Excerpt from an essay, “Woodrow Wilson and the Origins of Leadership in Religious and Family Foundations”

Excerpt from a 2010 essay on the psychological biographies of President Woodrow Wilson, for a course entitled “Political Leadership” with Professor Garrison Nelson at the University of Vermont

Born in an age of mingling religious and political sentiments, Woodrow Wilson contained, within the happenstance of his birth, the seeds of his future in politics. Woodrow’s paternal grandfather, James Wilson, was “a Jeffersonian Republican and then a Whig” who “took part in many bitter political struggles and engaged in the colorful rhetoric of the day,” culminating in a term in the Ohio Legislature in 1816 (Weinstein 3). In addition, his mother’s father, Reverend Thomas Woodrow, “came from a long line of Scottish Presbyterian ministers” (Weinstein 4). Woodrow’s father, Joseph Ruggles Wilson, himself a Presbyterian minister, was contemporaneously described, as Jeff C. Young accounts in The Fathers of American Presidents, as “a preacher of remarkable power, a scholar of wide learning, and an attractive personality” (Young 135). With political and religious heritage from both sides, Wilson was assured a youth rife with exposure to the skills prevalent among politicians and preachers of the times. Woodrow, as a President and prior, was renowned for his oratory. Speechmaking and persuasion became his greatest tools in politics and the social sphere. James David Barber’s character study of Wilson begins with Wilson’s emphasis on speech and rhetoric, much in line with the teachings of his father Joseph. “Again and again [Wilson] met opposition and turned to speech-making as the way out” (Barber 48). When Senate Republicans, led by Henry Cabot Lodge, mounted fiery opposition to Wilson’s efforts to ratify the League of Nations treaty in 1919, Wilson presented numerous speeches and lectures to the Senate, the American public, even to Europe and its diplomats, all seeking to rally popular support. A positive account from a reporter of the day credits Wilson as one who

gets swiftly to your point of view, passes upon the facts that you bring him, and in a few minutes time has stripped the whole situation to… its fundamental aspects, and has rested his conclusions… upon a few simple and fundamental principles – and all with an incomparable clearness of statement. (Barber 50)

Wilson’s oratorical excellence originated, most certainly, from his father’s exacting education, inculcating Woodrow for the majority of his youth. Joseph Ruggles Wilson was a rigorous grammarian who set high standards for his son in matters of oral eloquence. Young quotes Wilson’s recount of the rhetorical education he received from his father during childhood: “My father would not permit me to blurt things out or stammer a half-way job of telling whatever I had to tell. …Even at the age of four or five, I was taught to think about what I was going to say, and then I was required to say it correctly. Before I was grown, it became a habit” (Young 136). Weinstein recounts a similar preoccupation with oral clarity and precision from the memoirs of Stockton Axson, the brother of Woodrow’s first wife, Ellen. “When someone in the family spoke hurriedly, [Joseph] would look at the offender, smile, and say ‘ar-tic-u-la-tion’” (Weinstein 14). Such tales of Joseph’s stringent requirements of linguistic precision are commonplace in the biographies of Woodrow’s childhood.

Nevertheless, despite a highly literate father who “spent hours reading to his children” (Young 135), Weinstein notes that Woodrow remained unlearned of the alphabet until nine years old and fully illiterate until twelve years, for reasons variously and inconclusively explained. Weinstein summarizes the multiple “implausible reasons” that Woodrow’s literacy came so late, including his childhood laziness as described separately by his White House physician and friend Dr. Cary Grayson and one of his teachers in adolescence, Joseph T. Derry. Alternately, Alexander and Juliette George suggest Wilson’s delayed development stemmed from tyrannical parenting, Woodrow’s “core feeling of inadequacy… a fundamental worthlessness which must be ever disproved” instilled in him by his father (George and George 8). As Freud agreed, the Georges considered Woodrow’s illiteracy an expression of resentment of his demanding father.

More logically, Weinstein attributes the anomaly to developmental dyslexia, paired with what Freud describes as “exceptionally deficient” eyesight (Freud and Bullitt 5). Weinstein bases his postulation in part upon the unaware medical community of the day, and several confessions by Woodrow, via diaries and letters, of the arduousness of reading well into adulthood. “Steady reading… always demands of me more expenditure of resolution and dogged energy than any other sort of work,” he wrote to his future wife Ellen Axson in 1884 (17). Weinstein coupled this with extensive medical evidence of “mixed cerebral dominance and the bilateral representation for language, associated with childhood dyslexia” (as of Weinstein’s book’s publication date of 1981). Among other evidence scattered throughout Wilson’s life, one particularly striking mention was of Wilson’s amazingly quick adaptation, following his first stroke and complete paralysis in his right hand, from right-handed writing to proficient left-handed writing within the course of “a few days” (18, 141-42). Further elucidating the important relationship between Woodrow’s written inadequacies and his oral proficiencies, Weinstein notes that the cerebral peculiarities likely to have produced Wilson’s dyslexia, together with his father’s heavy emphasis on elocution “may have influenced his linguistic style,” given the nature of brain development in response to such environmental variables (18). Hence, in part biological and in part due to social factors such as his father’s behavioral prescriptions, Woodrow was repeatedly reinforced to favor verbal strengths over the written word, for which Joseph served as an exceptional model.

–Alex Morgan