The First Lady Who Secretly Ran The U.S. Government

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A Brief History

From October 2, 1919 and for some weeks afterwards, First Lady Edith Wilson (October 15, 1872 — December 28, 1961) unofficially ran the U.S. government following her husband’s (then President Woodrow Wilson’s) life-changing stroke.

Digging Deeper

In the aftermath of America’s participation in what was then the world’s worst war (World War I) and his diplomatic wrangling at the Paris Peace Conference that followed the war’s conclusion in 1919, a worn-out President Wilson returned to America only to experience a series of medical crises.  First, he endured a bout of influenza early in the year.  Second, on September 25th, he actually collapsed on a public speaking tour while trying to garner support for his proposed League of Nations.  The worst incident, however, occurred on October 2, 1919.

On that date, Wilson suffered a stroke of such intensity that it incapacitated him, having permanently paralyzed the left side of his body and even blinding his left eye.  While he was bedridden for the next two months, only his wife, physicians, and a few other close associates saw him.

In the meantime, the First Lady in effect took over many of the president’s responsibilities, including reviewing various important matters of state.  Even after the president was released from his sick bed, he still spent the remainder of the year in a wheelchair.  As 1920 came about, his mental health had clearly deteriorated as his mind wandered and he exhibited a diminished memory.  Thus, the First Lady continued to play a pivotal role as a sort of unofficial “acting president”.  As the First Lady put it, she had taken on a “stewardship” to care for the largely incapacitated president and keep the American government running as smoothly as possible.  The situation was so unique in American history and the president’s condition so tragic, that the extent of what the ailing president endured was kept secret from the American public until his death a couple of years after his term ended.

Historical Evidence

For a concise and easy to read book that deals specifically with this aspect of the First Lady’s life, see James Gibin, Edith Wilson: The Woman Who Ran The United States (Viking, 1992).  For a more in-depth account of this unprecedented event in American politics, see also James S. McCallops, Edith Wilson: The Woman Who Ran the United States (Women of Our Time) (Nova Publishers, 2003).

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About Author

Dr. Zar

Dr. Zar graduated with a B.A. in French and history, a Master’s in History, and a Ph.D. in History. He currently teaches history in Ohio.