A Detailed Autograph Letter Signed Discussing Wilson and Woodrow Family Genealogy and his Scotch-Irish Ancestry

Signed by Woodrow Wilson

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Item: 19279
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WILSON, WOODROW. (1856-1924). Twenty-eighth president of the United States. LS. (“Woodrow Wilson”). 4pp. 8vo. Princeton, November 12, 1896. To Miss Woodrow. Written in the hand of Wilson’s first wife and future First Lady ELLEN AXSON WILSON (1860-1914).

“Your interesting letter of Nov. 14th reached me in due course of mail, and I take pleasure in returning such answer to it as I can. I have always understood that on the Woodrow side I was descended from the family of the Rev. Robert Woodrow, the author of “The Sufferings of the Church of Scotland,” and in direct line from the James Woodrow, who in 1688 became the first professor of moral philosophy in the University of Glasgow. My grandfather, the Rev. Thomas Woodrow, was for sixteen years pastor of a congregational church in Carlisle, England, and did not come to this country until 1836. He settled first in Canada, but after a brief residence there removed to Chillicothe, O[H], where he spent the greater part of the rest of his life. My mother, Jessie Woodrow (not Marion) was born in Carlisle. Marion Woodrow, her youngest sister, and the youngest of the family, was also born in Carlisle. I know of no relatives named Woodrow in this country except those directly descended from Rev. Thomas Woodrow. On the Wilson side the American history of my family is almost equally short. My grandfather, Judge James Wilson of Steubenville, Ohio, came to this country in his youth from the north of Ireland and married a Miss Adams of Philadelphia, whose parents also were recently from the north of Ireland. You will see, therefore, that my ancestry on this side of the water does not run back so far as the Revolution. I have understood, in a general way, that I was in some way connected with the family of Woodrows in West Va., and that all the Woodrows in this country were of the same stock, and that the family was of Highland origin and of the ‘Clan Campbell;’ but what I have told you is all I accurately know. With much regard, Most sincerely yours…”

Wilson’s paternal grandfather James Wilson (1787-1850) published an anti-slavery newspaper, The Western Herald and Gazette, after emigrating from County Tyrone and settling in Steubenville with his wife Mary Anne (née Adams, 1791-1863), also an Irish immigrant. Wilson’s parents Joseph Ruggles Wilson and Jessie Janet Woodrow (1826-1888) moved from Ohio to Virginia in 1851, becoming slave owners who supported the Confederacy during the Civil War. The future president was born in Staunton, Virginia in 1856. Joseph was a Confederate Army chaplain and a founder of the Southern Presbyterian Church in the United States after an 1861 schism from the northern church body. The family lived in Augusta, Georgia and Columbia, South Carolina, where Joseph was a professor of rhetoric and theology at Columbia Theological Seminary. “Although the South festered in poverty following the Confederate defeat, and ministers did not earn large salaries, Wilson’s family enjoyed prestige and comforts. Nor did his family come from the common run of preachers. After Episcopalians, Presbyterians stood higher socially than any other denomination in the South, and Wilson’s relatives moved near the top of their church’s hierarchy,” (The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, Cooper).

Woodrow Wilson with his wife and daughters

“Thanks to his forebears, Wilson was born with social and intellectual distinctions. Status also devolved upon the boy from his mother’s side,” (ibid.). Wilson’s maternal grandparents, Reverend Thomas Woodrow (1793-1877) of Paisley and his wife Marion (née Williamson) Woodrow of Glasgow settled in Ohio. Our letter notes that other maternal ancestors included Reverend Robert Woodrow (1679-1734), author of The History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland from the Restoration to the Revolution published in 1721 and 1722, and his father Reverend James Woodrow (?-?), professor of Divinity in the University of Glasgow beginning in 1692. “The greatest influence of [Woodrow Wilson’s] early years was not war or politics but religion. [He] was the son, grandson, and nephew of Presbyterian ministers. Nearly everyone who has written about him has commented on how the pulpit and the manse left unmistakable marks on the style, direction, and content of his political career,” (ibid.).

In 1896, the year of our letter, Wilson published his biography of George Washington while a professor at Princeton University. Wilson became the college’s president in 1902. In 1910, he entered politics and was elected governor of New Jersey, and, just three years later, he reached the White House, the first southerner since Lincoln to do so. Wilson was one of the most educated U.S. presidents in history, having attended law school and earning a PhD in history and political science from Johns Hopkins University. Written on a folded sheet which has been folded into thirds. In fine condition.

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