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.
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.
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.
The Wilsons were married at her paternal grandfather's home, the manse of the Independent Presbyterian Church, on June 24, 1885.
Wife, Mother, Hostess
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.
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.
Eleanor Wilson McAdoo, ed., The Priceless Gift: The Love Letters of Woodrow Wilson and Ellen Axson Wilson (New York: McGraw-Hill, ).
Frances Wright Saunders, Ellen Axson Wilson: First Lady between Two Worlds (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985).
Erick D. Montgomery, Historic Augusta, Inc.
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.