A century ago, before American women were allowed to vote in presidential elections, one woman took the reins of presidential power and held them firmly for almost two years. Edith Galt Wilson had never been elected president, of course, but because of her position as Woodrow Wilson’s wife, some unfriendly commentators claimed that she had seized an illegitimate amount of power over her husband. How did this happen? Well, 1919 was a very different world from the one we live in today, and Woodrow Wilson’s presidency was far more of a one-man operation than any recent presidencies have been.
Wilson, unlike most recent presidents, had not been engaged in national politics before he became president. He had started his career as a college teacher, a very popular teacher, who moved up through the ranks to become president of Princeton University and later the governor of New Jersey. When he was elected President in 1914, he moved to Washington, but did not move into the active society of political circles. His first wife, Ellen Axson Wilson, was shy and very family oriented. She preferred quiet family life to mixing in Washington society, and not many people were invited to the White House. Shortly after Wilson’s first election to the presidency, she became seriously ill with Bright’s disease. During her illness, she and the President became even more isolated. When she died in 1914, she left behind a a bereft President and three daughters.
Wilson accomplished a great deal during his first term in office. He introduced the graduated income tax, which put government finances on a much firmer basis than it had ever had. Unfortunately, he also segregated government agencies, a destructive move that lessened the status and weakened the financial position of Negroes for generations to come.
Wilson’s personal life was not happy after the death of his first wife. He worked hard but had few friends and became very isolated. Friends tried to introduce him to other women and in 1915 he met and was attracted to Edith Bolling Galt, a young widow from Virginia. She had grown up in an elite family with deep roots in the South. One of her ancestors was Pocahontas, who had married John Rolfe, one of the earliest colonists in Virginia. Edith was one of eleven children and had been given most of her education at home. Her father believed that education money should be spent on sons, but he provided a large library and Edith’s grandmother tutored her and her sisters.
Wilson and Edith were attracted to each other and he persuaded her to become engaged, but they decided not to get married until more time had passed since the death of his first wife. They were married in a small ceremony at home in 1915.
The major issue that dominated Wilson’s later years in the White House was the war in Europe. During his first term in office, Wilson pledged to keep America out of the European war. He won a narrow election victory in 1916, but the following year Germany’s introduction of submarine warfare led him to request Congress to declare war. In April 1917, Congress voted to support the war. A draft was initiated and thousands of Americans went to fight in the war.
Wilson was a firm opponent of war and his major preoccupation as World War I drew to a close was to ensure that another European war would never occur. In 1919, he and Edith attended the Paris Peace Conference where Wilson worked hard to draft plans for a League of Nations. Unfortunately, he worked mostly alone, with help from other Democrats, but without involving any of the many Republicans who wanted to participate in postwar planning.
After Wilson had completed his draft proposal, he returned to the United States to urge the Senate to sign his plan. That was when disaster struck. In October 1919, Wilson suffered a serious stroke that left him partially paralyzed. It was then that his wife became an active participant in protecting her husband and concealing the extent of his illness. With the support of his doctor, Edith demanded that all communication with the President must be approved by her.
For the next year and a half until his presidency ended, Edith Wilson controlled her husband’s life. She examined all letters and other communications addressed to him and decided which he should see. She ruled on who could visit the President and how long they could occupy his time. Even the Vice President, who had never been active in the administration, was not allowed to see him. Wilson was reluctant to have any changes made in the peace plan that he had developed and Republican Senators were unable to see or to influence him. In the end, the Senate did not approve Wilson’s Peace Plan and America did not become a member of the League of Nations.
Ever since this bitter ending to Wilson’s term as President, historians have argued about how influential Edith Galt Wilson was in his life. During Wilson’s last year in office, several opponents accused Edith of trying to seize power and take over his role. Others supported her in her claims to have been only a loving wife trying to protect her husband.
If you want to learn more about the dramatic events of Wilson’s last years, you might want to read Gene Smith’s When the When the Cheering Stopped: The Last Years of Woodrow Wilson (2016). The details of the struggle are fascinating, although none of us will ever know the full story of what happened during those hectic postwar years. That is why history is so fascinating—very few accounts can tell the true inside story of other people’s lives.