Sunday, June 5, 2011

"The Petticoat Presidency": Was Edith Wilson America's First Woman President?

 In this photo from June 1920 (right) President Woodrow Wilson signs a bill into law.  The lady next to him is Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, the First Lady. She is  steadying the paper he's signing to conceal the paralysis he was still suffering from a series of strokes the preceding November.    Many historians believe  Mrs. Wilson was the defacto President of the United States for much of the last year of her husband's term.   

By  March of 1919, President Woodrow Wilson returned from the Versailles Peace Conference in Paris.  The American President, who had only served one-term as governor of the state of New Jersey before his  ascension to the White House, had spent most of his adult life as a professor of history and politics at Princeton University. He is the only American President to date to have earned a regular and not an honorary doctorate from a major university.    

  As a scholar and the son of a Presbyterian minister, Wilson was a man of strong character and strong principles who was had written major books on the nature of how government works. But nothing could prepare him for the struggles he faced at Versailles, trying to convince Orlando of Italy, Clemenceau of France and Lloyd George of Britain of the need to be more lenient on Germany and other members of the Triple Alliance. These other statesmen had seen too much war and too many millions of dead and wounded men and their widows to be as lenient as Wilson.
But they also saw he couldn't be ignored. The USA was the major banking and industrial  power left in the world. Wilson was adamant on the idea of a transnational  solution to the nationalistic, colonial and commercial powers that had started the last war. So they agreed to the League of Nations as long as their countries could be permanent members.  
  Wilson returned to Washington as a man with a mission:
"I can predict with absolute certainty that within another generation there will be another world war if the nations of the world do not concert  the method by which to protect it."  

Wilson had been popular with many ordinary British, French, Italian and other   Europeans when he came across the Atlantic with a  "Fourteen Points" plan for keeping the peace.  He thought the politicians back home would be impressed enough by his work on the international stage to support his program.
He was wrong.
Heavy opposition to the League of Nations in the Senate, led by the powerful Massachusetts solon Henry Cabot Lodge, blocked the treaty from passage. Attempts to compromise on some issues were batted away by Wilson, who held the League to the main lynch-pin of his plan for international peace.  Wilson, a Democrat, had seen his party lose seats in Congress in the 1918 Elections.  But he was still personally popular.  Despite the fact that he was exhausted from his time as a wartime leader, his constant travels and sparring abroad and the sparring with domestic foes like Senator Lodge , he ignored his doctors and went went on a cross-country train campaign in the Summer of 1919 to promote the League and get public opinion more on his side.  

On October 19, after a speech in Pueblo, Colorado, he suffered a minor stroke shortly after making a speech  and was rushed back to the White House. Within a few days he had a major stroke,  the second a crippling attack that left his left side paralyzed and his doctors fearing he could die at any time.  As a sick and bed-ridden man,  by rights he should have resigned his office and allowed the Vice President, Thomas Riley Marshall, a former governor of Indiana,  to assume his duties.
Edith Wilson felt initially that her husband should resign, But the President's his personal physician, Dr. F.X. Dercum,  was afraid that (a) Wilson was too weak to continue his duties without risking his death but that (b) by forcing him to resign his office he might lose the will to live and die from despair.
The solution was to have Edith Wilson become the guardian of her husband's near-total privacy. Wilson's second  wife, they had married in December of 1915, three months after they were introduced to each other and eighteen months after the death of his first wife.   
Edith Wilson, a Virginian like her husband, was fourteen years younger than her husband.  She had grown up in genteel poverty after her family had lost their fortune after the family plantation was burned to the ground by Union troops during the  Civil War.  The 7th of 9 children, most of her education came not from a school but from her father, a small-town judge and her grandfather.  She only had two years of formal education at a boarding school  but she had a keen intellect. 
Young Edith Bolling was brought up believing  herself  a descendant of the Indian Princess Pocahontas of the Jamestown Colony fame, and also as a  sort of displaced southern aristocrat. 
 She had a first childless marriage to a prominent jeweler in Washington, DC .  After he died, she ran the business herself with success. She became the guardian of a teen-aged girl who later married a White House doctor named Gary Grayson. The Greyson's introduced her to a female cousin of the President and, later,  to the widowed President himself.                  
It didn't take long for word of the President's real condition to reach Capitol Hill. Senator Albert Fall of New Mexico (who would later be indited for his role in the "Teapot Dome" oil leasing scandal  of the 1920's)   was in deep consternation over the inference that Mrs. Wilson put between her husband and any visitors from the legislature. "We have a petticoat government!  Mrs. Wilson is President," he once said, pounding the table at a closed Senate conference.  The newspapers also reported about the "regency presidency" that lasted through almost all of 1920.  
To counter this wave of suspicion, Edith Wilson brought in friendly journalists to cover for her husband's real condition.  One newspaper man claimed that Wilson was engaged in his duties while he held an interview with him. In truth Wilson could not get out of bed, and had an attention span of about sixty seconds. Later, when she published her memoirs in 1939, Edith Wilson answered her critics by stating: “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.”

But as the only one regularly in the President's inner sanctum, history only has her word for that.
Not all "criticism" of Edith Wilson was negative.  The London Daily Mail called her a "perfectly capable President" and Dolly Gann, writer for a Republican newspaper, praised her for acting for the good of the country. 
 President Wilson slowly recovered through 1920. After many months, he returned to cabinet meetings late in 1920. His illness still limited his duties.
In all of the meantime, Vice -President Marshall had been urged to take up the duties of the President by some Congressmen and cabinet officials. He declined to do this, citing it becoming dangerous precedent to set.  Other critics of Marshall felt he simply didn't want to be President at such a contentious time in public affairs. In any case, Marshall had never enjoyed the confidence of Wilson or the First Lady before the crisis. Edith Wilson stuck to getting advice from a small cabal of loyalists like Col. Edward House, Wilson's closest male adviser.  
 Wilson in the following year and was strong enough to attend the Inaugural of his successor, Republican Warren G. Harding of Ohio.
A number of what-ifs surround this period. Some liberal minded historians believe that the USA might well have entered the League of Nations and strengthened it for the coming rise of fascism. But there is no evidence that Wilson himself would have compromised enough with the Republicans in the Senate to get the Paris treaty passed. 
What is clear is that the whole time Wilson was incapacitated, there was little more than an "ad hoc" arrangement by his wife and House and one or two doctors and chummy journalists to try and mask Wilson's real and detrimental physical condition. This was not in my view any way to run a country. 
Edith Wilson outlived her husband by 43 years.  She attended the Inaugural of President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and remained an active correspondence with top political figures from the comfortable home in Georgetown, near the capital, where she and her husband retired.  Ironically she died on the same day  in 1961 that she was to be the guest of honor at the dedication of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge across the Potomac River.  She was 89 years old. 
In 1965, two years after the assassination of John Kennedy, the 25th Amendment to the Constitution was passed. It made clear that in the event the Chief Executive suffers a serious incapacitation like a stroke or other event, the Vice-President automatically assumes the duties of the President.   


  1. Thanks Jeff. This is one of the little-discussed periods in American history.

  2. "Was Edith Wilson the first female President?"

    Oh, probably. I've thought so for some decades - that stroke was the first of many health issues which also saw a decline in his capacity - but again, like so many things (was Mary Surratt guilty of conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln? Probably - but we'll never know - she never had a proper trial), we'll never really know.

  3. I agree with you there Will. The Mary Suratt case was an example of political expediency and military justice--not a good combination if you are the person "in the dock".

    What amazes me is that it took so long for this problem in succession of a Chief Executive to be dealt with by the Congress and the state legislatures. (Not that I'm fond of state legislatures in these matters but that's an argument for another venue.)

    And, yes, we never know how much Edith Wilson was truly in charge.

  4. Hi Doug, is that your bookcase in the background?

  5. It certainly seems likely that Edith took over many of her husband's duties when he became ill. Fortunately she had a good head on her shoulders. I was thinking how your Presidents wives have changed over the years. They seem to take on the role of a fashion peg these days.

    I believe Edith was active right up until she died, close to her nighties. Ah reading your article again she didn't quite make it to ninety!

    Would she have had free reign in what she did, because it takes a whole team of people to back up a President? Bush got blamed for many things, but people conveniently forgot the team behind him and he took all the flack.

    Anyway, well done Edith I wouldn't have liked to be in your shoes.:-)

    Interesting blog, Doug.

  6. Thanks Mary Ellen. Glad you enjoyed this one.

  7. Yes it is Cassandra. One side of it at least.

    I thought about posting the other side, since sequels are so popular these days in Hollywood movies and novels.

  8. There's a good selection of books there, Doug. Could you post the picture sideways, I'm getting a crick in my neck! ;-)

  9. I wonder if Edith was well trained in telling a person to go to hell and they actually look forward to going. I think it's called diplomacy. :-) She looks a strong minded woman.

  10. LOL! I imagine from the few pictures I've seen of her that she was one of those "Get thee to hell, and you'll thank me later" people. (That's a great definition of effective diplomacy by the way.)

    Remember, she had run a tough business well before she came to the White House, so she was no shrinking violet. (Sadly the pressures of being First Lady had contributed to Wilson's first wife dying after his first 18 months in office.)

    I personally would not likely have wanted to press a dispute facing Edith's countenance.

  11. Thanks Cassandra ,and sorry about the crick. I too like looking at book collections people post or pictures of same of prominent people in magazine articles.