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

lady-edith-wilson

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).

Matthew Zarzeczny

Matthew graduated with a B.A. in French and history from Baldwin-Wallace College. At BW, Matthew minored in political science. He earned a Master’s in History at Kent State University and a Ph.D. in History from the Ohio State University. He teaches history at Ashland University, John Carroll University, and Kent State University at Stark.

  • Nancy

    I’ve always wondered if Nancy Reagan might have also run the country toward the end of Ronnie’s term. He had to have been showing signs of Alzheimers by then.

    • Shell Harris

      I would imagine during America’s history that more than few First Ladies made their mark on our country, even if it was only providing counsel to their husbands.

    • merl1

      I always just assumed that GW Bush was in charge from day one and that Ronnie was just a figurehead.

      • Logan Rieck

        You mean G. H. W. Bush?

  • Lia Hart

    Yes, I believe it would be better if all of the first ladies played more of a political role, because they could help put a better impact on decicions and help create ideas.

  • DaVante Dotson

    Yes, i feel like women should play a more political role because they could have ideas that could play a vital part in our government.

  • A Byers

    I dont think the first lady should have a large political role. I don’t see anything wrong with them giving counsel to the president though. I think its unfair that someone would make decisions for our nation who no one voted for and agreed to allow them that privilege. If Candidates and their spouses ran together as a team and both were voted into office on the basis of their politics then I would agree to them having a larger role. I’m not saying this on the basis that women shouldn’t be in politics either, if it were a female president then I wouldn’t want the first man to have a large political role.

  • M Oue

    I personally don’t believe anybody who is not part of Presidential line of succession should have that much power. If the president is incapable of making the decisions than the vice president should take his place until he is capable. The American public should know who is behind many of the important decisions. I agree with A Byers that this is not an issue based on sex. I too would not want the first male leading the nation if it came to that scenario.

  • Breann G.

    I disagree. I think it is amazing that the First Lady was able to accomplish this. I understand the President was not in good condition, however, he was still able to make decisions and his wife was the one that carried those decisions out. It would be different if the President was incoherent or had something else wrong with him. In that case, the Vice President could take over. I admire the fact that the First Lady took on the challenge and helped out her husband when she was needed the most.

  • Kathryn R.

    I think it’s great that the first lady felt she was capable of taking on such a challenge at the same time she was facing the emotional issue of having an ill husband. In her case nothing bad came about as she took on the role but I think that some first ladies are not quite as knowledgeable about the overall picture that their husband is striving for. Nowadays, the first lady would get no where close to the presidency because the vice president ran, and was voted in with the president. The first lady, however, was not on the ballot.

  • Brooke K.

    I don’t believe that the first ladies should have a large role in running the government. The American people did not elect the first lady, they elected the president and vice-president. I think it’s great if they want to advise the president and give advice, but I think that is where their power should end. If they want to make a larger impact then they can run for president themselves.

  • Nicole W

    Being the first lady, one would assume that she would have some sort of influence on her husband in regards to his politics regardless of an illness or other condition. Yes, he was the president and the one elected, but don’t most married couples work as a team anyways? If she was just carrying out his wishes as president, I see no harm in Edith Wilson doing what most wouldn’t in this situation. Although I do not believe it is fair to have the first lady running the country, they should take a larger political role.

  • Jillian S.

    I think that in this situation that we read about, it was an amazing thing that the first lady thought she was capable to take over for her husband during his hardship, but I do not believe now-a-days the United States would favor that. I do not think that the first-lady(or someday first-man) should be able to have political power or have a say in something if it is not their intended job. I believe that the first-lady and President I’m sure would have similar beliefs and whatever she thought the President most-likely would agree with to an extent.

  • A. Dunn

    I think that it was wonderful for Mrs.Wilson to have ran the government for her husband, however I do not believe the first ladies should have a major role in the government. I do think it is important for them to support their husband and want to help America succeed, but they should not have a say in the major actions/roles of the government. My main reason for this is that the American people elected the president, not the wife. The person elected president should be the only one having the final say and being the main person running the government.

  • k^2

    I believe it’s amazing what the first lady was able to do, but i don’t believe they should have a huge role in making decisions for our country. there will be a woman for president someday, and her husband shouldn’t have a say in making decisions for our country either.

  • Lynnette B.

    I think that it was very brave of Edith Wilson to step up like she did in her husband’s time of need, but I believe that first ladies should only step up in emergency situations such as these. The people of America elect the president because of his politics, but they do not get to elect a first lady. It would not be right if the first lady had more of a say, because she is not included next to the president’s name on the ballot. She gets title because her husband won an election. The first lady having more say in the country would be like any other wife showing up at her husband’s job and taking over. Therefore, while I do believe that in extreme cases, such as Edith Wilson’s case, the first lady may need to step up, this should not be a regular occurrence in the White House.

  • Ethan R.

    I understand how hard it must have been for Edith Wilson to watch how her husband suffer through his medical issues. I don’t necessarily agree with the fact the President’s Wilson’s condition was kept from the public, but I can see why the government would want to keep something that emotionally devastating under wraps. In that situation I don’t believe the first lady should put the responsibility of the government on her shoulders because she is not an elected official. However, from what I understand from this article she did so with good intentions and I commend her for that. From reading the other comments I feel that most people would agree. I’m surprised there weren’t any policies that would mandate a situation like this at the time.

  • Noelle C

    What a neat article. I think it was extremely brave of the first lady to step up for the president and take over his stressful position while he had time to recover. Although, I am sure there was help given to the first lady, I am sure she tried her hardest to keep things in order as the president would do himself. I believe that if there were serious decision making to be made, that she would not be permitted to do so because she may not have the adequate knowledge for it and her life was under enough stress as it was.

  • S. Kessinger

    I find Edith Wilson a true hero. She kept her composure while taking care of her sick and dying husband along with running the United States of America! I cannot imagine the stress she must have been under. Edith is extremely brave and I commend her for her efforts in running the country in such sad times.

  • N Craig

    I think what Edith Wilson did was very brave and courageous. I was wondering why the Vice President at the time did not step up and take a bigger role. Either way she is a great lady who did the right thing and accepted no praise for it until much later.

  • CB

    I do not agree with Mrs. Wilson in running the government while the commander and chief is out of commission. If she was found out, that could have been disastrous and the voters would loose faith (big time) in their leaders. On the flip side, what she did was bold and I think it was more about the role of woman in public service than just making sure the white-house is running smoothly.