Ellen Axson Wilson life and biography

Ellen Axson Wilson picture, image, poster

Ellen Axson Wilson biography

Date of birth : 1860-05-15
Date of death : 1914-08-06
Birthplace : Savannah, Georgis, U.S.
Nationality : American
Category : Famous Figures
Last modified : 2010-08-05
Credited as : First lady of the United States, wife of President Woodrow Wilson,

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Ellen Axson Wilson, also known as Mrs. Woodrow Wilson born May 15, 1860 in Savannah, Georgia, United States - died August 6, 1914 in Washington, District of Columbia, United States was the First Lady of the United States and painter.

A significant contributor to her husband's academic and political careers, Ellen Axson Wilson also pursued her own career as a painter with several successful exhibitions. Her independence and achievements helped her cope with a marriage that had its stressful moments due to her husband's infidelity and the demands of public life. Despite these disappointments, Wilson rose to the challenges of her duties as First Lady. She even endorsed legislation to improve slum housing in Washington, D.C., a rare instance of activism on the part of a political spouse in that era. Tragically, Wilson died from a kidney disorder in 1914 during Woodrow Wilson's first term as president. In terms of her impact on the White House, she was subsequently overshadowed by Wilson's ambitious second wife, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, whom Wilson married in 1915.

Old South Childhood

Ellen Louise Axson, known as "Ellie Lou" during her childhood, was born on May 15, 1860 in Savannah, Georgia. She grew up in Rome, Georgia as the eldest daughter of Reverend Samuel E. and Martha Jane Hoyt Axson. A wealthy, slave-owning family, the Axsons provided their daughter with a private education and training in the arts and foreign languages. Even after the Civil War the Axsons were members of the southern elite, given Reverend Axson's position as the minister of Rome's First Presbyterian Church. In 1881, just as Ellen Axson was preparing to leave home, her mother died after giving birth to her fourth child. In the wake of the tragedy, Reverend Axson suffered from depression and emotional instability. The family moved to Savannah to be closer to other members of the Axson family; Ellen Axson assumed most of the duties of raising her younger siblings. Reverend Axson was hospitalized at the Central State Mental Hospital in January 1884 and died, most likely by suicide, in May 1884.

After arranging for the care of the other Axson children, Ellen Axson left to study art in New York City in late 1884. She studied at the Art Students League for just a year before returning to Georgia to marry Woodrow Wilson, then an Atlanta attorney. She had known Wilson during her childhood and had met him again in 1883 while attending church services. Like Axson, Wilson came from a prominent family; his father, a Presbyterian minister, eventually was a national leader of the Presbyterian Church of the United States. Their courtship continued during her year in New York City and the couple was married on June 24, 1885 in Savannah.

Advisor to Husband

Although Ellen Wilson had shown an independent and adventurous spirit before her marriage, she channeled most of her ambition through her husband out of genuine devotion, if not in deference to the conventions of the day. She continued, however, to pursue her love of painting and eventually exhibited her work, under the name E.A. Wilson, at art shows in New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Indianapolis. The Wilsons' first daughter, Margaret, arrived in 1886; their second, Jessie, was born in 1887; and their youngest, Eleanor, came in 1889. Never overcoming the provincial chauvinism of her background, Wilson insisted that her children be born on southern soil, lest they be considered Yankees. Only an illness during her pregnancy with Eleanor prevented all three Wilson daughters from being born at Wilson's ancestral home in Georgia. Like her husband, Wilson also retained her support of racial segregation to limit the role of African Americans in public life.

Woodrow Wilson had obtained his doctorate in history from Johns Hopkins University and, with his wife's help in translating documents from German into English for his work, proceeded onto a successful academic career. After teaching at Bryn Mawr College and Wesleyan University, Woodrow Wilson took a position at Princeton University in 1890. Ellen Wilson helped him through a series of illnesses, including arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries brought on by high blood pressure). She also endured Wilson's long-running affair with Mary Peck, whom he had met in 1907 while on a vacation in Bermuda apart from his wife.

Wilson advanced to the presidency of Princeton in 1902. His tenure was marked by controversies over his plan to abolish the university's private dining clubs and to build its graduate school as an integral part of the campus. Facing a showdown with his opponents, Wilson was being forced into resigning when he was unexpectedly offered the nomination by the state's Democratic Party for the governor's race in 1910. As recounted in Louis Auchincloss's biography, Woodrow Wilson, Ellen Wilson was a major factor in getting her husband to enter the race, telling him that the offer "sets you free again to leave if you wish--that is to accept the nomination for governor and going into politics." Wilson took his wife's advice and against all predictions won the election.

Died in White House

While New Jersey's political bosses thought that they would easily control Wilson once he was elected, his anti-corruption campaign left them disappointed and they immediately began to float Wilson's name as a presidential candidate for the 1912 election. With the Republican Party divided, Wilson won the election and Ellen Wilson made only the second trip in her lifetime to Washington to inspect her new home in 1913. She immediately put her artistic training to use in planning renovations on some White House rooms, particularly in the presidential family's private quarters. Suffering from declining health, the new First Lady committed to a restricted schedule of social activities. After observing slum conditions in the capital, Wilson also became a supporter of legislation to improve the neighborhoods.

Despite the tensions in their marriage, Ellen and Woodrow Wilson remained devoted to one another. The President was alarmed by his wife's sudden decline in health in 1913; the illness would eventually be diagnosed as Bright's Disease, which resulted in kidney failure. Ellen Axson Wilson died on August 6, 1914 and was buried in Rome, Georgia. After a period of intense mourning, Woodrow Wilson married Edith Bolling Galt on December 18, 1915.

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