In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President, and the Congress may by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what Officer shall then act as President, and such Officer shall act accordingly, until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.
Article II, Section 1, Clause 6 of the United States Constitution
After the stroke that almost killed him on October 2, 1919 Woodrow Wilson was clearly incapable of discharging his duties as President. Wilson was partially paralyzed. However, he refused to have his condition revealed to the Vice President, and refused to meet with him until Wilson’s final day in office. Wilson had no intention of relinquishing his office to Marshall. Ike Hoover, the Chief Usher at the White House at that time, recalled how dire Wilson’s condition was following his stroke:
For the next three or four days the White House was like a hospital. There were all kinds of medical apparatus and more doctors and more nurses. Day and night this went on. All the while the only answer one could get from an inquiry as to his condition was that it ‘showed signs of improvement.’ No details, no explanations. This situation seemed to go on indefinitely. It was perhaps three weeks or more before any change came over things. I had been in and out of the room many times during this period and I saw very little progress in the President’s condition. He just lay helpless. True, he had been taking nourishment, but the work the doctors had been doing on him had just about sapped his remaining vitality. All his natural functions had to be artificially assisted and he appeared just as helpless as one could possibly be and live.”
Marshall was one of the five Hoosiers who have served as Vice President. A former governor of Indiana, Marshall was a man of great wit. Here are a few samples:
Death had to take him in his sleep, for if Roosevelt had been awake, there would have been a fight.
(Upon his hearing of the death of President Teddy Roosevelt.)
Once there were two brothers. One ran away to sea; the other was elected vice president of the United States. And nothing was heard of either of them again.
I’m from Indiana, the home of more first-rate second-class men than any other state in the union.
Being vice president is comparable to “a man in a cataleptic fit; he cannot speak; he cannot move; he suffers no pain; he is perfectly conscious of all that goes on, but has no part in it.
In the city of Denver, while I was vice-president, a big husky policeman kept following me around until I asked him what he was doing. He said he was guarding my person. I said: “Your labor is in vain. Nobody was ever crazy enough to shoot at a vice-president. If you will go away and find somebody to shoot at me, I’ll go down in history as the first vice-president who ever attracted enough attention even to have a crank shoot at him.
Wilson’ advisor Colonel Edward M. House summed up the disadvantage of Marshall’s wit: An unfriendly fairy godmother presented him with a keen sense of humor. Nothing is more fatal in politics.
Wilson had invited Marshall to cabinet meetings after their election in 1912, but as Marshall was never given any tasks to perform by Wilson he stopped coming. Wilson developed a dislike for the affable Marshall, although why is not clear. However, it didn’t take much for Wilson to develop a dislike for someone.
Marshall after Wilson’s October 2 stroke found himself in a quandary. Without a communication from Wilson that he was incapacitated, and since he could not meet with him to determine his health, Marshall was afraid of the precedent that would be set if he attempted to assume the office of President.
On October 5, 1919 Secretary of State Lansing, and other Cabinet members, proposed that Marshall assume the Presidency. Members of Congress also urged this course on Marshall. Marshall responded that absent an official communication from Wilson stating that he was incapable of performing his duties, he required a Joint Resolution of Congress urging him to do so. On December 4, 1919, Lansing told a Senate committee that no member of the Cabinet had seen Wilson in 60 days. A move to pass the Joint Resolution requested by Marshall was stymied in the Senate by opponents of the Versailles treaty, fearful that as President Marshall would make enough concessions to Treaty critics to allow the Treaty to be ratified by the Senate.
Finally a committee of the Senate visited Wilson in December 1919. They came away believing that while the President was in very poor health, he seemed to have sufficient faculties to make decisions. Although he would remain secluded for the remainder of his term, there were no further efforts in Congress to have Vice President Marshall assume the Presidency.