Edith Wilson: Has the United States already had its first female president?

Edith Wilson is said to have influenced both domestic and international policy
Edith Wilson is said to have influenced both domestic and international policy
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Historian GORDON LUCY looks at the woman who transformed herself from ‘First Lady to Acting First Man’

An exhausted President Woodrow Wilson returned from Paris Peace Conferences to the United States. He presented the Senate with the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, containing the Covenant of the League of Nations, and asked: ‘Dare we reject it and break the heart of the world?’

Some difficulty was perfectly predictable because Wilson went to Paris accompanied by almost 200 experts but failed to employ any Republicans as advisers. This failure, striking evidence of how narrowly partisan a figure Wilson could be, constituted a serious error of judgment because a Republican majority controlled the Senate and the Senate would have to approve the final treaty.

Very few of Wilson’s Republican opponents wished to defeat the treaty or the League of Nations but they had reservations and sought amendments.

Henry Cabot Lodge, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, loathed Wilson but even he was not opposed to the United States joining the UK in a guaranteeing French security against future German aggression.

He did, however, draw the line at the United States being ‘controlled by a League which may at any time … be drawn in to deal with internal conflicts in other countries, no matter what those conflicts may be’. Lodge was adamant that ‘no American soldiers … can ever be engaged in war or ordered anywhere except by the constitutional authorities of the United States’.

A few conciliatory gestures from Wilson could have secured the necessary two-thirds majority but - because of his self-righteousness and inability to compromise - he would accept no amendments.

Both the Democratic leader in the Senate and Mrs Wilson suggested to the President that ‘it might be wise to compromise with Lodge’ but he was implacable. Wilson told his wife, ‘Little girl, don’t you desert me; that I cannot stand.’ Compromise was impossible for a man who believed he was engaged in God’s work.

He had told the Senate on 10 July 1919:

‘The stage is set, the destiny disclosed. It has come about by no plan of our conceiving, but by the hand of God who led us into this way. We cannot turn back. We can only go forward, with lifted eyes and freshened spirit, to follow the vision.’

Wilson was stubborn. ‘Colonel’ House, once Wilson’s most trusted adviser, summed up his character perfectly:

‘Whenever a question is presented he keeps an absolutely open mind and welcomes all suggestion or advice which will lead to a correct decision. Once a decision is made it is final and there is an end to all advice and suggestion. There is no moving him after that.’

With deadlock on Capitol Hill, Wilson, against medical advice, valiantly embarked on a gruelling nation-wide tour to mobilize public support for the treaty. During a three-week period in September 1919, he travelled 8,000 miles, gave 36 major addresses and scores of interviews, and rear platform talks. On 2 October, an exhausted Wilson suffered a massive stroke, paralysing his whole left side, and very nearly died.

Ten or 20 years later Wilson could have avoided subjecting himself to such physical strain by addressing the nation by radio from his fireside in the White House as Franklin Roosevelt did in the 1930s and 1940s. Unfortunately this option did not exist in 1919.

The Wilson administration never did manage to secure the two-thirds majority in the Senate necessary to ratify the treaty.

The League of Nations came into existence without the United States. American isolationism and non-involvement in the League over the next two decades were to prove detrimental to the prospects of world peace.

Wilson was an invalid for the last three and half years of his life.

He died on February 3 1924. He was survived by his second wife, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, ‘a woman of narrow views and formidable determination’ according to Phyllis Lee Levin, the author of ‘Edith and Woodrow’.

With the president ‘reduced from a giant to a pygmy’, it is alleged that Mrs Wilson wielded presidential authority and ran the administration. She admitted to filtering all incoming information to him and relaying his wishes to the outside world:

‘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.’

Minimising her role as one of benign ‘stewardship’, she claimed that her actions had been sanctioned by the president’s doctors.

This explanation of her role remains unsatisfactory. One Republican senator described her as ‘the Presidentess’ who had transformed herself ‘from First Lady to Acting First Man’.

In 1985 in an article entitled ‘Edith Bolling Wilson as First Lady: A Study in the Power of Personality, 1919-1920’ in ‘Presidential Studies Quarterly’, Judith L. Weaver observed that Mrs Wilson underestimated her role.

While she may not have made critical decisions, she did influence both domestic and international policy given her role as presidential gatekeeper, an important point.

In 2016 W. E. Hazelgrove published ‘Madam President: The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson’. So even if Hillary Rodham Clinton had won the presidential race in 2016, one might argue (tongue only slightly in cheek) that the United States already had had its first female president in Edith Wilson.

The primary consideration in the passage of the 25th amendment of the US Constitution (1967), which clarifies the ambiguous provision in the Constitution regarding the succession to the Presidency and deals with Presidential incapacity, was to clarify the situation if John F. Kennedy had been left in a permanent vegetative state on account of his brain injuries instead of being assassinated.

Significantly Wilson’s fitness to be president after 1919 was also a consideration.