The Courtship Of Woodrow Wilson


Christmas of 1883 found the lovers still separated. Woodrow had to stay in Baltimore to study for examinations, while Ellen was now living in Savannah with her grandparents. The only indulgence Woodrow allowed himself during the holidays was to write to her every day instead of every other day. He wore himself out with overstudy:

Balto., Jan’y 4, 1884 … I was both exhausted and intensely nervous and I am just now beginning to feel like my old self again. The last day or two I have been restlessly wandering about trying to bridge over a sort of enforced idleness, the most interesting results of my half-crazy condition having been three successive all-night dreams of you. The first visions were delightful, but in the last from which I awoke only a few hours ago and which still haunts me, I dreamt that you were dead —you, without whom I would not care to live, nay, whose loss would make me wish to die. … Interpreted by the accepted canons of superstition, even that terrible dream of last night brings a delightful prophecy of marriage, which ought to remove one of my chief causes of anxiety … namely, the uncertainty of my prospects. … I always felt a sort of calm, uncalculating assurance of my ability to make successful shift to support myself; but now that the time for the realization of my sweetest hopes depends upon my securing a good position, I begin to feel very keenly the uncertainty of the prospect. I know what you would say, my darling; I have a perfect assurance of your love and of your willingness to abide the chances of my fortune; but I am none the less eager to make our engagement as short as possible. …

Woodrow was in great demand as a speaker, and sometimes indulged in mild boasting about his successes in his letters to Ellen. She wrote:

Savannah, Georgia Mar. 13, 1884 … I am very glad that Mr. Wilson, the critic, was so enthusiastically received. I envy the Hopkins Debating Club —lucky fellows that they arel I am wild to hear you speak, perfectly frantic! You wouldn’t treat me as Mac does Rose, would you? She has never heard him preach, though everyone else in Sewanee has. He won’t let her. …

Woodrow replied:

Balto., Md., March 18, 1884 … So you envy the Hopkins Debating Club and are “wild” to hear me speak? … I must disappoint you by telling you that I entirely sympathise with “Mac” in being violently opposed to having my sweetheart hear me speak in public. … Of course I don’t mean that I intend always to avoid letting you hear me. I mean that I will do nothing to make an occasion for you. … There is, on such occasions a terrible wear and tear on the speaker which I attribute to the fact that he has someone besides himself to carry through the race: that there is a heart beating as intensely as his own for his success.

It was the fashion in those days for lovers to exchange locks of hair. The girls wore them in lockets; the men carried them in their wallets. Ellen and Woodrow did not scorn such sentimentality, although they did smile at it. Woodrow wrote:

Balto., Md., April 1st, 1884 … About the dark integument enclosed I have several remarks to make. It is not long enough to hang oneself with, but it is quite visible enough to serve as a fair specimen of the head from which it came. Again, on the one hand, it is an astonishingly small product of two months’ persistent culture, though it represents locks long enough to get into their unhappy owner’s ears and abundant enough to give him a desperately poetical aspect. … But, fortunately the value of this gift depends not on its size, nor upon the mechanical skill with which it was prepared. It has no intrinsic beauty or worth as have the beautiful silken strands you gave me.…

Ellen Axson’s father died on May 29, 1884. The sad occasion of the funeral brought Woodrow to Georgia for a two-week visit. After his return to his parents’ home in Wilmington, North Carolina, Ellen was busy packing her father’s belongings for removal from the parsonage at Rome. Trying hard to be cheerful, she wrote:

Rome, Georgia, June 28th, 1884 … I have had such a week of it that writing to you seemed, like all the other pleasures of life, “a thing to dream of, not to do;—something forever out of reach” … Such a task as it is! And the books are the worst of all. I didn’t suppose that anything could make the sight of books so hateful to me. I feel rather spiteful in thinking of the authors! They might have been better employed. I am even inclined to think that—say—three volumes would contain all that was worth saying in the whole lot. … I was very glad to know that you had a pleasant journey and that you hadn’t “the blues.” That’s right, and I shall try to follow your good example. Indeed, I don’t think that any thought of you —even the thought that you are not here—has power to give me the blues. I am too glad that you are somewhere!

Woodrow had asked Ellen to visit him at Wilmington, but her old-fashioned grandmother had refused permission: it would not, she thought, be proper. Obedient Ellen therefore declined the invitation, much to Woodrow’s distress:

Wilmington, June 29th, 1884 My own darling, … I could not beg even a friend with such persistent reiteration, but I can beg you … to reconsider your refusal to visit Wilmington. … There is nothing here, dearest, from which your bashfulness need shrink; nothing but love and love’s consideration: and I think that you would face a great deal more than a transient embarrassment for my sake. … We have set our hearts on having you come to us. Can you refuse? …