Ellen Axson Wilson
|First Lady of the United States|
March 4, 1913 – August 6, 1914
|Preceded by||Helen Taft|
|Succeeded by||Margaret Wilson (De facto)|
|First Lady of New Jersey|
January 17, 1911 – March 1, 1913
|Preceded by||Charlotte Fort|
|Succeeded by||Mabel Fielder (Acting)|
|Born||Ellen Louise Axson
May 15, 1860
Savannah, Georgia, U.S.
|Died||August 6, 1914
Washington, D.C., U.S.
|Cause of death||Bright's disease|
|Spouse(s)||Woodrow Wilson (1885–1914)|
Ellen Louise Axson Wilson (May 15, 1860 – August 6, 1914), was the first wife of Woodrow Wilson and the mother of his three daughters. Like her husband, she was a Southerner from a slave-owning family, as well as the daughter of a clergyman. She was born in Savannah, Georgia, but raised in Rome, Georgia. Having an artistic bent, she studied at the Art Students League of New York before her marriage, and continued to produce art in later life.
She was First Lady of the United States from Wilson's inauguration in 1913 until her death. During that period, she arranged White House weddings for two of their daughters.
Born Ellen Louise Axson in Savannah, Georgia, the daughter of the Reverend Samuel Edward Axson, a Presbyterian minister, and his wife Margaret Jane (née Hoyt) Axson, Ellen became a woman of refined tastes with a fondness for art, music and literature.
In April 1883, she met Woodrow Wilson when he was visiting his cousin Jesse Woodrow Wilson in Rome, Georgia, on family business. At that time, she was keeping house for her widowed father. Woodrow Wilson thought of Ellen, "What splendid laughing eyes!" They were engaged 5 months later, but postponed the wedding while he did postgraduate work at Johns Hopkins University and she nursed her ailing father. Ellen's father committed suicide while hospitalized for depression, after which she went North to study at the Art Students League of New York. After graduation, she pursued portrait art and received a medal for one of her works from the Paris International Exposition. She returned to Georgia.
Wilson, who was 28 years of age, married Ellen, age 25, on June 24, 1885, at her paternal grandparents' home in Savannah, Georgia. The wedding was performed jointly by his father, the Reverend Joseph R. Wilson, and her grandfather, the Reverend Isaac Stockton Keith Axson. They honeymooned at Waynesville, a mountain resort in western North Carolina.
That same year, Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania offered Dr. Wilson a teaching position at an annual salary of $1,500. He and his bride lived near the campus, keeping her little brother with them.
Together, the Wilsons had three daughters:
- Margaret Woodrow Wilson (1886–1944) - singer, businesswoman, Hindu nun (1940–44)
- Jessie Woodrow Wilson Sayre (1887–1933) - she worked three years at a settlement house in Philadelphia. She married Francis B. Sayre at the White House in 1913. They settled at Cambridge, Massachusetts, when Mr. Sayre joined the faculty of Harvard Law School. Jessie was active in the League of Women Voters, the YWCA, and as secretary of the Massachusetts Democratic Committee.
- Eleanor Randolph Wilson McAdoo (1889–1967)
Insisting that her children must not be born as Yankees, Ellen went to stay with relatives in Gainesville, Georgia for Margaret's birth in 1886 and Jessie's in 1887. But Eleanor was born in Connecticut in 1889, while Wilson was teaching at Wesleyan University.
Wilson's career at Princeton University began in 1890, bringing Ellen new social responsibilities. She took refuge from such demands in her art. As First Lady, she drew sketches and painted in a studio set up on the third floor of the White House. She donated much of her work to charity. She arranged the White House weddings of two of her daughters.
After Wilson was elected as president in 1912, the Wilsons preferred to begin the administration without an inaugural ball. The First Lady's entertainments were simple, but her unaffected cordiality made her parties successful. In their first year, she convinced her scrupulous husband that it would be perfectly proper to invite influential legislators to a private dinner, and when such an evening led to agreement on a tariff bill, he told a friend, "You see what a wise wife I have!"
Wilson had grown up in a slave-owning family. As First Lady, she devoted much effort to the cause of improving housing in the national capital's largely black slums. She visited dilapidated alleys and brought them to the attention of debutantes and Congressmen. Her death spurred passage of a remedial bill she had worked for.
She died of Bright's disease on August 6, 1914. The day before her death, she made her physician promise to tell Wilson "later" that she hoped he would marry again; she murmured at the end, "...take good care of my husband." She was buried in Rome, Georgia among her family at Myrtle Hill Cemetery.
In December 1915, president Woodrow Wilson married Edith Bolling Galt.
- "First Lady Biography: Ellen Wilson". National First Ladies' Library. Retrieved 2006-10-06.
- Wilson, Woodrow, and Wilson, Ellen Axson. The Priceless Gift: the Love Letters of Woodrow Wilson and Ellen Axson Wilson, Eleanor Wilson McAdoo, ed., McGraw-Hill, New York, 1962
- Heckscher, August (1991). Woodrow Wilson. Easton Press. pp. 71–73.
- Original text based on White House biography, First Ladies
- Miller, Kristie, Ellen and Edith: Woodrow Wilson's First Ladies (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2010)
- "President Wilson's Other Wife", American Presidents website, March 2007, discusses Ellen Wilson with particular attention to her painting
- "Ellen Wilson", C-SPAN First Ladies: Influence & Image
- Ellen Wilson at Findagrave.com
- Ellen Louise Axson Wilson historical marker
|First Lady of the United States