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Wilson biographer: Columbia years influenced intellect, religion and politics

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A. Scott Berg A. Scott Berg

The author of a recent biography of President Woodrow Wilson says Wilson's years in Columbia were some of the most influential in his life.

"Columbia had a great impact on Wilson, even though he was there only a few years. But he was there as a teenager, which, of course, is a very impressionable time,"  A. Scott Berg said. "And it was also a real interesting moment in the life of Columbia because it was right in the middle of Reconstruction."

It took more than a decade for Berg to write his biography, Wilson.

"I never read a biography of him that I thought really humanized this man, who I thought was a man of great passion as well as influence and so I wanted to write the book and capture some of those things," he said.

Wilson's family moved to Columbia in 1870, when he was 14. His father, a Presbyterian minister, accepted a teaching position at Columbia Theological Seminary. Reverend Wilson built the family home at 1705 Hampton Street.

"Wilson really came of age intellectually there," Berg said. "He had been a very slow learner and reader and it wasn't really until the time that he'd gotten to Columbia that he began to read well."

Although it wouldn't be recognized until years later, Wilson overcame dyslexia to become what Berg called the nation's most educated president, and the only one with a Ph.D.

"He also found himself religiously while he was in Columbia," Berg said. "Even though his father was a Presbyterian minister, and obviously religion was a big part of the Wilsons' lives, it really wasn't until his Columbia years that Wilson really embraced religion on his own for himself."

"Politically, there was kind of an awakening for him there and I think it was because of what was going on in the state capitol because of Reconstruction. And Wilson began to read a lot about government and politics, saw how the world, or really the country, had been turned on its head because of Reconstruction," Berg said.

"I think it fascinated him and upset him. And I think it really encouraged him to go out into the world and be political and do it the right way. This is something that I felt has been missing from most of the books written about Wilson, which really make very little of his Southern upbringing."

Berg said Wilson's witnessing the Civil War in the South also influenced his future.

"His very first memory, in fact, was of Abraham Lincoln's getting elected and being told there was gonna' be a war in the South. So this really traumatized him to an extent. He saw the deprivations of war. He saw what went on."

"Then by the time he got to Columbia and saw what was going on with the carpetbaggers and the scalawags and just what was going on racially in the state and how, in some ways, the African-Americans were being used, if not abused, it was just a very peculiar time. So all of this came into great play for Wilson."

"Columbia really had a lot to do with shaping Wilson," he said.

"Just walking through the house, walking down the street there, going through his father's church, gave me a great sense of who Woodrow Wilson was and who he became."

Berg is giving a lecture on his book Sunday, September 7th at the Robert Mills Carriage House at 3 p.m. The lecture is free, but seating is limited, so guests need to register with the Historic Columbia Foundation, 803-252-1770 ext. 23.

From 5 to 6 p.m., Berg will be signing copies of Wilson on the porch of the Woodrow Wilson Family Home. The Robert Mills Gift Shop will have copies available for purchase for $40.

The audio recording of the full interview with A. Scott Berg is attached to this story.

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