The Courtship Of Woodrow Wilson


The matter was happily settled when Mrs. Wilson wrote to Mrs. Axson, and the old lady relented. The wife of a minister knew, apparently, just what to say to a minister’s wife.

Wilmington, July 13th, 1884 My sweet Eileen [this was Woodrow’s private name for Ellen], Hurrah! I knew Mrs. Axson, after all, better than you did, my darling. You may imagine the delight with which I heard dear mother read the enclosed! I went down to the P.O. to mail the letter to my sweetheart which I finished about half an hour ago, and brought from the office this delightful note from Mrs. Axson, in which the dear lady actually expresses the wish that you should visit us! My darling, I can’t tell you how happy this has made me because … it assures us of having you with us during propitious September. What strides I can take tomorrow in essay “No. 4!” How impossible it will be for headaches to come or for appetite to go: For Sept. is coming!

Meanwhile, Woodrow was hard at work; but he found it difficult to concentrate because Ellen did not write as often as he did.

Wilmington, July 13th, 1884 … So you “can’t take it in” that your letters could “make such a difference to anyone,” can’t realize that anybody’s life stops for want of a letter from you and want to know if you’re “ really to believe” that my not hearing has such an effect upon my spirits? Well you are a little goose, a very desirable and surpassingly lovable little goose, with whom one would wish to live all his life, but a goose for all that, about some things. … The simple truth, Miss, in my case, is that if the intervals between your letters be long—and how long a few days seem now!—or if a letter confidently expected at a particular time is in the least bit delayed, everything in my arrangements gets off its hinges: I can’t write a single sentence about the Senate, can’t be decently sure of an appetite—am a nuisance to myself, and doubtless to everybody about me. …

Sometimes Woodrow expatiated on his favorite topics in his letters to Ellen. One of them was oratory:

Wilmington, Aug. 7th, 1884 … Those people who talk about the press having superseded oratory simply shut their eyes to the plain evidences to the contrary exhibited in all parts of the world. … I never yet read a great speech without regretting that I had not heard it. … I have read nearly all the published speeches of John Bright … but does that compensate me for never having been within sound of the voice of the greatest of living English orators? But hold on, my dear Woodrow! All this argument you are rushing into may be very good, but it is altogether gratuitous. There’s nobody on the other side. … Let’s have a little peace and quiet in a letter! …

More typically, he wrote page after page telling Ellen how much he loved her. At the end of a long letter devoted entirely to this subject, he added:

Wilmington, Aug. 26, 1884 … In looking over this letter, I am constrained to recognize the fact that it is really scandalous. You have enough love talked to you to spoil all the least spoilable girls in a kingdom! My next letter shall be all about the stupidest news of the town, about parties and fires, political meetings and baseball games, market prices and novelties in ship-rigging. Or else it shall be redolent with all the most pungent thoughts of certain (would be) famous essays now in progress. Look for it with fear and trembling! …

Ellen made a great hit with the Wilson family when, in September, she came to Wilmington. At the end of that month she went to New York to study art, and found, after days of searching, a room in a boardinghouse on West Eleventh Street which suited her. The rent was low, the landlady a southerner, and the other boarders eminently respectable. She went happily to work at the Art Students’ League, and began to enjoy some of the cultural diversions of the metropolis. Woodrow was back at Johns Hopkins, and they were now able to spend weekends together from time to time.

Balto., Oct. 22nd, 1884 My own darling, It was terrible to have to come away! I didn’t know how terrible it was until the parting was over. I won’t say that the pain of separation was greater than the joy of being together—because it wasn’t. That joy is beyond all measure, is worth all that can be paid for it. But the leave-taking is a big price . … And I was brought away with such unrelenting vigor that one might have imagined that the railroad authorities knew the temptation I was under to turn back and were determined to give me no chance to do to. We made never a stop between Jersey City and Philadelphia, making those hundred miles in two hours!

Again and again in the fall of 1884, Woodrow comes back to the question of his career and his ambition to be more than a cloistered scholar: