Ellen Axson Wilson (1860-1914)

Ellen Axson Wilson was the first wife of Woodrow Wilson, the twenty-eighth president of the United States. She was the first Georgia native to serve as the nation's first lady.

Early Life

Born on May 15, 1860, at the manse of the Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, the home of her paternal grandparents, Ellen Louise Axson was the eldest of four children born to the Reverend Samuel Edward Axson and Margaret Jane Hoyt. Her father and both of her grandfathers were Presbyterian ministers. Her paternal grandfather, the Reverend Isaac Stockton Keith Axson, served as pastor of the Midway Congregational Church in Midway and as president of Greensboro Female College in Greensboro before becoming pastor in 1857 of Savannah's Independent Presbyterian Church, where he spent the remainder of his career. Through her paternal grandmother, Rebecca Longstreet Randolph Axson, she was closely related to the writer Augustus Baldwin Longstreet and Confederate general James Longstreet.
Her father was the pastor of the Beech Island Presbyterian Church in present-day Aiken County, South Carolina, from 1859 until 1861. On several occasions he ministered for the Reverend Joseph Ruggles Wilson, Woodrow Wilson's father, at Augusta's First Presbyterian Church. One story says that on the day of her baptism, the infant Ellen Axson was held by the future president, who was three and a half years older than she.
During the Civil War (1861-65) her father served as a chaplain in the Confederate army, while she and her mother lived alternately with relatives in Savannah and Athens. Her father left the army due to illness and moved his family to Madison, where he served the Presbyterian church in 1864 and 1865; she began her formal education there. After the war, her father was called to be the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Rome.

Education

Ellen Axson enrolled at Rome Female College in 1871. She excelled as a student, especially in art, and later studied foreign languages and art as a postgraduate student. She drew crayon portraits from photographs, which she sold, and shared her love of literature and poetry with her friends in lengthy correspondence. Her youngest sibling was born in October 1881, and her forty-three-year-old mother contracted puerperal fever; she died less than a month later. An aunt in Gainesville took the baby, leaving Axson to care for her two younger brothers at home. Her widowed father fell into a deep depression and needed occasional convalescence leaves from his church.
In spite of her domestic duties in Rome, Axson managed to visit friends and relatives in Savannah; Sewanee, Tennessee; New York; and New England. These trips exposed her to different cultural offerings, helping to further her education and sophistication.

Woodrow Wilson

In April 1883 Woodrow Wilson, then a twenty-six-year-old lawyer living in Atlanta, visited his uncle in Rome. He attended Rome's First Presbyterian Church, where he saw Ellen Axson in the congregation. Her mourning clothes led him to assume that she was a young widow, but he soon learned that she was the pastor's eldest daughter and that the little boy with her was her brother. Smitten, Woodrow Wilson arranged to call on her father the next day, ostensibly as the son of the pastor's old friend and colleague. He and Axson became better acquainted during that visit and another one in June. He proposed when they accidentally met again in Asheville, North Carolina, but the marriage would not take place for nearly two years, after he had completed graduate work at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and she had studied at the Art Students League in New York City. In the meantime, her father, who had not rallied from his depression, died in 1884 at the state asylum in Milledgeville.
The Wilsons were married at her paternal grandfather's home, the manse of the Independent Presbyterian Church, on June 24, 1885.

Wife, Mother, Hostess

The Wilsons' first home together was in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia, where he served on Bryn Mawr College's inaugural faculty. In 1888 they moved to Middletown, Connecticut, where he became a faculty member at Wesleyan University. In 1890 he was named professor of jurisprudence at his alma mater, Princeton University, and the couple moved to Princeton, New Jersey.
Although she never lived in Georgia again, Wilson several times visited friends and relatives there. She gave birth to two daughters—Margaret in 1886 and Jessie in 1887—in Gainesville at her aunt's home. Her third daughter, Eleanor, was born in Middletown, Connecticut, in 1889.
Wilson devoted most of her time to being a dutiful wife and nurturing mother, putting aside her artistic ambitions for many years. The Wilson household was often filled with relatives, including her brother, Eddie, who came to live with them in Bryn Mawr, as did her husband's sister and nephews in Princeton. Woodrow Wilson became the president of Princeton University in 1902.
Gradually, as the family finances improved and her children grew older, Wilson resumed her painting. She turned wholly to her art in 1905, when her brother Eddie, his wife, and their baby drowned in a Georgia river, leaving her severely depressed. She spent some of her summers at the art colony in Old Lyme, Connecticut, and escaped New Jersey's summer heat by vacationing in New Hampshire.
Wilson was a reluctant politician's wife, but after her husband became the governor of New Jersey in 1911, she carried out her role with grace and dignity. She once hosted Theodore Roosevelt at their home in Princeton and is credited with soothing her husband's relations with perennial presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, helping win Bryan's support for her husband as the 1912 Democratic presidential candidate.

First Lady

Woodrow Wilson won the 1912 presidential election, and in March 1913 the family moved into the White House in Washington, D.C. As First Lady, Wilson became concerned by the abysmal conditions of the alleys and back streets of Washington, and she campaigned for the passage of a bill to clean up the streets. The effort is credited as an early attempt at urban renewal. She also planned the famous rose garden, which remains a popular part of the White House grounds today.
While First Lady, Wilson helped to plan the weddings of her two younger daughters. Both ceremonies took place at the White House. Jessie Woodrow Wilson married Francis Bowes Sayre in 1913, and Eleanor Randolph Wilson married William Gibbs McAdoo in 1914. The eldest daughter, Margaret Woodrow Wilson, never married and pursued a career as a vocalist.

Death

By 1914 Wilson was gravely ill. After several months of decline due to Bright's disease, she died in the White House on August 6, 1914. Her dying wish was that the Washington clean-up bill be enacted, and Congress quickly obliged. A special train returned her remains to Rome for the funeral at First Presbyterian Church on August 11. She was buried in Myrtle Hill Cemetery beside her parents. Woodrow Wilson married Edith Bolling Galt in December 1915.
Wilson was inducted into Georgia Women of Achievement in 2000. In 2008 the Rome Area Heritage Foundation donated a portrait of Wilson to the library at the University of Georgia in Athens.
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Further Reading
Eleanor Wilson McAdoo, ed., The Priceless Gift: The Love Letters of Woodrow Wilson and Ellen Axson Wilson (New York: McGraw-Hill, [1962]).

Frances Wright Saunders, Ellen Axson Wilson: First Lady between Two Worlds (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985).
Cite This Article
Montgomery, Erick D. "Ellen Axson Wilson (1860-1914)." New Georgia Encyclopedia. 10 January 2014. Web. 02 September 2014.
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Courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia Libraries