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.
A lew weeks before, Woodrow wotdd have readily-agreed to this plan, but ever since he had left Rome he had been haunted by a pair of luminous brown eyes and tormented by the thought that he had not made a good impression on Miss Ellie Lou Axson. He knew now that he was in love with her, and he was afraid that if he went to Johns Hopkins he woidd lose her. He knew one thing for certain. He must see her again —soon—and try to find the courage to tell her that he loved her. If she returned his love, he would try to overcome his distaste of the law and make a success of it. Jn June, like an answer to prayer, Uncle James Bones asked him to come again to Rome for further consultation.
A few days later, in a hired buggy, Woodrow drove Ellen through the apple orchards of the countryside near Rome, doing his best to be impressive but not impetuous. Ellen was very shy, Woodrow painfully selfconscious. She had very little to say. He talked too much. But after he had left her at the parsonage, he comforted himself: she had listened closely to everything he said, and agreed with most of it.
Uncle James Bones, briefed by his daughter on the budding romance, deliberately prolonged his consultations with his nephew. So Woodrow staved on for a week or more and saw Ellen as often as possible. He called on her, escorted her to prayer meeting, took her to a conceit, and monopolized her at picnics arranged by Jessie Brower. Again and again he tried to tell her that he loved her, but kepi pulling il off, wailing for some sign thai she cared for him. Then, one clay, there was a sign. Jessie had planned another picnic, and in reply to Woodrow’s invitation, Ellen wrote:
Mr. Woodrow, Very unwillingly and with the firm conviction that I am the most unfortunate of mortals, I write to tell Jessie that I won’t be able to go on the picnic. … I last evening made an ill-timed engagement to take a boat ride on that afternoon and, like Sterne’s starling, “I can’t get out of it.” … There is no reason, not even—strange to say—any disinclination , to prevent my saying most truthfully that I will be happy to walk with you this afternoon. With love to Jessie, I remain, Your sincere friend, Ellen L. Axson
He read it again. For a very reserved young lady it was a breath-taking note. And she had called him “Mr. Woodrow”! The probability that this was due to absent-mindedness was significant. He was Woodrow now in her secret thoughts. He decided that, during their walk, it would be safe to at least hint that he was in love with her. He wrote later: … I remember walking one afternoon in the early summer with a certain sweet friend of mine. We had chosen the railroad bed because it led along the bank of the river and would lead us to where we would find a seat near the water on a big jutting—rock which stood with its feet in the river commanding a view of one of the prettiest bends of the stream. Not an incident of that walk have I forgotten … I was quite conscious that I was very much in love with my companion and 1 was desperately intent upon finding out what my chances were ol winning her.
Nothing conclusive happened, although, as Woodrow wrote Ellen afterward, he thought she must be aware of his feelings.
… You knew that I loved you before I told you, didn’t you, love? Why, I hud told you often enough by plain enough signs, and even by pretty plain words. Do you remember the verses I gave you as we rode home from a picnic? I remember the charming blush with which you read them, but did not dare interpret it as 1 wished 1 might. Did you imagine that I had copied all those lines to give you just because I thought them pretty and hoped they would interest you from a literary point of view? …
Their next meeting was not planned. Ellen and Woodrow were always sure that it was arranged by the kind Providence in which they both believed. When the firm of Renick and Wilson finally gave up the struggle to make ends meet, Woodrow decided to go to Johns Hopkins for one year, although he was not happy about the financial sacrifice his parents would have to make. Before going to Kaltimoie, in September, he went to Asheville, North Carolina, at his father’s request, to take care of some matters connected with Dr. Wilson’s work with the Southern Presbyterian Assembly. And there, standing at the window of his hotel room, he saw the figure of Miss Ellie Lou Axson vanishing down the street. He had not known that she was in Asheville, and he might have failed to recognize her if it had not been for one small detail—the way she coiled her hair at the back of her head. Woodrow Wilson got to the street in a matter of seconds, caught up with Ellen, found out where the friends she was visiting lived, and begged her to see him very soon.
There followed three enchanted days. On the last afternoon, too desperately in love to remember his uncertain future, Woodrow proposed, and Ellen, immediately and joyfully, said “Yes.”
He could hardly believe it. Weeks later he wrote.
My precious Ellie, Sometimes when I think of our engagement I wonder if I have not been dreaming the last two months. When I recall my first feelings fur you; how passionate love grew rapidly upon me: how all my thoughts used to tenter in plans to win you: what castles my hopes used to build and how I used to sitken at the prospect of hope deferred; and then how, much sooner than 1 had dared to hope, how by a seeming accident, we met and you gave your heart to me, it all seems so like a sweet dream that 1 am afraid to credit my memory. The impression is perhaps heightened by the fact that I left you before I had time to realize that you had pledged yourself to me. Although you had spoken the words which will always live in my memory. “I will do anything to make you happy”; although 1 had taken that sweet sealing kiss: and had been permitted to hold you in my arms, I remember calling you “Miss EIlic” to the last and being utterly unable to speak any part of the love and joy that were in my heart. …
Sitting dazed and incredulous in the train after he had left her, Woodrow Wilson thought that if she had really accepted him, no success that he might achieve would ever compare with such a victory. He was to believe this all his life. Yet his elation was tempered by a sort of desperation when he laced the fact that he could not ask her to many him for at least a year—a yea: at Johns I lopkins, and after that the search for a professorship with sufficient income to support them Baltimore seemed a bleak and dreary place when he arrived, and the college buildings looked more like a prison than a university when he went to register.
The first days were difficuh. He spent most of them looking for an inexpensive place to live, writing to Ellen, and haunting the post office in the hope of finding a letter from her. No letter tame. His parents were vacationing at Arden Park, not far from Asheville. He had asked Ellen to tall on them before she went back LO Rome. Had something gone wrong there? Had she changed her mind about marrying him? He was frantic.
Balto., Md., Sept. 25th. 1883 My own darling, I am sick at heart from not hearing from you. It is now a week since you must have readied home and not a line have I had from you. I am filled with apprehensions … I know that there must be some reason, but what can it be? … The past week has seemed like a month—I am astonished to find that it is still September … I found a ring today that suits me and shall send it to you at once … I know that you will think it pretty. I have had nothing engraved in it. I preferred having that done after conferring with you and ascertaining your taste and preference in the matter. I want you to wear the ring as it is until I can come to you. Then we can have what you please put in it and I can put it on your hand with appropriate ceremonies of our own invention, and of which I should like to have the direction! With a heart brimful of love Your own Woodrow
Two Jays later Ellen’s first letter came, explaining why she had not written sooner. She had re tinned from Asheville to find lier father quite ill and her younger brother, Edward, with a fever. They now needed all ol her time and love to cure them. Woodrow wrote at once,
Balto., Md., Sept. 27th, 1883 My own darling, … I cannot describe to you my delight at the receipt of your letter. I had come away lroin the postoffice with a heavy heart so often that the revulsion of feeling was tremendous when J took your letter from the envelope and I was almost frightened at the way my heart beat. It was the sweetest letter ever written—and it seems to have been written with great rhetorical an for it observed the laws of climax, beginning “My dear Friend” (as if I were nothing more!) and ending with confessions of love which are the sweetest, as well as the most modest that ever a maiden made. …
Ellen’s next letter was written before she received his, and again “observed the laws of climax.”
Rome, September 25th, 1883 My dear Friend: As I find myself today at the most comfortable stage of convalescence, doomed to do nothing at all but enjoy myself, it occurs to me that there is no reason why I should not write a few lines to you, notwithstanding my long scrawl of yesterday. … I thank you very much for sending your dear mother’s note and with all my heart ! thank her and your father for their kind words. … in truth, I was frightened beyond measure—no, not frightened exactly; yet that word must answer for lack of better. I can usually exercise a fair amount of self-control, provided always I am not taken unaware … But as we drove through Arden Park, I certainly felt it oozing out of the tips of my fingers; as I took off my hat I could see for myself that I was positively pale with fright —or whatever it was—and f couldn’t for the wurld have told then why or wherefore. … I have scarcely left myself light or space to say once again that I love you . Ah, my darling, I have no words—will never find them—to tell you how much; nor how very happy it makes me to hear you say—und repeat it—that you love me. Whenever I read it in your letters, were it several times on one page, it gives me a new and distinct thrill of delight. Goodnight, dear love. Yours with all my heart, Ellie
Now that Woodrow was settled and happy in the sure knowledge of Ellen’s love, he was able to concentrate on his work. Every day except Sunday was taken up with classes and long hours of study, yet he never failed to write to Ellen two or three times a week and to read her letters over and over. It was difficult for her, brought tip to conduct herself with extreme reserve and modesty, to write a love letter. Woodrow was also reserved, to a fault, but he had no inhibitions where his beloved was concerned. He opened his mind and soul to her, as well as his heart, and, pleading, teasing, and praising by turns, tried to persuade her to follow his example.
Balto., Md., Sept. 29th, 1883 … Your sweet letters … fill me with indcscribahle delight: all the more because I know that such confessions cost you a little struggle with your natural shyness in such matters. I love you with all my heart, my darling, and it makes me unspeakably grateful to know that I have won your first love and won it so completely, by I know not what attractions. I am really, then, the only man you ever met that you thought you could love ? …
Are you thinking, my love, as you read this, that you were not the first to win my love? And did I guess right when I guessed that what you were hesitating to ask was about a certain un-named lady of whom I told you once as we walked by the railroad? Well … to make the asking easy (if you want to ask) I’ll volunteer one piece of information, which is that I never knew what love was until I knew you, and that, if it was love that I felt for the character which I supposed that lady to possess, it was a very contemptible dwarf beside the strong passion that is now at large in my heart and which leaps with such tremendous throbs of joy at the thought of your love. You need not shrink from hearing me speak of what I have hitherto taken for love: for no woman, my darling, ever had more entire love given her than I have given you …
Slowly, and with frequent relapses, Ellen’s courage grew. She never again called Woodrow her “Dear Friend.” And, when her own words embarrassed her, she let the great poets she knew so well speak for her.
East Rome, Oct. 2, 1883 This morning brought me at once your two letters—of the 27th and 29th—and therefore this day has been like the day on which I last wrote, “high holiday.” “All its moments lightly shaken sow themselves on golden sands.” I wonder if you would laugh, or what you would say, if you knew how perfectly daft your letters make mel But no-one could be expected to receive such letters and keep very cool … The ring also came this afternoon. It is a perfect beauty in every respect. … I can’t tell you, my darling, how much I prize it. You are very, very, good—but are you not also very extravagant? Please excuse my impertinence, but really I was startled and amazed at the unexpected apparition of a diamond . You know it is not absolutely necessary to wear that particular sort of ring in order to “feel engaged.” … I was writing to Beth [a school friend] the other night—about you … I could honestly say that I had found my—yes, I must say it—my “ideal,” though I am a little out of humour with that much abused word. Now I know you will laugh at me, but it is so! Why even those lines which Beth and I selected together, years ago, as best expressing our ideal were written for youl I never saw so perfect a description of anyone. A “jersey” jacket couldn’t fit more closelyl You may remember the words, for with calm audacity I once quoted them to you myself, knowing that you could not read my thoughts as I did so.
“A mouth for mastery and manful work A certain brooding sweetness in the eyes, A brow the harbour of grave thought.”
She wore the ring on her right hand because they agreed to keep their engagement a secret from everyone except their families and intimate friends.
Woodrow had never been able to talk to anyone about himself, but now, because he was afraid that Ellen would be disappointed if she did not know in advance exactly what sort of man he was, he wrote the first of many letters of self-revelation.
Baltimore, Oct. 2nd, 1883 … I dreamed about you all last night, my darling. … That was a joyous dream … I woke up laughing. I had been doing in the dream what I have never done in reality; had been showing you a side of my disposition that you have never seen. I dreamt of the jolliest frolic that we had together … and so it was that I awoke in glee. You don’t know what a goose I can make of myself upon occasion, when I am with people of whose esteem I am sure and who will think no less of me for my nonsense. Can you love me in my every humour? or would you prefer to think of me as always dignified? I am afraid it would kill me to be always thoughtful and sensible, dignified and decorous.
Ellen’s letter of October 2 did not, for some reason, arrive for a week. Then he wrote,
Baltimore, Oct. 9, 1883 My own darling, I did laugh at the idea of being your “ideal” (because I am such very gross stuff out of which to construct an ideal!) but my amusement was mixed with another feeling which was the predominant one—with keen delight at the assurance that your love for me is great enough to overlook my faults and weaknesses and enthrone me in your gentle heart … Do you know, dearest, that I am sometimes very much embarrassed when writing to you? I don’t mean that I am ever embarrassed in the ordinary sense, but that I am at a loss to know how to express myself. Here’s the difficulty: my inclination is to be “making love” in every sentence … No term of endearment could run beyond the reality of my feelings: but one can’t convey vocal tones to the written sheet , and I have as great an aversion from “sweet talk” as from set and formal expressions of affection. … There are no words which can express the sentiment of a kiss. A kiss is one of the gestures of that unspoken language which is often so much more eloquent of the deeper and subtler feelings than are any spoken words. …
Ellen’s next letter contained some playful but searching questions about the “unnamed lady” Wilson had mentioned.
East Rome, Oct. 6, 1883 … Your charming letter of the second full of dreams and other good omens was received yesterday. You dear, delightful boy! I don’t think I am dreadfully shocked at any of the revelations it contains and I faithfully promise to love you in your every humour. … Now, … I will play jealous and ply you with questions. So you will inform me, Sir, if you please, who the girl was and when and where and how and why and wherefore—the beginning and the end! Was the wound entirely healed before last summer and did it leave a very deep scar? Are you sure there isn’t the least little rankling pain remaining? …
A full account of Woodrow’s first love reached her promptly.
Baltimore, Md., Oct. 11th/83 … No young man lives a complete life who is not lifted out of himself by love for some woman who stands to him for a type of what is pure and lovely. … it was with that feeling that I met, at Auntie’s house, the girl [a first cousin] I came to think entitled to that store of affection. … I had about made up my mind beforehand to fall in love with her, and afterwards it seemed an easy enough thing to do. During the next winter (for she was then at home in Ohio) we corresponded regularly and quite voluminously, and, in the summer of 1881 … I went out to Ohio to make her a visit; and it was during that visit that I completed the little drama by proposing to her and being refused. … Before last summer came all traces of the wound she had given me were gone. No scar remained anywhere but on my pride , which winced a little at the memory of the huge mistake I had made with such wilful blindness. …
But Ellen was hurt by Woodrow’s story of his first love. She had not known that he had asked the girl to marry him, and she thought that he must have been blindly in love to propose to a first cousin. She wrote what must have been a rather stern letter, because, judging by his reply, it frightened Woodrow.
Baltimore, Oct. 18th, 1883 … My dear sensitive girl seems to have been a good deal shocked by some of the revelations drawn out by her questions. … Was it because she was not prepared to receive conclusive evidence that her “ideal” was, after all, a very weak, foolish fellow? Did you think that I had invited your questions as I did because it would be pleasant to answer them? Very far from it. I invited them because I wanted to have no secrets to keep from you. It would break my heart, my precious Ellie, to lose your love—I could not now live without it—but it would break it quite as surely to have you imagine me wiser and better than I am and afterwards discover that you had been mistaken. … It was weak and silly in me to do so “unfortunate” a thing. … But, happily, all that is now passed by, and as if it had never happened. I am not a boy any longer. It was left for you to teach me the vast, the immeasurable difference between a youth’s fancy and a man’s overmastering love. Why, my darling, I am sometimes absolutely frightened at the intensity of my love for you.
And so the difficulty was cleared up. Woodrow plunged harder into his work, although, as he told Ellen, he found it very distracting to be so much in love: “How can a fellow in Baltimore write a lecture on Adam Smith when he’s forever thinking of a girl in Georgia?”
Occasionally there were pleasanter alternatives than Adam Smith:
Balto., Md., Nov. 13th, 1883 … We had a very jolly time, and I am afraid that I was not as dignified as I might have been. The company consisted of the young lady aforesaid, her two sisters, a young damsel from Philadelphia, Miss Woods and two of her brothers, and one or two other men besides myself. We compounded the caramels in the dining-room, boiled them in the kitchen, and ate them in the parlour; but before these numerous stages had passed I had had numerous frolics with the young lady aforesaid and had been three times locked up in the pantry, each time gaining my freedom by making demonstrations toward demolishing the larder, and once having one of the young ladies as a fellow-prisoner. I don’t always misbehave so when I go out in company; but candy making is scarcely an occupation requiring much dignity. …
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. …
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? …
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:
Balto., Md., Nov. 8th, 1884 … You’ll never find in a cloister a fulcrum for any lever which can budge the world! Here’s the problem, then: How get fresh air in this world of book-research? How learn to ride a live horse on a hobbyhorse? How discover by reading heavy books the quick, direct, certain way to inform and influence men who read only entertaining books—books which touch with a practiced hand their own ordinary lives—books which can be understood without conscious effort? I want to write books which will be read by the great host who don’t wear spectacles—whose eyes are young and unlearned! I don’t care how much contempt may look upon my pages through professors’ glasses! …
Ellen was much pleased with her life in New York and the character of her fellow boarders, who had formed a reading group.
New York, Nov. 11, 1884 … Mr. Goodrich read from Bret Harte’s stories, while Miss M. and I sketched her cousin and Mrs. Jenkins. Mrs. J. is perfectly lovely! and so is Mrs. Weiler! ! and so is Mr. Goodrich! ! ! his loveliness consisting in the fact that he is going to take me to see Irving and Ellen Terry. To go out with a boarding-house acquaintance isn’t exactly what I should have anticipated doing; but it hasn’t taken a whole month, by any means, to obtain satisfactory evidences as to Mr. Goodrich’s character and antecedents. He is a thorough gentleman, born and bred—of good old Mass, puritan “stock”; one who has been most carefully trained up in the way he should go. He is quite a young man—only finished at Andover last year—fresh and unspoiled, yet very intelligent, entertaining and well-read. You would have been amused the other night, when he asked me to go to hear Irving; he was very awkward and embarrassed and, as you will readily understand, I liked him the better for it—“Miss Axson, would you object?—may I—ah!—I would like so much to ask—if I only dared! —for the pleasure of taking you, etc.”
Woodrow tried to be generous about the lovely Mr. Goodrich.
Balto., Md., Nov. 13th, 1884 … I am delighted, my pet, that you are to see Irving and Ellen Terry. … I am sure that you will think, as I do, that Miss Terry is infinitely better than Irving—at least if you see them in parts anything like those in which I saw them—namely Hamlet and Ophelia. His strut is almost as execrable as his pronunciation. She is beyond comparison the finest actress I ever saw. Ah, what would I not give to see her with you ! I envy Mr. Goodrich with all my heart ! Wouldn’t you rather go with me than with him? …
Some things in New York, however, shocked the young lady from Georgia: New York [undated] … By the way, what do you know about the “Society for Ethical Culture” and Felix Adler? Mr. Brush [a well-known artist then teaching at her art school] belongs to it and so does a pretty young girl in our class. It is said that they don’t believe in God or even in the immortality of the soul. What a terrible faith—or no faith!—and the idea of a young woman adopting it!
Mr. Goodrich, Ellen wrote, had given her a copy of a new poem which had made a great hit—Rubáiyádt, by Omar Khayyam, with illustrations by Elihu Vedder.
New York, Nov. 18, 1884 … I was wild to see it, for I have read and heard of nothing else, it seems to me, for weeks past. … Mr. Goodrich has been trying to obtain possession of it for some time; he brought it up and read it to me. … I really believe that Vedder has more genius than any other American artist; he is not merely a great workman, like so many French artists, but he is equally great on the intellectual and imaginative sides. It seems a pity, does it not, that such noble work should be expended on such a heathenish poem …
As for the stern young Presbyterian, he approved neither of the poem nor of the way in which Ellen had become acquainted with it.
Bryn Mawr College, which had just been founded, was interested in Woodrow Wilson as a teacher, and he was excited at the prospect of a job that would make it possible for him to marry Ellen. She, however, had misgivings:
New York, Nov. 28/84 My darling Woodrow, … Can you bring yourself to feel thoroughly in sympathy with that kind of thing—with the tendencies and influences of such an institution? Can you, with all your heart, cooperate with the strong-minded person who conducts it?—The “Dean!” how ridiculous! … Seriously, dear, I fear you would find it very unpleasant to serve, as it were, under a woman! It seems so unnatural, so jarring to one’s sense of the fitness of things—so absurd too.
I may be very silly to say so, but it seems to me that it is rather beneath you to teach in a “female college. …”
Woodrow was disappointed by this “earnest protest,” and wrote to persuade her. He would, he assured her, “not be under a woman”; there was a male president, and several other men were on the faculty. So Ellen consented, and after some negotiations about salary—finally settled at $1,500 a year—he accepted the Bryn Mawr appointment, to begin in September, 1885.
Meanwhile, in New York, Mr. Goodrich was becoming too attentive to Ellen for Woodrow’s peace of mind. He added a rather stern postscript to a letter dated December 18, 1884: P.S. I had meant to say something about Mr. Goodrich, in answer to your letter of this morning; and though it is very late, I will even now add a few words while the matter is on my mind. You were quite right in your forecast of my opinion on the subject of his attentions to you. I do not believe in the possibility of the “platonic schedule” at all . Of course I have perfect faith in your discreetness; but you must remember that he is in ignorance of your engagement, and that not the broadest hints conceivable can make him “understand” so long as you continue to wear your ring as you have been wearing it. Not to wear it on the significant finger is in effect to conceal our engagement, my pet, and nobody can be expected to understand hints in the face of the testimony of his senses. Your faith in the power of the New England climate to change human nature may be well founded; but I think it would be much fairer to me if you would wear your ring as an engagement ring. I have not insisted upon this before … but now I trust that my darling will see fit to observe my wishes in the matter, if she has not done so already. …
So Mr. Goodrich, to his pain, was admitted to the secret that Ellen was engaged. But he begged her to let him continue to see her, and promised to “acquit her beforehand of any painful consequences to him.” Would Woodrow mind if she still saw him once in awhile? He minded—so much that on the day he heard from Bryn Mawr’s board of trustees, he wrote five pages of protest before telling her the good news, relenting only so far as to say that he would not object to her accepting Mr. Goodrich’s escort to church. “Though I shall pity him and fear that he won’t derive much benefit from the church services,” he added with uncharacteristic sarcasm.
Now their letters were full of plans. But Ellen Axson, artist and lover of poetry, was, at the same time, an exceedingly sensible and practical woman. She had given her consent to the Bryn Mawr appointment, because she could not bear to disappoint Woodrow, but when she sat down to examine facts and figures, she was worried. Would it not be better, she asked, to put off their marriage for another year, so that Woodrow could save for the high cost of living at Bryn Mawr? The letter he wrote in reply may not have lessened her anxiety, but it stopped any further objections.
Balto., Jan’y 22, 1885 … How does the case stand, then, with me? If I am to spend another year without you, it will be simple prudence to decline the Bryn Mawr offer and spend that year here . I would only break myself down by undertaking such a situation alone. Pecuniary anxieties, should I be weak enough to yield dominion to them, could not torment me half as much as the double burden of novel responsibilities and loneliness. … Take counsel of your heart , darling, not of your fears. And above all have no fears for me! … Have you so little faith in love that you think the inconveniences of imperative economy, which can have in it no actual want, enough to outweigh it with me? …
Ellen promised to marry him in June, and he could hardly believe it:
Balto., Sabbath afternoon Jan’y 25, 1885 … The crowning, the most precious sentence in this sweet note [is] “So it must be as you wish.” As I wish! Can it be true that I am to have, as my heart’s most inestimable treasure, the loving wife for whom my life has so long waited? … Are you really to be my bride, my life-long sweetheart, the joy and pride of my manhood, and, if God will, the comfort and strength of my old age? Yes, you have promised! And I? What will I give in return? There is very little that I can give—except love. That is much—and you shall be rich in that. … If love can make a true husband, I will be one to my darling …
A day came when Woodrow’s worldly wisdom was confirmed. Poor Mr. Goodrich, unable to control his emotions, proposed to Ellen. She told him sternly that he could never see her again, and described his reaction in a letter to Woodrow, whose indignant response arrived by the next mail.
Balto., Sabbath afternoon Feb’y 8, 1885 … So Mr. G. sought his fate, did he? My brave, true little sweetheart! You have acted just as I would have you act. But what shall I say for him? If he pleaded and protested, and thought himself unjustly treated, I don’t wonder that you saw how weak and unmanly the whole thing was on his parti Why, Eileen, I can’t conceive of a man’s making it necessary that you should have a “scene” with him. … He is either a fool or a knave; but I have no inclination to abuse him. I can only pity and despise a man who hasn’t the manliness to see that he owes it to you to anticipate your wish to have nothing more to do with him; and I cannot sufficiently rejoice that you are finally rid of the attentions of a man whose lack of true gentlemanly instinct must have exposed you to repeated mortification. I sincerely hope that he will leave the house. …
From some of her New York acquaintances Ellen heard disturbing talk about “a woman’s right to live her own life,” and Woodrow was moved to vehement comment:
Balto., March 1, 1885 … I don’t wonder that you can have no sympathy with that false talk … The family relation is at the foundation of society, … and the women who think that marriage destroys identity and is not the essential condition of the performance of their proper duties—if they think so naturally and not through disappointment—are the only women whom God has intended for old maids. … Women have a right to live their own lives. They have mental and moral gifts of a sort and of a perfection that men lack: but they have not the same gifts that men have. Their life must supplement man’s life; and it cannot supplement man’s life without being in closest wifely communion with it. This is not putting their lives in a position subordinate to the position allotted to men. The colours of the spectrum supplement each other, but without all of them we should not have the full splendour of the sun.
As June drew nearer, both of the lovers had last flickers of misgiving about their adequacy.
New York, April 3, 1885 … I have yet to learn whether the most perfect love, the tenderest service, the most passionate loyalty can make me, without certain qualities which love cannot give, such a wife as yours should be. But I know that, notwithstanding the demand is so much greater, I will be a better wife to you than I could ever have been to a small man, because no other but yourself could have so stirred my nature to its utmost depths, could have inspired me with such passionate longing toward my own ideal of womanhood …
Balto., April 5, 1885 … It may shock you—it ought to … to learn that I have a reputation (?) amongst most of my kin and certain of my friends for being irrepressible, in select circles, as a maker of grotesque addresses from the precarious elevation of chair seats, as a wearer of all varieties of comic grimaces, as a simulator of sundry unnatural burlesque styles of voice and speech, as a lover of farces, even as a dancer of the “ can-can ”! … But you’ll find out soon enough what an overgrown boy you have taken as your “lord and master (?)”
New York, April 5, 1885 … But query!—if you know a woman so well that you are sure beforehand what she is going to say, or what she would like to say on any given subject, what special interest do you find in hearing her say it? Why isn’t she an unmitigated bore? … I am inclined to think it would be hard to find any way to ward off that danger from a purely intellectual marriage. … If one married a Macaulay simply to hear him talk , one would grow tired of it in the course of years, if one didn’t exhaust his resources. The novelty would wear off and the flashes of silence would be like balm to the suffering. But I know now that a true man and woman never weary of true love and sympathy. It is a possession which time doesn’t cheapen. I remember when such questions as those I asked you above seemed to me among the greatest difficulties in the way of marriage. What do they talk about! I should think they would wear each other out or suffer from a most embarrassing dearth of remarks! What a foolish school-girl’s idea it seems to me now! As if marriage were like an evening call where long pauses are awkward and must be avoided at any cost. … A never-ending eveningcall!— horrible! …
Ellen had set the month for their wedding, but not, in spite of Woodrow’s urging, the date. Now, at the end of a long love letter, she mentioned an approximate date, and he wrote, joyfully,
Balto., April 18, 1885 … Somehow it seems to me that the sun shines brighter today than it ever did before. For does not this precious letter close with one of those “By the ways” which often serve my lady to introduce the most important things she says? … Do you think, Miss, to escape in that way the embarrassment of fixing a particular day? To say “any day between the 24th and the gist of June” means that we will be married on the 24th; for I shall certainly take the earliest date you offer. …
But it was not so simple as he supposed to fix a date for the wedding. A bride must have a trousseau, and Ellen’s would take more time than usual to assemble for she had been in mourning ever since her father’s death and needed an entirely new wardrobe. And, because she could not afford to buy it, she planned to make all her dresses herself when she went back to Savannah. But she had paid her tuition fees at the Art Students’ League in advance until June, and she was appalled at the thought of spending money and getting nothing for it.
New York, April 19, 1885 … Being a man it is probable that you think three weeks more than time enough for anything! Perhaps I should make some concession to masculine ignorance and explain more fully. There is a great deal of sewing which I must do. I can’t afford to have it all done for me. Here in New York the material for an inexpensive dress costs just half as much as the making of said dress, and in Savannah it is almost as bad. It is positively ruinous to “put out” anything but a handsome dress. So you can see my predicament—one must have some time to prepare even the most modest trousseau. …
To her great amusement, Woodrow had something to say about her trousseau.
Balto., April 21, 1885 … Don’t it take less time and trouble, darling, to make straight skirts with perpendicular pleats, or like devices, and bodies of the same style, than to make flounced skirts with skewed over-skirts (you must let me use my own terms, however untechnical) and bodies with stiff necks? You know, as I confided in you when we were only friends that I have very decided tastes in ladies’ dress (else I would not dare to venture into this department of inquiry where I don’t know the language.) … I know that for some reason the closefitting, high-necked body of your black silk dress is not at all becoming to you. … Is it because you are best suited by square yokes, open necks, simple pleated skirts, and—but dear me! I must get out of this just as soon as I can. What temerity! …
Ellen wrote, after reading this letter:
New York, April 22, 1885 … Would your feelings be deeply hurt, if you knew how I have been laughing over it? You have Bible authority for not liking “stiff-necked” people but what is a stiff-necked “body”? … You didn’t tell me what sort of hats you like! Pray write full descriptions of them! You do it so well! It will afford me such exquisite delight to read it. Really I think it is very nice in you, dear, to take an interest in such things, and since I find you have such decided opinions about them, I am more than anxious to have them. All suggestions thankfully received! Do you like little bonnets tied under the chin or broad-brimmed hats or “turbans” or “pokes”? And perhaps I had better take your opinion on the colour question. …
While she painted and shopped, Ellen began to worry about those odd women at Bryn Mawr who had taken up “higher education.” They would probably be condescending because she did not know as much as they. When Woodrow sent her Bryn Mawr’s first catalogue, she wrote:
New York, April 26, 1885 … Truly they have a masculine standard “sure enough.” Oh dear me! What a little goose I am! This brings it home to me afresh. I think I had better go to school there—only I couldn’t get in. …
Balto., April 27, 1885 … Sweetheart, I shall agree with you that you are a little goose to bemoan the fact that you don’t know as much as the Bryn Mawr girls are expected to know! What do you think of my case? I am to be one of their instructors, and yet I not only could not pass the entrance examinations, without special preparation, but could not even be an advanced student, much less a Fellow in my own department—because I can’t read German at sight! But that by no means indicates that I am not infinitely better educated than my pupils will be. Both you and I have what is immeasurably better than the information which is all that would be needed for passing Bryn Mawr, or any other college examinations! We have the power to think , to use information. For my part I want to carry as little information in my head as possible. … It is enough if I know where to find it; for corroboration, for illustration, etc.
The day came when Ellen and Woodrow wrote to each other for the last time, or so they hoped and believed. They were sure that they would never be separated after their marriage, never again have to depend on words to express their love. Each tried to capture the essence of the moment. From his sister’s house at Columbia, South Carolina, Woodrow wrote on June 21:
My own darling, It seems altogether too good to be true that our bondage to pen and paper is at last at an end! … This letter will reach you on Monday, and on Tuesday I shall go to my darling, to carry the words of love with which my heart is so full … to consecrate to her my life, that it may be spent in making perfect the fulfilment of all the sweet promises in which our love for each other is so rich. … I feel as if this last love- message were in some sort sacred. My deepest, strongest desire in marrying you, darling, is to make you happy, and I would put into this letter some word of love which would seem to your heart a sort of sweet preface to the book of love which we are about to open together, to read new secrets of sympathy and companionship. I would have you catch a glimpse of my purpose for the future and of the joy which that future contains for me , of the gratitude I feel for your priceless gift of love, and of the infinite love and tenderness which is the gift of my whole heart to you. … Good bye, then, sweetheart, till Tuesday. God willing, I shall come to claim a part of your welcome then: … the next time that I hold you to my heart will be the happiest moment of all my life, and the delicious prelude to still happier hours when you will be constantly at my side to tell me of the love that is more than life to me. Darling, once more I pledge you all my love and honour. I love you. With all my heart, in all my thoughts and hopes and purposes I am Your own, Woodrow
Savannah, June 20/85 And can it really be possible, my darling, that this is my last letter to you? … How strange it seems to think that we will have no more need of letters!—how strangely sweet! And yet the letters have been so dear to me, and will always be my carefully guarded treasure even when I have you too. They have made so large a part of my life for so long that I daresay I will still be listening and watching for the postman many a time when I am even at your side. … I would that I could tell you in this last letter something more than I have ever told before of what love means for me. But there are few places in my heart which I have not opened to you, dearest; I have shown you my heart of hearts. … You know as well as you can know, before the years have brought their proof, how absolutely I am yours; you know the depth and tenderness and fervour of my love … Darling, my faith in you is a part of my love for you; the one no less than the other has become the ruling passion as well as the controlling principle of my life. Thank God that the man I love is one who will permit me to obey His marriage law. I am to promise next week to reverence you. How many of the young men I have known do you suppose it would be possible to reverence! But you will be in very truth my head—my being, not only because will it but because God wills it, because He made you so to be. … And now, good-bye, my dear one, till Tuesday. I love you, darling, as much as you would have me love you. … Perhaps you have not yet sounded all the depths of my heart, yet to the very bottom it is all yours and I am for life —and death, Your own Eileen
On the twenty-fourth of June, in 1885, Ellen Louise Axson and Woodrow Wilson were married. It was an evening wedding in the parlor of the manse, next door to the Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah. Dr. I. S. K. Axson, the bride’s grandfather, and Dr. Joseph R. Wilson, the bridegroom’s father, stood side by side and shared the reading of the marriage ceremony. The parlor, with its high ceiling and dignified furnishings, was large but barely large enough to hold all the relatives. Ellen wore the traditional white veil and a simple white dress which she herself had made. The groom wore his dress-suit. They looked so happy that all the women cried.
Their honeymoon was two idyllic weeks at Arden Park, in the mountains of North Carolina. In September, they settled down contentedly in a house on the edge of the college campus at Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania—the beginning of a marriage that would last happily until Ellen’s death at the White House in 1914, and that would play a vital part in projecting Woodrow Wilson onto the great stage of world history. Through all those formative years her enduring love was indeed, for him, “a priceless gift.”