Mrs. President

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We have a petticoat government!  Wilson is not acting! Mrs. Wilson is President!

Senator Albert Fall (R.NM.)

Edith Wilson had a very long life, being born on October 15, 1872, and dying on December 28, 1961.  She outlived two husbands, surviving her second husband, Woodrow Wilson, by 37 years.  Except for one episode, her life was quite conventional for a woman of her time, place and class.  A direct descendant of Pocahontas, Edith Bolling was the daughter of Judge William Bolling and his wife Sarah.  The seventh of eleven children, her family was one of the first families of Virginia.  The family fortunes were upset by the end of slavery, and Edith Bolling grew up with a distinct Southern view of The War Between the States. Homeschooled, Bolling dropped out of college after one semester, and her subsequent formal education consisted of one year at the Powell’s School for Girls in Richmond, Virginia. In 1896 she married prominent Washington DC jeweler Norman Galt.  The couple had one son who died after a few days.  This birth left Edith Galt unable to bear further children.  Norman Galt died at age 43 in 1908.  Edith Galt hired a manager to supervise Norman Galt’s business and embarked on a tour of Europe.

In March 1915 she was introduced to the recently widowed Woodrow Wilson.  Wilson fell in love almost at once and quickly proposed to her.  Rumor mongers quickly accused Wilson of having murdered his first wife to take up with Edith Galt.  It was said by some anti-Wilson critics that after Wilson proposed to her that she was so surprised that she fell out of bed.  (People who think our time is uniquely vicious when it comes to politics really need to read more American political history.)   Edith Galt accepted the proposal but decided the wedding would occur only after a year of mourning for Wilson’s first wife.  They were wed at Galt’s home on December 18, 1915 in a joint Presbyterian-Episcopalian ceremony, Wilson being the second, and to this point last, president to be married while president.

The marriage was a love match with Edith Wilson becoming her husband’s most ardent supporter and fiercely defensive of him.  She engaged in extensive charitable work as First Lady and threw herself into supporting the war effort after the US declared war on Imperial Germany in 1917.

Her time as a normal First Lady ended abruptly when Wilson had an incapacitating stroke on October 2, 1919.

Edith Wilson suggested that the Vice President be summoned and that he assume the office of president.  This would allow her husband to have the peace and rest he desperately needed.  According to her, Wilson’s advisors and physicians shot this down, stating that if Wilson were no longer president, this would take away a powerful incentive for him to make a recovery.  In the first few days after his stroke, Wilson was completely out of it.  After he was able to make his wishes known, he made it plain that he was not going to resign and he was not going to meet with the Vice President.  Thus the figurehead portion of the Presidency of Woodrow Wilson began.  For the last seventeen months of his term in office he still bore the title of president, but the real power resided in his wife in consultation with his advisors

 

In My Memoir (1939) Edith Wilson downplayed her role:

“So began my stewardship. I studied every paper, sent from the different Secretaries or senators, and tried to digest and present in tabloid form the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the President. I myself never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband.”

Until the day she died Mrs. Wilson denied that she had taken over as President.  However, her role as gatekeeper to the President made her the final say as to what Wilson did and did not see.  She wanted to relieve as much stress for her husband as she could, so most presidential decisions were made by herself, in consultation with Wilson’s advisors.  Whatever Mrs. Wilson called herself she did exercise presidential power, completely without authority to do so.

Incredibly, Woodrow Wilson wanted to run for a third term as president and wanted to have his name placed in nomination at the Democratic convention in 1920.  By this time his incapacity, and the role that Mrs. Wilson was playing, had become known to the public and there was no support for him as a candidate and his name was not placed in nomination.  In retirement after his presidency he still played with the idea of running for a third term in 1924, his presidential ambitions ceasing only with his death on February 3, 1924.

 

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2 Comments

  1. All I knew of Wilson was that he was President during WWI, supported the League of Nations, but didn’t see his dream fulfilled in his lifetime. I knew the UN was the follow on replacement ideal which hasn’t worked very well. I never knew about his wife and advisors playing this role during his presidency – amazing. Thanks for the insights.

  2. A stubborn and willful man. And a prig. The Edwardian bourgeois were admirable in most respects. Not all respects. See Phillip Jenkins’ essay on Wilson in The Chesterton Review some years back.

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