He graduated from Princeton in 1879 and studied law at the Univ. of Virginia. Admitted (1882) to the bar, he practiced in Atlanta, Ga., for a year before going to Johns Hopkins to study political science and jurisprudence. In 1885, he published Congressional Government, a significant work. After receiving (1886) his Ph.D. degree, he taught history and political economy at Bryn Mawr (1885–88) and Wesleyan Univ. (1888–90).
In 1890 he became professor of jurisprudence and political economy at Princeton and gained a reputation for his eloquent orations. Popular with the student body, Wilson, a descendant of Presbyterian ministers on both sides of his family, was elected (1902) president of Princeton, becoming its first nonclerical head. He strove to raise academic standards, reorganized the curriculum, and introduced the preceptorial system of instruction, which provided for more individualized education.
His attempt to change the social and living facilities by eliminating the elite eating clubs for upperclassmen and introducing the quadrangle system, where students from all of the classes would live and eat together, was less successful. It aroused great hostility, which reached a climax in his bitter struggle with the group headed by Dean Andrew F. West. Wilson lost, but with prompting from George B. M. Harvey, a New York publisher with strong connections in the Democratic party, he ran for governor of New Jersey in 1910 soon after resigning his post at Princeton.