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Woodrow Wilson: Writings & Quotes

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we'll explore the published works of President Woodrow Wilson. We'll highlight his role as a historian and intellectual and examine some of his writings and quotes.

A President With a Solid Grasp of History

If you pay attention to current events and recent politics, you may have heard people complain that modern politicians lack an adequate understanding of the past. You may have heard people complain that recent American political leaders continue to repeat the mistakes the U.S. has made in the past. There's a common saying that goes like this: ''Those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past, are bound to repeat them.'' While it may seem that modern politicians are ignorant of the past, this has not always been true. Throughout American history, several presidents have been historians in their own right. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson come to mind, for example.

In this lesson, we will be focusing specifically on Woodrow Wilson. President Wilson led the U.S. through World War I, but before that he was actually a historian. He taught at several different higher education institutions before teaching at Princeton University and eventually becoming its president. Let's dig deeper and learn about Woodrow Wilson the historian and his writings.

Woodrow Wilson was a professor of history and a historian before becoming the 28th President of the United States.
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Educational Background and Academic Career

Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States, was born in Staunton, Virginia in 1856. He attended Davidson College in North Carolina for one year, before transferring to Princeton University, where he graduated in 1879. In 1879, Wilson enrolled at the University of Virginia where he studied law. Wilson discovered, however, that law was not for him, and within a few years, he enrolled at John Hopkins University where he earned a Ph.D. in history and political science.

Wilson's doctoral dissertation Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics won him respect and helped secure a professorship at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. Wilson taught for a few other institutions as well before landing a professorship at the College of New Jersey (which would later become Princeton University) in 1890. In 1902, he was elected the 13th president of the institution. Wilson's influence on Princeton was profound, and the school thrived under his leadership until he resigned in 1910 to run for the position of Governor of New Jersey.

Princeton University as it looked while Wilson was its president.
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Works and Quotes

As a historian, Wilson specialized in American political history. He also tended to specialize in the history of the South. This is not surprising considering his upbringing as a child. His father had even served as a chaplain in the Confederate Army. As a Progressive, Wilson faced the challenge of reconciling his Southern heritage with his progressive political stance. In an early essay, he expressed love for the South, but contempt for the Confederacy by writing:

''I yield to no one precedence in love for the South. But because I love the South, I rejoice in the failure of the Confederacy.''

Wilson published numerous works in his lifetime. In 1896, he published a 480-page biography of George Washington. He also wrote a five-volume history of the United States titled A History of the American People.

In 1897, he published an essay in the Atlantic Monthly titled on ''On Being Human''. This essay outlined Wilson's vision for living ''the good life.'' Wilson conceived of successful living as consisting of balance between one's passions and priorities. In the essay, Wilson references historical figures such as Aristotle and St. Augustine. This essays differs from much of Wilson's other writings in that it is personal and warm, as opposed to aloof and academic, which tends to be more characteristic of his historical works.

In 1913, Wilson published another book titled The New Freedom: A Call for the Emancipation of the Generous Energies of a People. This title, The New Freedom was drawn from Wilson's 1912 presidential campaign slogan. The book essentially outlines the progressive values that Wilson embodied. It focuses heavily on economic reforms, such as the regulation of big business. Below is a segment from The New Freedom:

''American industry is not free, as once it was free... the man with only a little capital is finding it harder to get into the field, more and more impossible to compete with the big fellow. Why? Because the laws of this country do not prevent the strong from crushing the weak.''

Below are some additional quotes from Wilson.

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