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Woodrow Wilson: Virginian President of Ulster stock

Virginian President of Ulster Stock
by Billy Kennedy
Billy Kennedy has been a journalist with the Belfast News Letter (founded in 1737) for the past 33 years, as a news editor for 18 years, assistant editor for five years and leader writer for the past 15 years. He is author of The Scots-Irish Chronicles - nine volumes - by Ambassador Publications, Belfast, Northern Ireland and Greenville, South Carolina). He is a frequent visitor to the United States in connection with his books and lectures regularly on the subject. He is also editor of The Ulster-Scot newspaper and has worked for the BBC and the History Channel on television and radio documentaries on the subject of the Scots-Irish diaspora. Billy can be contacted by email at billykennedy@fsmail.net

Thomas Woodrow Wilson, United States President at the early part of the 20th century when America was emerging as a world super power, had very strong Ulster and Scottish roots which he spoke often about.

This son of a Presbyterian minister, born in Staunton in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in 1856, guided the United States through the First World War and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution.

President Wilson’s paternal grandfather James Wilson emigrated from Strabane in North Tyrone in 1807, while his maternal grandfather the Rev Thomas Woodrow was a native of Paisley in Scotland who moved to America in 1835 to take up a Presbyterian congregational charge in Ohio.

James Wilson was 20 when he sailed from Londonderry to Philadelphia, having grown up in the rural hamlet of Dergelt, about two miles from Strabane town and in the picturesque foothills of the Sperrin Mountains. He had just completed his apprenticeship as a printer as Gray’s Shop at Bridge Street, Strabane when he moved and remains of the humble Wilson homestead at Dergelt are still preserved to this day and descendants of the original family reside in the area.

A previous employee at Gray’s print shop was John Dunlap, who printed the first copies of the July 4, 1776 Declaration of Independence and founded the first American daily newspaper The Pennsylvania Packet. There was a close connection between Gray’s and America and when James Wilson arrived in Philadelphia, John Dunlap was still alive and the Ulster link was sustained.

James Wilson worked at the Democratic newspaper The Aurora and within five years he was the owner of the paper. He was a Democratic in the Benjamin Franklin mould and when he moved to Ohio he became editor of the Western Herald and Gazette in Steubenville. He was a Democratic representative in the state legislature and was assistant judge at the Court of Common Pleas.

Wilson’s wife Anne Adams - they married in Fourth Philadelphia Presbyterian Church in 1808 - was a Co Down woman and the couple had 10 children , seven sons and three daughters. The youngest and seventh son Joseph Ruggles Wilson became a scholarly Presbyterian minister and his third child was President Woodrow Wilson. The President’s mother was Jessie Woodrow, from Carlisle in England, who had emigrated to America with her family when she was four.

President Wilson often spoke of his Scots-Irish background, claiming with great pride that he had inherited the stern, strongly independent characteristics of the Scottish Covenanters. Speaking at a St Patrick’s Day rally in New York in 1909, when he was President of Princeton University, he said: "I myself am happy that there runs in my veins a very considerable strain of Irish blood."

In 1913, a year after he was elected to his first term as a Democratic President Wilson said: "I am sorry that my information about my father’s family is very meagre. My father’s father was born in the north of Ireland, he had no brothers on this side of the water. The family came from the neighbourhood of Londonderry".

Woodrow Wilson actually visited Ireland in August 1899, taking in both the North and South of the island. He is understood to have made it to Belfast, and the only evidence of his trip is in a letter located amongst his personal papers. This was written on August 20 from the White Horse Inn, Drogheda in Co Louth, about 25 miles south of the present Irish border.

Wilson at the time was professor of jurisprudence and political economy at Princeton University and, apart from academic friends, few in Ireland would have been aroused by his 1899 visit. He knew little about the geography and certainly did not reach North Tyrone to trace his grandfather’s roots.

President Wilson's 1913-21 Presidential term coincided with the years of bitter political struggle in Ireland, but despite intense pressure on him from Irish American elements within the Democratic Party to intervene on behalf of the Irish nationalist cause, the President wisely did not get involved.

He saw the Irish situation purely as an internal British matter and did not perceive the dispute and the unrest in Ireland as comparable to the plight of the various nationalities in Europe as a fall-out from the First World War. He ignored a letter from Irish nationalist leaders in Dublin in 1918 calling on the United States to back moves for the disengagement of British interests in Ireland. The nationalist letter was countered by a communique from Ulster Unionist leaders in the North, including Lord Edward Carson, but the President was unmoved that American involvement was required.

Woodrow Wilson was an emotionally complex man, one who craved affection and demanded unquestioned loyalty. He once described his nature as a struggle between his Irish blood - "quick, generous, impulsive, passionate, always anxious to help and to sympathise with those in distress" and his Scots' blood "canny, tenacious and perhaps a little exclusive".

Paradoxically, before large crowds, he was supremely self-confident and a gifted moving orator; with small groups of strangers he was often shy and awkward.

He was married twice. First, to Belle Louise Axson, daughter of a Presbyterian minister from Savannah, Georgia, and, after her death 29 years into the marriage, he wed widower, Mrs Edith Bolling Galt, who survived him by 37 years.

Religion was Woodrow Wilson's driving force and he said his life would not be worth living were it not for faith, pure and simple. He asserted: "I have seen all my life the arguments against it without ever having been moved by them. Never for a moment have I one doubt about my religious beliefs."

Wilson read his Bible daily in the White House, said grace before meals and prayed on his knees each morning and night. He belonged to Central Presbyterian Church in Washington and regularly attended the midweek prayer meetings. He firmly believed in providence and predestination and that God had pre-ordained him as President. His Calvinistic upbringing remained with him throughout his life.

Woodrow Wilson was a college lecturer in the years up to the end of the 19th century, teaching in Pennsylvania and Connecticut before taking the chair in jurisprudence and political economy at Princeton. In 1902, he became the first laymen to head Princeton, an institution founded by Scots-Irish Presbyterian clerics from Ulster. He held this position until 1910.

Wilson became Governor of New Jersey in 1911 and the following year he was elected President with a 42 per cent popular vote (6,286,820) over Theodore Roosevelt, who had 27 per cent (4,126,020) and the outgoing Republican President William Howard Taft on 23 per cent (3,483,922). Wilson carried the electoral vote in 40 states.

Four years later he had a 49 per cent poll (9,129,606) over Republican Charles Evans Hughes, who had 46 per cent (8,538,221). On this occasion his electoral college majority was slimmer - 277-254.

Woodrow Wilson, at the outset of war in 1914, advised that the United States should remain strictly neutral, but American opinion gradually changed after incidents of German brutality, including the sinking of the British liner Lusitania off the southern coast of Ireland, which claimed, 1,200 lives including 120 American passengers. However, it was not until 1917 that the United States was officially engaged.

America's intervention secured victory for the Allied Command, yet when the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, more than 300,000 Americans has been killed. Woodrow Wilson led the American delegation at the Paris Peace Convention and he played a leading part in drawing up the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, which placed full blame for the war on Germany. The League of Nations was formed as a result of the deliberations.

For his efforts in achieving world peace, President Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but by the end of 1919 he suffered a stroke, from which he never fully recovered. Under Wilson's leadership, the United States became a world power - industry and commerce flourished across the states and the nation’s stability was maintained until the Great Depression emerged a decade later.

Woodrow Wilson bowed out as President on March 4, 1921, but his retirement lasted only three years. He died on February 3, 1924, aged 67. He had no state funeral, preferring to be buried at home.

The quiet God-fearing academic ranks among the Presidential greats. President Herbert Hoover, in a tribute to Woodrow Wilson, said: "Three qualities stood out for Woodrow Wilson. He was more than just an idealist; he was the personification of the heritage of idealism of the American people. He brought spiritual concepts to the peace table, he was a born crusader."

Woodrow Wilson, in the highest tradition of Ulster-Scots, advanced American prestige and honour throughout the world. His patriotism, idealism and Christian faith were inspiring to the free world.


* Wilson is one of the most common surnames in the English-speaking world, particularly in the United States and Scotland. In Ulster, where Woodrow Wilson’s folks originated, it is the third most common name. It is lowland Scottish in origin, traceable to the Clan Gunn, of Caithness.

* Billy Kennedy is author of The Scots-Irish in the Shenandoah Valley (published in 1996, as part of the Scots-Irish Chronicles - nine volumes- by Ambassador Publications, Belfast, Northern Ireland and Greenville, South Carolina).
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