Presidential Mothers: Woodrow Wilson issues first Mother’s Day proclamation

Published 6:07 am Saturday, March 25, 2023

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By  Betty Etchison West

For the Enterpris

When thinking of the Mother of Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States, three descriptors come to mind:  preacher’s wife, mother of four, and nurse.

Janet Woodrow, who was called Jessie, was born on Dece. 20, 1826, in Carlisle, Cumberland County, England.  Her parents, Thomas Woodrow and Marion Williamson Woodrow and their family, immigrated to America.

While Jessie was attending a girls’ academy in Steubenville, Ohio, she met Joseph Ruggles Wilson. That meeting finally resulted in a wedding.  Jessie Woodrow and Joseph Ruggles Wilson were married in Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1849.

Joseph was either a Presbyterian minister or he became one shortly after they were married.

In 1851, the Wilsons were living in Pennsylvania. It was there that their first child, a daughter, was born. By 1853, the family had moved to Staunton, Va. and were living in the Presbyterian Manse there.  Their second child, another daughter, was born there as was their third child, a son, Woodrow Wilson, who was born in 1856.

That Manse in Staunton was/is a beautiful two-story house. (It was a far cry from the manse that former President Arthur’s family occupied in Connecticut.)  The house in which Woodrow Wilson was born is now open to the public. It is most interesting because it is furnished with the furniture of the period when the Wilsons lived there.  There may even be a few items which belonged to the Wilson family still in the house. Wilson’s birthplace is located at 24 N. Coulter St. in Staunton. Call 1-540-885-0897 or 1-888-496-6376 for information about the hours when it is open to the public.

There is a Wilson Museum a couple of houses from the birthplace house, which has nine exhibits.  The exhibit that children will probably enjoy most is President Wilson’s 1919 Pierce-Arrow car.

The fact that Joseph Wilson was a Presbyterian preacher meant that the family moved from place to place. Woodrow was young when his family moved to Augusta, Ga. While living in Augusta, Jessie Wilson was a busy mother, and she also managed the duties expected of a minister’s wife in a fine manner.

Woodrow was sick quite a bit, and his mother nursed him back to health repeatedly. Jessie was known as a loving companion and a devoted mother. She was such a devoted mother that Woodrow became attached to her and depended on her for healing and support. He said in later life that he was probably “a mama’s boy.”

The Wilson family next moved to Columbia, S.C.  That is where Woodrow spent some of his teenage years. When he was 16, he enrolled in Davidson College, which is in Davidson, N.C.

After Woodrow had been at Davidson for several months doing quite well in his studies, he got sick. He withdrew from Davidson and went home.  His mother once again nursed him back to health.  The word health may be too strong a word because Woodrow Wilson was never really healthy.  He had bouts of illness all of his life, and, until he got married, his mother seemed to be the person who was his chief nurse.

Even later in life, Woodrow Wilson seemed to always need the support of a woman in order to keep his equilibrium. The lady who had given Woodrow the support he needed for so many years died in 1888.  Janet (Jessie) Woodrow Wilson was buried in Columbia South Carolina’s First Presbyterian Churchyard.  She died 26 years before her son became President.

Woodrow was dependent on his first wife, Ellen Axson Wilson, from the time they were married in 1885 until her death in 1914. It was good that Woodrow had Ellen’s support after the death of his mother. When Ellen died in 1914 of Bright’s disease, Woodrow just fell apart.  He had a hard time carrying on with his work.  Several months after Ellen’s death, Woodrow accidently met Edith Boling Galt who seemed to give him the support he needed. He fell in love with Edith, and they were married about a year after Woodrow’s first wife’s death.

In 1919, President Wilson had stroke. He was sick or helpless for many months. During that time Edith cared for him. He was never well during the remaining years of his presidency or his life.  Edith never seemed to tire of caring for her ailing husband. Edith’s protective care probably reminded Woodrow of the care that his mother gave him.

On May 9, 1914, President Wilson proclaimed the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day. That day was/is to be “a public expression of love and reverence for the mothers of our country.”  Those words which were spoken by President Wilson as he set aside a day to honor mothers again tells us how much he honored his own mother who had been dead for years.

The President’s father died in 1914, about six months after his son was inaugurated as President. Joseph Wilson was buried in the Columbia First Presbyterian Churchyard where his wife was buried.

Woodrow Wilson, son of Joseph and Janet Wilson, is highly rated by historians.  He was ranked as No. 13 in a C-SPAN poll in 2021.

President Wilson’s parents certainly deserve some credit for his success as President.