by Shari Lyn Zuber
Frantically, the presidential train sped back to the nation’s capital, covering seventeen hundred miles in two days. On board, a gravely ill Woodrow Wilson was being attended by his physician and his devoted wife, Edith. Wilson had been on a nationwide tour, hoping to win American support for a United States-led global peace organization called the League of Nations.
Ahead of Mrs. Wilson lay the monumental1 tasks of nursing her partially paralyzed husband back to health out of the national spotlight, and convincing a doubting Congress that the President was still fit to govern. If any First Lady was up to the challenge, it was Edith Bolling Galt Wilson.
Born in Wytheville, Virginia, on October 15, 1872, Edith grew up in a large, poor southern family. Able to go away to school for only two years, she obtained most of her education from her invalid2 grandmother, whom she tended.
At age eighteen, she met Norman Galt in Washington, D.C., while visiting her sister. After a four-year courtship, they married in 1896. Galt died suddenly in 1908, leaving her the family-owned jewelry shop. With the aid of the store’s manager, Edith learned how to run the business.
In March 1915, while visiting her friend Helen Bones (President Wilson’s cousin) at the White House, she met the President. Edith became a regular guest at the White House, and within two months, Wilson proposed. When she accepted his proposal in September 1915, the President’s advisors objected. The following year was an election year, and they believed that Wilson would lose the election if he remarried.
Despite these doubts, the couple wed on December 18, 1915. Although Edith had no political interests before her marriage, the President immediately took her into his confidence, seeking her opinion on national and international affairs. Knowing Edith’s influence, official soften consulted her before presenting their ideas to the President. In the end, the public accepted Wilson’s marriage, and he was reelected.
The war in Europe was going badly for the Allies, and the United States was slowly being drawn into the conflict. Increased German submarine attacks on American ships could no longer be tolerated. On April 6, 1917, the United States entered World War I.
1monumental: impressively large
2invalid: disabled by illness or injury
During the war, Edith worked as a Red Cross volunteer, sewing and knitting clothing for soldiers and providing food and conversation for servicemen at the local canteen. She kept a flock of sheep on the White House lawn, freeing the gardeners for wartime jobs. She sold the wool and gave the money to the Red Cross.
As First Lady, she participated in Liberty Loan drives, christened newly built ships, and entertained foreign ministers. She also learned to decode secret messages coming into the White House that conveyed vital war plans.
Following the Allied victory in November 1918, President and Mrs. Wilson sailed to France to bring “a just and lasting peace” to the world. Edith worked hand in hand with her husband to convince the leaders of the Versailles Conference to accept Wilson’s Fourteen Points peach treaty, which included the establishment of League of Nations.
Getting the isolationists3 in Congress to ratify4 the treaty proved to be difficult. The President believed that the American people would agree with his vision of peace, so he decided to appeal directly to them. In the searing heat of September 1919, the presidential train zigzagged across the country, with Wilson traveling eight thousand miles and making forty speeches in twenty-two days. The grueling schedule took its toll on the president, and the remainder of the tour was canceled.
On October 2, 1919, Wilson suffered a stroke and was partially paralyzed. Edith suggested to the doctors that her husband resign from office, but they told her that doing so might kill him. They advised her, however, that he must not be burdened by government problems. Edith felt she was the only person who knew the President’s mind and could act as he would wish.
For the next six weeks, she became the power behind the presidency, although she claimed, “I, myself, never made a single decision regarding the disposition5 of public affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not.”
Government officials and the public were never told how ill the President was. Cabinet members, members of Congress, and ambassadors who wished to speak to the President had to consult Edith first. Whenever possible, she convinced an official to solve a problem within his own department. Somehow she always found a clever way to preserve the President’s secret.
Speculation about the President’s illness and questions about who was running the country swept the nation. Wilson’s opponents in Congress and the press claimed the United States was a “petticoat government” run by an “acting ruler.” Yet some journalists admired her, claiming, “No suggestion is heard that Mrs. Wilson is not proving a capable ‘President.’”
Although Edith was successful in keeping the government functioning, she was unable to get Congress to approve the League of Nations. The President resumed limited activities by mid-November, but Edith continued to shield him from his political enemies until he left office in March 1921.
Even after her husband’s death in February 1924, Edith Wilson continued to fight for the League. Finally, after World War II, President Wilson’s dream was fulfilled when the United Nations was created.
In her final years, she worked for any cause that honored her husband’s memory. She also remained active in the Democratic Party until her death on December 28, 1961.
Throughout the past two hundred years, many First Ladies have indirectly influenced the presidency, but Edith Wilson was the only one who felt she had to take the reins of power into her own hands. Yet her motives were completely unselfish. She believed that “Woodrow Wilson was first my beloved husband whose life I was trying to save.”
3isolationist: believer in noninterference in world politics