Ellen Axson Wilson

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Ellen Wilson
First Lady of the United States
In role
March 4, 1913 – August 6, 1914
President Woodrow Wilson
Preceded by Helen Taft
Succeeded by Margaret Wilson (Acting)
First Lady of New Jersey
In role
January 17, 1911 – March 1, 1913
Governor Woodrow Wilson
Preceded by Charlotte Fort
Succeeded by Mabel Fielder (Acting)
Personal details
Born Ellen Louise Axson
(1860-05-15)May 15, 1860
Savannah, Georgia, U.S.
Died August 6, 1914(1914-08-06) (aged 54)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Spouse(s) Woodrow Wilson (1885–1914)
Children Margaret

Ellen Louise Axson Wilson (May 15, 1860 – August 6, 1914),[1] was the first wife of Woodrow Wilson. Also a Southerner from a slave-owning family, she grew up in Rome, Georgia; her father was a minister. Before her marriage, she studied at the Art Students League of New York and continued to make art. She and Wilson had three daughters together.

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, among other responsibilities.


Born Ellen Louise Axson in Savannah, Georgia,[1] the daughter of the Reverend Samuel Edward Axson, a Presbyterian minister, and 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. She was keeping house for her widowed father. Woodrow Wilson thought of Ellen, "What splendid laughing eyes!"[2] 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. He committed suicide while hospitalized for depression. Axson 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.[3] She returned to Georgia and marriage.

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:

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.

Ellen Axson Wilson by her friend Frederic Yates - 1906

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 had 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!"[citation needed]

Ellen Louise Wilson's grave in Myrtle Hill Cemetery, Rome, Georgia

Wilson had grown up in a slave-owning family. As First Lady, she gave her prestige 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.[citation needed]

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

In December 1915, president Woodrow Wilson married Edith Bolling Galt.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 "First Lady Biography: Ellen Wilson". National First Ladies' Library. Retrieved 2006-10-06.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 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
  3. Heckscher, August (1991). Woodrow Wilson. Easton Press. pp. 71–73.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • 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)

External links

Honorary titles
Preceded by
Charlotte Fort
First Lady of New Jersey
Succeeded by
Mabel Fielder
Preceded by
Helen Taft
First Lady of the United States
Succeeded by
Margaret Wilson