Woodrow Wilson's Virginia Education
    by Ian Iverson

Upon his arrival at at UVA as a law student in October 1879, future U.S. President Woodrow Wilson felt keenly out of place. Although a Virginian by birth, as a recent graduate of Princeton, Wilson found UVA’s student culture “totally different” with a community tendency towards “disintegration.” Yet, despite his initial unease with life at UVA, Wilson found a  “perfect teacher” in Professor John B. Minor, an instructor who conducted his courses with such “thoroughness and vigor and ability” as to impress the most dedicated scholar. Wilson soon became personally acquainted with Minor, spending extensive time in Pavilion X with his family and becoming friends with the Minor’s teenage daughters.[1]

Under Minor’s tutelage, Wilson engaged closely with the political and legal questions which would occupy his mind for the remainder of his life. While some of these topics, such as early English constitutionalism, remained mere theories in Wilson’s mind, other topics took on more concrete and sinister forms. As Wilson became at home at UVA, joining the Jefferson Debating Society, he began to echo the racial essentialism promoted by the Southern intelligentsia. In one on-grounds debate concerning the threat posed by Roman Catholicism to free government, Wilson dismissed concerns on the issue by citing the “vitality of Anglo-Saxon institutions” and the capacity of the “sturdy Teutonic races” to resist “papal dominion.”[2]

Although poor health forced Wilson to withdraw halfway through his second year at UVA, he had come to believe the University represented “one of the most singular, most successful, and most important institutions in the country.” Identifying more fully now as a Southerner than he had in his college days in New Jersey, Wilson penned an essay titled “Stray Thoughts from the South” while he recuperated in the winter of 1880-1881. Giving full voice to the program of white supremacy which dominated Southern politics, Wilson explained that the white South refused to “to be ruled by an ignorant and an inferior race.” Their commitment to one-party rule arose not out of a consensus on economic policy, but from “the determination of the Saxon race of the South that the negro race shall never again rule over them” a feeling Wilson judged “not unnatural” and “necessarily unalterable.” According to Wilson, only the disenfranchisement of black voters could restore political balance to the South as African Americans remained “ignorant, uneducated, and incompetent to form an enlightened opinion on any of the public questions.”[3]

These intellectual seeds of Wilson’s UVA education would subsequently bear bitter fruit as President, when he fired black federal employees, re-segregated the civil service, and presided over a resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan throughout the South.


1. Woodrow Wilson to Robert Bridges, November 7, 1879, The Papers of Woodrow Wilson Digital Edition. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2017. John B. Minor to Woodrow Wilson, May 1, 1884, The Papers of Woodrow Wilson Digital Edition.

2. Woodrow Wilson to John B. Minor, December 2, 1886; Virginia University Magazine, XIX (April 1880), 445-50, The Papers of Woodrow Wilson Digital Edition.

3. Woodrow Wilson to John B. Minor, December 2, 1886, The Papers of Woodrow Wilson Digital Edition; “Stray Thoughts form the South,” c. February 22, 1881, The Papers of Woodrow Wilson Digital Edition.