Presidential history in Shenandoah Valley

The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum in Staunton, Va., is adjacent to the house in which the future president was born. Visits to the site include a guided tour of the house and a self-directed tour of the museum.


Staunton is 280 miles from Charlotte, about a five-hour drive.

To see and do

Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born Dec. 28, 1856, in Staunton, Va., to Joseph and Jessie Wilson. Less than a year later, the family moved to Augusta, Ga. As Woodrow’s father and maternal grandfather were both Presbyterian ministers, it naturally followed that “Tommy” was raised in that denomination.

The family also placed an emphasis on education, and while Woodrow was only an average student at school – he may have had undiagnosed dyslexia – his father taught him oratory and debate at home, two skills at which young Wilson was particularly adept and which proved to be of considerable value in his adult life.

Wilson attended Davidson College for one year before transferring to the College of New Jersey. After graduation, he went on to study law at the University of Virginia; after a few years practicing law, he enrolled at Johns Hopkins and earned a doctorate in political science and history. Wilson became a professor at the College of New Jersey in 1890 and in 1902 became president of the school, which had been renamed Princeton University.

Over time, Wilson’s politics led him to be identified as a “progressive Democrat,” and in 1910 he was nominated by the Democratic Party to be its candidate for governor of New Jersey.

Wilson won the office, and for two years proved himself to be a capable administrator and determined reformer. In 1912, after a grueling party convention, Wilson found himself the Democratic candidate for president, opposed by Republican incumbent William Howard Taft and former Republican president Theodore Roosevelt, who ran as a third-party candidate. The split vote among Republicans helped Wilson win the nation’s highest office.

During Wilson’s two terms as president, the Federal Reserve Act was adopted, the Clayton Antitrust Act was passed, the first federal income taxes were collected, and women were granted the right to vote. In 1914, when war broke out in Europe, Wilson declared the United States to be a neutral power. During Wilson’s 1916 re-election campaign, a much-heard slogan was “He kept us out of war.” But the following year, Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany when that country persisted in sinking American ships.

Following Allied victory in 1918, Wilson championed the formation of a League of Nations in hopes that such an organization could forever put an end to such conflicts as had so recently engulfed the world.

Fully committed to the cause, he pushed himself past the point of exhaustion during a whistle-stop tour across the country to gain public support for the league.

He suffered a stroke and never fully recovered. Wilson died Feb. 3, 1924, at age 67.

Details on all of the above and much more are found at the museum, which puts a spotlight on Wilson as an individual, plus what was taking place politically, socially and technologically throughout the country.

House tours put an emphasis on what life was like during the brief time young Woodrow lived in Staunton. The house includes the bed in which he was born.