Woodrow Wilson, the Reader

For more than fifty years, historians have discussed whether President Woodrow Wilson had dyslexia or some other type of difficulty reading. As a young boy, Tommy Wilson was considered stupid by some because of the hard time he had learning, though his parents remained confident of his abilities. Wilson told his wife later in life that he did not read until he was nine, and one of his daughters remembered him saying that he was not a confident reader until he was twelve. During his years in college, he complained of how slowly he read, and some have considered his enthusiasm for shorthand to be a sign that it freed him from the slow and troublesome work that taking notes presented him with. President Wilson often insisted on preparing drafts on his own, even for run-of-the-mill letters, though he usually did this on his personal typewriter or using shorthand.

Still, the President did not often make the types of mistakes associated with dyslexia, and though he always struggled with foreign languages, he always managed to get good grades. It is possible that some of his troubles came from poor eyesight that he finally corrected with glasses after college. Woodrow Wilson treasured oratory as the supreme form of rhetoric, as did his father, but he learned about many of the skills of speech makers by reading their words, even copying them out at times.


From one of his early notebooks:

Language, Learning a: La

“My way of learning a language is always to begin with the Bible, which I can read without a dictionary. After a few days passed in this way, I am master of all the common particles, the common rules of syntax, and a pretty large vocabulary. Then I fall on some good classical work. It was in this way that I learned both Spanish and Portuguese, and I shall try the same course with German.”—Macaulay.

Language, Use of.

“Men who know the world hold, and I think with some show of reason, that he who best knows how to conceal his necessities and desires, is the most likely person to find redress, and that the true use of speech is not so much to express our wants as to conceal them.”—Goldsmith.

†Oratory: Oa

An orator should be: “vehemens ut procella excitatus ut torrens, incensus ut fulmen; tonat, fulgurat, et rapidis eloquentiae fluctibus cuneta proruit et proturbat.” Tullus.

And we know that he enjoyed books a great deal as an adult, even reading aloud to members of his family from literature, poetry, or scripture as a common evening entertainment. As he wrote to a friend while still a young man, “But, while not neglecting the privileges of society—so to speak—I am the more while a slave to the seductions of literature.” He often shared his reading with family, such as when he wrote to Jessie from Scotland,“I go up to see the Yates every day I can, and we read a good deal together. Just now we are reading a charming little book called Uncle William, by Jeanette Lee, which I hope you will all read. It is really quite a charming little idyll.”

Of reading the bible, he wrote, “The Bible is the word of life. I beg that you will read it and find this out for yourselves, – read, not little snatches here and there, but long passages that will really be the road to the heart of it.” Though he continued to read slowly, Wilson thoroughly immersed himself in every aspect of the world of letters. Toward the end of his life, he gave up on much of the news of the day and the heated political discussions, but he continued to read the bible and the detective novels he enjoyed so much.