In his lifetime, Woodrow Wilson (1856 to 1924) bore witness to some of the most tumultuous times in American history. The Civil War raged during his childhood; as the nation’s 28th president, he led America into a world war. Unfortunately, Wilson was often on the wrong side of history when it came to race relations. Check out some of the lesser-known facts about one of the more controversial occupants of higher office.
1. He was an eyewitness to the Civil War.
Born and raised in the south, Wilson was the son of a Presbyterian minister Joseph Wilson and his wife, Janet Wilson. His parents were Confederate supporters, and as a child, Woodrow watched Janet nurse wounded soldiers in his father’s church. Later, he witnessed Confederate president Jefferson Davis marched in chains through Augusta, Georgia.
2. He arrived at his inauguration in a horse drawn carriage.
Following a brief law career, Wilson made his way into academia, arriving at Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) in 1890 as a professor of jurisprudence and political economy. By 1902, he was the university’s president, a position he held until 1910. That year, he was elected governor of New Jersey and then set his sights on higher office. Owing to a Republican split over support between incumbent William Howard Taft and former president Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson captured the electoral vote for the 1912 election and was re-elected in 1916. With the advent of automobiles imminent, Wilson became the last American president to arrive to his inauguration while being transported by horse-drawn carriage.
3. He was against integration.
During Wilson’s term, many governmental departments began to segregate employees. Wilson allowed his cabinet to maintain white-only bathrooms and once threw civil rights activist William Monroe Trotter out of the White House for growing too confrontational over their conflicting views. A century later, students at Princeton staged a sit-in to protest Wilson's name being kept on various campus institutions, citing his frequent roadblocks in the work of civil rights activity. (While he was president of Princeton, the school did not admit any black students.) The university ultimately decided to let the dedications remain.
4. He advocated for a woman's right to vote.
While Wilson would find himself less progressive in other civil rights matters, he did manage to get one thing right. After initially feeling indifferent about allowing women the right to vote, his attitude changed as a result the women’s suffrage movement. Activists picketing outside the White House in 1917 were hauled away by police; Wilson was horrified to learn they were being force-fed following a hunger strike. In January 1918, Wilson advocated for men and women to have an equal voice in elections, and would later make written and verbal arguments to members of Congress. His lobbying undoubtedly helped states ratify the 19th Amendment in August 1920, finally granting women the right to cast their ballot.
5. He ushered in the White House screening room.
His poor taste in film aside (Wilson famously screened The Birth of a Nation in 1915), Wilson was the first president to routinely screen movies in the White House. Actor Douglas Fairbanks gifted him with a projector in 1918, allowing Wilson to enjoy movies with regularity. He sometimes watched up to five hours a day. While cruising the Atlantic following the Allied victory in World War I, Wilson set up the projector so troops could enjoy Charlie Chaplin films.
6. He kept a flock of sheep on the White House lawn.
While presidents have often had a curious history with animals—Thomas Jefferson famously harbored two bear cubs for a brief time on White House grounds—Wilson’s flock of sheep might be the most puzzling. The rationale behind it, however, made perfect sense. In 1918, with World War I raging, Wilson wanted to be a model for Americans in supporting troops. Allowing sheep to roam the grounds and eat grass cut down on the manpower needed to maintain the lawn, an example of rationing manpower; their wool was auctioned off and raised $52,823 for Red Cross relief efforts.
7. He got caught up in an unseemly love triangle.
Despite his cool exterior, Wilson could apparently soften around the right company. He had married Ellen Louise Axson in 1885 but sometimes took trips alone to Bermuda, where he fraternized and flirted with a woman named Mary Peck. Wilson and Peck continued a pen-pal dialogue through his first term, which would later prove troublesome. When Ellen died in 1914, Wilson turned his attention to the widowed Edith Galt. Fearing that remarrying so soon after his first wife’s death could harm his chances for re-election, Wilson’s handlers lied and said Peck planned on selling off his love letters. They hoped Wilson would be frightened of the ensuing scandal and call off the wedding. Instead, Wilson confessed his involvement with Peck to Edith. She married him anyway. Peck was said to be devastated that Wilson hadn’t married her instead.
8. His wife helped run the country.
Toward the end of his second term, Wilson was overworked, traveling too often, and plagued by various illnesses including influenza. On October 2, 1919, he suffered a stroke, which impaired his mobility and left him partially paralyzed. Fearing the implications of having an infirm president and with the Constitution unclear as to whether vice-president Thomas Marshall should assume his duties, the Wilson regime went on as usual. Owing to his diminished state, however, his wife Edith began to take on a much more prominent role in his affairs. She curated matters for him to address personally and helped him prioritize his duties through the end of his presidency in March 1921. He died in 1924.