Ellen Axson Wilson

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Ellen Axson Wilson
Ellen Axson Wilson, photographed in 1910
First Lady of the United States
In role
March 4, 1913 – August 6, 1914
PresidentWoodrow Wilson
Preceded byHelen Taft
Succeeded byMargaret Wilson (acting)
First Lady of New Jersey
In role
January 17, 1911 – March 1, 1913
GovernorWoodrow Wilson
Preceded byCharlotte Fort
Succeeded byMabel Fielder (acting)
Personal details
Ellen Louise Axson

(1860-05-15)May 15, 1860
Savannah, Georgia, U.S.
DiedAugust 6, 1914(1914-08-06) (aged 54)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Cause of deathBright's Disease
Resting placeMyrtle Hill Cemetery
(m. 1885)
ChildrenMargaret, Jessie, and Eleanor

Ellen Louise Axson Wilson (May 15, 1860 – August 6, 1914)[1] was the first lady of the United States from 1913 until her death in 1914, as the first wife of President Woodrow Wilson. Like her husband, she was a Southerner, 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.

During her tenure as First Lady, she arranged White House weddings for two of their daughters. She was the third First Lady and the most recent to die during her tenancy.


Ellen Louise Axson, born in Savannah, Georgia,[1] was 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. When she was eleven years old, she began studying art at Rome Female College in Rome, Georgia. After her graduation in 1876, Ellen's drawing titled School Scene was submitted to the Paris International Exposition.[2] where it won a bronze medal for excellence.[1]

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!"[3] 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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

Together, the Wilsons had three daughters:

Ellen Axson Wilson by her friend Frederic Yates - 1906

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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

Ellen Louise Wilson's grave in Myrtle Hill Cemetery, Rome, Georgia
Ruth Nelson portrayed Ellen Axson Wilson in the 1944 film Wilson

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.[citation needed]

She died of Bright's disease at the White House on August 6, 1914.[1] She was buried in Rome, Georgia among her family at Myrtle Hill Cemetery.

In December 1915, President Woodrow Wilson remarried, to Edith Bolling Galt.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "First Lady Biography: Ellen Wilson". National First Ladies' Library. Archived from the original on 2018-10-09. Retrieved 2006-10-06.
  2. ^ Heckscher, August (1991). Woodrow Wilson. Easton Press. pp. 71–73.
  3. ^ 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
  4. ^ "Edith Bolling Galt Wilson". The White House. Retrieved 2021-09-14.

Further reading[edit]

  • Burns, Lisa M. (2004). "Ellen Axson Wilson: A rhetorical reassessment of a forgotten first lady". Inventing a Voice: The rhetoric of American first ladies of the Twentieth century. pp. 79–102.
  • Miller, Kristie (2010). Ellen and Edith: Woodrow Wilson's First Ladies. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.
  • Saunders, Frances Wright (1985). Ellen Axson Wilson: First Lady Between Two Worlds. University of North Carolina Press. p. 359.
  • Weinstein, Edwin A. (2014). "CHAPTER XV. An Untimely Blow: The Death of Ellen Axson Wilson". Woodrow Wilson. Princeton University Press. pp. 245–264.
  • Wilson, Woodrow; Wilson, Ellen Axson (1962). The Priceless Gift: The Love Letters of Woodrow Wilson and Ellen Axson Wilson. McGraw-Hill.

External links[edit]

Honorary titles
Preceded by First Lady of the United States
Succeeded by