- Historic Sites
The Courtship Of Woodrow Wilson
October 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 6
Among the many treasures left behind by the highly literate Chief Executive, Woodrow Wilson, is a storehouse of 1,400 letters between him and his first wife. Ellen Axson Wilson, whom he married in 1885 and who died in the White House in 1914, during his first term.
It is something of a historical event that a representative selection from these letters is now to be published, skillfully edited in a book entitled The Priceless Gift , by Mrs. Eleanor Wilson McAdoo, youngest daughter of Woodrow and Ellen Wilson. It offers a macthless and sometimes surprising insight into the character of one of our most famous Presidents. In the letters to the girl he loved, Wilson exposed his deepest feelings without concealment or restraint. Many of his well-known traits—idealism, intensity, uncompromising integrity, persistence—are run amply seen; but unfamiliar fucets are also revealed—drollery, self-mockery, even jealousy.
The Priceless Gift will be published later this month by the McGraw-Book Company, and A MERICAN H ERITAGE here presents a condensation from the first part of it, covering the courtship of Ellen Axson and Woodrow Wilson, from their meeting in 1853 until their marriage in 1885. Not only do these letters tell us very much about the remarkable couple who wrote them, but they also bring back nostalgically an era when courtship was more decorous, more formal, almost comically elaborate, and yet in some sense more passionate than it is in our times.
There is a city in Georgia called Rome because it is built on seven bills. In 18815 it was a very small city. Gardens enclosed its stately old bouses, tall trees sheltered the streets, and no one was ever in a hurry.
On an April Sunday the bills were bright with new grass, and the apple orchards in the valleys were in full bloom. It was a warm day, made for picnics or for la/.y talk on cool verandas, but it never occurred to young Thomas Woodrow Wilson to do anything of the sort. All his life, wherever he was, or whatever the weather, he went to church on Sunday.
Wilson was—rather unsuccessfully—practicing law in Atlanta in 1883 and had gone to Rome to consult his uncle, James Bones, about a legal mailer. He was twenty-six—a tall, thin young man with large gray eyes, brown hair, side whiskers, and a stubborn chin; a determined young man, with a goal in life. He intended to have a distinguished career. In politics? In the literary world? That remained to be seen. In the meantime, he had discarded his first name. Short, allerative, and unusual, Woodrow Wilson would be a naiMjiot easily forgotten.
Mr. and Mrs. James Bones and their married daughter, Jessie Brewer, took Woodrow to their own church, the First Presbyterian, that morning, and his usual Sunday mood of contentment was increased by the lact that his father’s friend Mr. Axson was the minister of the church and a very good preacher. Then a girl in a pew near the pulpit turned her head to whisper to the small boy beside her, and Woodrow’s attention wandered. Her profile, silhouetted against the black veil draped over her hat, was delightful. A liptilted little nose, a perfect complexion, a sweetly curved mouth, ,and hair like burnished copper. Woodrow stared shamelessly until the girl looked again at the preacher; then he forced his eyes and his mind back to Mr. Axson and the sermon. But when the service was over he asked his aunt who the pretty girl was.
“Why, that’s Ellie Lou Axson,” she told him. She was a “talented artist” and had read “all the classics.” She was “one of the rarest and most beautiful girls that ever lived in Rome.” Her mother had died in child-birth, and Ellie Lou kept house for her father.
Woodrow decided then and there that it was his duty to call on his father’s friend, Mr. Axson, as soon as possible.
Six months later, in a letter to Ellen Louise Axson, he wrote of that first visit, … But though I was still delighted with [your] face, I still at the end ol that call could regard it with dispassionate criticism. But … it was not very long alter that that I walked home with you from Jessie’s “ and I remember leaving you that afternoon with a feeling that I had found a new and altogether delightful sort of companion. Passion was beginning to enter into the criticism, and had pretty nearly gotten the better of it by the time we had climbed to the top of the hill. …
Woodrow went back, reluctantly, to the frustrating practice of law in Atlanta. He had about reached the conclusion that he had chosen the wrong profession. Aside from his failure to meet expenses, he did not like the practice of law. He had time and to spare for writing, but not the right environment. The libraries in Atlanta were inadequate, and he had found no intellectual companions. He wrote, finally, to his most valued confidant and friend, his lather, and asked for advice. The Reverend Joseph Wilson suggested that he give up his law practice and take a postgraduate course at Johns Hopkins University. Alter that he could easily earn a living as a professor and a writer.