On this day in 1856, future President Woodrow Wilson is born in Staunton, Virginia. He attended private schools and graduated from Princeton University in 1879 before studying law at the University of Virginia and earning his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. He was hired by Princeton as a professor of political science in 1899 and went on to serve as the institution’s president from 1902 to 1910. As Princeton’s head administrator, he revolutionized its teaching program and was largely responsible for elevating Princeton to its current prestige. Wilson’s management of Princeton also earned the attention of Democratic Party leaders, who encouraged him to run for political office. Wilson once admitted that if he hadn’t entered politics he would have been happy to live out his life teaching and playing golf, his favorite past time.
Wilson’s political career, once launched, was meteoric. It began with his election as governor of New Jersey in 1910; two years later he was elected president of the United States, a position he held until 1921.
Wilson led the nation through World War I and left a legacy of international diplomacy. The war, fought between 1914 and 1919, grimly illustrated to Wilson the critical relationship between international stability and American national security. In January 1919, at the Paris peace conference that ended the war, Wilson urged Allied leaders to draft a Covenant of League of Nations to help prevent another devastating world conflict. Having sold the plan to European leaders, Wilson had to convince Congress to ratify it. This proved a tougher challenge: Congress regarded the League as a threat to America’s sovereignty and refused to adopt the agreement. Undeterred, Wilson embarked on a tour across the United States in 1919 to ask the public’s support for the League, hoping voters would pressure Congress to adopt the plan.
The arduous tour, during which he traveled 8,000 miles in 22 days, took such a toll on Wilson that he suffered a stroke on October 2. He recovered and finished out his second term in office. Though Congress never ratified the Versailles peace treaty or the covenant, Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1920. He died on February 23, 1924.