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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The President Whose Wife Guided the Ship of State

By Tom Morrow

Woodrow Wilson served two terms as President, but he was more or less missing in action the last 17 months of his tenure – his wife, with the help of his physician, was in charge, which begs the question: has the U.S. ever had a woman as president?

Thomas Woodrow Wilson, born in Saunton, Virginia Dec. 28, 1856, was a politician and academic who was the 28th President of the United States from 1913 to 1921. Wilson earned a doctorate in political science at Johns Hopkins University, and served as a professor and scholar at various institutions before being selected as President of Princeton University, a position he held from 1902 to 1910.

In 1910, as a Democrat, Wilson was elected the 34th Governor of New Jersey, serving from 1911 to 1913. In the 1912 presidential election, Wilson benefited from a split in the Republican Party to win the presidency, gaining a large majority in the Electoral College and a 42 percent plurality of the popular vote in a four-candidate field.

Having taken office one month after ratification of the  16th Amendment (IRS) Wilson called a special session of Congress, whose work culminated in the Revenue Act of 1913, introducing an income tax and lowering tariffs. Through passage of the Adamson Act that imposed an 8-hour workday for railroads, he averted a railroad strike and an ensuing economic crisis. Upon the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Wilson maintained a policy of neutrality, while pursuing a more aggressive policy in dealing with Mexico’s civil war.

Wilson’s second term was dominated by American entry into World War I. In April 1917, when Germany had resumed unrestricted submarine warfare by sinking the ocean liner Lusitania carrying a number of American citizens, Wilson asked Congress to declare war in order to make “the world safe for democracy.”

During the war, Wilson focused on diplomacy and financial considerations, leaving military strategy to the generals, especially Gen. John J. Pershing. Through the Selective Service Act, the Draft sent 10,000 freshly trained soldiers to France per day by the summer of 1918. The war ended Nov. 11, 1918.

On Sept. 25, 1919, Wilson suffered a severe stroke from stress caused by a series of speeches promoting the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended the war. He would never fully recover.

For his last 17 months in office, his wife, Edith, closely guarded Wilson from the public eye and even restricted contact with members of his cabinet. His speech was extremely limited, he had lost the use of his left arm and was blind in one eye. Edith Wilson peruse every piece of correspondence, determining what to show her husband and who would have access to him. The President only knew what Edith wanted him to know. The cabinet didn’t know how serious was Wilson’s condition and only knew what Edith wanted them to know. She was the shadow president.

Today, the 25th Amendment to the Constitution requires the vice president to assume the office of President if the chief executive becomes incapacitated.

President Wilson received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1921 for his work in developing the League of Nations, forerunner of the United Nations. Ironically, a Republican-held Congress refused to ratify membership in spite of the fact Wilson was the primary architect.

On Feb. 3, 1924, Wilson died at home of a stroke and other heart-related problems at age 67. He was interred in a sarcophagus in Washington National Cathedral and is the only president interred in the nation’s capital. Mrs. Wilson stayed in the home another 37 years, dying there at age 89 on Dec. 28, 1961, which was Woodrow’s birthday and the day she was to be the guest of honor at the opening of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge across the Potomac River.

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