A local tie to history

There has been a great deal of reflection during the last several weeks about the decision made 100 years ago that plunged the United States into World War I.

Woodrow Wilson, our 28th president, made that choice known to Americans on April 2, 1917, when he stepped into the House of Representatives and delivered this message to a joint session of Congress:

“With a profound sense of the solemn and even tragical character of the step I am taking and of the grave responsibilities which it involves, but in unhesitating obedience to what I deem my constitutional duty, I advise that the Congress declare the recent course of the Imperial German Government to be in fact nothing less than war against the government and people of the United States; that it formally accept the status of belligerent which has thus been thrust upon it and that it take immediate steps not only to put the country in a more thorough state of defense but also to exert all its power and employ all its resources to bring the government of the German Empire to terms and end the war.”

That speech was followed by the declaration of war from Congress on April 6 (by votes of 82-6 in the Senate and 373-50 in the House), actions that changed the course of America’s history and would make the world a much different place.

While the spotlight has once again been shined on Wilson, who died in 1924, it’s interesting to remember that he had strong ties to Steubenville and the newspaper you are reading.

In 1815, Wilson’s grandfather, James Wilson, bought the Western Herald from William Lowry, who, along with John Miller, had founded the newspaper on June 7, 1806. Though it went through several name changes during the years (Wilson would rename it as the Western Herald and Steubenville Gazette, for instance), today’s Herald-Star is the direct descendent of that publication.

James Wilson had settled in Steubenville with his wife, Ann Adams Wilson, and one of their children, Woodrow Wilson’s father, Joseph Ruggles Wilson, was born in Steubenville on Feb. 28, 1822. He attended Jefferson College, which is now Washington and Jefferson, and ended up in Staunton, Va., where the future president was born on Dec. 28, 1856.

A profile of Joseph Ruggles Wilson Sr. found on the website of the Jefferson County Historical Association tells us the woman who would become the wife of a Presbyterian minister and the mother of a president, Janet Jesse Woodrow, was a student at the Steubenville Female Seminary when she caught the eye of her future husband while she was participating in a parade that passed by Wilson’s North Sixth Street home.

The newspaper business remained a part of the family — Woodrow Wilson’s brother, Joseph Ruggles Wilson Jr., would serve as editor of the Nashville Banner.

According to a history of the Herald-Star that was updated for our 200th anniversary in 2006, James Wilson was involved in the community on many levels, serving as a common pleas judge and as president of the Steubenville-Cadiz Turnpike Co. He died on Oct. 17, 1850, from an attack of cholera brought on by drinking contaminated water.

The historical association website has a copy of his obituary as it appeared in the Oct. 18, 1850, edition of the Herald:

“Our venerable fellow citizen, Judge James Wilson, is no more. He expired yesterday at 11 o’clock A.M. after suffering 12 hours from a virulent attack of cholera morbus. The deceased had been about our streets on Wednesday apparently in his healthy and fine spirits. His conversation was lively and his step as firm as has been his wont. Yet, hale and hardy as he was in the 64th year of his age, he fell to that grim destroyer…. Death.”

James Wilson and his wife, who died on Sept. 6, 1863, are buried in Steubenville’s Union Cemetery, and while they would not live to see it, their grandson was destined to have a great impact on the world that we still feel today.

President Wilson was, as David M. Shribman, executive editor of The (Pittsburgh) Post-Gazette, described him in a column that appeared April 2, “… a romantic, a visionary, even a utopian. He was not without flaws; his racial views were offensive for his time, repugnant for ours. But he believed in human rights and the sanctity of human life. And he had a broad view of natural rights, and they included the freedom of the seas and the virtue of national self-determination.”

His was an interesting and complex life, one in which he would be asked to make momentous decisions, and one which has a direct connection to our community.

(Gallabrese, a resident of Steubenville, is executive editor of the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times.)