Wilson decided not to follow the career path of his Presbyterian minister, but to use his verbal and logic skills in politics. He entered law school at the University of Virginia planning to jump from a career as a lawyer into politics. After passing the bar in Georgia, Wilson set up a law practice in Atlanta. However, he soon found the day to day practice of law to be stifling. So he returned to school, earning a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in the history of government in order to at least train the next generation of leaders. Wilson’s dissertation, Congressional Government, examined how a strong Congress could dominate a weak president. It was hailed as the best book on the subject and remained in print for decades.
After graduation Wilson went to teach college, first at Bryn Mawr, then at Wesleyan, and finally at his alma mater, Princeton, in 1890. As a professor, and then as a university president, Wilson learned how to balance the demands of different competing groups and how to convince large groups of men to do what he wanted. According to a later, perhaps apocryphal, story, Wilson noted that, compared to what he was used to in facility meetings, the “real” politicians in Washington were amateurs.
In 1910, Wilson was picked by party bosses to run for Governor of New Jersey and won an overwhelming victory as a Democrat in a normally Republican state. As Governor of New Jersey, Wilson knew how to use patronage but really relied on his verbal skills to win allies and convince others that he was right. He soon proved his independence as governor, shaking off the control of the party bosses and following his own path as a reformer, independent of the big city political machines. He quickly established an impressive record of political reforms in New Jersey and became the front runner for the 1912 Democratic presidential nomination. In a three-way race with Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, Wilson was elected by a landslide in a 3 way race in 1912.