessie, Eleanor

Early Life

Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born on December 28, 1856, in Staunton, Virginia. He was the son of Joseph Ruggles Wilson, a Presbyterian Minister, and Janet "Jessie" Woodrow Wilson. He had two sisters and one brother.

Shortly after Wilson's birth, his family soon moved to Augusta, Georgia, where Wilson was educated at home. In 1873, he went to Davidson College but soon dropped out due to health issues. He entered the College of New Jersey—now known as Princeton University—in 1875. Wilson graduated in 1879 and went on to study at the University of Virginia School of Law. He was admitted to the bar in 1882. Being a lawyer, however, was not to his liking, and Wilson soon returned to school with plans to become an educator. He eventually earned a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1886.


On June 23, 1885, Wilson married Ellen Louis Axson, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. They would eventually have three daughters: Margaret Woodrow Wilson, Jessie Woodrow Wilson, and Eleanor Randolph Wilson.


Wilson served as a professor at Bryn Mawr College from 1885 to 1888 and then as a professor of history at Wesleyan University from 1888 to 1890. Wilson then became a professor of political economy at Princeton. In 1902, he was appointed president of Princeton University, a post he held until 1910. In 1911, Wilson was elected governor of New Jersey. In this position, he made a name for himself by passing progressive reforms, including laws to reduce public corruption.

Presidential Election of 1912

By 1912, Wilson had become a popular figure in progressive politics and actively campaigned for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. After reaching out to other leaders in the party, Wilson was able to secure the nomination, with Indiana governor Thomas Marshall as the vice presidential nominee. Wilson was opposed not only by incumbent President William Taft but also by Bull Moose candidate Theodore Roosevelt. The Republican Party was divided between Taft and Roosevelt, allowing Wilson to easily win the presidency with 42% of the vote. (Roosevelt received 27% of the vote and Taft garnered 23%.)


One of the first events of Wilson's presidency was the passage of the Underwood Tariff. This reduced tariff rates from 41 to 27 percent. It also created the first federal income tax after the passage of the 16th Amendment.

In 1913, the Federal Reserve Act created the Federal Reserve system to help deal with economic highs and lows. It provided banks with loans and helped smooth out business cycles.

In 1914, the Clayton Anti-Trust Act was passed to improve labor rights. The law created protections for important labor negotiating tactics such as strikes, pickets, and boycotts.

During this time, a revolution was occurring in Mexico. In 1914, Venustiano Carranza took over the Mexican government. However, Pancho Villa held much of northern Mexico. When Villa crossed into the United States in 1916 and killed 17 Americans, Wilson sent 6,000 troops under General John Pershing to the area. Pershing pursued Villa into Mexico, upsetting the Mexican government and Carranza.

World War I began in 1914 when Archduke Francis Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist. Due to agreements made among the European nations, many countries eventually joined the war. The Central Powers—Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Bulgaria—fought against the Allies, Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Japan, Portugal, China, and Greece. America initially remained neutral, and Wilson was renominated to run for the presidency in 1916 on the first ballot along with Marshall as his vice president. He was opposed by Republican Charles Evans Hughes. The Democrats used the slogan, "He kept us out of war," as they campaigned for Wilson. Hughes had a lot of support, but Wilson ultimately won in a close election with 277 out of 534 electoral votes.

In 1917, the United States entered World War I on the side of the Allies. Two reasons were the sinking of the British ship Lusitania, which killed 120 Americans, and the Zimmerman telegram, which revealed that Germany was trying to get an agreement with Mexico to form an alliance if the United States entered the war.

Pershing led American troops into battle, helping defeat the Central Powers. An armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. The Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919, blamed the war on Germany and demanded huge reparations. It also created a League of Nations. In the end, the U.S. Senate would not ratify the treaty and would never join the League.


In 1921, Wilson retired in Washington, D.C. He was very sick. On February 3, 1924, he died of complications from a stroke.


Woodrow Wilson played a huge role in determining if and when America would get involved in World War I. He was an isolationist at heart who attempted to keep America out of the war. However, with the sinking of the Lusitania, the continued harassment of American ships by German submarines, and the release of the Zimmerman Telegram, America would not be held back. Wilson fought for the creation of the League of Nations to help avert another world war; his efforts won him the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize.


  • Cooper, John Milton Jr. "Woodrow Wilson: a Biography." Random House, 2011.
  • Maynard, W. Barksdale. "Woodrow Wilson: Princeton to the Presidency." Yale University Press, 2013.
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Kelly, Martin. "Biography of Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States." ThoughtCo, Jul. 29, 2021, Kelly, Martin. (2021, July 29). Biography of Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "Biography of Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).