Woodrow Wilson Birthplace and Museum, Staunton Virginia
Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia, a relatively small town 45 minutes west of Charlottesville. The future president (28th) lived in Staunton with his family – his father was a Presbyterian minister – for two years before moving to Augusta, Georgia. The pulpit would later take the Wilson family to South Carolina; Woodrow (which was actually his middle name. ‘Thomas’ was his given name) would grow up entirely in the post-Civil War, Reconstruction Era south and come of age during the “Lost Cause” leitmotif or reinterpretation of the Confederate Cause. We would see some of these biases play out in public policy during the Wilsonian Era.
The home itself called a “Manse” (a name given to Presbyterian parsonages) is what you would typically see in the Reconstruction Era South. The front entrance is seen to the left and would have been used to greet parishioners and other guests of the day.
The back entrance was used by servants and opened into several rooms used for cooking, preparing meals, feeding the children, and other household chores. There was also a large garden, but it was unusually bare during my visit.
I remind readers of my visit and review of Wilson’s D.C. home, to which he retired after leaving office in 1920. Recall that Wilson had a stroke near the end of his second term and was virtually incapacitated by the time he left office.
Wilson served 2 terms as President – 1913 – 1921. He was championed as a reformer and president during the “Progressive Era” however, we must be careful about defining Wilson, an early 20th-century president in 21st-century terms. Progressives of that time were focused on labor and social reforms, including the 40 hour work week, and child labor laws. Workman’s compensation and services for farmers were part of the Wilsonian and Progressive agendas as was creating the Federal Reserve Board. But progressives at that time were not supportive of civil rights or the end of segregation; rather, many tended to be racists themselves. Wilson’s own history with race is not what we’d like to associate to a Progressive Era president. It was during his administration that Birth of a Nation was reviewed at the White House, a film testament to the Lost Cause motif and one that celebrated the Ku Klux Klan. Wilson was a supporter of segregation and at the museum next to his birthplace, it cited his rationale. He thought that “colored should remain separated for their own economic good. Separation meant that they would not need to compete with whites.” Lots and lots of excuses.
Additionally, our Progressive Era president has a mixed record on women’s suffrage. First, he was against taking federal action, operating under the belief that voting rights should be left to the states. (As a side – I think we all know how well the states have championed voting rights over the years). But he did sign the bill creating the 19th amendment and sent it to the states for ratification.
Next to the birthplace is a museum dedicated to the life of the 28th president. Obviously, it covers his two administrations, but it also addresses his time as president of Princeton University. Wilson was the only POTUS to have an earned doctorate (in political science, no less!). That period (1902 – 1910) was not without controversy as Wilson was known to but heads with the Dean of the Graduate School as well as the Board of Trustees over curriculum and other reforms. Wilson’s goal was to make Princeton into an elite university and some of his policies were contentious. However, if you ask the museum, Wilson was quite successful in making Princeton much of what it is today.
From Princeton, Wilson jumped into state politics, running for and being elected as New Jersey’s governor. Then, in 1912 he ran for President in a 4-way race: William Howard Taft (GOP incumbent), Teddy Roosevelt (the former president who founded the Progressive Bull Moose Party after storming out of the GOP convention), and Eugene V. Debs, a socialist. It was a crowded field, but Wilson emerged as the winner.
The museum is very proud of the Wilson “Pierce – Arrow” car that Wilson used after he left the White House. I have to admit, it was pretty cool to see such an old vehicle.
If you read my earlier post, you will be reminded of Wilson’s position toward Europe during World War I, and more specifically, the Treaty of Versailles written upon the cessation of hostilities. I will not repeat myself here as to the details of that treaty or the issues the United States made for itself by not signing it. I do, however, want to point out that in this museum, curators have set up a trench warfare exhibit. It is historically accurate and gives visitors a bit of a sense for how soldiers lived during the European War. However, we should not forget that the Great War (now known to us as World War I) was an economic, political and social catastrophe for Europe and that no reproduction can truly do the millions of deaths justice. The United States engaged late – in 1917 – and then turned its back on Europe after the Senate failed to ratify the Treaty of Versailles or join the League of Nations. We did not experience anything like Europe did during those years; the closest parallel for Americans would have been the Civil War, and even then, by all measurements, it was not as devastating.
I am constantly reminded during these tours, particularly those that relate to 20th-century world history, of America’s leadership in global events. The idea that in the second decade of the 21st-century, we would seek to blow up our alliances, and withdraw from the global framework that previous presidents worked so hard to build, is truly frightening.
Thumbs up on the Woodrow Wilson Museum and Library. It sparked my interest to learn more about the period and I came home with at least 2 books to add to my growing library.