Historical story

Edith Wilson. The first woman to rule the United States

Last updated:2022-07-25

The war is over, but only seemingly there is peace in the White House. The ailing and partially paralyzed president was unable to make even the simplest decisions. The interregnum was carefully covered up. Like the fact that the First Lady Edith Wilson ruled the country for weeks.

Edith Wilson, Woodrow Wilson's second wife, had always been interested in her husband's work. Even before they got married, the president often sent her important state documents explaining his decisions. After their marriage in 1915, the Wilson family became practically inseparable. Thanks to her husband's trust, Edith soon became one of the most important people in the White House.

The First Lady's influence was so great that when the president suddenly fell ill in late 1919 and stopped appearing in public, it was suspected that she was in fact the reins of the state. The doctor's reassuring announcements that Wilson was fine and that he would be recovering soon were not believed. “We don't have a president anymore. We have women's governments ” One of the senators finally said. Was it really so?

The covert crisis

The concerned senators were indeed right to believe that Wilson's condition was serious. His health began to deteriorate rapidly in the summer of 1919. The president, who had never enjoyed any special condition, worked beyond his strength during this period. After returning from Europe, where he and other heads of state negotiated a peace treaty ending World War I, he embarked on an exhaustive tour of the United States. He wanted to convince somewhat skeptical Americans to ratify the treaty signed at Versailles.

Edith was her husband's confidante, she accompanied him on many official occasions. The photo shows the presidential couple before Wilson's disease, in 1917.

The campaign, however, was abruptly stopped. The president, who endured the long hours of train rides and constant speeches, was getting so tired on September 25 that he fell after his speech. After this incident, he returned to the White House, but did not regain his form. On October 2 he had a stroke which left his left body paralyzed. This is how his condition is described by A. Scott Berg, author of the newest biography of Wilson, just published in Poland :

After a few days, the threat was over, but the president found himself in a zone of darkness:a state of physical exhaustion, emotional turmoil and mental distress. Edith would later explain in her memoirs:"It has become a pressing question of how Mr. Wilson can best serve the country, save his life, and recover as much as possible."

Edith Wilson enters the scene

Wilson lay there for over a month, unable to function normally. Public opinion, as well as most of the political elite, never found out about it. All thanks to the enterprising president. On the advice of a trusted physician, Francis Dercum, and with the help of Wilson's private secretary, Joseph Tumulty, Mrs. Wilson has decided to keep information about the president's actual health a secret . According to the Polish historian and journalist Piotr Zaremba, the "conspirators" tried to mark normal state activities as much as possible.

The task turned out to be extremely difficult. Initially, Edith did not admit anyone to her husband. During this period, indeed, all state issues passed through her hands. Most of them just… ignored. Soon, the officials, unable to await an answer from the head of state, began to act more and more arbitrarily. "As many as 27 laws have not been signed and have become law beyond the awareness of the head of state," emphasizes Zaremba.

There were, however, some things that needed urgent attention, and Edith allegedly informed her sick husband of these. Was it really? Some contemporaries strongly doubted this . Documents leaving Wilson's office in the White House were disturbing. They differed from the high standard to which the head of state had accustomed his associates.

Two letters in particular were commented:Wilson's veto against the US prohibition law and the annual appeal to Congress. Today we know that both were written by Joseph Tumulty, allegedly following the president's directions.

His private secretary, Joseph Tumulty, helped the First Lady to conceal the real health of the president.

Death of the League of Nations

However, the most emotional issue was the ratification of the Versailles treaty. Before his health prevented him from continuing his action, the American leader fought tirelessly for her. He wanted it because the document established the League of Nations - an international organization whose task was to resolve disputes between states peacefully. Wilson was the main initiator of the League's creation and he could not imagine that the United States would not join it.

Despite the president's enthusiasm, the treaty aroused considerable opposition. The opposition in Congress suggested accepting him with certain reservations that defended American interests. Many of the presidential advisers were in favor of this solution, believing that otherwise the deal would be completely lost.

Unfortunately, Wilson did not know this. Edith would only allow selected guests to visit him, making him reluctant to make any corrections to the original document. As a result, there was no compromise. The congress in March 1920 rejected the treaty hardly negotiated by the president. and the United States never became a member of the League of Nations.

The president was not photographed for the first time after his illness in June 1920. How bad must it have been?

I haven't made a single decision…

At that time, in the spring of 1920, the president was gradually recovering. More and more often he received guests and gave interviews. Rumors that he was not the real one in the country slowly faded away. What was the actual role of the First Lady during these crucial months? Edith herself rather downplayed her. She argued that she was only an intermediary between the state and its head:

I myself have never made a single decision about managing public affairs. The only decision that was mine was to decide what is and what is not, and a very important decision when to bring things to my husband.

Not all historians agree with this assessment of the situation. "Edith Bolling Wilson was not, as some say, the" first US president ", but she was close to that" - writes A. Scott Berg in the book "Wilson" . "She considered herself a lady of the court of her husband, not a clerk, but she had the capacity to act, and he could only react."

He is echoed by Wilson's presidency researcher Judith Weaver. "Edith Wilson's role in the death of the League of Nations was not of secondary importance," she emphasizes. And she accuses the First Lady of the USA that her jealousy of her husband's other advisers and blind loyalty led to the defeat. Perhaps if Wilson had listened to the different sides, he would have made a compromise?

Edith Wilson (center) is much less known than another strong First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt (left). At one point, however, her influence over state affairs was much greater.

Yet another position is presented by Kristie Miller, author of the Edith Wilson biography. In her opinion, the president's wife was guided not by the lust for power, but by ... love for her husband:

Recently, Edith Wilson has been portrayed as a manipulator abusing the First Lady position . Of course, she made decisions that had negative consequences for the country. These decisions cannot be forgiven. But they can be understood, at least in part, as the actions of a conscientious wife who tried to anticipate and implement her husband's wishes.

Miller argues that Edith Wilson was first and foremost a loyal wife. But it must not be forgotten that she acted under circumstances in which the question of her husband's health was inevitably intertwined with state affairs. Its decisions, although they might not have been made with politics and power in mind, had political significance. Also decisions to leave some matters to run their course. Acting on behalf of and in her husband's stead, she did rule America for a while - even if that was not her purpose at all.

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