by Henry Lane Hull

This year marks the centenary of America’s entry into World War I, the conflict that our Virginia-born president, Woodrow Wilson, termed “the war to make the world safe for democracy.” Also known as “the war to end all wars”, World War I left a legacy far from the ideals expressed in those two slogans.

Wilson was born at Staunton on December 28, 1856, his father, a minister, having moved there from Hampden-Sydney College shortly before his birth, thus as a child he lived through the Civil War, in which his father strongly supported the confederacy. He studied at the University of Virginia, where his room on The Range remains today as a graduate student residence and where he developed a great attachment to democratic ideals. Thereafter he earned a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University.

Enthralled by politics, Wilson went on to teach at Princeton University and later served as governor of New Jersey. In 1912 he ran for president and after 46 ballots won the Democratic nomination at the Baltimore Convention. His principal opponents had been the speaker of the House of Representatives Champ Clark of Missouri and the House Majority Leader Oscar Underwood of Alabama.

Underwood withdrew in Wilson’s favor and after the election, Wilson appointed Underwood’s press secretary, Charles E. Stewart, a former mayor of Attala, Alabama, as administrative assistant attorney general. Stewart was not an attorney and therefore could not be designated as an assistant attorney general. He stayed in that office for 23 years, through the administrations of Harding, Coolidge, Hoover and Roosevelt. His most significant role in that position came in 1924 when a lady came to him to say that her son, then 24 and a recent law school graduate, needed employment. Stewart recommended that the young man work in what then was called the “Office of Investigations,” thus began the governmental career of J. Edgar Hoover.

The man who bowed out to Wilson at the Baltimore Convention, Oscar Underwood, went on to serve in the senate and lived at Woodlawn Plantation in Fairfax County, the former home of Lawrence Lewis, a nephew of George Washington and his wife, Nellie Custis, the granddaughter of Martha Washington. The 2000-acre estate was a gift to the young couple from Washington, who engaged Dr. William Thornton, the architect of the White House, to design it. Underwood died there in 1929.

Wilson was the last of the eight Virginia-born presidents. When he left office in 1921 he retired to a mansion on S. Street in Washington that had been purchased by his friends. He had suffered a stroke as president and was limited in his abilities, but apparently had thought of running for a third term in 1924, however he died at the home on February 3, 1924. He was buried in a tomb in the Washington National Cathedral with a carving depicting him in the manner of a medieval knight, thus the devout Presbyterian was interred in an Episcopal edifice. Years later, his grandson served as dean of the cathedral.

Alice Wilson, the president’s first wife, died in the White House in 1915 and the following year he married a native of Wytheville, Edith Bolling Galt, the widow of the owner of Galt’s Jewelry in Washington. After his stroke, the second Mrs. Wilson virtually controlled the government, determining what and who would pass before the president. After his death she continued to live on in the mansion on S Street, dying there on December 28, 1961, the president’s birthday and the day on which she had been scheduled to open the Woodrow Wilson Bridge across the Potomac River.

The Wilson years are filled with intriguing historical trivia. His bust along with the other Virginia-born presidents, placed symmetrically in niches, lines the walls of the Rotunda of the Capitol in Richmond, leaving one to wonder where the bust of any future chief executive from the Old Dominion might be installed?

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